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In 'Ghostly,' Phantoms Provide An Omniscient Point Of View


This is the time of year where a bump in the night or a scratch at the window can bring dreams of creatures from the other side. Audrey Niffenegger has always had a thing for ghost stories. She's an author best known for her novel, "The Time Traveler's Wife." Now she has edited and illustrated a collection of haunted tales reaching back hundreds of years. The anthology is called "Ghostly." I asked Niffenegger why she keeps coming back to ghost stories.

AUDREY NIFFENEGGER: I love them as thought experiments - what if, what if? - what if this daily reality was actually surrounded by things that you can't see? You know, what if - what if people you love don't really disappear forever? Is that good, or is that bad? There's so much in it that is very resonant and can go in so many different ways. It can be horrible, it can be wonderful. Some of the stories in the collection are actually very funny.

SHAPIRO: The oldest ghost story in this book is almost 200 years old. This Edgar Allan Poe story, "The Black Cat," has a lot of gore. There is an ax being buried in someone's head. And then one of the more recent stories - there's one by Neil Gaiman called "Click Clack The Rattle Bag" - just has a pervading creepiness and a strong suggestion of the supernatural without ever seeing any blood or violence at all.

NIFFENEGGER: Most of the stories are not gory. I have a strong preference for not gory, and I love things that rely heavily on the power of suggestion. Neil's story's a fantastic example of what the genre is doing right now. He manages to put all the hints squarely in front of you, and says - he's got it coming out of one of the characters' mouth - pay attention. You know, it's all about what you're not paying attention to. And yet he still manages to pull the trick on the reader even though he's pretty much shouting at them to pay attention.

SHAPIRO: This story, "Click Clack The Rattle Bag," by Neil Gaiman has one of the common features of ghost stories, a child - a creepy, creepy child.

NIFFENEGGER: The child is actually one of my favorite haunted children.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

NIFFENEGGER: My editors were joking around with me. We decided that the theme of the collection was houses, children, lovers, cats.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, that's a pretty accurate description.

NIFFENEGGER: Yeah, yeah. All the stories feature at least one, and usually two or three, of those things.

SHAPIRO: What do ghosts let you do in a story that you can't do with anything else?

NIFFENEGGER: The marvelous thing about letting a ghost into the story is that the ghost can do many things. The ghost can give you a point of view that's almost omniscient. The ghost can do things that are physically impossible. In my novel, "Her Fearful Symmetry," the ghost had a locked drawer that she liked to go and nap in. The ghost can express things about the situation that the protagonists don't know they feel, and the ghost can free you from the constraints of time. So ghosts are fabulously useful even if you're not trying to scare anybody.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter). Will you read a paragraph from your introduction to this collection?


(Reading) It is not necessary to believe in ghosts to appreciate a good ghost story. We all believe in death. What happens after that is up for grabs - blank space haunted by artists and prophets. We enjoy teasing ourselves with possible afterlives. But if we allow the past to haunt us or keep our gazes fixed on imaginary future heavens or hells, we fail to pay attention to the present. To be haunted is to turn away from the liveliness of our lives. We become a little dead to ourselves if we pine too much for the dead.

SHAPIRO: That description sounds like ghosts may not be supernatural at all. In another part of this introduction, you say ghosts can be grief gone awry.

NIFFENEGGER: Yes. I do firmly believe that. I myself am not a religious person and I believe that when we die we just stop. But after I published "Her Fearful Symmetry," I got so many people coming up to me with their ghost stories, real things that had happened to them. And it was very, very interesting because so much of it seemed to be a sort of emotional echo chamber, things that couldn't be finished, things that were just resonating there somehow around these people. And it just seems important. It seems like we all have these things that remain unfinished. We can't be finished with them because the people we need to finish them with have died. We're badly in need of something, and I think for many people, that something takes a rather ghostly shape whether it's just in our heads or somehow outside of us.

SHAPIRO: Well, Audrey Niffenegger, happy Halloween, and may you never be haunted.

NIFFENEGGER: Oh, thank you, same to you.

SHAPIRO: Audrey Niffenegger is the editor and illustrator of the new collection "Ghostly." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.