Hidden among the posh townhouses and expensive offices of Mayfair is the Savile Club, resembling a merry old English squire with threadbare cuffs. In the library upstairs above the black leather club-chairs, relics of the Gilded Age with the horsehair peeking out through the seams, rest plenty of ghost stories penned by Algernon Blackwood who was one of her early members. I keep meaning to donate a few volumes of Russell Kirk’s ghostly tales, for he stands with Blackwood, M. R. James, Oliver Onions and only a few others as the finest craftsmen of a genre that reached its apex in the first half of the last century.
Hardly anyone reads the ghost story today, especially if one discounts the horror novel, its bastard son. Unless the genre rises like Lazarus – remembering that the gothic novel slumbered for nearly 150 years until Dr. Kirk revived it singlehandedly in the 1960s with his ‘Old House of Fear’ – the Sage of Mecosta may remain the last Grand Master of that arcane art. So why did the ghost story die?
In undergraduate school some 35 years past, the resident philosopher and Logical Positivist there told me that mankind had become too rational for such superstitious fare. Matthew Lewis’s best-selling gothic novel ‘The Monk: a Romance,’ published in 1796 at the end of the Age of Enlightenment and the start of the Romantic Era, rode the cusp to great effect. The eponymous, ghostly monk and the crypts and bats so overworked later, he explained, were rooted in the fears of modern, rational man that superstition – and especially the Roman Catholic Church – might somehow return to drag us back into the darkness. The future, he declared, was not ghost stories but science fiction, full of invention and reason and man’s intellect triumphant, solving every problem between here and the distant stars. He sounded strikingly like another Savilian, the noisy modernist H. G. Wells who began in the distant age of Jules Verne, the patron saint of steampunk.
When next my old philosophy teacher comes to the Savile Club for supper I shall not remind him of what he said for, as popular writing goes, science fiction is dead as a hammer – far more so, I suspect, than even ghost stories. Like so many of his generation he remains in desperate, often unrequited, love with Big Technology. He was born when Fleming discovered penicillin; he grew up idolising jet test-pilots; he approached his thirtieth year when man walked on the moon. Throughout it all, Heinlein and Asimov, Bradbury and the others presented timeless moral dilemmas re-staged on rocket ships and strange planets. The moral dramas made them conservatives after a fashion, but for most readers, usually teenaged males, the gadgetry and the optimism held centre stage.
How quaint it all seems now. In a New World more grim than brave, the young wonder if they can enjoy what their parents had, rather than fly to the stars. They worry that the economy and the natural environment have entered the stage of Cheyne-Stokes Respiration, dying irrevocably of slow poison, rather than wondering when they can stop flipping burgers and start conquering new galaxies. So science fiction publishing is back to where it was in the immediate post-war years, relegated to paperback ‘fanzines’ coming through the post to adolescent acne-sufferers still just a bit too nerdy to get a date. All that triumphalism, positivism and science fiction came and went so fast.
Sadder but wiser, we are forced to learn what ghost stories tried to teach us in metaphor: that strange things exist of which we have no ken; that there are often unintended consequences of which we are wise to remain wary or even afraid; that there was ancient wisdom of which we are woefully unaware; and that man is neither the measure nor the master of all and neither was nor will be. Behind the teller or reader of ghostly tales stood the shadows of tradition and faith and humility, not menacing, not frightening to anyone but those rationalist ideologues who turned their backs to traditional wisdom and Kipling’s Gods of the Copybook Headings as:
“…the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool’s damaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire…”
So are we poised for a return of enforced humility? One suspects yes. Will it bring along a renewed appreciation of history and culture, tradition and faith? Nowadays those are respected and even remembered by few teachers and fewer students, so it seems unlikely but more surprising things have happened. Will there be a renaissance of ghost stories catering, as they do, to well-founded fears and lingering suspicions that may always have been a part of man’s nature or conscience, requiring no knowledge or preparation apart from an ability to read? No, seems the likely answer and only a brave man would bet otherwise.
Ghost stories have been killed by a ghost, by the ghost in the machine. Not philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s 1949 ghost in the machine, his metaphor criticising Descartes’ mind-body dualism, nor Arthur Koestler’s 1967 book, ‘The Ghost in the Machine,’ where Palaeolithic emotions overpower reason and drive us relentlessly toward nuclear (and other) Armageddons despite the mistaken best efforts of once-triumphal ‘Behaviouralists’ such as the near-forgotten psychologist B. F. Skinner. No, the fictional ghost story has been slain by a real ghost in a real machine, a murder not without irony.
Dr. Kirk’s clapboard, ancestral home in Mecosta had ghosts aplenty amid his fireplace rescued from Ruskin’s home in Scotland, his tiny bag of gold-dust brought by an ancestor in the California ’48, Rowlandson prints of Dr. Syntax making a fool of himself across Georgian England and other curiosities and treasures. The ghosts were benign and, for the most part, all relatives of his and they were seen or heard by sceptical, rational, intelligent visitors who sometimes, to their discomfort, identified the spirits from the Kirk family photo-album on the next morning. But the Kirk household lacked the ghost in the machine for the simple reason that they lacked the machine. There was no television in their home, and none in the Italian Revival mansion built after the old house burned to the ground.
The good doctor never said as much to me, he never said directly that a dangerous, malevolent shade haunts each television set and wreaks disaster upon every home that has one. He was, however, familiar with what happens when a malign spirit invades a house.
Dr. Kirk explained that Pitmilly House, up the coast from St. Andrews, had been owned since ancient days by the Pitmilly family descended from the Pictish folk of Roman times and before. The venerable family died out and distant relatives came up from England, where they were warned by the local attendants never to cut the gnarled yew tree growing beside the house no matter what, or else ‘it’ would move into the house and they refused to say more. Occasionally the new owners would find mud thrown up onto the wall of the house adjacent to the yew tree, and sometimes a window was broken and it seemed unlikely to have been caused by local hooligans for there were no pubs nearby and the massive old gray-stone pile stood far from the road. Eventually the yew was struck by lightning and, against the warnings of the old Scots gardener, the owners had the remains cut down and hauled away. Then it, whatever it was, moved into the house. At first, ladies returning from luncheon would find in their purses moved high onto the pelmets of the drawing room where no one could reach without a ladder. A male guest kept turning on the stairs to find a massive vase always on the step behind him, following him down. Then little fires would ignite spontaneously, sometimes on the middle of the carpet in view of the owners and their guests. Finally the house caught fire one midnight and burned to the ground: the ruins can be seen off the road leading from St. Andrews to Kingsbarns and the East Neuk beyond.
Dr. Kirk never said, to me at least, that televisions were haunted like Pitmilly House. He said that if leftists wanted real equality of outcome, not equality of opportunity, they could force feed everyone on a steady diet of television and Playboy magazine until we were all equally moronic – a job now more than half completed. He quoted Marshall McLuhan describing television as ‘chewing gum for the eyes.’ He banned television from his home, and his daughters saw it only rarely on surreptitious visits to their great aunt’s home next door or possibly to the homes of friends: one suspects that they never fooled him and they seldom watched television anyway. As a result, this writer drove Dr. Kirk home to Mecosta one sunny afternoon when the girls, probably aged six to twelve or so, were playing in the garden and pretending to be Russian nobility – and they had the names and titles right. Something other than television fuelled their uncommon creativity.
So whether or not he knew about the ghost in the machine, he knew the intellectual and cultural dangers of television. One wonders what he would make of the modern, mounting, scientific evidence of the health hazards of the ghost?
Increasingly, reputable scientists report that watching television damages the brain, sometimes irreparably as well as causing behavioural problems.
To put viewing habits in perspective, “According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., the average American watches more than 4 hours of TV each day (or 28 hours/week, or 2 months of nonstop TV-watching per year). In a 65-year life, that person will have spent 9 years glued to the tube.” Similarly, an American child watches 28 hours of television a week and spends only 3.5 hours in ‘meaningful discussions with family,’ and spends 900 hours a year at school versus 1500 hours watching television. Two-thirds of infants and toddlers watch two hours a day, while The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children fewer than 2 years old not watch any television and that those older than 2 watch no more than 1 to 2 hours a day of quality programming (whatever that means).
“…viewing even a moderate amount can dramatically increase (children’s) risk of myopia, slow down their metabolic rate and may trigger premature puberty,” according to reports on a study by a leading Fellow of The British Psychological Society. “It was also found to lead to a ‘significantly elevated risk’ of sleep problems in adulthood, causing hormone changes which in turn directly increase appetite and body fat production and damage the immune system leading to a greater vulnerability to cancer.”
A study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that “too much television watching by children impairs their social development and increases the risk of behavioral problems.” This was worst at age two, and seemed to reduce when children watched less television by age five, but some doctors believe that the ability to undo damage varies from child to child.
According to some doctors, attention span is reduced when infants and young children who used to spend much time in cribs with little more than a mobile and a few toys to look at, are subjected to hours of rapidly moving images on television. This can affect the development of the brain and cause lasting damage to attention spans and their ability to concentrate, they believe.
Medicine, especially when filtered through sensationalist media, can present unwarranted and even alarmist conclusions, but conversely most of today’s mainstream opinions were once minority opinions and harmful food additives such as trans-fats were thought to be perfectly safe a decade or two ago.
Anecdotally, there also seems to be a shortening attention-span among the young, whether that is due to irrevocable brain damage or reversible injury and caused by television or something else entirely. In this writer’s observation, a weak attention span is more noticeable among the young in Western countries where they grew up watching lots of television, than in developing countries where growing up a decade ago or more people watched far little or none. Yet today, people in many developing countries consume nearly as much television as Americans or Britons.
In Britain’s book publishing industry, diminished attention-span has led to panic. “Nobody knows whether printed books will even be published in a few years,” says an author and journalist married to a prominent editor of book reviews. Non-fiction books are increasingly loaded with sidebars and bullet-points to reduce a reader’s need for concentration. The Economist magazine reports that publishers are making contingency plans in case hard-copy book publishing dies, so that in the future electronic books will be laden with links to ‘interactive learning experiences,’ games and so forth, presumably to cater for customers who cannot sustain their attention long enough to read 70,000 consecutive words or more.
So, for many people, ghost stories and any other purely printed material may have reached the end of the trail.
Something similar happened to the Turks beginning in 1928, when virtually overnight Ataturk banned the Arabic script and shifted to the Latin alphabet in order to secularise and Westernise the country. Today no Turk apart from a few scholars can read anything written in Turkey before 1928, beyond a depressingly few major works reprinted in the Latin alphabet. From deeds and legal documents, to history and literature and religious thought, their past has been erased. By damaging our attention-spans we may do the same, surviving on snippets and factoids that fit easily onto a screen, with the loss of complicated, interlinked ideas that can perhaps only be conveyed through longer texts with concentration applied and sustained. We will become what the Behemoth State may desire most – bovine consumers docile and easily manipulated – each one little more than a mouth, a rectum and reproductive organs plus a credit card with which to buy baubles and pay taxes.
But, as Marley asks the Ghost of Christmas Future, is this that what may be or what must be? Plenty of practices injurious to individual and public health have been identified, caused widespread concern and were largely abandoned or even banned. If a scientific consensus is reached, establishing that attention-spans are dropping and that television is the cause among the very young, might its use be regulated in the way that toddlers must now be strapped into safety seats before they ride in cars? Might far-sighted parents show some initiative of their own? It is perhaps possible to exorcise the ghost in the machine.
Books on the people and topics discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.