Ghost-Stories by Israel Zangwill

Story type: Essay

Why do ghosts walk at Christmas? What seduction hath Yule Tide for these phantastic fellows, that it lures them from their warm fireplaces? Is it that the cool snow is grateful after the fervours of their torrid zone, where even the pyrometer would fail to record the temperature? Is it that Dickens is responsible for the season, and that Marley’s ghost has set the fashion among the younger spooks? The ghost of Hamlet’s father was not so timed: he walked in all weathers. Perhaps it is the supernatural associations of Christmas that create the atmosphere in which ghosts live and move and have their being. Or perchance it is at the season of family reunion that the thoughts turn most naturally to vacant chairs and the presences that once filled them. Or is it that the ghosts walk for me alone, by reason that Christmas always brings me haunting thoughts of them? For my youth was nursed upon the “penny dreadfuls” of an age that knew not “Chums,” nor the “Boys’ Own Paper.” They were not so very dreadful, those “penny dreadfuls,” though dreadfully disrespectful to schoolmasters, who were wont to rend them in pieces in revenge. The heroes of the stories began to urge on their wild career in the school-room, where they executed practical jokes that would have gladdened the heart of Mr. Gilbert’s merry Governor; the jokers were never found out unless they confessed to spare another boy’s feelings, and then the schoolmaster was so touched that he spared theirs. After passing through five forms and upsetting them all, they arrived at the sixth form, which demanded a new volume to itself, called, let us say, “Tom Tiddler’s School-days Continued,” and mainly devoted to cigars and flirtation. “Tom Tiddler at College” followed–all “wines” and proctor-baiting, with Tom Tiddler as stroke in the victorious ‘Varsity eight. “Tom Tiddler Abroad” was the next title, for the chronicle of a popular hero would run on for years and years; and in this section red Indians and wild beasts were rampant. ‘T were long to trace the fortunes of Tom Tiddler in all their thrilling involutions; but when he had painted the globe red he married and settled down. And then began “Young Tom Tiddler’s School-days,” “Young Tom Tiddler’s Schooldays Continued,” “Young Tom Tiddler Abroad,” and all the weekly round of breathlessness; and never was proverb truer than that the young cock cackles as the old cock crows. By the time interest palled in the son a new generation of readers had arisen, and the unblushing paper commenced to run “Tom Tiddler’s School-days” again. So went the whirligig. But at Christmas, when the blue-nosed waifs carol in the cold and boys have extra pennies, Tom Tiddler himself slunk into the background, lost in the ample folds of a “Double Number,” the same blazoned impudently, as though it did not demand double money. But the extra pennyworth was all ghosts: ghosts, ghosts, ghosts; full measure, pressed down and running over; not your Ibsenian shadows of heredity, but real live ghosts, handsomely appointed, with chains and groans and wavy wardrobes. They lived in moated granges and ivy-wreathed castles, and paced snowy terraces or dark, desolate corridors. There was no talk then of psychic manifestations, or auras, or telepathy, or spiritual aether. Ghosts were solid realities in those days of the double number.

“To every man upon this earth death cometh soon or late,” as Macaulay sings, and it is no less impossible to escape spirit-rapping and all the fascinating menu of the Psychical Society. The epidemic, which is contagious to the last degree, seizes its victims when they are off guard, under pretense of amusing an idle hour, and ends by robbing them of sleep and health; some it drives into lunatic asylums and some into newspaper correspondence. That thought-reading is not necessarily delusion or collusion is now generally recognised; a protegee of Mr. F. W. Myers convinced me of the possibility of simple feats, though not of her explanation of them. She credited them to spirits, and wicked spirits to boot. In vain, I pointed out that spirits who occupied themselves so docilely about matters so trivial must be harmless creatures with no more guile than the village idiot: she would concede no grain of goodness in their composition. Table-turning I had never seen. Ghosts I had never met, though I had met plenty of persons who had their acquaintance. Like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu–or is it Madame de Staeel[*]?–I did not believe in them, but I was afraid of them. Premonitions I had often had, but they had scarcely ever come true. But now I am prepared to believe anything and everything, and to come up to the Penitent Form–if there be one–of the Psychical Society and to declare myself saved. I am already preparing a waxen image of a notorious critic, to stick pins thereinto. Not that I did not always believe the Spook Society was doing necessary work in supplementing the crude treatises of our psychologists, who are the most fatuous and self-complacent scientists going.

[* Transcriber’s note: So in original. One would rather expect the accent trema on the ‘e’, not on the ‘a’.]

My conversion to a deeper interest in the obscurer psychic phenomena befell through encountering a theatrical touring company in a dull provincial town. The barber told me about it–a dapper young Englishman of twenty-five, with an unimpeachable necktie.

BARBER. “They’re playing ‘Macbeth’ to-night, sir.”

AUTHOR. (growling). “Indeed?”

B. “Yes, sir; I’m told it’s pretty thick.”

A. “What’s pretty thick?”

B. “‘Macbeth.’”

A. “What do you mean by ‘thick’?”

B. “Full of gore, sir. I don’t like those sort o’ pieces. I like opera–‘Utopia’ and that sort o’ thing. You can see plenty o’ thick things in real life. I don’t want to go to the theatre to get the creeps and horrors. But I’ve seen ‘Othello’ and ‘Virginius.’”

A. “Ha! Do you know who wrote ‘Othello’?”

B. “No, that I don’t.”

A. “Do you know who wrote ‘Macbeth’?”

B. “Now you ask me something!”

A. (speculating sadly on the vanity of fame and the absurdity of being a national bard, but determined to vindicate a brother author) “‘Othello’ and ‘Macbeth’ were written by Shakespeare.”

B. (unmoved) “Ah! that’s the man that wrote ‘Taming of the Shrew,’ isn’t it?”

A. (astonished) “Yes.”

So the Author went to see the thick play, and found he knew Lady Macbeth, nay, had–by an odd episode–first seen her in dressing-gown and curl-papers; so, presuming upon this intimate acquaintanceship, he got himself bidden to the Banquet–in less Shakespearian language, he went to supper. The Banquet was uninterrupted by Banquos or other bogies. Lady Macbeth–in a Parisian art-gown–sipped milk after her bloody exertions, and listened graciously, her fair young head haloed in smoke, to her guest’s comparison of herself with Mrs. Siddons. But Lady Macbeth’s Chaperon was a Medium, self-made, and when the compliments and the supper had been cleared away, the Medium kindly proposed to exhibit her newly-discovered prowess with the Planchette. The Planchette, as everybody knows, and as I didn’t know myself till I saw it, is a wooden heart that runs on two hind wheels, and has a pencil stuck through the centre of its apex. The Medium gracefully places her hand upon the heart, which after an interval of Quaker-like meditation begins to write, as abruptly as a Quaker is moved by the Spirit, and as abruptly finishes.

AUTHOR. “What do I want to do early to-morrow morning?”

What was in his mind was: “Send a wire to Manchester.” The Planchette almost instantly scribbled: “Send a telegram to your brother.” Now, his brother was connected with the matter; and although at the time he considered the Planchette half wrong, yet in the morning, after reconsidering the question, the Author actually did send the wire to his brother instead. Sundry other things did the Planchette write, mostly wise, but sometimes foolish. It did not hesitate, for example, over the publisher of a certain anonymous book, but failed to give the title, though it wrote glibly, “Children of Night.” These results were sufficiently startling to invite further investigation, so the trio next proceeded to “call spirits from the vasty deep” by making a circle of their thirty fingers upon a wooden table. Very soon the table gave signs of upheaval, while some cobbling sprite fell to tapping merrily at his trade within its ligneous recesses. Lady Macbeth said that these taps denoted its readiness to hold communion with the grosser earth, and constituted its sole vocabulary. As in the game of Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral, its information was to be extracted by a series of queries admitting of “yes” or “no” in answer. One tap denoted “no,” three “yes,” and two “doubtful.” It could also give numerical replies. The table or the sprite, having indicated its acquiescence in this code, proceeded to give a most satisfactory account of itself. It told the Author his age, the time of day, the date of the month, carefully allowing for its being past midnight (which none of the human trio had thought of); it was excellently posted on his private concerns, knowing the date of his projected visit to America, and the name of his past work and his future wife. Its orthography was impeccable, though its method was somewhat todious, for the Author had to run through the alphabet to provoke the sprite into tapping at any particular letter. But one soon grew reconciled to its cumbrous methods, as though holding converse with a foreigner; and its remarks made up in emphasis what they lacked in brevity, and were given with exemplary promptitude. Interrogated as to its own personality, it declared it was an unborn spirit, destined to be born in ten years. “Do you know what makes you be born?” inquired the Author. “Yes,” it replied. “Will you tell us?” “Yes.” “Tell us, then.” “F-O-R-C-E.” “Is it God’s force?” “No.” “Is He not omnipotent, then?” “No.” “What is the true religion?” “Buddhism.” “Do you mean Madame Blavatsky was right?” “Yes.” “Is there a heaven?” “Yes.” “A Hell?” “No.” To hear a small still voice rapping, rapping in the silence of the small hours, rapping out the secrets of the universe, was weird enough. It was as though Milton’s words were indeed inspired, and–

Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth

“What!” thought the Author, “shall the Great Secret which has puzzled so many heads–heads in caps and heads in turbans, heads in bonnets and heads in berettas, as Heine hath it–shall the explanation of the Universe, which baffled Aristotle, and puzzled Hegel, and still more his readers, be the property of this wretched little unborn babe, this infant rapping in the night, and with no language but a rap? Was, then, Wordsworth right, and is our birth ‘but a sleep and a forgetting’?” And, mingled with these questionings, a sort of compassion for the poor orphan spirit, inarticulate and misunderstood, beating humbly at the gates of speech. Natheless was the Author quite incredulous, and even while he was listening reverently to these voices from Steadland, his cold cynic brain was revolving a scientific theory to account for the striking manifestations.

In the course of two or three seances, with lights turned low, but honesty burning high–for Lady Macbeth was guileless, and her Chaperon above suspicion,–various other “spirits” hastened to be interviewed. There was “Ma,” who afterwards turned out to be the Chaperon’s “Pa,” whose name–a queer French name–it gave in full. The Chaperon’s “Pa,” who was dead, announced he was no longer a widower, for his relief had just rejoined him on Wednesday–the 10th. This news of her mother’s death was unknown to the Chaperon. In truth, “Pa” is still a widower.

Another “spirit”–a woman (who refused to give her age)–predicted that the amount of money taken at the theatre the next night would be L44. The actual returns on the morrow were L44 0s. 6d. But when, elated by its success, it prophesied L43, the returns were only L34. But this same creature, that gave only an inverted truth–perhaps it was momentarily controlled by the spirit of Oscar Wilde–displayed remarkable knowledge in other directions. Asked if it knew what piece had been played the week before in the theatre–a question that none of the three could have answered–it replied, “‘The Road to —-‘” “Do you mean ‘The Road to Ruin’?” the Author interrupted eagerly, tired of its tedious letter-by-letter methods. “No,” it responded vehemently; and finished, “‘F-o-r-t-u-n-e.’” Lady Macbeth consulted the “Era,” and sure enough “The Road to Fortune” had preceded her own company. “Can you tell us the piece to follow?” the author asked; and the “spirit” responded readily “‘The Pro—-‘” “Do you mean ‘The Professor’s Love Story’?” the Author again interrupted. “No; ‘The Prodigal,’” answered the table. “Ah! ‘The Prodigal,’” echoed the Author, confounding it temporarily with “The Profligate”; but the spirit dissented, and added, “‘Daughter.’” There being no means of verifying this for the moment, the Author proceeded to inquire for the piece to follow that, and was unhesitatingly informed that it was “The Bauble Shop.” “Where is ‘The Bauble Shop’ now?” he inquired. The spirit amiably rapped out “Eastbourne.” This was correct according to the “Era.” Consulting the hoardings after leaving the house, the Author discovered that the other replies were quite exact, save for the fact that “The Bauble Shop” was to come first and “The Prodigal Daughter” second. Here was the paradoxical humour of this Oscar Wilde-ish “spirit” again.

Endless was the information vouchsafed by these disembodied intelligences, in any language one pleased; and, although they at times displayed remarkable obstinacy, refusing to answer, or breaking off abruptly in the middle of a most interesting communication, as though they had been betrayed into indiscretion: yet, to speak generally, there was scarcely any topic on which they were not ready to discourse–past, present, or to come–and their remarks, whether accurate or not, were invariably logical, bearing an intelligible relation to the question. Even sporting tips were obtainable without a fee, and Avington was given as the winner of the Liverpool Cup, though the Author had never heard of him, and the other two were not aware he was booked for the race, still less that he was the favourite. In the sequel he only came second. Real tips did the “spirits” give, tipping the table vehemently. They were also very obedient to commands, moving or lifting the table in whatsoever direction the Author ordered, much as though they were men from Maple’s; and when he willed them to raise it, the united forces of Lady Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s Chaperon could not easily depress its spirits. Nor did they contradict one another. There was a cheerful unanimity about the Author’s dying at fifty-seven. But this did not perturb the Author, whose questions were all cunningly contrived to test his theory of the “spiritual world.” For instance, he set them naming cards, placed on the table with faces downwards and unknown to anybody; arguing that with their bloated omniscience they could scarcely fail to name a card shoved under their very noses. Nor did they–altogether. Most began well, but were spoiled by success. However, here is the record performance–eight consecutive attempts of the table to give the “correct card” under the imposition of the hands of the Chaperon and the Author only, neither knowing the card till it was turned up to verify the table’s assertion:


1. Jack of Diamonds . . . Queen of Spades.

2. Jack of Diamonds . . . Jack of Diamonds.

3. Three of Clubs . . . Jack of Spades.

4. Jack of Diamonds . . . Jack of Diamonds.

5. Seven of Clubs . . . Five of Diamonds.

6. Three of Spades . . . Three of Spades.

7. Ten of Hearts . . . Ten of Hearts.

8. Nine of Clubs . . . Nine of Clubs.

Here are five bull’s-eyes out of eight shots! The name of the performer deserves record. It was the spirit of a German woman, named Gretehen, who died three years ago, but refused to say at what age. She was wrong sometimes, but then it may have been her feminine instinct for fibbing. “The spirits play tricks,” say the spiritualists. “Sometimes they are wicked spirits, who tell lies.” The Planchette also wrote out the names of unseen cards placed upon it face downwards. The artistic spirit of the Author now bids him pause: the narrative has now reached a point of interest at which recollections of “Tom Tiddler’s Schooldays” urge him to pen the breathless motto: “To be continued in our next.”

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