Visits from the Dead

In Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, the dead appear in corners, in hallways, solid in body rather than ghostly holograms. Here stands Cardinal Woolsey in his opulent scarlet cloak; there is Cromwell’s little daughter, Grace, still shockingly beautiful, never aging. The permeability of the veil between the worlds at All Hallows, All Saints, and All Souls is a given. One year at that time, as Cromwell contemplates all he’s lost, his family dead coalesce into one body, into hands that won’t stop touching him.

Mantel’s previous work often engaged with the supernatural, too. Her ninth novel, Beyond Black, focuses on a psychic who presents her clients with a far cheerier version of the afterworld and its inhabitants than the psychic herself actually sees. And Mantel’s memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, describes the horror of meeting the devil when she was a girl. “I am used to ‘seeing’ things that aren’t there,” she says at the book’s outset. “Or—to put it in a way more acceptable to me—I am used to seeing things that ‘aren’t there.’”

I read Beyond Black a few months after it was published, back in 2005. Afterward, delighted by Mantel’s precision and imagination, and the deadly brevity of her dialogue, I raced through nearly all the books she’d published at the time. I haven’t revisited them since, and after that immersion it took me a while to be ready for the Cromwell books. A few months after the 2016 election, eager to lose myself in the dysfunction of some other era, I finally dug in. So I can’t say for sure if Wolf Hall, with its lush historical setting, emphasizes the corporeality of visitors from the beyond more than those earlier books do, or if it’s me, if I’m reading her work differently now.

One of my research book companions over the past few years has been Claude Lecouteux’s The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind. At first his books can be jarring to those of us accustomed to nonfiction written at a rational remove. They take the superiority of the “pagan mind” as a given and seem to be written from inside that perspective rather than outside it. I don’t subscribe to everything Lecouteux says, but I do recommend the book.

“For as long as humans have existed,” Lecouteux writes in the introduction:

they have spoken about the shades of the departed who return to trouble the living…. But does anyone recall that these deceased individuals once formed part of everyday life, that once upon a time, in a room in which animals and people sometimes lived together, a small light attached to a joist was left burning all night long….

Literature, which has been telling us about apparitions for more than two thousand years, testifies in its own way to the evolution of mind-sets. When Sophocles describes the meeting of Clytemnestra and her late husband, when Homer narrates that of Penelope and her dead sister, when Aeschylus causes the specter of Argos to come out, and when Philostratus shows us Achilles leaving his grave and returning to it when the cock crows, we can see that the revenants and ghosts of antiquity are actors and not supernumeraries. They speak and act; they hand out both counsel and blame. This is how things proceed until the sixteenth century. Shakespeare depicts the ghost of Hamlet’s father crying out for vengeance on a gun battlement at the Castle of Elsinore, and he shows us the terror that grips Macbeth at the sight of Banquo’s specter. Eventually, however, ghosts and revenants become simple literary motifs, such as the one in The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde. They are soon transformed into movie figures…. The dead who have the misfortune to leave their graves have even been turned into figures of derision in ghost tours. Yet hiding behind their literary and other uses are age-old beliefs that have become lost in the depths of time. Writers such as Hans Christian Anderson and Charles Dickens, in The Traveling Companion and A Christmas Carol, respectively, knew how to use these beliefs for inspiration.

I myself haven’t experienced ghosts or revenants. When I was growing up, though, my mom saw demons and angels everywhere. Sometimes she held exorcisms when I was in the next room, trying to do my homework. Through the wall I’d hear her hollering. The person the demons were being cast out of might weep, punch things, turn over chairs, curse in an inhuman voice. Sometimes the unearthly voice emanated from someone I knew. I worried the demons would slip under the door and into me.

Deliverance sessions also erupted at the start of my mom’s church services every month or so. And occasionally, she went after evil spirits she detected in me. In one episode of this kind, I finished off a big bag of chips, and she commanded the “gluttony demon” to come out of me. She was troubled by my inability to see demons for myself and blamed this lack of vision on a “doubting demon,” or, sometimes, on an “Antichrist demon” that had apparently been passed on by my father.

My mom believes in generational curses. It’s a popular evangelical concept with rough origins in the Old Testament. In my mom’s version, the same demons possess seven generations of a family, ours definitely included. The only way of dispersing these spirits safely is through Jesus. No healthy contact with or spiritual contemplation of the dead is possible. There is only (my mom’s) God.

Over the past few years, reading widely about religions and practices involving the dead, I’ve kept coming back to the realization that, in the long history of human spirituality, Christianity’s answer to the question of what remains after a life has ended is very new. To me, Christianity’s answer is a bleak one. It reduces our connection to humans who lived before us to the hope that they’ve gone to heaven and we will join them there.

As religions in the west go, it’s also the dominant answer. Over the centuries, Christianity conquered many traditions and drove others underground. Scientific materialism followed on its heels. Other ways of looking at relationships between the living and the dead fell away. I’m interested in the other ways of looking at those relationships.

Right now I’m planning to send Ancestor Hunger dispatches on the first and third Tuesday of each month. Some months the newsletter may arrive less often. I’ll give you warning if I’m thinking of picking up the pace.

All good wishes until next time,