Thursday, March 22, 2007

My Dormitory Ghosts

I wasn’t really interested in ghost stories but I was in demand as a teller of them. This constantly got me into trouble for talking after lights out in a classic English prep school in the late 50s early 60s. The Vicar of Seaford was chosen for his power of story telling too. He preached to a thousand children aged 7 to 13 each Sunday. It was a strange community then, some nine boys’ and two girls’ boarding schools all within a square mile or so. We were all given a penny to put in the collection. A copper penny (two shown with a 1921 dollar) was big and the newer ones heavy, so the collection plate must have weighed a ton. We strutted out in our short trousers and caps in a long crocodile the half mile to Church. There were two services to fit us all in. The Vicar was young and understood how to hold our attention. Some of his sermons I still remember today. On his annual evening visit to us he would tour the dormitories as part of his pastoral duties. He was entertaining, charismatic and radiated goodness.

Now I was running out of ideas to keep my “street cred” with the “after lights out ghost stories” and it was my turn to beg for a ghost story from this genial cleric. He sat on my bed with a dozen or so of my peers and told us our first adult ghost story. The fact that it came from “the horse’s mouth” gave it much credibility. How could we even consider this not to be true? We sat, mouths open and listened to his every word. It was not really a horror story by today’s standards, but it must have been frightening for the people he described. Why is it that ghost stories are always more horrifying when they involve children?

I moved on to a senior school where I eventually studied English Literature. We had two teachers for this subject and as is often the rule, one was good and the other mediocre. Henry James was taught by the good one. Washington Square was perhaps the most difficult book for a 17 year old to get into, but it was preliminary reading for the work we were to be examined on and it was forced down hard upon us. To the “Aspern Papers” I could relate better and indeed enjoyed the finer points of his literary genius.

It was of course James and his tale of Miss Jessel, Quint, Flora and the little gentleman Miles to which I warmed, “The Turn of the Screw” on which we were examined!

I was surprised to find that the latest book that I have closed also started with a Christmas Eve in a country house and fire side Ghost stories. “The woman in black” by Susan Hill a contemporary writer, has used a similar initial setting and the story is most disturbing. The plot is great, the setting fine, some of the action needs refinement; as it is told some things won’t work in reality, and I do not mean the ghostly bits more on technicalities; these I will forgive her for a captivating ghost story it certainly is. (Her books can be found here

Perhaps my favourite Ghost story is a short one from Saki. “The Open Window”, no more that 3 pages of pure delight.

Leaving ghosts aside for my next attack is “The Awkward Age”. One I have not read. I have hesitated before due to my bad time with Washington Square, but the cover has a copy of “The White Girl” by Whistler upon it which has tipped me over the edge, being so much more the visual type.

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Blogger Marly Youmans said...

Did you also read the ghost stories of that interesting Eton and Cambridge provost and other "James," M. R. James? I thought about him right off the bat, with you talking about telling stories, since he was famous for his ghost stories. Funny how the Victorians liked ghost stories for Christmas.

I like your childhood account very much--the vicar who doesn't condescend to children, the crocodile trail, the bedtime story.

Yes, "The Open Window" is remarkably enduring. Not many stories so small get so long a life.

Cooperstown is, I believe, the most haunted place I've ever lived. And I thought the South was haunted! People I know and think terribly sensible have seen ghosts of children and adults, and my house is surrounded by haunted houses--and a haunted wall, and the old hanging ground that no doubt is fertile ghosting area.

Good for you, tilting with Henry. And "The White Girl" fits in your whole ghostly theme, at least visually--white on white on white. And now the model is lost to us, in that mysterious world.

1:10 pm  
Blogger Robert said...

I shouldn't get niggled.

I once read a book about aeroplanes. It was a thriller based in the USA. I have a feeling it was called Airplane but I might be wrong. It was all about a woman expert who had trouble with industrial espionage. It was all great stuff. What I did get though was that the author knew the subject very well. One felt that there was good insider knowledge in depth.

If you are going to write a book about something then no time is wasted in good research. There is nothing more irritating than a series of technical mistakes which have little or nothing to do with the plot or the good story. It is the same with music, Art, Sculpture anything creative.

(Nothing is more annoying than a great actress who is pretending to be a Virtuoso Violinist and is not holding the violin correctly.)

If you are going to write about people then you need to know about people. The same goes with animals. If you are to use them in your plot then you need to get them right.

A great work has that depth of accuracy. It has something to do with the link with craftsmanship. You need it before you can be a great artist.

Perhaps it is a sign of my age; grumpy old man syndrome.

Cooperstown sounds rather creepy. Is it like that place in the film "The Village"?

3:35 pm  
Blogger Robert said...


Marly, forgive me; no, thank you for the tip on M. R. James, woow how amazing, I must have a better look.

4:22 pm  
Blogger Susanna said...

wow your school experience sounds neat.
I also love ghost stories.

4:46 pm  
Blogger Susanna said...


I left you a little reply on my lj

9:46 pm  
Blogger Marly Youmans said...

Oh, yes, you must read M. R. James if you have not!

No, it isn't creepy. It's really closer to England in feel than most places over here--it's all lovely old houses (only back to the 1790's, though) and parks and even a good bit of sculpture! It is zoned (although currently the backwash of crud is hitting our southern edge) heavily. It has heaps of historical interest and literary interest. The ghosts haven't bothered me, but my children notice the haunted ones around us. But most of them have good stories.

7:35 pm  
Blogger Robert said...

Oh dear, silly me, it sounds simply wonderful. Do send a picture of the sculpture one day.

I am of course well aware now where you are I should have looked more closely at the map!

I will look for Mr MR James tomorrow, though how I will fit him in I do not know.

Have a look at Millers studio, its a gem.

10:01 pm  

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