Ghosts in the machine

7 months ago 91

The seventeen stories and autobiographical vignettes in Jeanette Winterson’s new collection unite two preoccupations – cyberspace and the uncanny – that have been circling each other, somewhat warily, in the author’s oeuvre since her fragmentary turn-of-the-millennium novel The Powerbook (2000). If Night Side of the River has a big idea it’s that, by decoupling consciousness from biology, virtual reality has “created an opportunity for the Dead”. The metaverse is inherently unearthly. We occupy it as avatars independent of the material world, “tangible reality” having become an outmoded source of disappointment and disgust. In the computer-simulated environments of VR and online role-playing games we are already ghosts of our biological selves. AI dispenses with “blood and bones” altogether. What more conducive circumstances could there be for an actually, irreversibly disembodied spirit? How, Winterson asks – only half playfully – “would we know if a being in the metaverse has a biological self or not?”

And so the ghosts flit in. The author divides her stories into four categories – “Devices”, “Places”, “People” and “Visitations”. In truth, only the three stories filed under “Devices” are explicitly concerned with technology as a conduit for the supernatural. The four vignettes, placed at the end of each section, recount Winterson’s own encounters with ghosts, such as the succession of restless spirits that have – or so she insists – haunted her eighteenth-century house in Spitalfields over the thirty years since she moved in. A corner room is occupied by an angry male ghost who bangs the fire irons and stomps upstairs to sit on Winterson’s bed. Another presence wakes her by taking her pulse with three cold fingers. One might, of course, object that the only surprise would be for a novelist of such an oracular, lapsed-evangelical bent as Winterson to move into a creaky old townhouse in London’s most reliably psychogeographer-friendly neighbourhood and not find it packed to the wainscots with ghosts. (“Nah, nothing so much as a candle blowing out”: now that would be spooky.) Nonetheless the intent is clear: we are being asked to believe not precisely that ghosts exist, but that it is a profound mistake to dismiss the possibility. “I do know that scrubbing away all traces of the supernatural hasn’t worked too well for the human psyche”, Winterson tells us in the second of her direct addresses to the reader. “There is a valve, a pressure release, that comes with being able to say, ‘I can’t explain this.’ It’s not anti-science, it’s not superstitious.”

Well, if you say so. Winterson’s is an agnosticism with a thumb on the scale, at least as it’s presented in these apparently nonfictional interludes. On another level, of course, this is nothing other than the fireside throat-clearing of the practised ghost storyteller, a tink on the sherry glass to announce that disbelief is henceforth suspended: Everything I’m about to tell you is true.

For all that, in the tales themselves the effect would be greater if Winterson relied a little less on genre convention. In the title story the narrator, Linda, an introvert who would “rather spend the night in with my cat”, reluctantly attends a corporate event on a Thames party boat. Her unease is nicely done: it’s implied, almost entirely by omission, that she has got helplessly drunk to cope with her social anxiety. At some point she may or may not meet a “pale young man” whose oddly anachronistic clothes are soaking wet. The story then takes a turn for the phantasmagorical: Linda is led aboard another vessel, a phantom trawler crossing the river to the eponymous night side, until, at the climax, the fog lifts, the narrator snaps out of it and the identity of the mysterious young man is revealed in retrospect. Precisely the same narrative gesture closes “The Spare Room”, a fictionalization of the alleged events recorded in the first vignette: historical personage X, corresponding in various undeniable particulars to ghostly presence Y, is revealed to have died horribly on this very spot, at some chillingly distant point in the past. The shiver would be second-hand even if it hadn’t already been induced in the same volume.

Likewise you get the sense that the phantom boat passage in the title story, pleasingly disorienting as it is, has at the same time forced Winterson’s hand. Phantasmagoria demands a phantasmagorical prose style, achieved here with a sort of cod-gothic, marmoreal solemnity. All of a sudden Linda the pissed office wallflower starts coming over all Vincent Price: “What was he who could be so saturated and solid at one moment, and the next, as vanishing as air?” Winterson is freer and more engaging when she abandons the tacky ghost-train atmospherics and lets her apparitions glow against a plainer background. “A Fur Coat” and “Boots”, twin stories describing the same events from different perspectives, rehabilitate a genre cliché – the derelict house, abandoned for a reason whose full horror, we assume, the shifty groundsman is suppressing – by couching the new inhabitants’ descent into madness in quotidian terms. This is a shire-counties Shining, essentially – one half of the new couple is called Jonny, and he is handy with an axe – but the sense of an ineradicable evil, all the more heightened for the flattening of the mise en scène, is sufficiently well handled, and unsettling, to defray the debt.

The problem here, though, lies in Winterson’s explanatory reflex. The subtly conflicting perspectives of “A Fur Coat” and “Boots” serve a purpose inasmuch as the second story, told from Jonny’s point of view, fills in the backstory of the first, relieving its close-third-person protagonist, Jonny’s girlfriend, Max, of expositionary duties. (These are taken on in “Boots” by Edwin, the spectral gardener, rather as Hallorann the head chef assumes them in The Shining.) It may be, however, that the Rashomon effect is fundamentally inimical to horror: we want less information, not more, which accounts for the superior creepiness of “A Fur Coat”. The effectiveness of a ghost story is inversely proportional to the amount of explanatory context it can get away with. For the reader, the ideal is near-asphyxiation by partial perspective. Two other stories in the collection, “No Ghost Ghost Story” – as the title suggests, a more naturalistic examination of grief as a form of spirit possession – and “The Undiscovered Country”, told from the perspective of the dead loved one, fill in each other’s gaps in a similar manner, to similarly bathetic effect. As much in M. R. James’s “Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” as in The Blair Witch Project, we want the gaps left empty, for what we imagine might fill them.

In the remaining stories we find Winterson turning the genre over in her hand, looking for angles. “Canterville and Cock”, for example, reads like an anglicized George Saunders: a “live-action immersive weekend” in a supposedly haunted stately home is hijacked by the actual ghost of its former chatelaine. There is an introduction, including a chronological rattle through the history of the ghost story from Dante to the present day, though to what end remains unclear: the chatty tone and insistent use of nervy, don’t-scare-the-horses parentheticals – “One of my favourite spooky stories is … by Daniel Defoe (the Robinson Crusoe man)” – seem aimed at a dramatically less literate audience than the stories that follow.

As to the larger concern, with the metaverse and AI, and their potential to “realign our relationship with death”, there are surely two distinct ideas in play here. The first, that consciousness might not be “obliged to materiality” and that, by uploading our minds to “a substrate not made of meat”, we might attain a form of digital afterlife, seems, as provocations go, to be perfectly reasonable. The second, that actual, chain-rattling, non-digital ghosts will surely find the metaverse an irresistibly “user-friendly, at-home space” seems less so, and readers might feel that by eliding the two ideas, Jeanette Winterson is browbeating us into accepting the sillier one.

Nat Segnit’s most recent book is Retreat: The risks and rewards of stepping back from the world, 2021

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS here

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