Foreword | July 22, 2013
In her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion describes in a straightforward, reportorial style what happened when her husband, John Gregory Dunne, died at the end of December, 2003. They had just come home from visiting their daughter, Quintana, who was extremely ill in the hospital. Dunne died of a sudden heart attack at the dinner table, and the book describes Didion trying to manage a life that has suddenly and utterly changed. She doesn’t show extreme emotion; in fact, she overhears one of the nurses call her “a cool customer.” Yet the flat depictions of her behavior and responses dramatize all the more powerfully her inner experience of loss. She cannot avoid ruminating about her failure to notice certain changes in her husband’s manner or attend more thoughtfully to his condition. She fears giving away his shoes because he would surely need them upon his reappearance. And surely he will come back.
The belief in ghosts and unseen presences is not just a harmless entertainment for the campfire but a powerful fact of both human consciousness and human history. We believe in such phenomena because in a certain sense the ghosts of the past do exist. As Marlow says in Heart of Darkness, “And why not? The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.” Hamlet murders his Uncle Claudius because he is told by the ghost of his father that Claudius poisoned him and he should be killed for it. The best performances of Hamlet—for example, Laurence Olivier’s 1948 movie version—portray Hamlet’s father as a simple fact, not a grief-induced illusion. The ghost is real. He demands revenge.
In literature, ghost stories make eminent the sometimes hard-to-explain hidden forces in history and fate. In his story “The Overcoat,” Gogol depicts an impoverished clerk who works hard to buy a new coat that is soon stolen, ending his brief turn as a well-dressed man. He comes back as a ghost to haunt the streets of Petersburg and the official who scolded him and denied him help. The story evokes the oppression and inevitable doom of mid-nineteenth-century Russian society. Edith Wharton wrote ghost stories throughout her career, revealing her sense of foreboding about a society dominated by greed. Other ghost stories may depict more psychological but nevertheless real ghosts. In The Turn of the Screw, for example, Henry James shows the apparent haunting of two children by their old governess and her lover, as witnessed by their new governess. Whether the young governess is pursued by apparitions or suffers from hysteria, the story, like many of James’s late novels, shows the power of sexual repression and the obsessions that may result from what is left unacknowledged.
Emanations from the past, answers to the unanswerable, the fate or doom resulting from unjust or unfair actions—ghosts play many roles. This issue has outright ghost stories as well as more subtle ones. Nathan Oates’s “The House at Mile Point Road” is an old-fashioned psychological horror story, in which Matt and his wholesome young family go on vacation. In their rented lakeside vacation house there is a strange attic door with multiple locks, the handwritten names of long-gone children on the walls of a stairwell, a storm and power outage, a landlady who wants nothing to do with the house she’s renting and a mentally stressed and unstable protagonist who may or may not be imagining the blood he finds on a sword in the children’s room. Peter Levine’s story “Last Flight” describes a middle-aged businessman who meets an attractive young woman, Alice, seated next to him on a plane flight. The woman gets a glimpse of a photo of the man’s grown son, Tom, and is interested in him. Tom is in fact dead, but in their conversation his father creates a larger-than-life fictional Tom and even hints that he would be a good match for Alice. It turns out that the father is not the only one who is dissembling and that his new acquaintance has apparent designs of her own. Family, deception and the death of a son are also the themes around which Michael Benedict’s story “Only Child” swirls. Japanese-American high-school athlete Yoshi is Olympic bound, but when he isn’t running, he is alternately haunted and puzzled by the mystery surrounding his older brother Benji, who died when he was very young.
Pamela Painter’s story “The Brochures” depicts Gordon and Dora, a couple in late middle age vacationing together. Gordon is retired, which makes him feel at a disadvantage, as he ‘s discovered that Dora has long been quite independent of him. The power struggle of their marriage plays out, as they negotiate everything from the tourist brochures that they pick up to where they’ll take a walk. Gordon is determined to defeat his independent wife on all fronts, and his passive-aggressive efforts lead to a surprising and terrifying conclusion.
Nonfiction in this issue includes “Au Train de la Vie” by Peter LaSalle. La Salle’s contemplative essay is an account of the summer of 2011, which he spent mostly alone in Paris working on expanding a short story into a longer piece of fiction, while living in an apartment that overlooked the Porte Saint-Martin ceremonial arch. He is visited for a while by his teenaged nephew, who’s trying his hand at screenwriting; and while there LaSalle also visits an old friend, an Algerian, who has been disabled by a massive stroke and is in a nursing home. LaSalle is overwhelmed by sadness much greater than the departure of his nephew or his friend’s failing health can explain and is mysteriously and repeatedly drawn to the same café in an out-of-the-way neighborhood of Paris. He writes, “aren’t we all travelers in our dreams, wandering alone and solitary, constantly being drawn to a place where we should be, for the larger perception we should have, a voice often urging us on.“ He wonders, like Borges, if reality isn’t a “delirium of interpretation,” but at the same time he sees the amazing power of certain physical places, which can be locales of inexplicable perfection.
Peter Selgin’s “My New York” is a memoir and tribute to New York City and the role it has played over the years in the author’s life, beginning with the business trips he made there with his father as a boy. Later, as a teenager, Selgin visits New York alone for the first time, and as a young adult he works at an array of low-paying jobs, migrating from one temporary residence to another and one short-term relationship to the next in an effort to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. He writes about a city that was “a vast repository of passageways and doors, any one of which might lead me to my destiny.” The recounting is eerie because Selgin has a virtually eidetic memory that at times in his life has made his present world a spectral ossuary of the past.
In his interview with Karen Russell, David Naimon asks the author of Swamplandia! and the new collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove about her imaginative, often wildly fantastical subject matter (including, in Swamplandia!, a girl who dates ghosts.) Russell talks about having to learn how to write stories with only “one weird thing,” taking a single imaginative premise and working it out within a world that is otherwise pretty familiar. “There isn’t also going to be an aunt that is a cat, or three moons,” says Russell, “Let’s really take that premise seriously as a ‘what if’ . . . Almost like a science experiment.”
In this issue’s poetry, Diane K. Seuss describes the poems of her feature as being shaped like coffins. The dead contained inside them—friends and their loved ones—are not dressed up or idealized in these oblique, unsparing monologues. Stubbornly themselves, as ragged and regal as they were in life, the dead come back to haunt us with the truth of their suffering and beauty. Dan O’Brien’s poems are haunted by the stories of war reporter Paul Watson, whose own demons are loosed in these lines. Dramatic, chaotic, they speed us through air-raided streets and lock us in hotel rooms with seedy diplomats. Voices collide with the intensity of both war and contemporary life. Aaron Baker’s poems deal with the ultimate stakes of death, eschatology and ritual. Bible-fraught and immanent with background, composed of a kind of dark matter of grief, they are less ghost poems than garments left in our hands after the ghost slips away.
Our feature on Houdini takes advantage of the rich Houdini archives at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas–Austin. The magician was born Erich Weiss in 1874 in Budapest, the third son of Cecilia and Mayor Samuel Weiss. Two years later, the family immigrated to the United States, where they lived in difficult and often desperate circumstances. Ehrich’s father became the rabbi of a German Jewish congregation in Appleton, Wisconsin, a position he soon lost, and the family slipped into poverty. The father tried to make a living as a kosher butcher and eventually as a laborer in a necktie factory, his last job before his death, when Ehrich was eighteen. Houdini became a performer—like his contemporary Sarah Bernhardt—who had extraordinary devotion to his craft and to self-promotion. For over a decade he worked in the humblest forums of dime museums, beer halls and traveling shows with his brother, other performers and finally, most importantly, with his wife, Bess. Several times during his early career he was forced to consider quitting but didn’t. Eventually he would become—also like Bernhardt—one of the first international superstars of the twentieth century. Because he had to constantly play at the game of publicity and outdo himself, as well as put up with numerous physical injuries that happened during performances, his career was a grueling battle against odds, even after he became famous.
There are many fascinating things that are known about Houdini, partly because he was an assiduous collector of his own materials and also of rare books and gear concerning the history of magic. There are also many myths and partial truths about him, which this feature tries to clarify, including stories of his death at age fifty-two and the nature of his relationship with the all-powerful milieu of spiritualism. During the last five years of his life, Houdini was caught in a battle against the many ardent protagonists of spiritualism, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and his entanglement in this battle became increasingly expensive to both his career and his health. He was haunted not by ghosts but by those who so needed them that they would go to almost any lengths to believe in them.
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