Tales of the Troubled Dead: Ghost Stories in Cultural History – Catherine Belsey

Review by Hayley Anderton

Tales of the troubled dead catherine belsey

Tales of the weird have a deep hold on our collective imagination, and of all the things we’ve given credence to over the course of human history, it’s arguably ghosts which have the most persistent hold on us. Catherine Belsey’s ‘Tales of the Troubled Dead’ examines some of the reasons why that is.

She deals specifically with ghost stories within the western tradition here “…not out of indifference so much as the fear of gate-crashing. Where possible, past cultures are best explicated by those who inherit them.” Its an approach that also allows Belsey to use the ghost in Hamlet as the focus of her narrative. 

Belsey tells us that the medieval understanding of ghosts was an amalgamation of classical and Norse mythology – which makes sense, but is where I would have liked a clearer sense of what is meant by a western tradition in this context. The presentation of ‘Hamlet’ as a “powerful influence on tales of the supernatural” is entirely convincing though. The classic elements are all there, and being able to follow the play through its performances and the discussion around it is a useful way of seeing how ideas about what ghosts are develop. 

Not that this discussion begins or ends with Hamlet, all the usual ghostly subjects are here from Socrates to Harry Potter. For anyone with even a passing interest in the subject there will be the satisfaction of finding references that you recognise, along with a long potential reading list of the less familiar.

The reason I’d have liked a better definition of what’s meant by a western tradition is the ‘Dangerous Dead Women’ chapter. Belsey states here that winter’s tales and ghost stories are specifically the province of women, partly based on how often they’re dismissed as old wives tales. My understanding is that in the Slavic tradition there was a taboo about women telling these stories, or even listening to them. 

As it stands I’m not convinced by the position that these stories particularly originated with women, and were mostly told by them, not least because if we’re meant to accept the conclusion that:

“If the tales a culture tells itself register anxieties that might not find a name in other genres, the circulation of these ghost stories marks an uncertainty about what women just might be capable of if pushed too far.”

Then we have to question who was meant to learn from them, and who had the most to fear. On the other hand it would be interesting to compare how these stories of dangerous dead women correspond to a serious belief in witchcraft. Do vengeful female ghosts replace witches? It’s this and a whole host of other questions that Belsey has made me ask myself that makes reading this book so rewarding.

The coda on ‘Figurative Phantoms’ is also particularly interesting, and provocative. It ensures the book ends with a bang whilst widening the definition of ghosts and haunting. If “…all writing is haunted by earlier written works…” it’s fair to say that our reading is just as haunted by both what we’ve read before and our own experience. There’s a lot to digest in it, and a lot to think about.

This is a serious book that demands quite a bit of attention, and it’s worth it. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand why we tell ghost stories, but it’s useful to understand how they’ve evolved and why. The discussion of figurative phantoms encourages us to “think beyond the limited categories orthodoxy takes for granted” and in our current uncertain times that feels more important than ever. 

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Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader, and enjoys winter ghost stories in moderation after being scared silly on more than one occasion by the idea of things that go bump in the night. 

Catherine Belsey, Tales of the Troubled Dead, (Edinburgh University Press 2019). 9781474417372, 282pp., Paperback

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