Tag: ghost stories

Henry James, “The Real Right Thing” (1899)

henry james the real right thing herkenrath

Peter Herkenrath, “Untitled 02.”

The supernatural in stories can be hokey, a device to deceive realism by getting out from under its burdens, as when evidence is refuted with faith–or rather, as when a faith-based argument is introduced in an attempt to refute evidence. But isn’t fiction itself the ghost a writer conjures to bridge the otherwise unbridgeable gap between truth and a reality overwhelmingly reliant on, if not made up of, perceptions?

Ashton Doyne was a “great” writer. He died unexpectedly. His wife lets the young George Withermore’s publishers know she wants him to write her husband’s biography. Withermore admired Doyne and jumps at the chance to spend his nights with his master’s papers–swimming in his sheets. He quickly feels Doyne’s ghostly presence and comes to look forward to it, to “the possibility of an intercourse closer than that of life.” There are clear suggestions of eroticism between the two men as Withermore researches him, “the great fact of the way Doyne was ‘coming out’. He was coming out too beautifully — better yet than such a partisan as Withermore could have supposed.” But Withermore then senses that Doyne leaves him, and discovers from the widow that Doyne has flitted over to her. Withermore worries, as she does, about the wisdom of writing the biography. James explores the ethic of the biographer, a profound question:

There is an out: do the dead have rights? James clearly suggests that they do, that they’re not exactly dead, and he wants an artist’s life to be left as the artist’s work, nothing more: “The artist was what he did–he was nothing else.” Which is to say that understanding the artist is a pretext to invade a privacy extraneous to the artist’s work. That’s arguable, and there are endless lines that can and must be crossed: how is one to separate an artist’s private correspondence, and its artistry, from the artist’s work, for example?

Doyne and Withermore want to do “the real right thing.” They give up on the biography.

Collier’s Weekly, December 16, 1899


Wharton, “Kerfol” (1916)

kerfol wharton

From the website Little Dog Laughed.

“The pressure of the invisible”: A sixth sense of a ghost story involving dead dogs haunting an estate where a woman is accused to have murdered her husband, though she says the dogs he kept strangling mauled him. The narrator sees the dogs as he (or is it she? we never know) surveys the estate called Kerfol in Brittany. His friend suggested he buy the place, which evokes “that sheer weight of many associated lives and deaths which gives majesty to old houses.” He spots the silent, brooding dogs who follow him but unaggressively. Then he hears the story of Kerfol, essentially the captivity of a woman by her husband in a “Yellow Wall-Paper” way (she has no rights, no autonomy), but much worse. She has no children. Her husband gifts her a dog but eventually strangles it and leaves it on her pillow after he somehow finds out that she’d given a necklace to another man. He kills the dog with the necklace, and kills every other dog she acquires. The same way. The narrator tells the story through the month-long transcript of the woman’s trial, who one night was to meet the man she’d been befriending, though not yet having an affair with, to warn him off. Her husband wakes up. As he walks down the stairs, the dogs maul him. She is accused of the murder, but let off to live with the man’s family–a worse sentence. She dies a mad woman. Her potential lover lives an unremarkable life. I am seeing pulmonary veins between Wharton and Karen Russell’s narrative verve.

Scribner’s, March 1916