Ghost stories have all but disappeared from contemporary culture. Sure, the BBC trots out the occasional MR James at Christmas, but as a literary and screen genre, ghost stories have become unfashionable. Perhaps, in such a secular age, many people have lost interest in the spiritual dimension. Or is it because ghost stories have been replaced by horror, tailored for audiences who have become so inured to shock that the incremental, creeping fear of a good ghost story fails to satisfy?
Which is a pity, because the best ghost stories are chillingly gripping. The brilliance of a good one invariably lies in its subtlety, as fans of MR James, the master of the craft, will attest. Malevolent forces don’t leap out, bearing the mark of the beast, and bludgeon the protagonist to death while chanting satanic incantations. Indeed, the denouement often doesn’t involve direct confrontation with the malign; the suggestions of its intentions are sufficient.
Ghost stories are also an integral part of our history: they go much further back than MR James and Edwardian England – to even before the Norman Conquest. They had been stamped out by the early Church because of their associations with paganism, but as the first millennium approached, bringing with it eschatological fears of the approaching apocalypse, there was a marked increase. As monks and clerics were generally the only people who could write, many medieval ghost stories were taken down by them. The Church spotted an opportunity to use this interest in the undead to her advantage, and many of the stories that appeared were exempla: didactic warnings to the faithful.
James himself was a great fan of one particular writer: the Monk of Byland. Writing around the turn of the 15th century, the anonymous monk transcribed, in Latin, a series of ghostly occurrences, as reported to him by people in North Yorkshire; Ampleforth, Gilling and Cleveland all feature. Fragments of a dozen of these remain and have been collected and published several times in the intervening centuries, including back in 1924 by MR James himself. It is an important collection because, apart from some Icelandic sagas, they are among the best-preserved medieval ghost story artefacts – and while they may not have the subtlety of MR James, they still have the power to chill.
This is perhaps because the narrative is in some ways quite modern. Unlike earlier exempla, the Monk of Byland’s focus on the phantasmagorical details suggests that he was aware of the stories’ capacity to entertain. As noted by author Andrew Joynes, ‘the Monk of Byland seems to have been more concerned to record the eerie, grotesque, and fantastic details of ghostly occurrences than to draw moral conclusions from his stories’.
So, in the second fragment, a shapeshifting spirit seems to speak ‘as if it were on fire and his inner parts could be seen through his mouth and formed his words in his entrails’; in the fourth, the spirit of a rector gouges out the eyes of his concubine; in the fifth, an observer notes the hands of a woman carrying a ghost ‘sink deeply into the flesh as though it were rotten’.
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