Column: Writing the Mythos: Do You Believe in Ghosts?

By G.W. Thomas

“Do I believe in ghosts? No, but I’m afraid of them.” Thus is the modern attitude toward all things ghostly, as stated by the Marquise du Deffand (1697-1780). Our modern attitude is outwardly rational while secretly uncertain. Between the World Wars, it was debated whether a writer who believed in ghosts wrote more convincingly than a non-believer. This was the still heyday of Spiritualism, when a belief in ghosts did not receive the raised eyebrows you might get today.

The writers who inspired H.P. Lovecraft were on both sides of the supernatural fence. On the pro-believer side was Arthur Machen, a member of the Golden Dawn, a club for the exploration of magic. Despite his association with Aleister Crowley, Machen preferred the idea of dark survivals to that of walking spirits. Algernon Blackwood, who was involved with the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), earned himself the sobriquet of “The Ghost Man”, reading his tales on the BBC. Much of his work is injured by his use of psychical jargon. Even more famous was Arthur Conan Doyle, who championed everything from mediums to fairies. His break with Harry Houdini over matters spiritual is legend. On the negative side sits H.G. Wells, a man of Science, though this attitude did not stop him from penning two influential tales: “The Plattner Story” and “The Stolen Body”. Fencesitters include the greatest ghost story writer of them all, M.R. James, who said on the matter, “Do I believe in ghosts? To which I answer that I am prepared to consider evidence and accept it if it satisfies me”. James wrote 33 tales in all, defining and re-defining what is the English ghost story. His classics include “Count Magnus”, “The Ash-tree” and “Casting the Runes”, all of which influenced H.P. Lovecraft greatly.

What Lovecraft created with his Cthulhu Mythos was a style of horror tale that transcends all ideas of simple ghosts and traditional horror. HPL’s cosmic horror shoves ghosts aside as being irrelevant. How can the survival of a mere human soul matter in a universe of crushing chaos or gigantic monsters? Lovecraft ended the question “Do you believe in ghosts?” by replacing it with “Do you believe in anything?” Lovecraft’s stark materialism negates any vision of Heaven or Hell, angels or ghosts.

In the days of the Pulps, writers like Fritz Leiber redefined horror by making it an urban genre with stories like “Smoke Ghost” and “The Hound”. Inspired partly by Lovecraft, he and others like Henry Kuttner and Richard Matheson strove to cast aside the idyllic English feel for a gritty, new environ. The new strength of Science Fiction can be seen here, too, a fiction that would replace the old Weird Tales-type story by the 1950s. Ray Palmer introduced many articles and stories about UFOs. The old belief in ghosts transformed after 1947 into “Do you believe in flying saucers?” (Good thing it isn’t a necessity to believe in them to write Science Fiction.) The last story HPL penned before his death was called “The Evil Clergyman”. This short piece has many features of a ghost story, though the evil priest’s device (a sonic screwdriver?) resembling a flashlight screams “SF!” not “Victorian spirits!”

My question is: What does a good Mythos writer need to believe, if anything? Are materialists such as HPL better at cosmic horror? August Derleth’s Christian ideas changed – many feel badly – the Mythos, setting great Old Ones and Elder Gods in opposition like demons and angels. What do your personal beliefs bring to your tales? Can you bring sadness and poetry to them, as Willum Pugmire does? Or humour, as Neil Gaiman does in “I, Cthulhu”? I have had to ask myself this question in recent years with my Book Collector stories. What am I trying to say, if anything? How does a Pulp tough guy exist in a world of Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth? Why does he keep looking for that secret knowledge that will ultimately cook his brain? I haven’t found that answer, yet. I’m working on it. I hope, by the time I write the last of his stories, that I will have figured that out.