Archive for ghost stories

Winter Traditions: Ghost Stories by the Fire

Posted in Dark Musings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 13, 2015 by smuckyproductions

 

Our Western culture often associates December and its holidays with cheerfulness, light, and warmth. These are defenses against the long nights and cold winds that otherwise would haunt us. We forget, however, a tradition predominant in Victorian Europe, one that ran alongside the cheery tidings: winter ghost stories by the firelight.

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Evidence of this tradition exists throughout Victorian literature. Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is arguably the most famous, and the lightest-hearted – but many authors contributed darker tales. M.R. James, for instance, was famous for writing out his chilling stories by hand and reading them in utter darkness to his holiday guests. Other authors, such as Sheridan LeFanu, Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell, followed this tradition as well.

A ghostly 19th-century illustration

These stories are far from cheery, designed to create dread and uncanny fear in the reader. Coming from these talented scribes, the effects are considerable. They spin for the fireside audience spectral evil, cursed objects, and decaying churches where wicked creatures hide. Sometimes the protagonists escape with only rattled nerves; other times the supernatural prevails. Rarely, however, do the stories end in upbeat morals, in the form of “A Christmas Carol.” They are purely written to frighten and make listeners question the existence of ghosts.

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Where does this tradition come from, then, and where has it gone? We have shirked ghost stories and shivers for sentiment and comedy. I think, though, that these opposite moods serve a similar purpose. They both present a distraction from that dreary dark outside. Whether laughing or shaking, the entertainment is harmless – these ghosts don’t haunt us as they do the characters. It is the momentary catharsis, the communal chills, that make the ghost story an important part of the Christmas tradition. Perhaps, one day, it will reinstate itself.

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Forbidden Tomes (Halloween edition): GHOST STORIES of M.R. JAMES

Posted in Forbidden Tomes, Halloween with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2015 by smuckyproductions

One of the most ancient, and perhaps overdone, horror subgenres is the ghost story. No matter how oversaturated the market becomes, we always look for truly spine-tingling and chilling tales of the supernatural. For the best offerings of this tradition, I argue that it’s best to go back to the roots – those creepy Victorians, and most wonderful of all are the GHOST STORIES OF M.R. JAMES.

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With his first two collections in particular, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and More Ghost Stories, James explores what happens when innocent explorers stumble on something from the other side. Usually the consequences are a fainting spell and a good shock, but sometimes the ghosts are more dangerous. Set in crumbling cathedrals, dreary manor homes and drafty seaside inns, his stories are full of the best sort of atmosphere. Their protagonists are hardly unique or memorable, but what happens to them in these spooky locales is always hard to forget, especially late at night.

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James is one of those authors who, if you haven’t actually read a story of his, you’ve seen them referenced or redone. If he’s not the inventor, he’s the popularizer of the white-sheeted, object-cursing, revenge-seeking spirit in popular culture. His stories are simple and often tongue-in-cheek, but there’s something about their subtlety and lack of grotesque flair that makes them far too easy to believe. James is blunt about his supernatural occurrences, which makes them all the more frightening.

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By today’s standards his images are basic and silly – but he handles them in a way that makes the horror visceral and undeniable. It’s worth noting as well that James introduced some of our standard ghost tropes, too – evil dolls, man-hungry spiders, and child demons, amongst others. His almost sardonic treatment of these images is strikingly modern. He has a great sense of sadistic humour, torturing his audience with gossipy grotesqueries and blurted horrors. One can imagine him watching the reader from afar, smirking in delight as the goosebumps rise.

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His best stories – such as “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” and “A Warning to the Curious” – have sustained amazingly, still frightening after all these decades. Their wind-swept climes and shadowy twists are best navigated in the dark of an October night – they were traditionally read by James in pitch-black rooms as an after-dinner form of entertainment. And somehow, across the crawl of time, his autumnal voice still echoes.

Films That Haunt Me: KWAIDAN

Posted in Films That Haunt Me with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 8, 2015 by smuckyproductions

It’s obvious that J-horror has become one of the most important platforms for the genre in the past decade. That cannot be limited to the 2000s, however – in the 1950s and 60s especially, Japan produced some of the most beautiful and effective horror films of all time. The pinnacle of those, in my opinion, is 1964’s KWAIDAN.

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Translating roughly as ‘Ghost Stories,’ the film is made up of four classic Japanese tales involving the supernatural. These stories have the air of ancient fables about them, with easy-to-understand morals built in as well. They are as follows – “Black Hair,” following a self-serving samurai who betrays his wife for success; “The Woman in the Snow,” telling of a creature who spares her victim on the condition that he never speaks about what he saw; “Hoichi the Earless,” named for a blind monk ordered by a long-dead empire to perform the song of their defeat; and “In a Cup of Tea,” a surreal tale of a man haunted by another’s soul which he unknowingly drank in, of course, a cup of tea.

From 'Hoichi the Earless.'

From ‘Hoichi the Earless.’

These plots are more or less familiar and simple. It’s how the stories are told that lend them their beauty and power. Director Masaki Kobayashi evokes an Expressionistic atmosphere full of painterly colors and stunningly arranged images, granting the film the surreal quality of a dream. The music is also gorgeous and subtle, which ends up being quite frightening at times. Kobayashi directs his actors and his camera with a gentle but assured touch that manipulates the audience into believing that the stories are perhaps even true. Through his near-glacial pacing of plot, he makes you sympathize subconsciously, and then unleashes the horror at the precise moment. He is amazingly patient in his storytelling, an art that unfortunately seems to be neglected now.

From 'The Woman in the Snow.'

From ‘The Woman in the Snow.’

For this reason I suspect that “Kwaidan” will bore some audience members – even condensed, it’s nearly 3 hours long, and it places focus on atmosphere and dread rather than outright action. Patient viewers will find themselves doubly rewarded, though.

From 'Hoichi the Earless.'

From ‘Hoichi the Earless.’

Some of these stories (most recognizably “The Woman in the Snow”) have been re-adapted into other, more mainstream films – but the nuance and visual genius of “Kwaidan” are unmatched. While the plays out like an eternal, multi-formed dream, its images are not easily forgotten, due to their pure sublimity. It evokes almost subconsciously the intangible power of our obsession with the supernatural, the power that such things hold over our minds. Whether for the sheer beauty of the photography or for the brilliance of its quiet storytelling, “Kwaidan” is a must-see.

NOTE: I’ve heard rumours that Criterion is releasing a bluray version of this film – based on some negative reviews of the current DVD version, it might be best to seek out the new one. It’s the director’s cut and much better quality. (The DVD version, however, is perfectly watchable.)