What Ghost Stories Taught Me About My Queer Self

My friends and I used to tell one another ghost stories when we were young. It was the nineties, and we lived in Oxford, England. There was a period—we must have been eleven or twelve—when nothing compelled us more than made-up fear, and each day we’d rush to school eager to share some newly concocted tale of horror. The ghost stories were told in utterly un-spooky conditions—in broad daylight, against the hum and clatter of the cafeteria—but I used to carry them home with me like treasures, to be turned over and marvelled at after dark.

In my favorite one, two girls, whose names were, say, Alice and Bethany, are walking through a meadow with Alice’s dog. They’re laughing, gossiping, and they pause at one point to make daisy chains for each other. (The daisy-chain detail always felt slightly awkward, but it was necessary for the ending to land.) Suddenly, out of nowhere, the dog violently turns on Bethany and kills her. Alice, panic-stricken, grabs the animal and runs home. She says nothing to anyone about what has happened: she has already lost her best friend and can’t bear to lose her dog, too.

In the days that follow, Bethany’s body is discovered, and the police launch an investigation. At night, Alice lets the dog sleep on the floor beside her bed, and, whenever she wakes up, scared and alone, she reaches out a hand for him to lick; the animal’s warm tongue on her palm soothes her. And then one morning she goes downstairs to find her parents ashen-faced at the breakfast table. Alice begins to sweat: they have found out the truth, she thinks.

Instead, her parents tell her to sit down. The dog, they tell her gently, was found dead on their doorstep just after she went to bed. It had been brutally attacked. Alice shakes her head and says they must be mistaken: he slept right beside her—she felt him licking her hand in the night! She runs upstairs to her room and sees that it’s empty. Overcome with grief, she crouches by the side of the bed and finds, among the strands of shed dog hair, a wilted daisy chain.

In the best version of this story, the teller held your hand as they spoke, and when it came time for the licking part they stroked their finger across your palm. There were variations on the theme—sometimes Alice deliberately set the dog on Bethany, sometimes the police investigation loomed larger in the plot—but what remained constant was the licking of the hand at night, the ghostly scrape of a dead tongue across your palm.

I remember the story being genuinely scary. I remember lying awake at night, not wanting my hands or feet to extrude from under the covers for fear that a ghost might lick them. But most vividly I remember the strange, beguiling image of a ghost’s tongue: the idea of a dead girl licking a living girl’s hand felt obscene, something we weren’t supposed to have imagined at all. It would be nearly two decades before my own queerness became completely apparent to me, but I knew, even then, that the appeal of the murdered-dog ghost story was not entirely straightforward, that the narrative was transgressive in more ways than one.

Around the same time, I began fervently reading ghost stories. I wasn’t sure why. Perhaps, when you sense something shadowy about yourself, you start looking in the shadows for understanding, or at least meaning of some kind. What I did see clearly was that my interest in ghosts endured, long after my friends had moved on. We no longer swapped scary stories in the cafeteria, stroking each other’s palms. Instead, we talked about ourselves, and one another, and spent an extravagant amount of time trying to determine what was and wasn’t cool. I did my best to keep up. We bought magazines called things like Sugar and Shout, which came with free friendship bracelets. We went to a club night for under-eighteens at the Park End Club called the Fly-by-Night, and then, as soon as we could get away with it, began sneaking into regular bars. I recall writing a reminder to myself on a scrap of paper that simply read, “Notice boys!” Instead, I would go home alone and read about ghosts.

The ghost stories of my teen-age years were mostly from the nineteenth century. I read Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw,” from 1898, which tells the tale of a governess posted at a remote country home who finds herself and her young charges haunted by two former servants. The ghosts, depraved and malicious, attempt to corrupt the children, though the narrator never lets on exactly what form their depravity takes. I read “The Old Nurse’s Story,” by Elizabeth Gaskell, from 1852, in which a nurse discovers that her charge has been lured out into the snow by a ghost intent on killing the child. And, though I do not mean to say that these were queer stories, I see now how these spectral presences, by being seen and not seen, by exerting energy where none was anticipated, spoke to the queerness I felt within me and didn’t understand. At that time in my life, I experienced my queerness as an unknowable force, something that might well try to lure me out into the cold, something that I tried not to look at directly.

I grew up under the Section 28 law in the United Kingdom, which forbade educational settings from “promoting homosexuality” or promoting “the teaching . . . of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” (The peculiar cruelty of that phrase, pretended family relationship, haunts me even now as I look out at my wife and son playing in the garden behind our house.) Though my teachers were willing to go into great detail about all manner of delicate subjects—we practiced unfurling condoms onto deodorant bottles in biology class, and were shown slides of genital warts and herpes lesions and an extremely graphic video of someone giving birth—they guarded us from knowledge of queerness. I don’t recall the subject ever being discussed at home, either. It certainly wasn’t treated negatively—and, since my coming out, my parents have been nothing but supportive—but, rather, I don’t remember it ever being addressed as a subject that might be relevant to me. Queerness was something to do with other people. And yet, like the ghosts in the stories I loved, there it was, an alluring and alarming possibility, which I could talk about with exactly no one, and which was both more precious and more terrifying for the silence that surrounded it.

As I got older, my search for queerness in ghost stories grew more deliberate; I knew better what I was looking for. To read is always to experience a haunting, to be alone while in the company of another consciousness, to receive messages from a person who isn’t there. The reading of queer ghost stories became for me a kind of double haunting, laying bare immense sadness but also the nourishing consolation of recognition. Ghosts transgress binaries in all sorts of ways—life and death, presence and absence, comfort and grief. At university, I encountered queer people who were out, who refused ghostliness, and was astonished to see that they moved through the world as solidly and opaquely as everyone else. I read queer theory, and Toni Morrison, whose ghosts had a force that I hadn’t seen before; they were powerful and disruptive and bold. I also encountered Radclyffe Hall’s “The Well of Loneliness,” from 1928, in which the female protagonist, Stephen Gordon, is an “invert” who unabashedly pursues female love interests. The novel culminates in a feverish collective haunting, as Stephen finds herself surrounded by queer spectral presences. “The quick, the dead, and the yet unborn” crowd around her, “pointing at her with their shaking, white-skinned effeminate fingers” and shouting, “You dare not disown us!” It’s a surreal moment that felt utterly familiar to me: queer people haunting queer people. At the end, Stephen, overcome, gasps, “Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!” After the silence of my adolescence, now it seemed that even the ghosts were shouting, demanding to be heard.

There is something about the act of haunting that, whether this is intentional or not, can’t help but speak to the way that queer people of the past have always been ghosts, haunting the histories they’ve been written out of. It’s hard, as a queer person today, not to feel haunted by them: by the people who suffered immense cruelty for living their true lives, but also by the people who did not—whose queer lives were never lived at all. In my most recent novel, I conjured the ghost of a fifteenth-century teen-age girl who, in the nineteenth century, falls in love with the French author George Sand. I was thinking about the weight of all of history’s unconsummated queer longing, the appalling silence of it. How else could I embody it but in the disembodied form of a ghost?

In almost every other way, I have no tolerance for the fantastical or speculative. I once flabbergasted a male date by stating that the minute an alien appears in a story I lose interest. But ghosts don’t feel fantastical to me. They seem like the most straightforward way to speak about absence and potential, about uncertainty and transgression—that is to say, the most straightforward way to speak about queerness and queer invisibility.

I will never forget the jubilation I felt on encountering Ali Smith’s “Hotel World,” from 2001, whose ghost narrator opens the novel, “Woooooooo-hooooooo what a fall what a plummet what a dash into dark into light,” as she recalls plunging to her death in a dumbwaiter. Later, she reveals that this fall is figurative as much as it is literal, coinciding with the development of an all-consuming crush on a girl working in a watch shop. I had not yet graduated from college when I read it, and was still a decade away from coming out, but I remember the rush of clarity that the book inspired about why I couldn’t stop thinking about ghosts: here was a dead narrator who returned in death not only to her family home, not only to the site of her demise, but also to her beloved, to the love she’d been unable to pursue in her lifetime. The ghost, like me, couldn’t seem to leave her queer longings behind.

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