First, a confession. As much as I love horror fiction, horror cinema, and all things horror-related, I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the label being applied to my own writing. For years, I characterized my work as “strange fiction” or “weird fiction” only to discover that such genre descriptors—while being more or less accurate—are also entirely opaque to any readers unfamiliar with Aickman, Lovecraft, Ligotti, et al. Nowadays, on those rare occasions when people ask me “what I write,” I have a new answer ready.
“Ghost stories,” I say. “I write ghost stories.”
This isn’t merely an oversimplification on my part. For me, there is something about that phrase “the ghost story” which manages to capture and communicate nearly everything I know and love about the strange and the weird. In its purest form, the ghost story itself takes on the qualities of the revenant, becoming at once as familiar as guilt and as inscrutable as the grave.
This latter element of ambiguity is essential to the success of the ghost story as practiced, classically, by MR James and Robert Aickman, or more recently, by Mark Samuels and Reggie Oliver. In their work, the supernatural functions as a kind of ambiguous revelation: the ghost bends the shape of the story to itself so that some small measure of truth is revealed while a deeper mystery lingers, haunting the reader and characters alike.
One of the finest early examples of the ambiguous ghost story can be found in Ella D’Arcy’s “The Villa Lucienne” (1896). Here we observe the manner in which grief conspires with silence to simultaneously reveal and obscure the roots of the characters’ suffering.
The events of the story are easily summarized.
A young family—including the narrator and the newly-widowed Céline, both of whom are still grieving the death of Céline’s husband, a writer or artist referred to throughout as “poor Guy”—visits the Villa Lucienne in southern France with an interest in renting the property.
On arrival, they are greeted by the pleasant sight of “an elegant, sun-bathed house,” only to be told that this is the Villa Soleil and that their destination lies some distance beyond. A narrow path leads the party uphill to the decrepit Villa Lucienne, where they are met by the taciturn gardener Laurent, who agrees, somewhat grudgingly, to show them around the house.
Unfortunately, the interior of the villa proves every bit as dilapidated as the exterior. The rooms are uniformly dark and shuttered, choked with dust. In the drawing room, Céline’s daughter take fright at an unseen woman, while in another room, the narrator notices a wayward scrap of lace that fills her with an unexplainable dread.
Matters reach a climax of sorts when the family notices a pavilion in the garden. Laurent informs them that the pavilion is part of the estate and as such would be theirs should they choose to rent. However, when Céline and her mother ask to see inside, the gardener refuses them absolutely, “his little brutish eyes narrowed with… malignancy.”
The family departs the villa. Afterward, they compare their experiences and are surprised to discover that their brief visit to the dust-filled mansion has left them all with the same abiding fear: a delicate sensation of terror that the narrator admits herself incapable of describing accurately. In this, she theorizes, “Only poor Guy himself could have hoped to succeed.”
The story ends there.
Clearly, we are meant to assume that the family is still in mourning following the untimely death of poor Guy. Their reticence on the subject—for not once does the narrator hint at its cause or mention Guy, except in passing—suggests either denial or shame. A suicide? Not a bad guess, but a guess all the same. At the end of the story, we are left only with an oppressive atmosphere of silence and strangeness that cannot be adequately explained.
We can assume that Guy’s death lies at the heart of this particular labyrinth. However, D’Arcy does not give us enough thread to reach the center. In this way, our dilemma, as readers, mirrors that of the story’s central characters, for whom the deceased Guy lies beyond all understanding: a pavilion into which they cannot enter. Their fear becomes our fear, and “The Villa Lucienne” is transformed from a mere story into a lingering terror we cannot name or shake. It is not just a story about a haunting, but the very thing itself.
In the sonnet “Haunted House” (1921), the American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson describes a visit to an abandoned home reputed to be haunted following an axe-murder many years before. Even though the poet hears no disembodied footsteps—and can discern no spectral evidence of that long-ago crime—he concedes that there is nonetheless something present:
“But there was more than sound; and there was more / than just an axe that once was in the air / between us and the chimney, long before / our time. So townsmen said who found here there.”
Like Robinson’s haunted house or “The Villa Lucienne,” the best ghost stories are simultaneously vacant and replete, brimming not with sound and fury but with something “more than sound,” something more than the swing of an axe or the death of a loved one—something silent and creeping and ever more disquieting.
Guilt? Regret? Loss?
Only the dead know how to describe it.
Note: a different version of this blog post first appeared as a guest post on my friend Kristin Dearborn's blog. Watch for her first novel Trinity to drop in October from DarkFuse Publishing.