G. W. Thomas
WAS THE FIRST GHOSTBREAKER?
A CONVERSATION BY CHRISTOPHER LYONS & G. W. THOMAS
GWT: Who do you consider the first Ghostbreaker?
CL: Bill Murray? But seriously, folks. Samuel Warren began to lay down some of the form's conventions in his "Passages from the Diary of a Late Physician". In many ways, his approach was startlingly modern, and his best stories still work today, because he leaves most of the supernatural stuff to our imagination, even to the point of deciding whether anything supernatural has happened at all. Maybe these people are just deluded--the doctor himself never sees anything other than his patients' odd behavior. But of course, only a few of those stories really fall under the Ghostbreaker umbrella. Most of the time, Warren's stories just deal with the strangeness and poignance of ordinary life. But as a religious man, as well as someone with some scientific training, Warren did wonder about the realities that lay beyond what our senses could perceive. By choosing madness as his primary topic, he is begging the question "What IS reality? If someone truly believes he saw a ghost, to the point where it destroys his sanity, doesn't that form a reality of its own?"
It's interesting-- Ghostbreakers are, in many respects, a mutant offshoot of the detective story, which we all pretty much agree was invented by Poe, and so many Ghostbreaker stories mimic that form's conventions, even to the point of having the stories narrated by a somewhat clueless associate of the paranormal detective. But then we look at Warren's stories, which are just confabulated medical case histories that occasionally have a slight paranormal bouquet, and which not only predate the first Dupin story by a decade, but were unquestionably a direct literary influence on Poe himself, though not necessarily on the Dupin stories. And since Warren's unnamed physician never set out to investigate anything other than the physical and mental ailments of his patients (oddly enough, there was Scully before there was Mulder), we've got to look a bit further down the evolutionary line to find our first Ghostbreaker.
Martin Hesselius is one possibility, and certainly the first truly great stories in this literary lineage were written by LeFanu. But Hesselius is mainly just a linking device for otherwise unconnected ghost stories LeFanu wanted to group together. I think a true Ghostbreaker has to be a character who propels the story, not merely presides over it like a master of ceremonies.
Abraham Van Helsing is a good candidate, complex, fascinating, knowledgeable, conscious of his mission, and he's after a dead guy, if not a ghost per se. However, he's a one-shot character. We've no reason to think he's ever encountered the supernatural before, or ever will again.
Flaxman Low is probably the first Ghostbreaking protagonist professionally defined as such, and certainly the first to serve as the central character in a series of stories. However, I really don't like those stories very much at all, and Flaxman himself is a bit of a bore, so let's find somebody more interesting.
If we want the form in its entirety, so you can say definitely that we have a truly separate form (as opposed to just a weird detective story), I'd say John Silence is the best choice. He's the first intrinsically compelling character who fully specializes in Ghostbreaker fiction, to the exclusion of all else. Of course, with John Silence, you KNOW there's something unearthly afoot. No possibility of it ever being a hoax. Blackwood was a believer, and though he knew hoaxes were everywhere, he wasn't interested in writing about them.
The interesting thing to me is how popular all these stories were, even though many of them seem awfully dated today. Probably the most frightening tales of the supernatural don't feature a recurring protagonist, because as Ramsey Campbell pointed out, it's the lack of a proper orientation, a hero to save the day that truly unsettles us. But if people know that a particular character will serve as their spirit guide (so to speak) through a bizarre and fascinating maze of supernatural or pseudo-supernatural mysteries, some of which can be solved, and some of which cannot, you have the basis for a very popular series of stories. Dr. John Silence was the first character who presumed the existence of ghosts, went actively in search of them, actually found them, and was used as a major selling point of the stories he appeared in. He's what Samuel Warren's nameless physician could have become, if he'd decided to chuck his regular practice and go whole hog into ghosts. And for all I know, that's how Blackwood saw him, because there's little reason to doubt Blackwood had read some of Warren's stories, which were still very popular when he was a young man. It would make for a nice bit of symmetry, anyhow.
GWT: I think John Silence was as much a linking devise as Hesselius. Blackwood tells in his introduction how the name was chosen and why the character was created. Several of the stories seem almost as unrelated as Hesselius to say "In the Room of the Dragon Volant". One of my favorite Silence is the one about the village of cat people. Silence just shows up at the end. He did take a more active role in "A Victim of Higher Space", but that was the only story to appear after the initial book.
CL: Agreed, but again, this is an evolutionary process. Silence is a lot more central to the stories than Hesselius, and they actually put up promotional posters with pictures of the character all over London, to advertise the publication of that first short story collection. And apparently they worked, since almost nothing Blackwood ever wrote afterwards was quite so popular with the public.
GWT: The effects of Hesselius on van Helsing are huge. They are several references to "Carmilla" in Dracula. I think you can't underestimate van Helsing's influence on the genre. He is the first real "monster chaser". He was a one-shot but a very important one.
CL: I'm not underestimating any of them, and one thing I like about your site is that you do include all these stories--an inclusive approach is definitely called for here, because this is a form with a complex lineage. I'm just looking for the point where the lineage definitively splits off into something new. I'm saying that's with John Silence now, but it's an evolutionary change, not a revolutionary one—and believe me, I'm far from sure about my choice. I just felt obliged to answer because you asked me.
It's an arbitrary decision, really. There's no one point where you can definitely say the form comes into being, whereas with the detective story, you can point at Dupin and feel pretty confident about it. That's because Ghostbreakers are a hybrid form, which borrows from several different distinct types of story—the detective story, the ghost story, the gothic, etc. It's not all of a piece, and probably never can be. And no reason it has to be.
GWT: You mention detective stories but you don't refer to Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was another huge influence. A good dozen Sherlocks work as "false monster" G Ghostbreaker stories. The Hound of the Baskervilles is obvious but "The Speckled Band" is my favorite.
CL: Holmes and Dupin are so clearly entrenched in the straight detective genre that you can only borrow them for Ghostbreaker fiction, not claim them outright. I don't have any quarrel with including them in the family tree, obviously. Both were hugely influential on Ghostbreaker stories, much more so than many stories that are unequivocally in the Ghostbreaker mode. Somebody writing a Ghostbreaker story today is much more likely to have read Poe, Stoker, or Doyle than the Ghostbreaker stories of Warren, LeFanu, or Blackwood. Fortunately, the latter are remembered also, but not nearly as well. I say this on the basis of my having read Poe, Stoker, and Doyle since I was a kid, seeing their work on high school reading lists, not to mention all the movies that were (usually loosely) based on their stories.
I'd certainly read a bit of LeFanu and Blackwood in ghost story anthologies (I first heard of Blackwood in that story of Ray Bradbury's, where all the people who ever wrote scary stories come back to life on Mars, and start plotting against the antiseptic earth culture that is burning their books :-), but I can't say I was ever aware of Martin Hesselius or John Silence. And as for Samuel Warren, I believe even you were unaware of him until quite recently. (g)
GWT: I agree that Ghostbreaker fiction isn't the most frightening of the entire genre. The fact that the Ghostbreaker will return is almost assured and you lose a lot of "frisson". (Wakefield's "Ghost Hunt" is a one-shot and VERY scary. A kind of BLAIR WITCH in Weird Tales.) But I personally don't read Ghostbreaker fiction to be scared. (There's nothing scary about SCOOBY DOO but it's so popular!) I read it for its sense of the unknown, a kind of horror-adventure thing. One of my most favorites is Silver john by Manly Wade Wellman. Not scary exactly but very entertaining. I think the Ghostbreaker sub-genre has another goal besides fright.
CL: I agree. There's a reason, after all, why this type of story keeps showing up, generation after generation, and always finds a new audience. The styles, the ideas, the very mediums through which the story gets told--they all change. But the form keeps resurfacing, because we're fascinated by the unknown, and by the concept of one or several people going in search of it. However, it is a very difficult form to get right. The ghost story, the mystery, the gothic--these are all perfected forms. But the Ghostbreaker form is always in a state of becoming, looking for that perfect balance of elements, and rarely finding it. But even a less than perfect GB story can be awfully entertaining, and addresses things that a straightforward mystery or horror story cannot. It doesn't really need any more reason to exist than mere enjoyment, but I do think it serves other purposes as well. I'm still trying to get it clear in my mind what exactly they are.
GWT: As for Samuel Warren, I haven't read him so I can't really comment. But there were precursers to Poe and Le Fanu. Count on it. No genre or sub-genre just springs into being. The religion vs. science debate that is inherent in the Ghostbreaker existed before Warren. You can see it in Percy Shelley and even Mary Shelley. Perhaps that is why Scooby Doo is so popular. On some moronic, Saturday AM level it is that struggle in action. It appears Science and Reason win when we hear, "It's only the Principal, Mr. Dingwell!" Personally I've always hated that ending. Only The Hound of the Baskervilles and maybe The Totem by David Morrell don't disappoint. It takes a great writer to pull it off.
CL: Yeah, but if the ghosts are real on Scooby-Doo, then you can't have that "I'd have gotten away with it if it weren't for you meddling kids" line, that is such a central leitmotif of the Scooby-oeuvre.
Poe's Dupin stories form a very clear and unquestionable dividing line between proto-mystery stories and true mystery stories. I don't really find any equivalent dividing line for Ghostbreakers, again because it's a form that can't quite be defined, that exists on the boundaries of several intersecting types of stories.
It's not exactly a religion vs. science debate in the Ghostbreaker canon, though. It's natural vs. supernatural, that which can be explained away, and that which cannot. Remember, before Darwin (who was himself a conventionally religious man, though his beliefs changed as he grew older), most scientists saw little or no contradiction between being religious and studying the laws of nature. Samuel Warren was presenting the latest theories about how insanity could explain what would have been considered demonic possession in previous generations--but he also keeps insinuating that science doesn't know all the answers, and never will--there are things that are given to Mankind to understand, and other things that are beyond his power. His Unnamed Physician, when confronted with patients who may have encountered some supernatural agency, is never really able to help them. In "The Thunderstruck" an impressionable young woman lapses into catatonia during a horrendous thunderstorm that occurs on the very day some people were predicting the end of the world. Warren's Doctor tries every means known to him to revive her, all of which fail, all the while regaling us with what science knows of this affliction--and letting us know that this case is somewhat--different. Then she awakes from her trance--but only long enough to deliver a message from Beyond. A last wishful delusion, or proof of the Next Life?
See, Warren doesn't want to say. He wants to leave us on that borderland between believing and not believing. Because that's where he is, I think. That's where a lot of people were in the early 19th century. I think that's where a lot of us still are. I'm not sure we're ever getting out of there, to be honest. I don't see this kind of ambiguity in either Shelley, because they were, in their own Romantic way, very decisive people--you can see it in the way they lived their lives, as well as in the way they wrote. Not a lot of grey area there.
Warren's contribution is the ambiguity. He's a former medical student, a barrister, a both-feet-on-the-ground middle-class type of fellow. He's also a religious man, who wrote anti-popery tracts in his later years. He's writing for Blackwood's Magazine, which has a long-established tradition of bizarre fiction behind it by the time Warren starts contributing his anonymous entries, which is probably one big reason the supernatural starts nosing its way into his stories for that magazine. The very fact that the stories appeared without attribution (Warren took credit later on), therefore implying they might be actual medical case histories--this is itself a major innovation. What did we see on the screen when the first episode of The X-Files aired--"The story you are about to see is based on actual documented events." This was a well-established convention in television shows and films of this type, long before The X-Files aired. And of course, it was rarely if ever true. But it's a lie we all dearly love to hear.
Now, before you say it--"Frankenstein" is, of course, presented as the ship's log of a captain who takes the dying protagonist aboard his ship in the arctic, and we hear the main story through him--a story that invokes science to make a fantastic tale more believable (and therefore more frightening). One reason why some people credit Mary Shelley with inventing the science fiction novel. But obviously Shelley's name appeared on the title page, and she never claimed the novel had any basis in reality—it sprang from a dream she had. Warren takes it a step further, and literally tries to fool the audience, the way Orson Welles did in that infamous "War of the Worlds" broadcast. And just like Welles, he actually succeeds. One born every minute, you know. Medical practitioners who read the stories actually protested the violation of doctor/patient privilege involved in printing these supposed diary entries, though it should have been obvious just from reading them that they were nothing of the kind.
tion to the ghosl