Ghostly agency


I just read a really interesting article… in which the author (Jennifer Bann) argues that the growth of spiritualism (first in America and then in Britain – from the 1850s onwards) influenced the nature of ‘ghost stories’. Ghosts changed from being non-agentic plot devices to characters in their own right, complete with agency and motive, she writes. 

In earlier fiction, she explains, “when[…] ghosts walked, it was not to deny death’s role as agency’s ultimate terminus, but to affirm it. For Marley, and potentially for Scrooge, death represents not transformation but limitation, and ghosts not agency’s continuation but an emphatic demonstration of its temporality. In the supernatural fiction of the later nineteenth century, death began to bring freedom: shackles, silence and regret were cast aside, and ghosts became active figures empowered rather than constrained by their deaths.” (p.664)

It was one of those articles that got me wondering about a lot of things. A couple of questions, for example:

How agentic are the ghosts in modern fiction? 

What purpose do they serve in the stories they add to?

What effect does death have on agency (among other things) in these books?

What relationship do the ghosts have with the living (positive/negative/ambivalent?, mutually supportive, etc.)?

What constitutes a threat in these ghost stories? Is it the ghosts or is it something else…

Are the ghosts contained spatially (eg do they haunt specific areas)? Why? To what purpose, or for what reason (is it just tradition or does it serve a narrative goal)? and how does the ghosts’ location relate to the living – or affect the narrative (and the ‘trouble’ or ‘conflict’ being resolved in the narrative)?

Do the ghosts maintain any connection with their mortal, physical lives/bodies (eg. the shape and appearance of that body, or the needs/motives of that life)? What purpose does this serve in the narrative?

(I couldn’t help thinking of Stacia Kane’s Downside Ghosts (which is thoroughly worth a read if you like urban fantasy)…)

Do the ghosts exist within an obvious system of ethics? Is it explored?

What kind of ‘voice’ do the ghosts have? Are they heard?

How do the ghosts sit within the temporality of the narrative? What is their relationship to our conception of time/life/death/space?

urban fantasy? ghost story? detective story? romance? conventions? what are the reader’s expectations and how are they incorporated into the experience of this tale?

Ref: Jennifer Bann (2009) ‘Ghostly hands and ghostly agency: the changing figure of the nineteenth-century specter’ Victorian Studies 51(4), pp.663-685


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