The scene has played out in many Victorian settings. A cast of characters gathers around the table, their hostess instructing them to join hands. The lights dim, everyone closes their eyes. The hostess begins by asking everyone to focus. She begins by asking the spirits for permission to communicate. At first, there is no response; the skeptics in the group chuckle. Clearly, this is all a ruse.
Then, a knocking. The location is unclear, but a loud knocking sound echoes through the entire house. Everyone, including the skeptics, are quiet. Suddenly, the hostess enters a trance. She moans, rocks back and forth. She chants. A voice emanates from her – but it is different. The voice is too deep, it has a different rhythm. She claims to be the Gatekeeper; this spirit allows the dead to interact with the hostess. With its permission, The hostess can communicate with the dead. She opens her eyes, and she points and says, “I have a message for you. It is your husband.”
In the real world, seances are the stuff of badly produced horror movies and a Saturday night out with your friend, the believer. But in the 19th century, the belief, or more likely, the desire to speak with departed loved ones was strong enough that mediums could make a living of the suffering of others. A few well placed props, and even more well-placed employees, could help to make a small-time medium appear legitimate.
As long as humans have understood what death is, we have wondered what happens after we die. Whether it is wondering where the soul goes when we breathe our last, or wondering if reincarnation works, we wonder. From the first loved one that passes on, we wonder what will happen when we, too, pass away.
The idea that the spirit can remain on earth and interact with the living has existed since ancient times. Hamlet’s father appeared to him as a ghost, to warn him of his Uncle’s treachery; Stories of haunted houses prisons, and hospitals have been told to scare the younger generations into behaving themselves. Whether a ghost is able to interact with the world, or whether they are just an echo of the past, repeating to the end of time is unclear; but to a true believer, a spirit can haunt a location for centuries.
One of the most common notions about ghosts is that they have died tragically, violently, or before their time. For this reason, their spirits roam the earth, until such time as their demise has been resolved. Perhaps their murderer is still running free, and they wish that person brought to justice; maybe they were to be married, but passed away before their wedding, and want to say goodbye to their one true love; perhaps they were unable to achieve a lifelong dream, and fulfilling that dream will put them to rest.
In a steampunk setting, I could see a story about people using steampunk technologies to track ghosts. Do they hunt them and dispose of them, a la Ghost Busters? Or perhaps their goal is to use the technology they have developed to communicate with the dead. Maybe they can help the dead pass on to whatever awaits them on the other side.
Maybe an ill-intentioned scientist has found a way to harness the spirits of the dead, and can torment the living by setting the ghosts to instill fear into the hearts of the masses. It is up to a band of unprepared individuals to learn how to track and stop the ghosts, before they can do permanent harm to society at large.
I have yet to create any ghosts in any of my stories. While I find the idea interesting, I am not sure I could do them justice. Like Zombies, there have been a number of twists to ghosts, making some of them more frightening than I could ever write them. But, even I can admit that there is nothing quite like a good ghost story. The idea of a being that can enter your home, interact with you or your loved ones without your permission is a scary notion. That is one of the reasons that shows like American Horror Story and films like Crimson Peak have become so popular, or at least discussed.
Has anyone read any good ghost stories? Or written any? One of my favorites has always been The Haunting of Hill House for a slightly more modern take, Drawing Blood, by Poppy Z. Brite is an excellent choice (But, fair warning, that is a dark story with some rather graphic violence). I do love a good ghost story, so please, share any novels on your must-read list.