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from the October 2016 issue

Hauntings: International Ghost Stories

Halloween, once the province of preteens on sugar highs and the occasional minor vandal, has morphed in the last few years into the second most profitable retail holiday in the US after Christmas, as adults transformed from mere spectators into gleeful participants. With the persistent encroachment of American culture, much of the world has also embraced the holiday. (Interestingly, this corresponds to the increasing number of young adult books being read by fully grown people.) As you might expect, we’re observing Halloween with the theme of this month’s feature; but while the supernatural and the otherworldly might be foregrounded in this season, ghosts and all they represent lurk perennially in the universal consciousness and in literature around the world.    

In their most frequent appearances in folklore and fiction, ghosts appear as shadowy versions of their former selves. Some consider ghosts to be spirits trapped on Earth because of unfinished business, unable to transition to the afterlife until adding final punctuation to their lives. Two of the stories here feature the dead returning in corporeal form. The world is haunted as much by events as by the lingering spirits of those involved in them, and the third story details a survivor’s determination to report the shocking brutality of a political prison and memorialize its victims.

Malagasy writer Johary Ravaloson’s “Water in the Rice Fields, up to My Knees!” riffs on the urban legend of the vanishing hitchhiker. (After the 2011 nuclear disaster in Japan, a number of cabdrivers in the devastated Ishinomaki area reported picking up spectral passengers who disappeared in the course of the ride.) A cabdriver on the highway outside the capital, Tananariva, is approached by a bedraggled woman, clearly urban but now covered in mud and muck. She tells him she fell in the flooded rice fields and asks for an address that no longer exists. Spooked, he ejects her from his cab mid-drive, only to have her reappear hailing his cab, her decomposition more advanced with each ride. Her brief time in the backseat of the cab imbues it with such a stench that potential passengers flee, rendering it suitable for only the persistent unwelcome rider.

Japanese poet Takako Arai’s “Wheels” involves another unvanquishable ghost, who literally left work undone. A worker in a weaving factory who went mad and died at her spinning wheel assumes the form of a snake slithering through the childhood bedroom of the narrator and her sister. Though at first the phantom reptile seems to be the older sister’s attempt to frighten the younger girl, it takes on a life of its own. Arai’s father owned a factory adjacent to the family home, and many of Arai’s poems recount episodes relating to the lives of the women workers that she observed there as a child. Autobiographical or not, the poem confirms the staying power and effect of frightening childhood memories.

Aziz BineBine was released from Morocco’s infamous Tazmamart prison after serving eighteen years for his involvement in the 1971 coup d’état against King Hassan II. Over half of his fellow prisoners died in the brutal conditions. His memoir recounts the death of a prisoner whose body traps another man underneath his corpse in the jammed cell. The second man survives the gruesome night, but bears the emotional weight of the events long after his physical ordeal ends. BineBine documented the prison’s horrors to honor the friends and comrades lost; but he remains haunted by his imprisonment, and by the broken bodies and spirits left in its wake.

The great British ghost story writer M. R. James laid out the requirements for a successful tale, all in the service of creating a “pleasing terror” in the reader. We hope you find that these three examples of the form both terrify and satisfy.


© 2016 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.

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