All You Have to Do Is Die


Arts & Culture

Graham Crumb, 2011, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

People were drinking wine out of plastic cups. The chairs were pushed close together. Bags were tucked under feet. I sat on the bookshop stage with two other writers, ready to read our ghost stories. Before we began, the moderator asked, “Do you believe in ghosts?” After a pause, we spoke of doubt. Creepy incidents were related. I found myself saying that perhaps the dead might be watching us.

I’ve never seen a soul move through the air. I am not sure that we are anything more than a skin-bag of electrical impulses. But ghosts are different from the other uncanny citizens. They are only one step away from the known. To become a ghost, you don’t have to be bitten by a vampire or receive a curse or encounter a mad scientist or fall under the spell of a full moon. All you have to do is die.

Still, I imagine the first days of ghosthood would be tricky. There are so many different hauntings, so many ways to do it. In a way, it reminds me of puberty. The unpredictable shifts. Sudden changes in weight and the way people see you. Unexpected blood. Puberty was a process I did not enjoy and, unluckily for me, it was nothing I could google—or more accurately “Ask Jeeves,” the search engine my IT teacher recommended. It was a time when strange men’s penises appeared in my Hotmail account and were not caught by the junk filter. I didn’t trust the internet. And so I found myself flipping to the back of the magazines my classmates’ mothers bought. The paper was always wrinkled from the girls’ hands that had come before. At the back would be a quiz or a decision tree to tell you what sort of person you were or would become. Sometimes there was the freckle of a biro mark, or an initial to mark the previous reader’s path. It was reassuring.

Playing around, I tried to devise one as an introduction to that stage of life yet to come—our ghosthoods.



But then I wondered if there was a reason the quiz, though my favorite part, always came at the very back of the magazine. Perhaps first you needed to see the parade of girls with their flattened hair and sparkly eyelids to begin to feel out who you might want to be. Sadly, I have no ectoplasmic photoshoots to present to you. So here is the next best thing—

Seven Big Questions for Your Life After Death

If you can answer all of these, then you’ll have a plan. Or, at least, a ghost story of your own.

1. Where will you haunt?

Castles are the obvious place. But you have to pity a castle ghost these days. It must be difficult to haunt a National Trust property stocked with brochures and push-chairs and a cafeteria where you can get tea and scones and jam in a miniature jar.

Though perhaps such refinement would appeal to you. Queen Mary’s doll’s house stands in Windsor Castle. It boasts gilt chairs, electric lights, a wine cellar, and of course a library. Inside the library are miniature leather-bound books, each with its own miniature story. One of these books is by Vita Sackville-West. Her story narrates the life of that doll’s house’s very own haunting. This smallest of ghosts eats at the miniature table with miniature cutlery and sleeps in every bed of the house. She runs overflowing baths and has a generally fabulous time. And no one understands how this mess is being made.

Maybe your aspirations are more humble. Maybe it is your own bed, your own walls that you wish to haunt. Virginia Woolf has kind ghosts in common with her lover Vita. In “A Haunted House,” Woolf writes of a couple who wander their beloved home to keep it “Safe! Safe! Safe!” They and their house pulse with their ghostly joy. At times, I have looked at my own walls—painted in Dulux white—and wondered about staying here should lightning strike me down. I consider that, eventually, the spider plant would be tossed away, the radiators with their bubbled paint pulled out. Still, there are other options. Lately, I have been writing only ghost stories, and it is usually place that I start with. A hotel, a reliquary box, an Uber. There are so many locations to be dead inside. You could say I am still considering my options.

Maybe you’d rather take up residence in a human body. It has been known to happen. In Japanese Buddhist legend, there is a story of a hunter who was possessed by the spirit of a fox he had killed. That it was a fox is no coincidence. In Japanese folklore, foxes are the tricksters of the spirit kingdom. By beating their tails against the ground, they may create fox fire. They can give out money that turns to leaves in the morning. Or cause rain to fall from a clear sky.

Can you feel what it would be like to sink into another’s bone and blood and limb? Can you feel the way your spirit might have to shift? Or can you imagine a creature you killed coming to rest inside your bones?

2. Who were you when you were alive?

An early draft of this essay was called “Ghosts Are People, Too.” But that implies a belief that I don’t hold. If spirits exist, if the soul can walk free from the body, then why should it only be ours? To some extent, you and the gods have already decided what you are in life. I’d be surprised if you are anything other than a human. But perhaps that is hasty. If you’re reading this in print then you’re reading it on the finely shredded life of a tree, and who is to say that the tree isn’t reading, too?

In Shintoism, there is a word for the place where a spirit might take up residence, the Yorishiro. It could be a tree or a shrine. Holy trees are inhabited by the kodama—literal translation: tree soul or tree spirit. Such trees are usually strung around with hemp rope from which paper lighting is hung to indicate their holiness. Toriyama Sekien’s 1776 woodblock print catalogue of yokai (monsters/spirits) begins with an illustration of a kodama. A white gust pours from a twisted pine tree and along this gust walks an old woman bent-backed and long-necked, following an equally aged man. The caption included in the picture says that the spirit of the tree will show its form after one hundred years.

The word for echo is the same as the word for tree spirit in Japanese. Supposedly because an echo is the spirit of the woods replying to a shout. I recently came across the work of Takei Takeo and learned about his book Kodama no denki, in which he gives the story of one such tree spirit. This book, made in collaboration with an artist, was illustrated not in ink but in marquetry—slivers of wood cut and pasted to the paper to form images. On the last page, Takei suggests you attempt to listen to the ‘voiceless voice’ of each tiny slice of wood. Should you be in Boston, you can find this book at the Boston Museum of Fine Art and give it a try.

3. Would you rather receive an invitation?

When my mother loses things, she asks her father for help. Her father is an organized man. The sort of man who has a special technique for wrapping presents and a precise way of folding a shirt. He kept a particular toothbrush for scrubbing between the small white tiles of the bathroom in which my mother grew up. So, it makes sense to ask him for help when something goes missing. It’s just that I’m not sure if I should be using past or present tense to write about him—after all, he’s dead. Still, my mother asks for his help. And when the keys are found, she thanks him and claps her hands three times. When we visit my grandmother, we leave food on the altar for him—eel, broccoli, rice. Not a huge amount, just a sample, only so much as would fit in your hand. Then a few hours later after his spirit has dined, my mother eats that same sample, standing up in my grandmother’s cupboard-size kitchen. Such practices are often called ancestor worship. This has always seemed a strange phrase to me, because when my mother thanks her father, she does not look reverent or holy. She looks happy like a little girl whose father has just bent to tie her shoelaces.

Not all invitations work out so well. The Ouija board appeared in the nineteenth century and the legend goes that it named itself. The inventors sat around in a circle and asked what it should be called and Ouija is what appeared. When asked what it meant, the board told them “Good Luck.” Later William Fuld, the man who ran the company that sold the boards, asked the board how to build his factory. And it was from this factory roof that he fell to his death. Equally unlucky was the woman who was tricked by her co–board user into murdering a supposed witch, using a hammer. I managed to stumble onto bad Ouija board luck without even touching one. When I was young, eleven years old or so, I got into a fight with another girl about Ouija boards—specifically that I wanted her to explain them to me and she refused. Somehow this incident blossomed into a rumor that I was or intended to become a witch. I would summon Hitler from the dead. And he’d kill their families. It was a strange time. But now I think, what would I have done with that psychotic vegetarian if he had appeared at my school? What would we have spoken about? Watercolors? And why would he have listened to my non-Aryan mouth when our halls ran gold with small blond heads?

4. Or are you more into surprise?

Some people go to their ghosts rather than the other way around. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House begins with a description of Hill House:

Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

What walks there, walks alone, until a scientist and his group of paranormal sensitives come to examine the phenomena of the house. Reading this story, we know they shouldn’t prod around, not when those doors have been so sensibly shut. As the doors to that house open, so do the doors to our dread. Suffering is coming. We just don’t know when or how or to whom.

Some hauntings are even more unexpected. Sometimes one follows you from sleepy upstate New York to the sunny climes of Rome. In Edith Wharton’s short story “The Eyes,” a gourmand requests that his friends tell a ghost story over dinner. At the end, he is reluctantly persuaded to tell his own. It is the story of a haunting that took place in his youth. As he lay in bed, two eyes appeared. These eyes were not nice eyes—they were quite as horrible and haunted as Hill House:

The orbits were sunk, and the thick red-lined lids hung over the eyeballs like blinds of which the cords are broken. One lid drooped a little lower than the other, with the effect of a crooked leer; and between these folds of flesh, with their scant bristle of lashes, the eyes themselves, small glassy disks with an agate-like rim, looked like sea-pebbles in the grip of a star-fish.

These eyes appear each night and steal his sleep. He is given no cause for their appearance. No one has told him of a beast or a monster. And yet there they are. Under the pressure of these eyes and the resulting sleeplessness, he begins to behave in ways very different from his moral intentions. At first, he thinks he has escaped them by fleeing to Europe, but they follow him there. It is only at the very end of his tale that the narrator realizes where the eyes have come from and the true extent of how they shaped his life.

5. And what are you here to do?

You might be here for the traditional ghostly roles to scare, to shiver, to get revenge. But you have other options. In Alice Sola Kim’s “Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They Are Terrifying,” three adoptees summon something that may or may not be their mother. And this creature, which speaks in ALL CAPS deep inside their minds, tries to mother them in its own way, though this mothering becomes increasingly ominous.

Your purpose may change once you arrive. Matsuda Aoko’s short story collection Where the Wild Ladies Are retells and reshapes Japanese ghost stories. In “Quite A Catch,” a young woman fishes a skeleton out of the Tama River only to find herself meeting a grateful ghost. The ghost explains that she was murdered by a man she didn’t want to marry and is here to say thank you for bringing her skeleton to light. This simple thank you develops into a romance between the living woman and the dead. Each story in the collection tells of one of these “Wild Ladies” who have become ghosts. Many in life were weak or overlooked. The book’s translator, Polly Barton, describes Matsuda’s mission as: “[By] having ghosts be not only not frightening, but joyful, and full of personality,” Matsuda is “subverting” stories of oppression and “creating a better world.” Death might be a second chance at joy.

6. How results-oriented are you?

In Hamlet, a ghost appears and accuses Hamlet’s uncle of murdering him and seducing Hamlet’s mother. The ghost claims to be Hamlet’s father, though both Hamlet and critics debate as to whether this ghost is his father or an evil spirit. This scene has been staged in many ways. In the 1980 version of Hamlet at the Royal Court, director Richard Eyre and actor Jonathan Price were so inspired by The Exorcist that they had Hamlet act both himself and the ghost—in a move that could be seen either as possession or madness. An even more radical retelling, Ophelia: Sister, Come to My Bed (adapted by Jo Kwang-hwa, directed by Kim Kwan), has Ophelia as a shamanistic medium channelling the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

I have a particular soft spot for the ostensibly more traditional William Blake illustration. Moonlight catches on the ghost’s seemingly skintight armor. His beard scraggles down to where his belly button would be. His arms hang awkward and stiff by his sides, either because of the effort exerted by reanimation or by the aforementioned skintight armor. Meanwhile, Hamlet kneels on the floor, in a fetching leotard/cape combination, hair styled in the spikes beloved of thirteen-year-olds in the early 2000s. He lifts his hands in mild dismay, as if someone has told him that a dog knocked over the cake table at the village fête.

Ridiculous depictions aside, this ghost knocks out a tidy death count. By the end of the play, not only are Hamlet’s mother and uncle dead, so, too, are two of his friends from school, his girlfriend, his girlfriend’s father, and his girlfriend’s brother. Not a bad result, and achieved with only a few appearances and grumpy speeches.

Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost” is not quite so effective. The poor deceased gentleman has the misfortune to have his home bought by a parcel of brash Americans. These Americans are rather unimpressed by ghosts. The sons play pranks upon him. His bloodspots are washed away. He is asked to oil his chains because it is disturbing the family’s sleep. His pride is sore and his heart is pained. He feels a mockery after so many years of difficult ghosting work. He might have been miserable for all eternity if not for the intervention of the young daughter who takes pity upon him.

This seems to all intents and purposes a less successful haunting, but then again, he makes a friend. Sometimes competence isn’t everything.

7. How will you leave?

When my own father was a boy, he lived close to the south coast of Britain. He was born after the war but when rationing was still in force. It was a childhood of weeding, and pea-shelling, and making his sister re-enact the Greek myths—he once famously put her to the stake. There were always dogs around—Pekinese whose glass eyeballs fell out and sweet hysterical spaniels. And among all this, my father had terrible dreams. Dark dreams. Dreams that sent his small body shaking awake in the night. In these dreams, a pirate came crashing into his sleep with a great black beard. Night after night, the dreams came. Nothing his parents did or said could change that. To him, the pirate did not seem cute or funny or whimsical. There was nothing quaint about it. And his parents, two people who had lived through a war and who had seen their country shelled, took this pirate seriously. Even his father who had a piece of shrapnel lodged deep inside his body took this small battle seriously. They were both Christians, as everyone they knew was. And so his mother contacted the Bishop of Lewes to ask him for help. When I asked my father why the bishop and not the local priest, my father said, “My mummy loved me. She would have gotten the Archbishop if she thought she could get him.” The bishop stood in my father’s room to say the holy words. It was a simple affair. No ectoplasm was witnessed but, after that, the ghost was gone.

It is at this point in the story that my father pauses, he looks into your eyes and waits for you to absorb and perhaps to let a moment of doubt sink in. Then he smiles, perhaps showing a hint of his own gold tooth at the back of his mouth. This is when he reveals that, a few years later, they discovered that the house had once been used as a smugglers’ base.

How do you end the life that drifts on after death? Perhaps this is the truest horror. That maybe we will go on existing and existing and existing. It is frightening to think of a life ending, certainly. The lights go off, the limbs stop, the electric current ceases to fizz. But to continue on, dragging your ragged spirit over the earth—that has its own dread. Perhaps the piratical ghost was grateful for the banishment.

It’s okay if you still aren’t sure what you want your death to look like. I don’t know if I became the woman that those magazine flowcharts predicted I would. I don’t think so. I no longer remember if I chose mostly Y or N. I’m not sure if any advice could have prepared me for the shift from child to adult. I found my own way through the dreary path of adolescence. And perhaps you must always find your own way through the dark. But should you make the journey and end up hanging around in the long shadows of the evening, then I invite you to make yourself known.


Rowan Hisayo Buchanan is the author of Harmless Like You and Starling Days. She has won The Authors’ Club First Novel Award and a Betty Trask Award and been short-listed for the Costa Novel Award. Her work has been a New York Times Editors’ Choice, an NPR Great Read, and recommended by Oprah Magazine. Her short work has appeared in several places including GrantaGuernica, the GuardianThe Harvard Review, and NPR’s Selected Shorts. She is the editor of the Go Home! anthology.

Writing the Uncanny, edited by Dan Coxon and Richard V. Hirst, will be published by Dead Ink Books on September 23.