I recently finished Claire Legrand’s The Year of Shadows, and it got me thinking about ghosts.
The book deals with a little girl who meets a bunch of ghosts (obviously) who live in an old symphony hall. There’s quite a bit more to it than that, of course, and I recommend the book for MG readers looking for a nice, moody, atmospheric chill.
Legrand’s ghosts are very interesting. They don’t really have shape, but sort of form themselves into shape when they concentrate. They have a smattering of their memories from life, but not much. They are individual characters, with individual personalities.
As opposed to the Shades, which are sort of Legrand’s boogie-men and behave more like what some would call a poltergeist.
The ghost story is one of the foundations of horror, of course, and ghosts have been depicted as all sorts of things from creepy forms lurking in the night to foppish, jovial, nearly-headless buffoons (I’m looking at you, Nick). Sometimes they can speak, sometimes they can’t. Sometimes they can move physical objects, sometimes they can’t. Sometimes they are full characters, other times a ghastly prop.
Yet they’re all ghosts.
Authors use ghosts all the time, but whenever they use them as more than a brief mention, there’s this need too explain the rules. “Sure, you know what ghosts are, but this is what MY ghosts are like.”
It’s fascinating. Authors don’t generally need to do that with other creatures. You see a vampire walking down the street, you know it’s going to suck blood, shy away from the sun, and have very pale eyes. There can be minor variations, such as if they fly or not or… well.. they sparkle (whatever), but by and large a vampire is a vampire is a vampire. It became a vampire by getting bit by another vampire, and they make fresh new vampires by biting non-vampires.
Not ghosts. Why is that? At the heart of it all, ghosts are supposedly spirits of people who used to be alive. But how they became ghosts is always up in the air. As I have mentioned before, one of my current favorite MG ghost series of Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. (I recently devoured the fourth and latest volume, The Creeping Shadow) In the Lockwood books, ghosts are the danger, but generally without personality or character. They are the symptom of the evil for the most part, and much of the series is being spent trying to uncover the true evil. But one touch from a ghost and you die. Not so in The Year of Shadows, in which the little girl is touched by ghosts all the time, or in Harry Potter, where the ghosts tend to walk through Harry when he’s not looking.
All of this is to say that if you’re planning on using ghosts, be prepared to explain them. Readers have been inundated with all sort of different ghostly rules that no two people will have the same idea of what and who your ghost is unless you tell them. So be warned.
Just don’t make them all sparkly.