The Sadness of Entropy

An essay by Alexander Glass

Original photograph by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

Some stories have their genesis in a particular moment, an epiphany or at least a point of confluence of ideas. Others coalesce more mysteriously, sometimes only revealing themselves as they are being written. 

‘The Ghost in the Valley’ had no clear genesis point. It probably owes something to Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape, and to Robert Holdstock, particularly The Hollowing, and the novella ‘The Bone Forest’ – first published in Interzone, of course – in which he began to explore the malleability of time in relation to myth. It has more distant, almost vanishingly faint, echoes of Alan Garner’s Red Shift and Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor – both astonishing novels in which past, present and future interact strangely and meaningfully and menacingly.

Some ghosts are nothing more than echoes, repeating patterns with no real life of their own

None of those works are set in Victorian England; but that time and place seem to exert a kind of narrative gravity on the ghost story, probably borne of gas-lamps and the shadows they cast; carbon monoxide, and its hallucinations; industrialisation and migration to cities, and the consequent desperate loneliness of many; the growth of photography; and new forms of action at a distance. And so ‘The Ghost in the Valley’ finds itself drawn inescapably toward nineteenth-century London. 

Does that ghostly singularity lead stories to shred themselves into cliché? Should we try to escape its pull? Certainly it makes for a kind of cosy, familiar backdrop, but there’s no harm in that. As long as it isn’t the only kind of ghost story we tell. 

Some ghosts are nothing more than echoes, repeating patterns with no real life of their own; some retain a form of consciousness and even physical presence, at least as much as is needed for them to fulfil their purpose; some may live entirely in the mind; and with some, the trick is in knowing who or what the ghost is. With all of them there is an inherent sadness: something has been lost, and can never fully be regained. The ghost is either an internal memory, or an external one, a memory held somehow by the structure of universe, as it inexorably, irreversibly – but thankfully, very very slowly – decays. 

(Kneale, adapting Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, moved it from its original early Edwardian setting – and so further away from the Victorian – by setting it a few years after the First World War. As a result a broader sense of loss – unspoken, never to be spoken – infuses it throughout.)

In ‘The Ghost in the Valley’ we are left with unanswered questions. It seems clear that these are not ghosts of the mind, as in The Turn of the Screw. But who or what is the ghost glimpsed here? It may be the spirit of a place, one that persists, perhaps, across a wider abyss of time than that which separates us from the nineteenth century. Centuries, or millennia; and who is looking back with sadness at whom? 

Then there is the matter of consciousness – in most cases it seems to be the memory of a mind or a soul that persists (not merely a life; I’m pretty sure there are no stories of hauntings by courgettes). And so there may be ghosts of people, sometimes animals – and, occasionally, other entities to which we tend to ascribe minds or souls: ships, and sometimes places. 

Which means that it might be possible to have one ghost inside another, the spirit of a person nested within the spirit of a place. Do they fuse, as one, or are they distinct? If they are one, do they know that?

One final element, that must have led to the aspect of the story that wrenches time suddenly about, the deliberate change in perspective that raises the question of who is looking back at whom. By the time ‘The Ghost in the Valley’ was written, the threat of nuclear war – which had seemed, and indeed had been, very real only a few years earlier – had receded. Its acid light could still be seen, though. I must have heard an airy theory that a nuclear explosion could have unpredictable effects on the flow of time. 

I don’t know whether one of the characters here is looking back from the far side of a nuclear winter. But as I write, the danger no longer seems so distant. Perhaps the Cold War never really ended. Or, if it did, its bitter ghosts still linger around us. ∎

Alexander Glass is the pseudonym of an ex-lawyer (now law lecturer) and blues guitarist who is currently living somewhere on the outer fringes of London. He is not a brain in a jar, yet, but there’s still time. His stories have been published in Interzone, The Third Alternative, Black Static, Asimov’s Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

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