Sunday, June 14, 2009

Who you gonna call?

By Lisabet Sarai

Jenna Byrnes' maiden topic on the Grip is “Ghosts”. I assume that she's interested in literary ghosts, since I know she's written a few stories featuring spectral (but distinctly solid!) characters.

Ghost tales are the poor cousin in the paranormal sub-genre. For every story of visitors from beyond the veil, you'll find dozens featuring vampires and werewolves. Ghosts are not nearly as trendy. That's one reason I enjoy writing about ghosts. An author has a great deal more freedom.

A long tradition constrains vampires and lycanthropes. Everyone knows how they behave, their strengths and their weaknesses, how they can be killed, and in the romance/erotica genre at least, why they're sexy. One can only tweak the conventions so far before readers will cry foul. I've actually read posts on discussion groups where readers complained that a vampire “couldn't really eat a steak” or “couldn't sire children on a human woman”. In “Vampires Limited”, published in the Black Lace collection Lust at First Bite, I have a member of the undead community who can walk about in daylight, as long as it's cloudy, and who is more endangered by electromagnetic radiation from a cell phone than by garlic or crosses. As I wrote that story, I really wondered if I was pushing things too far, whether I would incite angry protests from vampire-loving readers.

With ghosts, there are very few givens. A ghost represents some manifestation, in the physical world, of a person who has died. The author has fairly free rein in deciding the characteristics of that manifestation. A ghost may be ethereal, a permeable fog taking a human shape, or corporeal, able to interact physically with flesh and blood creatures. (The latter is perhaps more useful in erotica!) Specters may appear only in dreams, or only at night – in certain locations, or associated with specific natural phenomena. Some ghosts may not appear at all, making their presence known only through their effects on the environment, messages scrawled on mirrors, or clues leading to the discovery of secrets. Some of my favorite ghost tales, such as Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, are sufficiently subtle that they leave open the question of whether the ghosts actually exist at all, or whether they are projections of the character's imagination.

Ghosts' emotions and intentions can be at least as varied as their physical characteristics. They may be sorrowful, vengeful, compassionate or horny. A widely accepted belief is that ghosts hang around in the physical realm because of some sort of unfinished business: a murder to be avenged, a mystery to be revealed, a treasure to be guarded, a child to be guided and protected. On the other hand, some ghosts seem to exist purely for the sake of causing trouble, from simple mischief to genuine malevolence. A ghost can be a character as rich and full-bodied as a living being. The chains that tether a spirit to our world can provide a start on a riveting conflict.

In my ghost tales, the human character often doesn't understand that the ghost is a visitor from the grave until quite late in the story. “Twentieth Century”, which you can read on my website, is a tale of a woman more at home in the past than in a modern city, whose love of things antique draws her into an encounter with history. Only near the end of the tale does she realize that her lover is in fact long dead.

Tomorrow's Gifts, part of Total-E-Bound's “Christmas Spirits” collection, draws on the Dickensian concept of the “ghost of Christmas future”. However, Michael really has no idea exactly who or what Thorne is, other than a hot stud who understands his submissive needs, until the last scenes.

“Twentieth Century” has a bittersweet conclusion. Beth loses her ghostly lover forever, though she learns something about herself. Tomorrow's Gifts, an erotic romance, has a happy ending, but it does not involve the ghost. This highlights a bit of a problem with using ghosts as main characters in romance. How, when a human loves a ghost, do you engineer a happily-ever-after? No matter how deliciously corporeal and carnal a spectral lover may be, a long-term relationship is not likely to be very satisfying. On the other hand, what are the options? One of my readers wrote, in response to a question I posed in a contest:

I hate endings where the ghost just disappears/goes to heaven/finds peace and the heroine then meets a guy who reminds her of/is the reincarnation of/is the great-grandson of the hero. It doesn't count if he is not the hero, I don't want a reincarnation or any substitute, I want her to find happiness with the hero. But there is one ending that is even worse, where the heroine dies too so they can be together forever.

Herein lies the rub. A romance author can ignore this problem by simply offering a “happy for now” ending, where the human protagonists and the ghosts are busily getting it on and not worrying about the future. This is not likely to be effective in a longer work, though. If the reader cares at all about the characters, she is bound to be frustrated, wondering how things will turn out for them in the future.

This may be a partial explanation for the popularity of vampires as opposed to ghosts, at least in the realm of erotic romance. The same reader above said:

Funny, it doesn't bother me when a vampire hero turns his heroine into a vampire, but I don't want to have two ghosts living happily ever after.

As followers of the Grip have probably realized, I don't necessarily require all my stories to end happily, so this structural problem with ghosts doesn't particularly bother me. I love the other-worldliness of a ghost tale. There's not much mystery left in vampires. I also appreciate the fact that ghosts are not necessarily monsters. They may have supernatural powers, but fundamentally, they are as human as my living characters – heroes, villains, creeps and clowns. Ghosts offer a wide scope for the creative imagination.


  1. Great post Lisabet, lots for me to think about, and you raised some lovely ideas and comparisons.

    I've just finished a less-than-usual-conventions vampire tale and I'm starting a less-than-usual-conventions ghost story *lol*. This is very topical for me!

  2. Tell us about your ghost tale, Clare!

    If it's romance, how do you handle the ending?


  3. Well, I've had three approaches in recent tales, if you don't mind me discussing them all!

    My submitted story has an artist visited by aa young man who claims he's a friend of a long-dead famous artist. Both my characters are very much flesh and blood to each other, and this is explained as some kind of time twist, brought on by a crisis that I can't describe here because of spoilers *lol*. The challenge for me was to build a lasting love for them, although I confess it's not an earthly one. This is billed as a romance, but the art and the ghost story are also important themes, so I'm hoping the HEA will be viewed with more flexibility.

    The second one (unfinished) has my ghost a total spirit. My hero hears him and can even feel his touch, but never sees him. I'm working on how to develop a romance between them - the intimate nature of their connection is a strong precursor - but at the moment (only chapter 4, I'm afraid) the ghost is driven to 'inhabit' the hero when he's with a lover, just so as he can experience corporal touch again and also connect even more lovingly with the hero. It's humorous too - not sure that comes across LOL - and I'm enjoying writing it. I think it may drift toward a 3some with a willing partner, but I have yet to see.

    The other tale is another possession one. My ghost moves from host to host until suddenly he finds himself stuck in one man's head - then comes to treasure that man and develop an unsettling desire to stay (thanks, I just wrote my blurb, I think *lol*). This one is easier for physical romance purposes, but my challenge will be to let the two characters inhabit the one body yet still retain their own characteristics. And is love alongside a lover, as satisfying as love shared between two separate people?!'s challenging, but I obviously keep returning to the theme. I liked especially your point about the potential for writers to create their own rules with ghosts. I've always stayed away from writing more rigid vampire stories because of those conventions that are still expected.

  4. Great post, Lisabet! I began writing a romantic ghost tale but struggled with those very issues, so this was very helpful.

  5. Hi Lisabet,

    As some of you may know, I've written both vampire and ghostie stories and love em both. My vamps tend to be a little less vamp and a little more raunchy human than some, but that's my style. My ghosts, or spirits, tend to be very troubled.

    I don't like the ending where the ghost vanishes into some heavenly place either. I like them to hang around, because they want to. It's much more fun thinking they'll continue creating havoc...LOL

    Great post Lisabet.


  6. My thoughts exactly on ghosts, Lisabet. Less rules than vamps or weres. More on that tomorrow!

    Great post!

  7. Lisabet!

    Very interesting post, ghosts are something dear to my heart.

    I thought the point about ghosts being a difficult subject for romance because they are temporary was very interesting. God knows what ghosts really are, but we tend to see them as troubled spirits who will go away once their trouble has been solved. It may be, as you suggested, that vampires are more popular because they don't go away. Ever. Maybe that permanance is part of their appeal.


  8. Great comments, all of you! Thanks for stepping in to the discussion.

    I'm looking forward to what the other Grip folk have to say on this topic.

    BTW, I'll be moving tomorrow to a new apartment and may be offline for a few days. Catch up with you soon!


  9. That's why my fictional ghost stories are horror ones as Pamela K. Kinney, besides the true ones I write for now two nonfiction books. Sapphire Phelan hasn't got a ghost as a hero yet in her erotic romance. Though she has a couple erotic horror stories published--one with jack the Ripper, the other is Lovecraftian Old Ones.