ghosts

When his father died, then reappeared, Tim Parks was forced to confront the impossible

"Our Christ is not a dead Christ," my father repeated. He was objecting to the Catholic cult of the crucifix. "The cross is an empty cross. Our Lord is all powerful." So he believed in the charismatic gifts, and above all in healing. But not in appearances of the Madonna. What kind of miracle would that be? And why were Catholics so ready to see their Madonnas cry? As if the poor woman were still contemplating her son's agony. A clergyman with responsibility for a large graveyard, my father told good corpse and coffin stories: the one that floated in the rainwater and had to be sunk with stones; the decomposed foot seen poking through the wall of the grave. He laughed, for death had long since been vanquished. And when they sent me to a high-church school, I was told not to turn to the east with the others when we recited the creed. "Christ does not haunt a particular spot," my father said. Dimly, I became aware that Catholicism was about the endless contemplation of pathos, Protestantism its exorcism. Hence my shock, so many years later, when my mother told me - and I believe her - that she had seen my father's ghost.

Ghosts: by broad day they can scarcely hold our sceptical attention. We see through them. But at night, around the uncertain edge of dreams, and when the wind nags, there are few whom an odd sound will not thrill with apprehension for that long anticipated meeting: a dead father, a dead lover. The bibliography to Daniel Cohen's Encyclopaedia of Ghosts remarks: "There are hundreds of books of `true' ghost stories, mostly, it seems, from England. These should be read strictly for entertainment." But be sure they will come back to haunt you later. After pooh-poohing the whole thing, the Macmillan Encyclopaedia is obliged to conclude its entry on ghosts with the laconic reflection: "Hauntings continue to be reported." There is more here than meets the eye.

Every ghost story is two stories: the story of how the ghost came to be a ghost, the story of our encounter with the ghost. Or rather: pathos and our attraction to pathos, the siren song of others' sufferings, metaphor of all melodrama. "The clanking of chains grew louder and louder" - it was Pliny the Younger, writing in the 1st century AD, who first offered us this scenario - "until there suddenly appeared the hideous phantom of an old man who raised his arms and shook his shackles in a kind of impotent fury." But Pliny's ghost did not speak. For whatever it is that leads them to their pitiful need for manifestation, ghosts rarely seem able to talk about it. Aphony, after all, is a common product of trauma, and what is more traumatic than dying? Trapped inside his awful last experience of life, the shackled ghost beckons. Night after night. The house he haunts is soon abandoned. Until, in this particular "true story", the impecunious philosopher Athenodorous, taking advantage of the low rent, has the courage to follow the phantom. A shallow, murder-victim's grave is discovered, the corpse still manacled hand and foot.

Speechless, the ghost is extravagantly theatrical. He does not dress casually. Flicking through the first pages of Haunted East Anglia - for every English county has its crop of ghosts - I underline the following: "The figure of a man was seen, dressed in soldier's uniform of the Napoleonic Wars" - "the form of a punt, and a figure in a white dress, standing in it, poling the craft along" - "the woman's dress was long and loosely flowing... the early sunlight caught and lit a quantity of gold jewellery" - "wearing a metal breastplate and round steel cap" - "wearing a long dark dress with a frilled apron and a small white cap perched on her dark hair" - "wearing fawn coloured breeches, leggings and a checked coat: on his head was a hard pork-pie type of hat." If this sounds like a shopping list for BBC Costume Drama - "strictly for entertainment" - one should remember that the Madonna, likewise, is never without her blue gown, nor Christ his stigmata. And even my father, who appeared twice, though only once to my mother, did so in his white surplice that was such a bind to wash, and his black cassock that always hung on a hook behind the vestry door.

Why? What are ghosts about? The dead body is walled up, chained, beheaded, burnt, poisoned. In any event, trapped. Passing through walls, transgressing the barrier of those two dates that form a prison cell for all of us, the mute ghost wants to lead us back there, to insist on the past. He is a conservative fellow. Or, worse still, the ghost is he who walled up another - chained, beheaded, poisoned another. Unpunished for his murder of fellow actor Thomas Hallam, Charles Macklin long haunted the corridors backstage at Drury Lane. A 13th-century rabbi, who killed his wife and burned down his synagogue, is still to be heard wandering around the Tudor building erected on the scene of his crime. Sinned against or sinning - and most of us are both - the ghost is appalled by his relationship to those actions that cemented his destiny. Why me? Did I mean to do that? Fixed there, unable - like so many in life - to change hair or dress or address, he stays home and haunts.

My father neither killed my mother nor burned down his church, but one evening he wandered into the kitchen to wolf cold meat from the fridge and said: "I suppose this monogamy business is all well enough." Officially, though, he began to die the day after he married myself and my wife. This was the last religious ceremony I ever took an active part in, or ever shall. My elder brother, estranged by my parents' coercive attempts to keep him in the Christian fold, had married far from home, in a town hall in Maryland, without a word to them. Aware of their sorrow, my more cautious choice was, not so much to conform, but not to disappoint. Undoubtedly, it is these lesions between what we are and what we do that come back to haunt us later. But when my father said he would use a microphone, I objected. He had never used a microphone when I attended his services. Technology seemed in bad taste on this particular occasion; it would amplify my own imposture. Stoically, not quite himself, my father gasped through the ceremony. The following week, they were trying to decide whether or not it was too late to operate.

By far the most moving ghost story, to my mind, is Ambrose Bierce's The Moonlit Road. The husband wishes to see if his beautiful wife is faithful. He says he is away on business, but returns in the early hours. A figure slips out of the house. Mad with rage, unable to catch the fellow, the husband rushes upstairs and, without a word of explanation, strangles his wife. She returns to haunt him. He loses his wits and his memory. Bierce tells the story in monologues. Neither protagonist understands what has happened, or is privy to the knowledge of the other. The now decrepit husband longs for the release of death. The only thing that survives his amnesia is a dream vision of the night he saw a figure leave his house, then went upstairs and killed his wife. Speaking through a medium, the dead wife tells how she awoke in terror, heard footfalls on the stairs. They receded. Just when she thought she was safe, there were more footsteps, louder and heavier than before. A moment later, fingers were on her throat. Far from being released in death, she desperately seeks to manifest herself to her husband, as a gesture of love. And in so doing, destroys him.

But who was the figure who entered and left the house? "There are times," the husband says, when "I cannot persuade myself that it was a human being." As if there were three ghosts in this story: the sorrowing wife, eager to restore a cruelly interrupted intimacy; the husband, haunted by his own inexplicable crime; and this mysterious figure who flits across the space of incomprehension between man and woman, phantom personification of that scission between what we are and what we do, source, in any event, of those deep misunderstandings that haunt us all.

One of the things that most frightened me, as a child at my prayers, was that one might die and discover that all one had believed in was untrue. My father was now a sick man walled up in his cancer. Already he was experiencing the loneliness of the ghost, who almost always haunts alone. Certainly, despite his faith, he suffered the horror of the spirit become aware of those incongruous shackles that bind it to the blighted flesh. Certainly, he had his regrets, which, like anybody, he was eager to settle. My brother was sent for. I was asked if I would renew my faith. I would not. The ghost of misunderstanding strutted through the vicarage walls, melodramatic, effectively aphonous.

Modern technology has made it notoriously difficult to have certain psychic experiences. Candles no longer flicker, and just as street-lamps have robbed us of the stars, so the click of a switch will quickly turn a phantom back into a dressing gown. Ironically, though, great strides have been made in multiplying the numbers of the living dead. What need have I of ghosts when my amnesiac grandmother at 98 is drugged into perennial decay, a dusty spectre of lost vigour? So X-rays and chemotherapy gave my father eight months to practise the ghostly pallor, the gestures of impotent fury. Is it surprising, then, that his first appearance as a spirit actually came some hours before his death? A close friend and fellow clergyman phoned my mother to say he had seen my father at the rather grand ordination service he had been attending: bishops, canons, deacons and archdeacons. Sitting in the stalls, fully robed, my father followed the ceremony throughout, only to disappear amongst the congregation when the friend tried to approach him after the blessing. Fittingly, flittingly, he died upon a Sunday.

One encouraging aspect of many ghost stories is the power they allow us over the world beyond the grave. For so often the end of the story is also the end of the haunting. In Pliny's account, Athenodorous follows the ghost to the scene of his murder. The skeleton is released from its chains and properly buried. It haunts no more. In Healing the Haunted, Dr Kenneth McAll, Christian psychiatrist, recounts perhaps 40 tales of freeing ghosts from whatever was fettering them to their weary routines. Recognition, proper burial, prayer and exorcism are Dr McAll's tools and no spirit anywhere is safe from them. He sees off a pack of Norman knights, a band of smugglers, dogs, cats, unborn babies, and even the drowned and murdered slaves apparently responsible for the sad notoriety of the Bermuda Triangle. Compulsive repetition at last interrupted is always the happy ending. But, intriguingly, no mention is ever made of where these ghosts are "released" to: heaven, hell? What kind of release would that be? For all the cartoon efficacy they concede to Christian symbolism, ghost stories definitely haunt the margins of established religion. Offering no easy after-life, their genius is to be most reassuring - with that word "release" - just as they find expression for what is most taboo: not death, but our wish that death really be death. "Beneath it all," wrote Phillip Larkin, "desire of oblivion runs."

In the months he was dying, my father never sought healing through the laying on of hands. This is curious, since he firmly believed in such things. Perhaps he feared it had been his charismatic fervour that had led to the painful break-up with my brother, proved the mocking elf that draws us to destruction. If cancer is partly the result of unhappiness and stress, my father had had his fair share of it. The only other explanation is that, despite his sense of outrage at what was happening to his body, he was not unready to make an end, perhaps precisely because of this incurable gap between felt identity and the enigma of one's life. He may have had quite enough of elfish figures who slip in and out of one's house at night.

Did he really know he was dying? Certainly, the doctors were careful never to use that word. "It's so discouraging." And the literature on the subject makes it clear that none of us can fully imagine our own extinction: "Whenever we make the attempt to imagine it," said Freud, "we can perceive that we really survive as spectators." In which scenario we might understand the ghost as simply a failure of the imagination, the inability to see ourselves quite dead. "There creeps in," wrote the philosopher FH Bradley, "the idea of a reluctant and struggling self, or of a self disappointed, or wearied, or in some way discontented. And this is certainly not a self completely extinguished." What could be more of a failure of imagination than that ghostly repetition beyond mortal routine: same clothes, same gestures? The nights immediately following his death, my dreams of my father were always of a corpse that turned out to be reluctantly, discontentedly alive, dead but frighteningly not so. Was that why on the third day, the day before the funeral, I asked the undertaker if he would open the coffin and let me see my father one last time? He said: "You don't really want to see him. He is dead." "Blessed," remarks one of Samuel Beckett's characters, performing a healthy amputation on a verse from Revelation, "are the dead that die."

It's interesting, in Pliny's tale, that the murdered ghost does not seek revenge, but only the propriety of decent burial. The end of a ghost story is ever a return to propriety: that is, extinction. And propriety was very much on my mind as I leafed through brochures of wreaths, photographs of rose trees. What to do with the dead? Returning to the crematorium to pick up my father's remains, I was surprised to find them being given to me in a colourful plastic box more suitable, one would have thought, for ice-cream than ashes. "Was it a difficult death?" the woman said - she had known my father well, in his clergyman's role - and in the car I imagined buckling the safety-belt round the box, since my father was always scrupulous about wearing his belt. "I've put them (it? him?) in the bottom drawer of the dresser," I shouted downstairs to my mother, not wishing her to be distressed by the garish box. Clearly, propriety had yet to be established.

Was it in this period, before the ashes were finally laid to rest, that she saw him? That would fit with the folklore on the subject. Obliged to leave the vicarage, my mother moved to the other side of London. It would be inappropriate to haunt their old parish where a new incumbent must establish himself. A stranger in a strange church, she rose to her feet for that moment before the eucharist when people are invited to turn and embrace those beside them. No one turned to my mother. She was bereaved and alone, the ghost of herself. Upon which my father appeared in his robes and embraced her and she knew that all would be well. She could not say how he appeared, nor how he disappeared, only that he did so. On a windless day, she scattered his ashes in the Thames at Kew.

"I have related this in the past tense," says the husband in Ambrose Bierce's The Moonlit Road, "but the present would be a fitter form." The images that haunt him know no solution. In this regard, my father showed a generous propriety, appearing but twice and requiring no exorcism to be released. He had atoned, perhaps, in that embrace - monogamy beyond the grave - for his comment by the fridge. Unless one reflects that turning up in one's robes is not the only form of haunting. In so many ways, life's continuance is a living death. We are haunted by ghosts: of those who meant much to us; of the country we left; of our father's religion. Our parents' faces loom in the mirror. Our cheeks shrink onto their bones. We chide our children with their gestures, at once haunted and haunting. My son's "Oh God!" is a perfect imitation of my own. My eyes, my mother's, stare out of his young face. Will he one day have to write about - write off - me? I'm not averse to cold meat in the evening myself. On opening the fridge, I hear, quite distinctly, my father's haunting words. Perhaps I spoke them myself. My son pokes his head round the door. There's an odd distance, it seems sometimes, between the person I feel I am and the life I live. Will death cure us of this? "All's well," abbreviated Robert Lowell, "that ends." Well, it doesn't

Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' embraces politics, religion, warfare, courage, love and loyalty, say creators
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

film
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
News
peopleThe Game of Thrones author said speculation about his health and death was 'offensive'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Arts and Entertainment
Sassoon threw his Military Cross into the Mersey
booksAn early draft of ‘Atrocities’ shows the anti-war sentiment was toned down before publication
Arts and Entertainment
Actors and technicians on the march against changes made by Hollande
theatreOpening performances of the Avignon theatre festival cancelled as actors and technicians walk out
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West performed in a chain mail mask at Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park
Rapper booed at Wireless over bizarre rant
Arts and Entertainment

They're back, they're big – and they're still spectacularly boring

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil