Friday, February 26, 2016

Tower and Fish

Midnight painting madness continues apace. I am happy to report that I have almost one half of the cover (whether the front or the back I don't yet know) of The King of Nightspore's Crown more or less completed:

I say midnight painting, though of a truth much of this was produced on weekends, mostly while "napping" the baby by bouncing her little chair with my foot. She wakes up the instant I stop this motion, and it takes quite a bit of coordination to keep the bounces out of the picture. And yet somehow I've never been able to dribble a basketball.

At any rate, here we have an abstracted version of the pseudospherical Tower of Bel reaching up into the stratosphere against an Enochite skyline, with the Leviathan that symbolizes both primeval Chaos and the all-powerful State swimming into a brackish hemlath swamp. Some aspects remain to be touched up, but I like how it's going so far.

In case you've forgotten, here's the original sketch of the cover in toto:

The pigment is somehow mixed with the identical purple dresses of Cora and Clarice, the resurrection of the mummy Xaltotun, the beheading of the vampire Lucy Westenra, the squashing of the witch Gagool beneath a heavy door, the revelation of Pip's benefactor on a storm-tossed night, and the horrible spontaneous combustion of the rag-and-bottle merchant Krook. As you can see, I paint very, very slowly.

I am tentatively to have another art show this summer. My friend who runs the gallery, a forward-thinking MFA and art instructor at the local college, is always just a tiny bit disheartened by my staid attention to naturalism, my addiction to illustration, and my meticulous planning. So I hope to complete a few more abstract and spontaneous pictures before now and then to gladden his spirit. To that end, I'm working on the Chicken Man:

He was originally drawn to please my four-year-old daughter; the ghostly image of Margo, her orange dinosaurian crony, may be seen through the Chicken Man's right leg, on the next page of my sketch book. Why he's called the Chicken Man I don't know. Perhaps because it's a hard world for little things. His pathos fills me with sad tenderness.

His body is formed from turning a random squiggle into a surface by converting the crossings into shaded twists, forming (in topological terms) a punctured surface. This particular surface happens not to be orientable, as an examination of his right hip suffices to indicate. It follows that he's not a Seifert surface, though I wouldn't tell him this to his face. His genus is nine. Well, ten, if you count his little toe-loop.

Man, the obscure geometry and topology references just keep coming tonight. Maybe the pressure is starting to get to me.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

I CALL our world Flatland, not because we call it so, but to make its nature clearer to you, my happy readers, who are privileged to live in Space.
Having recently re-read Edwin A. Abbott's Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884), a late Victorian novella which I assign as reading in the geometry course I teach every spring, I am struck with the fact that here is a bona fide fantasy that rarely makes the canons of fantasy fiction. British fantasists like H. Rider Haggard, William Morris, and George MacDonald are always named, though rarely (one suspects) read. Earlier satires like Gulliver's Travels and Utopia receive honorable mention. But Flatland, which is enjoyable as both a fantasy and a satire, is sadly excluded, and its author, a clergyman, unknown to fantasy-lovers.

It is easy to see why self-appointed historiographers like L. Sprague de Camp (Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers) and Lin Carter (Imaginary Worlds) left it by the wayside, if they were aware of it at all, and why the latter excluded it even from very eclectic collections like Golden Cities Far and Dragons, Elves, and Heroes. A novel that takes place in a two-dimensional universe wouldn't have been in their line, fixated on material elements as they were, despite the large role world-building plays in the work. There really is nothing quite like Flatland.

The narrator, A. Square, begins by helping the reader imagine what life in Flatland is like.
Imagine a vast sheet of paper on which straight Lines, Triangles, Squares, Pentagons, Hexagons, and other figures, instead of remaining fixed in their places, move freely about, on or in the surface, but without the power of rising above or sinking below it, very much like shadows – only hard and with luminous edges – and you will then have a pretty correct notion of my country and countrymen.
A busy thoroughfare in Flatland
Alas, a few years ago, I should have said "my universe": but now my mind has been opened to higher views of things.
With perceptions limited entirely to the plane, the world appears to its denizens as a line, much as our three-dimensional world is perceived by us through a two-dimensional field of vision (as in a television screen, which is flat).
As there is neither sun with us, nor any light of such a kind as to make shadows, we have none of the helps to the sight that you have in Spaceland. If our friend comes closer to us we see his line becomes larger; if he leaves us it becomes smaller: but still he looks like a straight line; be he a Triangle, Square, Pentagon, Hexagon, Circle, what you will – a straight Line he looks and nothing else.
This exposition of Flatland society and history continues through half the book, touching on the stratification of social classes according to number of sides, the operation of schools and prisons, domestic arrangements, relations between the sexes, the rise of Chromatistes and the art of painting, the Universal Colour Bill, the machinations of the Chief Circle Pantocyclus, the violent suppression of the chromatic sedition, and so forth.

Before the Sanitary and Social Board.
The satire of late Victorian society is heavy but not (to me, at least) altogether transparent. For instance, women in Flatland are both despised and feared – despised, for they are regarded as irrational and foolishly sentimental, and feared, for their bodies are extremely sharp line segments, and they are capable of unthinkingly slaughtering their own families if provoked. A. Square belabors the point in several passages, but it seems plain from the forward that this is to be taken ironically. What precisely Abbott was driving at escapes me, unless it was to ridicule Victorian mores by showing a society in which the strait confinement of women really was a cogent necessity, though even this is questioned within the narrative itself.

A well-bred Hexagon yielding to a Lady.
The second half of the book presents a sequence of visions and visitations. In the first, A. Square descends upon Lineland in a dream, coming to revile its King for his narrow-minded inability to conceive of more than one dimension
"Besotted Being! You think yourself the perfection of existence, while you are in reality the most imperfect and imbecile. You profess to see, whereas you can see nothing but a Point! You plume yourself on inferring the existence of a Straight Line; but I can see Straight Lines, and infer the existence of Angles, Triangles, Squares, Pentagons, Hexagons, and even Circles. Why waste more words? Suffice it that I am the completion of your incomplete self. You are a Line, but I am a Line of Lines, called in my country a Square: and even I, infinitely superior though I am to you, am of little account among the great nobles of Flatland, whence I have come to visit you, in the hope of enlightening your ignorance."
Hearing these words the King advanced towards me with a menacing cry as if to pierce me through the diagonal; and in that same moment there arose from myriads of his subjects a multitudinous war-cry, increasing in vehemence till at last methought it rivaled the roar of an army of a hundred thousand Isosceles, and the artillery of a thousand Pentagons. Spell-bound and motionless, I could neither speak nor move to avert the impending destruction; and still the noise grew louder, and the King came closer, when I awoke to find the breakfast-bell recalling me to the realities of Flatland.
Our narrator is then visited in his turn by a Sphere from Spaceland, who appears to him as a circle (or priest) who can change sizes at will, and before whom A. Square is no better off than the denizens of Lineland were before him. When arguments fail, the visitant resorts to deeds:
"The higher I mount, and the further I go from your Plane, the more I can see, though of course I see it on a smaller scale. For example, I am ascending; now I can see your neighbour the Hexagon and his family in their several apartments; now I see the inside of the Theatre, ten doors off, from which the audience is only just departing; and on the other side a Circle in his study, sitting at his books. Now I shall come back to you. And, as a crowning proof, what do you say to my giving you a touch, just the least touch, in your stomach? It will not seriously injure you, and the slight pain you may suffer cannot be compared with the mental benefit you will receive."
Before I could utter a word of remonstrance, I felt a shooting pain in my inside, and a demoniacal laugh seemed to issue from within me. A moment afterwards the sharp agony had ceased, leaving nothing but a dull ache behind, and the Stranger began to reappear, saying, as he gradually increased in size, "There, I have not hurt you much, have I? If you are not convinced now, I don't know what will convince you. What say you?"
Though at first bewildered by his subsequent elevation above Flatland, which permits him to see "through" walls, A. Square is eventually led to posit the existence of more than three spacial dimensions.
[T]ake me to that blessed Region where I in Thought shall see the insides of all solid things. There, before my ravished eye, a Cube, moving in some altogether new direction, but strictly according to Analogy, so as to make every particle of his interior pass through a new kind of Space, with a wake of its own – shall create a still more perfect perfection than himself, with sixteen terminal Extrasolid angles, and Eight solid Cubes for his Perimeter. And once there, shall we stay our upward course? In that blessed region of Four Dimensions, shall we linger on the threshold of the Fifth, and not enter therein? Ah, no! Let us rather resolve that our ambition shall soar with our corporal ascent. Then, yielding to our intellectual onset, the gates of the Sixth Dimension shall fly open; after that a Seventh, and then an Eighth –
The Sphere, overcome with ire at this impertinence, returns A. Square to Flatland. There the narrator inevitably shares the fate of all enthusiastic visionaries out of step with their ruling classes when he tries to spread the "Gospel of Three Dimensions."

The "still more perfect perfection" of the cube referred to above is the regular polytope now known as a hypercube or tesseract. The latter term was coined by Charles Howard Hinton in 1888. Incidentally, this figure (or, rather, its five-dimensional analogue) plays a large role in A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle, in which the dimensional analogy is pursued considerably less competently; that novel also glances upon a two-dimensional world, and would seem to be partly inspired by Flatland. However, in treating time as a fourth "spacial" dimension, it adopts the erroneous conception of space-time expounded upon by H. G. Wells in The Time Machine (1895).

Two recalcitrant revolutionaries executed after trial.
Abbott's lucid approach to the fourth dimension by way of analogy is almost astonishing, considering that it comes from a clergyman (presumably) untutored in such matters, and well before the theories of Ludwig Schläfli were well known. Schläfli, a Swiss mathematician, originated the idea of regular polytopes in the 1850s, but his work did not receive recognition until much later. In Regular Polytopes (1947), H. S. M. Coxeter notes that regular polytopes were independently rediscovered by nine different mathematicians between the years 1881 and 1900, even as Flatland was being written. The time, evidently, was ripe.

Though relatively obscure at its publication, Flatland went on to receive widespread acclaim among mathematicians and physicists in the twentieth century. In our own time, theoretical physics has for a number of years been feeling its way toward the possibility that more than three spacial dimensions play a role in the structure of the universe. My doctoral work focused on higher-dimensional geometry and applications to particle physics, so this is something I know a bit about.

But the book as a whole is quite enjoyable purely as a work of speculative fiction. At every point it compels the reader to ponder what life would be like in a two-dimensional world.
There being no sun nor other heavenly bodies, it is impossible for us to determine the North in the usual way; but we have a method of our own. By a Law of Nature with us, there is a constant attraction to the South; and, although in temperate climates this is very slight – so that even a Woman in reasonable health can journey several furlongs northward without much difficulty – yet the hampering effect of the southward attraction is quite sufficient to serve as a compass in most parts of our earth. Moreover, the rain (which falls at stated intervals) coming always from the North, is an additional assistance; and in the towns we have the guidance of the houses, which of course have their side-walls running for the most part North and South, so that the roofs may keep off the rain from the North. In the country, where there are no houses, the trunks of the trees serve as some sort of guide.
Stephen Hawking suggests in The Universe in a Nutshell that such a creature would be unable to digest food, since a "tube" through the body would separate the unfortunate polygon into two halves. But, perhaps, like flatworms, the Flatlanders expel waste material through the mouth, which, Abbott tells us, also serves as the eye, indicating a physiology markedly different from our three-dimensional preconceptions.

Two small country houses with an antiquated square outbuilding.
Other questions arise. Writing is mentioned, for instance. Flatland writing must needs be one-dimensional, however; of what does this writing consist? Something like printed Morse code, perhaps? What are books like? Does Flatland geometry predominantly consist of the study of magnitudes on a line, much as ours consists of shapes in a plane? What would they think of the Cantor set, I wonder?

Whatever could the hills and mines mentioned by the narrator be like? And what of trees, which are referred to as growing from south to north? And so on.

Alas, the book is much too short to begin answering such questions. Not that most other readers would be as interested in them as I am. I happen to know the ins and outs of classical Euclidean geometry and its modern extensions and generalizations pretty well, and I can imagine any number of brave new worlds for A. Square to explore. Others have tried their hands at sequels before now; perhaps I shall join their number some day.

Lately, though, I've been piecing together digital collages of Flatland life in spare moments here and there, ostensibly to put an illustrated version of Flatland on my faculty website for my students to peruse. (These are the color pictures on this post; the drawings are Abbott's.) I have to say, I rather like the results, not that that means much.

When I took art as a teenager, I quickly found myself at the front of the class; however, every year, my teacher would begin by tasking us with forming a composition out of geometrical shapes, and I inevitably received F's on these assignments without ever knowing why. It was quite maddening.

In recent years, I've spent a good bit of time pondering the relation between artistic and mathematical abstraction, as a perusal of my artsy posts will show. (See here and here, for instance.) These collages are, like my fractals, a step toward abstraction in art from the far side. In making them I'm reminded of my old composition assignments. What I'm trying to say is, I hope I wouldn't still get F's on them.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Into the Vortex

As promised in my curmudgeonly Star-Wars-flogging post, here are reviews of two more from the seventies.

Zardoz (1974)

If you ever have a hankering for a film whose opening scene depicts a generously mustachioed Sean Connery wearing an orange diaper and cowering before a giant floating stone head that booms "THE GUN IS GOOD! THE PENIS IS BAD!" while spewing heaps of firearms through its stone teeth into the arms of worshiping orange-diaper-clad warriors, then, my friend, this is the movie for you.

My brother apparently thought it was the movie for me, because, after he caught it as a midnight cable flick last spring, he immediately ordered me a copy in anticipation of Christmas. (I got him The Thing and They Live.) Admittedly, we do share a warped taste in movies, which makes sense, seeing as we rented videos together during our formative years.

But I digress. Amazingly, Zardoz was directed by John Boorman, fresh from his success with Deliverance (1972). I've never seen Deliverance, though my understanding is that it involves, er, hillbillies. I have seen another Boorman effort, Excalibur (1981), so many times that I'm embarrassed to attempt a count. It's as clunky and awkward as its knights, who insist on wearing their big, shiny suits of armor while relaxing and eating dinner around the Round Table, but, oh, how I love it. The Grail sequence and closing scenes are simply sublime, and redeem much that has gone before.

But I digress again. After Deliverance, Boorman was given free rein to make the movie of his heart's desire. Zardoz was the outcome. Because it jumps around a lot and doesn't explain itself, it can be a little hard to follow. It's one of those movies that you suspect are best enjoyed in small doses while high on some controlled substance. With only my staid and sober brain to guide me along, however, I seem to grasp the following:

It is the year 2293. The world, unsurprisingly, is a whacked-out place. Mankind is divided into two groups: the Brutals and the Eternals. The Brutals are grimy peasants who live in a sad wasteland. The protagonist, Zed (Sean Connery), is an Exterminator, a Brutal whose job is to ride around shooting extraneous peasants. But there's a bit more to him than that, as we later discover: secretly, he's a super-intelligent mutant not over-fond of the works of L. Frank Baum.

The Eternals are immortal, though sometimes they're aged a few years as a penalty for rule-breaking. They're very pretty, both men and women, with the men wearing little crocheted sweaters with low-cut necklines. They're also quite impotent. They spend all their time eating fruit and getting mellow in small-group sessions. Their society is run by the Tabernacle, an A.I. resembling a talking Wikipedia, which they can access through their mood rings. They seem very smart and have mind-control powers, but there's something of the Eloi about them.

The Eternals live in the Vortex, a beautiful green valley enclosed by a force field, where they manage an old (Irish?) farmstead. It has one building painted blue to make it look futuristic, some plants growing in plastic bubbles, a mirror door leading to a complex filled with famous statues and paintings, and a bunch of groovy interiors whose spacial relation to the farmstead buildings is never elucidated, including an orange one that looks like the set of an old TV game show and another with sloping crystal walls behind which nude women float through space.

Not all is well in the Vortex. The Eternals have stagnated. Some, overcome with ennui, have become Apathetics who just stand around looking at one another all day. Others, recalcitrant troublemakers, have become Renegades, who are made old and senile but can never die. They're housed apart, whiling away their days in mawkish fancy-dress parties.

Zed rides the floating head into the Vortex. He becomes a domesticated animal and symbol of male potency. In time he's revealed as a messiah-figure come to bring the gift of death to the Eternals, which arrives in a crazy tragicomic bloodbath, the victims gleefully crying "Kill me! Kill me!" to their murderers. It ends with Zed siring a child with Consuella (Charlotte Rampling), an Eternal who had wanted to destroy him but now loves him, in the giant floating head, which is no longer floating. Their son leaves and they grow old and turn into skeletons, all to the tune of Beethoven's Seventh.

Visually, this movie is actually quite beautiful. Certain images and scenes definitely stick with you. On the other hand, it is horribly awkward in parts, beginning with the prologue, in which the cut-out, barely-mustachioed head of one Arthur Frayn (the voice of the stone head) floats around on a black screen, saying things like, "In this tale, I am a fake god by occupation, and a magician by inclination." Then there's the part where they show Zed some weird porno films to see if he'll get an erection, and the part where…well, you get the picture.

All in all, it's one of those trippy and highly symbolic but opaque movies they made in the late sixties and seventies, that leave you with a feeling of wondering what you just watched. The nuttiness of its plot as I try to summarize it reminds me of the fictional movie described by Philip K. Dick in VALIS, which for some reason remains one of my favorite science fiction novels. Dick himself was inspired by The Man Who Fell To Earth, starring the late David Bowie, which is another of those movies.

So, is Zardoz worth watching? Well, I enjoyed it, so I'm going to come down on the side of...yes.

A Boy and His Dog (1975)

A Hugo-winner based on a story cycle by Harlan Ellison, this one is genuinely worth watching, if you have the stomach for it. It's crass and brutal, and there's arguably a misogynistic slant to the whole thing, especially the ending, so be warned.

Taking place in the post-nuclear wasteland of Arizona (as opposed to the pre-nuclear wasteland of Arizona), it centers around the titular teenage boy, Vic (Don Johnson), who roves the landscape in search of canned food to eat and women to rape, and his titular dog, Blood (voice of Tim McIntire, who also sings the main theme), with whom he communicates telepathically. Vic is vicious, shallow, and not particularly intelligent; Blood is the real leader of their team. (There's an unsubstantiated rumor that the dog is Tiger from The Brady Bunch, which I dearly wish were true, but strongly suspect is not.)

The only civilization shown on the surface is a camp where wanderers can trade food for the opportunity to watch surreal pornographic films. There Blood sniffs out a female human, whom Vic follows with ungentlemanly intentions. But after he saves her from scavengers (shown) and mutants (not shown), she seemingly falls for him, and they proceed to do things that bore and disgust Blood. In reality, the girl, Quilla June (Susanne Benton), has been sent by her father (Jason Robards) from their underground city ("Topeka," a bizarre totalitarian parody of Midwestern culture) in order to entice Vic down so that he can be captured and impregnate all their females. This is not as happy a fate as Vic at first imagines...

The movie remains genuinely interesting and darkly humorous throughout. While horrifying in a way, there's a certain hilarious justice to the end, although Mr. Ellison objected to the last line, which he characterized as moronic and chauvinistic. The whole thing has a low-budget feel, but does well with what it has, and evokes classic science fiction literature in a way that most movies do not.


To read more of my rambling yet uniquely entertaining and insightful reviews of seventies science fiction movies, start here:

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Force Awakens: A Belated Non-Review

Oh, Star Wars, how you hurt me! Against my better judgment, I went to see your new movie last month, only to have my heart finally steeled against caring anything about any of your installments ever again.

No, I don't intend to review your feeble attempt to recover from the embarrassing prequels, through which I continued to hope against hope that one day things would be like they were in the beginning, fool that I was. I won't give you that much time. In fact, I won't even take the trouble to insult The Force Awakens, except to say that it's an imbecilic retread of the original Star Wars (or whatever you're calling it nowadays) with a monumentally stupid, contrived plot (um, no one has a complete star map? really?) that serves as the thinnest of excuses (see right) for Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher to mug the camera, winking and simpering like idiots and prancing about in their old costumes, while giving in-character endorsements as though doing product placement spots for poorly conceived, inconsistently drawn, shallow, whiny, adolescent non-characters who run around shrieking like fanboys/girls and to whose further adventures and shocking familial revelations we will no doubt be subjected in the sequel, though it matters little to me since I'm certain never to put down the money to see another of these idiotic attempts to cash in on my childhood ever again.

Man, I loved you, Star Wars. It hurts me to say this. But it's true. You think I'm being too harsh? You should be thankful that I at least waited until all the people who were going to go see The Force Awakens went and saw it, so that I wouldn't ruin it for any of the poor benighted souls, even though, deep down in their hearts, they know the truth. You think I'm exaggerating? You know what? It's got 3.7 stars on Amazon right now, as opposed to, say, The Fifth Element, which has 4.4. Ouch. But you know, when I come to think of it, I too would rather slog through two hours of Ruby Rhod and that blue singing alien lady than The Force Awakens again.

Wait, what's that? Oh, you think this one is different from the original, because, instead of having a Death Star destroyed by a ragtag group of resistance fighters, it has a Starkiller Base destroyed by a ragtag group of resistance fighters? Sure, I guess it's different, in that the latter has pine trees growing on it, and, instead of immolating millions of innocent people I don't care about except insofar as their deaths make me feel like the bad guys are really bad, man, it immolates billions of innocent people I don't care about except insofar as their deaths make me feel like the bad guys are really bad, man. But then again, the first Death Star is handled in a dramatically effective way, whereas the Starkiller Base is…not.

Eh? What's that? You think your Storm-Trooper-turned-hapless-hero is pretty clever, eh? Yeah, I can just imagine the moment he was conceived in the writers' minds: "What if, like, we had this Storm Trooper, but he, like, turns out to be a good guy. And he's, like, all goofy and clumsy. That would be really cool." I especially appreciate how he has an utterly unmotivated change of heart because Blood! and rescues that Rebel Resistance guy because it's "just the right thing to do" and then gleefully blows away scores of his former fellows who presumably were kidnapped as children and subjected to the same brainwashing he was.

What? No. No, listen. This is it between us. Never again am I going to let you hurt me. If you really still loved me, you would at least have the decency to release the original trilogy on DVD, with the original special effects and no added scenes. But you won't, will you? You're just going to go on pretending that the insertion of that awkward computer-generated conversation between Han Solo and Jabba the Hutt was a good idea. Yeah. I thought so.

I don't do this lightly, Star Wars. I remember how we first met. It was the Eighties. Those cool long-haired denim-jacketed teenage boys who lived next door had practically every single action figure and vehicle ever made, including the Millennium Falcon, an X-wing, a TIE fighter, and an AT-ST walker, with all the characters stored in a set of snap cases, and they let me and my brother play with them when our mom went over to smoke cigarettes with their mom, who had one of those little trees with gold leaves in her living room, which isn't really relevant but helps set the scene. And then I saw The Return of the Jedi, which was somewhat bewildering, since I had no idea who the characters were, but also really, really cool. And in time I saw the others, and, after that, whenever we got to rent something from Videoland, it was a Star Wars movie, over and over again, so that we might as well have just bought the tapes for ourselves.

Well, listen, Star Wars. I've been seeing other sci-fi movies from the seventies. Movies like Silent Running and Escape from the Planet of the Apes and Logan's Run. Movies like The Omega Man and Soylent Green and Westworld. They aren't always great. Actually, sometimes they're pretty bad. They could never be as awesome as the original Star Wars. But they'll never break my heart, either.

Where the real money is made!
Stay tuned for my review of two more science fiction gems cult classics items from the seventies.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Ghosts, Personal and Otherwise

O day and night, but this is wondrous strange! 
Ghosts, it is advanced, either do not exist at all, or else, like the stars of noonday, they are there all the time and it is we who cannot see them.
I…have never been able to understand why the unvarying question should be, "Have you ever seen a ghost?" when, if a ghost cannot exist apart from visibility, his being rests solely on the testimony of one sense, and that in some respects the most fallible one of all. May not his proximity be felt and his nature apprehended in other ways? I have it on excellent authority that such a visitor can in fact be heard breathing in the room, most powerfully smelt, and known for a spirit in travail longing for consolation, all at one and the same time, and yet not be seen by the eye. And even short of signs so explicit as these, who at some time or other has not walked into a room, known and familiar and presently to be known and familiar again, but that for a space has become a different room, informed with other influences and charged with other meanings? Something has temporarily upset the equilibrium, which will be restored by and bye. 
– Oliver Onions, "Credo"
A person I know believes, or half-believes, that he once came into contact with a certain something in a nineteenth-century house turned restaurant. Throughout our dinner, he felt the presence of someone waiting at his elbow, and actually turned to see who it was several times. Contrary to what's shown in the movies, that seems usually to be the way of it: the person who has "seen" a ghost has experienced some sort of psychological disturbance – an upsetting of the equilibrium – that has convinced him personally, on some level, that something was there, but is unable to offer much more than a subjective impression as proof.

The materialist would simply say that a belief in ghosts is irrational. To me that seems to miss the point. Of course it's irrational. Ghosts are irrational. That's the very reason they're so terrifying: they represent a dissonance in the logical framework of the universe, a thing that could not and should not be but yet somehow is.

And what exactly is a ghost? The disembodied spirit of a departed person? Calling up visions of Jacob Marley and Hamlet's father, who are basically just bodiless people, that seems hardly an adequate definition. Sometimes a ghost is more the decayed psychic remains of a person. At others, it's a sinister, inhuman semi-intelligence or force, a watchful presence at work in a place or object. And quite often it's something else altogether.

Perhaps ghosts, like love, elude us when we try to define them.


My grandfather passed away when I was nineteen. His was the first death I had witnessed with my own eyes. The semi-mechanical winding-down of his body – his brain had already died its own death as the result of a medical error, and the family had made the decision to take him off life support – may be the most horrible thing I ever watched.

He had served as my confirmation sponsor two years before. I can't say why I'd asked him, as he wasn't in communion with the church, refused to communicate in the course of my confirmation, and died as he had lived. Still, we had a certain bond because of it. My grandmother, though herself not entirely orthodox in her opinions, didn't approve of our free-thinking collusion.

After his death, I began dreaming of him. The dreams were always the same. I'd be at a family gathering, and my grandfather would arrive, sitting down in a corner without saying anything or making eye contact with anyone. Gradually, the realization would grow in me that he oughtn't to be there, that he was, after all, dead, and that I had seen him buried. Mixed with the sense that something just wasn't right, I had the anxious feeling I get in those dreams where I'm supposed to depart on a journey, but things keep happening to delay me, so that I end up wandering around, getting farther and farther from my goal. In this dream, the feeling was vicarious, experienced on my grandfather's behalf. Go! I would tell him. You don't belong here! But he would hang on disconsolately, saying nothing.

This went on for such a long time – years – that I finally told my father about it. He related a story about my great uncle, my grandmother's brother. I was named after him but never met him, as he died before I was born. An air traffic controller and (I'm told) something of an alcoholic, he had remained in Puerto Rico all his life; it was he who had introduced my grandparents. After his death, my great uncle began "visiting" my grandfather much as my grandfather was visiting me. According to custom, my father said, the way to stop such visitations was to light a candle while one slept. I know not whether my grandfather employed this remedy, nor with what success. At any rate, I never sought such relief. If my grandfather was visiting me, why would I want to drive him away? The visitations gradually ceased on their own, however.

Now, I was not the only one to report being visited by my grandfather. Soon after his death, my grandmother, who used to confide in me, began telling me that he would come to her in the house they had shared, and not merely while she was asleep. Whenever she asked whether I thought this possible (for some reason she considered me an authority on spiritual matters), I would tell her, noncommittally, "I don't know, Granny," and change the subject, which, I felt, was not conducive to her mental health.

To explain what this meant to me, I find that I must describe my grandmother and her house more fully.

My grandmother had long, straight white hair. She was, as my grandfather had been, considerably overweight, and usually dressed in black, never showing any flesh above her wrists, which were banded with quantities of jangling bracelets. She had a peculiar horror of light and space. She kept her house as dark as night, with layers of curtains over the windows, which were also iron-barred and overgrown with ivy. Even when she was in good health and my grandfather was alive, curiosities and knick-knacks filled every room, from a Kermit-the-Frog phone and a giant wooden fork and spoon to a number of terrifying (to a small boy) relics from Japan, where they had once lived, and other Oriental bric-a-brac – serene smiling Buddhas, pictures painted on gold silk, tapestries of scowling Noh players, green porcelain dog-lion things sticking out tongues between long white tusks. Bulky furniture turned the small rooms into spaces a large adult could hardly move around in. I had never even seen into certain corners of the dining room. A large, soft canopy bed swathed in yellowed white lace took up most of my grandmother's bedroom, and I remember sleeping there once or twice as a little boy, and also on the thickly cushioned sofa under the frowning Noh players, always an unsettling experience.

Imagine a small version of the house from The Haunting combined with a small version of the house from The Others, decorated like the unsettlingly Oriental death-house in Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep, surrounded by monkey grass and loquat trees, and placed on a sunny street on the south side of San Antonio. That was before the outright hoarding began. The claustrophobic closeness and decay mounted nightmarishly after my grandfather's death. For that period, Miss Havisham's house in Great Expectations comes more to mind:
I crossed the staircase landing, and entered the room she indicated. From that room, too, the daylight was completely excluded, and it had an airless smell that was oppressive. A fire had been lately kindled in the damp oldfashioned grate, and it was more disposed to go out than to burn up, and the reluctant smoke which hung in the room seemed colder than the clearer air—like our own marsh mist. Certain wintry branches of candles on the high chimneypiece faintly lighted the chamber; or, it would be more expressive to say, faintly troubled its darkness. It was spacious, and I dare say had once been handsome, but every discernible thing in it was covered with dust and mould, and dropping to pieces. The most prominent object was a long table with a tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together. An épergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite undistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckled-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstance of the greatest public importance had just transpired in the spider community.
I grew up not three miles from my grandparents' house, and went there as often as you might imagine. But it was not until I was twenty-seven – years after my grandfather had died – that I first went upstairs. Not once in all the countless times I had been there had I ascended the staircase. On this occasion, I found my aunt's bedroom preserved as it had been when she was a teenager, stuffed animals and all, and my grandfather's bedroom untouched as well. My grandmother herself never climbed the stairs, but my parents once saw an light on when they dropped her off at night, so perhaps she went up there sometimes, after all.

That house was, in many ways, the embodiment of my grandmother's mind, full of secrets and decay and things left untended. Twelve years after my grandfather's death, she began having outright hallucinations – which naturally call into question her reports of ghostly visitations – and had to be placed in a psychiatric ward. It was a grim place, high up in an old high-rise downtown. I went to see her as frequently as I could, living as I did some ninety miles away. Security measures required that she receive only a single visitor at time, which turned my visits into strange colloquies, even when I accompanied other family members to the hospital.

Generally, she seemed lucid enough, making sarcastic remarks at the expense of all the "crazy people" in the ward, but at times she would fall into weird fugues. After seeming to nod off, she would sit erect and begin playing games with children who weren't there, or talking about buildings that stood on forgotten cemeteries, with "creepy things" crawling out of holes in the walls.

Eventually she was diagnosed with dementia and moved to a nursing home. There she became morbidly preoccupied with assisted suicide and the work of Jack Kevorkian, whom she admired. But she was always pleased to see me, and also my wife and children, who were now allowed to accompany me. She died not long after.

Now I dream about both my grandparents.


My narrative abounds with rational explanations for those who want them, but there's something about it, an unsettling quality I can't quite put my finger on, that still bothers me. The same, I've noticed, is true of the best ghost stories.

Since I reviewed Crimson Peak last fall, I've been on a kick of trying to find the best ghost stories and movies I can find. Crimson Peak, incidentally, is not particularly successful as a movie about ghosts, falling as it does into the rational Jacob Marley trap. Simply put, it shows too much and explains too much. Since it is, in fact, a gothic romance, rather than a movie about ghosts, this is excusable. But I can't exonerate the many failed horror movies that make a similar mistake.

The very best ghost movie I have seen is Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963), which is based on a story by Shirley Jackson. It explains little and shows less – nary a ghost is seen on screen – but certain parts make my blood run cold. Atmosphere, the play of light and shadow, and sound effects all combine to create a force more terrifying than anything that could be trotted onstage. So, for me, The Haunting is the standard.

Other haunted house movies attempt the same thing but fail. The Legend of Hell House (1973), though it has a promising beginning, ends with the technological contrivances and scientific elucidations that made me think immediately of Ghostbusters. The highly acclaimed The Others (2001), with its sunless rooms and brooding unease, preserves its perfect atmosphere throughout, but relies in its denouement on a trick ending, an ending I unfortunately saw coming. And then we have The Conjuring (2013), which comes close to The Haunting, at least in parts. However, it shows too much toward the end, opting for jump-scares rather than numinous dread, and it also tries too hard to interweave the Annabelle doll into the story, in preparation, I suppose, for that doll's lackluster prequel. But there are a couple scenes – the nighttime clapping scene, the clothesline scene – that still give me goose bumps when I think of them.

As for literature, I've been making my way through the Modern Library Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, a large volume I recently acquired at a used bookstore. Standouts include stories by Oliver Onions, M. R. James, and Sheridan Le Fanu. The only author I hadn't read before was Oliver Onions; actually, I'd never even heard of him before, which is much to my shame, for he seems to be a very gifted writer. I'm currently working through a collection of his ghost stories as well.

Unlike, say, heroic fantasy, the ghost story is a genre that real "literary" authors try their hands at from time to time. Henry James and Edith Wharton are famous examples. Perhaps this is because ghosts stand closer to real life than swordsmen and sorcerers. No one ever fears meeting a dragon on a blasted heath. But just spend a night alone in an old house that makes peculiar creaks and sighs of its own volition, and you will begin to feel uncomfortable.

For me, that's what has made me avoid ghost stories in the past. The reality I inhabit is already haunted enough as it is, be it actual ghosts or merely my neurotic temperament. But lately I've found that the various strains of horror fiction have a cathartic effect. After all, people have enjoyed telling ghost stories for a long, long time. Surely there is some reason why small doses of terror are found pleasurable.

My theory is that they help to brace us up against the onset of the lonely night, which might otherwise drive us mad with fear.