Amuse me, Mislead me, Confuse me: A Review of Andrew Smith’s The ghost story, 1840-1920

Google+ Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr +

A Brief History

On November 15, 2010, Manchester University Press published a hardcover edition of Andrew Smith’s The ghost story, 1840-1920.  In this book, Smith shares his wealth of knowledge with his readers as he attempted to critique the history of the ghost story over a substantial period of time. This effort did not please critic Matt Foley, who considered the course of eighty years, starting from 1840 to be “wide in its scope,”[1] which it certainly is. Smith, however, seems to be quite knowledgeable on the topic of gothic literature, having produced numerous works in that department and gained the approval by multiple notable publishing bodies such as Edinburgh University Press and Oxford University Press, and in this case, Manchester University Press. The context of the book itself is mainly British based, examining the cultural history of the British ghost story, with heavy focus being placed on the economic context of the stories and interpreted through the eyes of a Marxist theorist. This analysis was done in a fairly recent attempt, 2010, to re-evaluate how the ghost story fits into the political economy and its relation to capitalism, love and various other social factors. For many readers who are not wildly interested in the economic and political motives behind the ghost story, this book was quite the opposite of an enjoyable read.

Digging Deeper

From the perspective of a college freshman, taking a linked course in the Supernatural out of pure interest in ghosts and other mythical creatures, and who has no intense interest in pursuing studies in the Gothic, literary, critical or cultural studies[2] personally, this book was completely different from what was expected. Simply put, it was not a pleasurable read. The concepts were difficult to understand, as many are not familiar with Marxist terms or Gothic thoughts, which are ever present elements in the critique. Also, Smith references the numerous works of multiple authors[3] at such a rapid pace that readers may have found it hard to follow along, especially after not having read the referenced works and have no clear idea of what he is referring to or trying to link to historical concepts. For this review, readers should be aware that this historical supernatural class for which this review is being written, was linked with a supernatural literature class, which provided just enough background information for the reviewer to understand the basics of Gothic and ghostly literature. The following paragraphs give a review of the book, The ghost story 1840 -1920: A cultural history from the perspective of someone with little background knowledge of any Gothic or literary studies pertaining to ghosts or economics, and is intended to be an analysis and interpretation of Smith’s work from a perspective influenced by the reviews of Pam Locke, Simon Hay, and Matt Foley.

Seeing the spectre served as the eye-opening starter which set the basis for Smith’s analysis in the upcoming chapters and the general tone of the book. It clearly explain his purpose and argument, which was an attempt at, “theorization of the ghost story which outlines its association with economics in the nineteenth century.”[4] Readers got a sense of Smith’s use of Karl Marx amongst others, who seemed to be the inspiration for much of Smith’s analysis when pertaining to dealing with money and spectrality, including the theory of fetishism and the Gothic, as well as Marx’s demonization of capitalism.[5] This chapter seemed fit to be called an introduction to his analysis, as it chose to focus on explaining economic phenomena and the Gothic instead of delving straight into the ghost stories. This feature was also acknowledged by Pam Lock when she observed that Smith, “spends very little time linking that [economic theories] to specific ghost stories, giving mostly general examples and little textual analysis from the literature discussed.”[6]

Karl Marx in 1875

Smith’s analysis of the stock exchange as an example of the relationship between economic culture and the Gothic[7] seemed, “particularly interesting in its ghostly aspects,”[8] according to Pam Lock. Her view was not without merit; however, the connections seemed far-fetched and should have be simplified and developed into a more comprehensive linked piece, so the reader would be clear on what Smith is trying to imply by, “the level of explicitness between money and ghosting.”[9] For example, there was the case where the concern is implied that, “money generates immorality” as in the case of Scrooge, a miserly capitalist,[10] which could have simply been put as a person whose economic circumstances prompted the visit by ghostly figures and the idea developed further. Smith should have given some back story to the character, by utilizing the notes section more effectively, so the reader would understand what he was attempting to imply.

The prevailing theme of money and economics in the ghost stories are made clear, as Smith recognized connections between them frequently, and even in some cases where connections were not obvious and needed a deeper level of understanding, something Smith appeared to possess. Such was in the case with the statements, “money makes the self disappear,”[11] as well as money “seems to lack solidity and becomes ghostlike.”[12] Smith’s effort was commendable, as it was clear that he put much effort into linking money to spectrality, a theme explored in the first five chapters of the book, however, according to Simon Hay,

The drawing of faint connections is a problem in another sense, which is that Smith discovers ghostliness in everything. For instance, William Jevons’s account of political economy, Smith says, makes human subjectivity “disappear… Subjects therefore become ghostlike as they are configured as versions of the living dead, in which abstract quantities of pleasure and pain appear to abstrusely influence their decision making in the marketplace” (26). But Smith never quotes Jevons using spectral language, nor did Jevons’s theory tangibly produce or influence a discourse of spectrality. [13]

Throughout Smith’s analysis, he seemed to find some way to connect ghostliness and money to the multiple ghost stories he references, which supported Hay’s statement.

Pertaining to having found an economic connection built on weak evidence, Smith noted that “it would be crude to reduce all ghost stories to the level of economic parable.”[14] It appeared as if he tried to address one of the flaws in his analysis, and it seems that he may have used the last three chapters in the book to focus on other less/non-economic themes in an attempt to represent the all rounded cultural history. The general reading of the book supported the opinion that he still fell short of living up to the title, A cultural history, as he was not consistent in presenting a variety of themes excluding economic phenomena and the Gothic throughout the book. Hay was of this same opinion as presented by his concluding statement in his review of A ghost story, which compellingly summarized, “it is a book that remains haunted by, rather than actually addressing, the object of its title.”[15]

The heavily misleading cover of Andrew Smith’s book taken from https://www.biblioimages.com/mup/getimage.aspx?class=books&assetversionid=60164&cat=default&size=largeweb&id=6133 (accessed 13th May 2018) depicting a scene from a ghost story.

It is fitting to say that the title and the cover image of the book[16], threw the readers off as to the actual contents of the book. The title itself, The ghost story 1840-1920: A cultural history, gave off the impression that the book would contain numerous ghost stories taken from that span of eighty years, and attempt to examine why those stories came about, or simply the cultural origins of the various ghost stories. This first impression may have been influenced by the contents of the book, The History of the Modern British Ghost Story[17]which actually gave the history of the ghost stories and led to the book currently being reviewed, to be a rather unexpected read in pertaining to its contents, as experienced by multiple readers. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (1981),[18] which consisted of a compilation of ghost stories and their cultural origins, was also recommended and used by Dr. Zarzeczny in his supernatural history class.

This image is the front cover art for the book Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark written by Alvin Schwartz. The book cover art copyright is believed to belong to the publisher, HarperCollins, or the cover artist, Stephen Gammell.

One major point for discussion would be chapter four and its contents. Historically, women have not been represented as they should have been in the literary world and during the period Smith explored women’s rights, suffrage and the rise of the New Woman,[19] which were being focused on and developed at that time. Although Smith dedicated only one chapter to the female ghost story, while male authors comprised the remaining seven, he did use his platform to “acknowledge the major contribution that women writers made to the ghost story.”[20] The effort was commendable as he also noted that he did not intend for the limited range of female authored ghost stories to give the impression that the issues he presented in this chapter analysis were the sole issues in their stories.[21] Smith intended to use chapter four to reflect on women’s position on gender roles but it felt a bit stereotyped as it represented the female as needing love or power, obtained through money, which is such a small scope of the amazing literature produce by female ghost story writers. Smith could have used his stage to express other less gendered themes in the ghost stories by women but chose not to, which is a bit disappointing.

Geologist Florence Bascom was typical of the New Woman. She was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University (1893) and, in 1894, the first woman elected to the Geological Society of America.

Hay’s statement, “Smith’s book makes a solid and important contribution to the field of Victorian cultural studies…”[22] sums up the general response to the book by various critics. Many felt that this book was long overdue[23] and prompts an updated, more thorough exploration into economic phenomena, capitalism and ghosts, as there is growing interest in the field of the Gothic and literature. This book may have been of interest to various academic bodies and audiences; however, it was much too advanced for a core class on the Supernatural where many of the class takers are not completely versed in the Gothic, economic phenomena or even ghostly literature, but have had enough exposure to understand the basic concepts.

Notes:

[1] Matt Foley, “Review: Andrew Smith, The ghost story, 1840-1920: A cultural history,The Gothic Imagination (University of Stirling), 23. July 2012, http://www.gothic.stir.ac.uk/blog/andrew-smith-the-ghost-story-1840-1920-acultural-history/

[2] Andrew Smith, The ghost story 1840 -1920 A cultural history (Oxford: Manchester University Press, 2014), Back cover.

[3] Smith referenced the work of Charles Dickens, Charlotte Riddell, Vernon Lee, May Sinclair, Henry James, Wilkie Collins, and Sheridan Le Fanu amongst others.

[4] Ibid., 10.

[5] Pam Lock, “Review: Andrew Smith, The ghost story, 1840-1920: A cultural history,” Bristol Journal of English Studies, Summer 2012, https://englishjournal.blogs.ilrt.org/files/2012/07/Review-The-Ghost-Story-Pam-Lock.pdf

[6] Ibid., 2.

[7]Smith, 19.

[8] Lock, https://englishjournal.blogs.ilrt.org/files/2012/07/Review-The-Ghost-Story-Pam-Lock.pdf, 1.

[9] Smith, 22.

[10] Ibid., 22.

[11] Ibid., 60.

[12] Ibid., 60.

[13] Simon Hay, “The Ghost Story, 1840–1920: A Cultural History (review),” Victorian Studies, Summer 2012, 54, no. 4 (2012): 761-63. Accessed March 18, 2018. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/492326/pdf. pg 762.

[14] Ibid., 23.

[15] Hay, 763.

[16] E. A. Abbey, A Christmas Carol (1876).

[17] Simon Hay, History of the Modern British Ghost Story (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

[18] Alvin Schwartz, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (New York, NY: Harper, 2017).

[19] Vanessa Dickerson, Victorian ghosts in the Noontide: Woman writers and the Supernatural (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1996), 133.

[20] Smith, 69.

[21] Ibid., 69.

[22] Hay, 763.

[23] Ibid., 763.

If you liked this article and would like to receive notification of new articles, please feel welcome to subscribe to History and Headlines by liking us on Facebook.

Your readership is much appreciated!

Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Abbey, E. A.  A Christmas Carol.  1876.

Dickerson, Vanessa.  Victorian ghosts in the Noontide: Woman writers and the Supernatural.  Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1996.

Foley, Matt.  “Review: Andrew Smith, The ghost story, 1840-1920: A cultural history.”  The Gothic Imagination (University of Stirling), 23. July 2012, http://www.gothic.stir.ac.uk/blog/andrew-smith-the-ghost-story-1840-1920-acultural-history/

Lock, Pam.  “Review: Andrew Smith, The ghost story, 1840-1920: A cultural history.”  Bristol Journal of English Studies, Summer 2012. https://englishjournal.blogs.ilrt.org/files/2012/07/Review-The-Ghost-Story-Pam-Lock.pdf

Hay, Simon.  History of the Modern British Ghost Story.  Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Hay, Simon. ‘The Ghost Story, 1840–1920: A Cultural History (review).’ Victorian Studies, Summer 2012, 54, no. 4 (2012): 761-63. Accessed March 18, 2018. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/492326/pdf. pg 762.

Schwartz, Alvin.  Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.  New York, NY: Harper, 2017.

Smith, Andrew.  The ghost story 1840 -1920 A cultural history.  Oxford: Manchester University Press, 2014.

Share.

About Author

JCU Paranormal Research Group

The John Carroll Paranormal Research Group is a student organization that seeks to find out more about the paranormal while being academically intent and focusing on establishing credibility. Founded in the Fall of 2013 by Eugene Claridge and Raymond Camma, the BooStreaks have held many informative meetings that have included guest speakers, such as Dr. Judith Cetina and Bill Kreji, who appeared on Ghost Hunters in 2009. The group has worked with the Ohio P.I.R.A.T.E.S., a paranormal team out of Akron, Ohio, to learn some of their methods and to hear about their work. The Paranormal Research Group has conducted investigations in the following locations: the Cleveland Agora Theatre, the Ohio State Reformatory, the Russell Rhodes Mansion (a.k.a. the Cuyahoga County Archives), and the Sandy Chanty Seafood Restaurant. John Carroll University has recognized the group both in the Carroll News and most importantly, as the "Outstanding Organization of the Year." Not only has the group been able to explore the paranormal subject and investigated historically important locations in Ohio, but members had the fortunate opportunity to see advance screenings of major motion pictures that feature the paranormal, particularly The Quiet Ones (2013). After one academic year, group membership has risen to about eighty members, who seek further journeys this upcoming year. Please check out our Facebook and Twitter pages!