The English Ghost: Spectres Through Time, By Peter Ackroyd

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The Independent Culture

Peter Ackroyd's recent work rate is alarming. In the past couple of years alone we've had a vast work on Venice, his retelling of The Canterbury Tales and his version of Le Morte D'Arthur. His latest is more like transcription than writing, the product, perhaps, of a few agreeable afternoons in the British Library. Yet the idea of an Ackroyd-curated collection of true ghost stories is appealing.

By and large he presents the stories without much comment, in loose chapters: "The phantom in the house", "The wandering ghost", "Moving things" and so on. Some immediately invite scepticism: the tales in the form of letters to newspapers are no more believable than letters to porn mags which detail implausible sexual encounters. Other cases indicate mischief-making and attention-seeking, or seem to be outlets for things that can't be spoken of openly. The schoolboys in 1728 who claimed to see the apparition of a fellow pupil may have been expressing misgivings about his sudden death: he'd been strangled.

One case seems particularly well documented: that of the "King's Oak" in Woodstock, cut down by victorious Puritans after the execution of Charles I. Furniture made with the wood was thrown about, bedsteads were shaken and glass smashed in the house requisitioned by the parliamentary commissioners for Oxfordshire. But the account isn't contemporaneous: the events allegedly took place in 1649 but were published 36 years later, when the monarchy was restored and stories discrediting the Puritans welcomed.

Some of these cases read like fiction, with a neat moral or explanation, such as that of the ghostly dachshund which leads its mistress to a German vivisectionist. Yet the most eerie are those that resist interpretation. The Blue Bell Hill phantom hitchhiker, who helpfully explains that she is getting married the following day before vanishing, thereby identifying herself as a particular car-crash victim, is not half so weird as the mysterious man in a mac with a flashlight on the A38.

The cumulative effect of reading these cases, so matter-of-fact and shorn of literary guile, is unnerving. At the very least, the book records a folk art form, now itself deceased. Ackroyd quotes Immanuel Kant: "While one can be sceptical about any individual instance, the sum total presents a body of evidence that is difficult to ignore."

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