Questions for City of Ghosts etc


Ok so honestly, these questions are ones I thought of in regard to Stacia Kane’s City of Ghosts, but they could probably apply to a number of texts…

Read the text and consider:

How are the protagonist’s choices constrained? What about the other characters?

What messages are attached to religion in the City of Ghosts? How are they communicated? What media? (tattoos???)

How does death occure? Through what means? Does the story end there? How does the character ‘develop’ after death? Do they?

How is fear inscribed into this world? Of what is Chess afraid? How is it described?

In what conditions does Chess live? What does this communicate to us about Chess’s world? about her? how does it drive the story that unfolds?

What kinds of characters are there? Is it a wide range? 

How is sex part of the story? To what purpose? Death? Friendship? Love? Loyalty?

Who meets violent ends? To what purpose? How does their death aid the story?

What constitutes ‘loss’ in the story? How do characters experience loss?

What does belief look like in City of Ghosts? What underpins these beliefs (specific dispositions – loyalty? Love? Etc) how important are these beliefs to the narrative?

Is there such a thing as an ‘unhealthy’ approach to spirituality/relationships? What is this in this text? How does it help the story progress?

Is it ok to doubt?

What is the protagonist like?

Are there ‘surprising’ characters? Predictable ones? Stereotypes? What purpose do they serve?

Who provides comfort in the novels? What roles are otherwise ascribed to these characters (like Terrible…)? 

Do the dead play agentic roles?

How does this narrative begin?

Does anyone have ‘inside information’?

What use is ‘information’ in the novels? Is literacy important? What kind(s) of literacy?

Do the characters know everything they need to know? How do they uncover the information they don’t have? What skills/dispositions are required for such problem-solving?

What provides the characters with social relevance? How does this connect them with the setting?

Are there any ‘one-dimensional’ characters? To what purpose?

How is healing/health represented in this text?

Who is discriminated against? Persecuted?

What has been eliminated from this world?

What manner of social divides exist in this world?

Are there gendered or cultural expectations in this text?

Is the protagonist’s community isolated/or set in the context of other communities? What kind of world does this create? How does this influence the story being told?

How is home envisaged? Is it safe? Connected/isolated/calm? Is it described (why?)?

What does Chess’s ‘sense of self’ rely on?

Is there uncertainty in the narrative? For whom?

What character traits are valued in this text? (submissiveness, obedience, …)

What is ‘the conflict’ in this narrative? How does it form? How is it resolved?


The return of the dead – modern legend


While I’m on the topic, another article that had me thinking about Stacia Kane’s Downside Ghosts was ‘The return of the Dead’ by Katrien Van Effelterre. It also provoked a number of questions worth putting to Kane’s series/other modern fiction treating with ghosts for analysis… What about Ministry of Pandemonium by Chris Westwood, for example…

In this article, Van Effelterre describes her findings from the analysis of a number of modern flemish legends. Modern legends, she finds, exhibit quite a different relationship with the dead. (Note: Van Effelterre is discussing legends, not urban fantasy… I am interested in how her ideas connect is all…)

She writes: “In traditional revenant legends the narrator often mentions that the returned dead person is said to have come from purgatory, heaven, or hell. … In the corpus of Flemish contemporary legends under discussion here, however, I have found no reference to the eschatological place of origin of the dead person. It is not suprising, then, that there is very little mention in these legends (only two per cent of the corpus) of clergymen – ministers or priests – being called upon to offer advice about dealing with the dead, whereas this percentage was much higher (12%) in traditional legends. In Catholoic tradition the returning dead are often portrayed as poor souls dependent on the help of the living in order to achieve salvation….” (66-67)

Modern Flemish legends, however, typically present revenants who are perceived as being more powerful than the living, in that they make predictions about the person’s future, help or warn the living, or present themselves as hostile beings that threaten them. The focal point of this kind of modern revenant legend, therefore, is not the achievement of salvation by the dead person, but the moment of recognition of the being as a revenant by the living person, and the fear this engenders.” (67)

“Due of the disappearance of traditional ideas about the afterlife in our modern world, the dead are deprived of a specfic dwelling place, and contemporary legends about spiritism are full of revenants who are wandering about without a clear purpose. Although rationalists claim that every form of life ends with death, a subconscious fascination and a fear related to the possiblity of the existence of a ‘Jenseits’ (the ‘Beyond’) cannot be wiped away by science. This is illustrated, for example, by the popularity of fortune-tellers, mediums, horror films about exorcism, exponenets of modern magic like the fiction character Harry Potter, and so on. …In a certain sense, the disappearance of belief in a Christian hereafter seems to have re-invigorated the ghosts from a pre-christian belief system; some of these are depicted as ghosts who protect the living – as in certain variants of the vanishing hitch-hiker legend – while others are hostile wanderers whose rest has been disturbed.” (68)

Quoting Gillian Bennett, she notes that “In western tradition, especially in religiously-motivated ghostlore, haunting was a form of punishment for souls who had transgressed in life…” (Bennett 1998, 9).” (69)

“The religious frame of reference that characterises the revenants of traditional legends is no longer clearly present in modern ones, however. The dead, for example, return because they died in an accident or because they were murdered. But the outcome of the narrative is often very negative, as there is no longer recourse to a priest for help to deal with the manifestiation of the revenant.” (70) This recourse, which she at one point terms “the possibility of controlling the dead by enabling them to achieve salvation … or by banishment” is really quite interesting! She writes: “The small number of contemporary legends in which clerical intervention is mentioned is, of course, linked to the rapid decline of a religious frame of reference in modern society. In such a context, the ultimate meaninglessness of the supernatural leads to fear and horror, feelings that are expressed in contemporary legends. The purposeless revenant… in these narratives is an exponent of the secularised world. The revenant appears as an elusive creature from a supernatural world that is beyond human control.” (71)

“Modern media offer many possibilities for legend circulation on a large scale, and this enables them to react promptly to changing situations. For contemporary society, contemporary legends are extremely sensitive antennae, which register modern fears, frustrations, and other hidden emotions.” (75)

“In the traditional legend, the earthly existence is strongly related to the soul’s welfare in the hereafter. In the world of the contemporary legend, on the other hand, things are different; death is an alarming phenomenon that leads to the ultimate end, or to a world that cannot be identified as either threatening or protective. This explains the occurrence of both helpful and murderous ghosts in Flemish contemporary legends. The content and interpretation of ideas about death and the hereafer are no longer borrowed from a relitious frame of reference and are clearly characterised by inner human hope, fear, and undertainty about the end of earthly existence.” (75)

She also, though I won’t repeat it here, presents an interesting discussion about the connections between photography/ghosts, and  cars and ghosts…

Do the ghosts of modern fiction ‘haunt’? Why? What/whom/where do they haunt? Why are they still so strongly attached to ‘the world of’ the living? Where do they preferably manifest (their former home environment, where they died…)?

How are families connected to these ghosts/dead? What role does ‘the family’ play in their story?

Are they ‘restless’? Why? What do they want? How is this achieved? Through some action of the living protagonist?

What, if any, taboos asuround death in these stories? What rituals?

What part does the non-ghostly figure play in this story?

How do modern ghost traditions connect with religious/secular beliefs about death/life/afterlife?

Is the ghost a victim (representative of victimhood)?

How do conceptions of ‘innocence’ connect with these ghosts?

Is there a concept of punishment attached to these characters?

What kind of death leads one to become a ‘ghost’? (or does everyone become one?) Do the ghosts have a purpose (a higher purpose or a personal purpose)?

What kind of person can see/feel/make contact with/communicate with ghosts? Are they different from the majority of the living? Why/How? 

What is ‘strange’? What is the framework of normality?

Ref: Katrien Van Effelterre (2007) ‘The return of the Dead: Revenants in Flemish traditional and Contemporary Legends’ Folklore 118(1)Apr: 65-77

Referring to: Bennett, G (1998) ‘The Vanishing Hitchhiker at Fifty-Five’ Western Folklore 57: 1-17

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