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