Let me tell you about the Demon Baby.
Once upon a time, in 17th-century England, a servant girl was betrayed, had a baby out of wedlock and was banished from the manor where she worked. Fleeing into the storm, she called out to the squire, "Remember me!" and disappeared into the forest. She ran to a lonely pond and threw herself and the baby into the black waters.
Now, here we are, centuries later. The descendant of that squire brings his bride to the manor near Epping Forest. He knows about the Haunted Pond, of course. It is a local legend, but quite harmless.
Soon he has a son, and in the course of time the little boy goes on a walk with his nurse in the forest. Coming to the pond, the child cries, "Oh look, there's a baby in the water!" and runs to pull it out.
The nurse sees him hauling on something at the water's edge. For one paralyzing moment she glimpses a baby's face above the surface, malevolent, fiendish. Then the baby grabs the boy with its tiny hands and pulls him under . . .
We have with us today a full-time ghost scholar, Eric Maple, who told this story as he wafted through town on behalf of the British Tourist Authority promoting East Anglia.
He has written 10 books on ghosts, witches, devils and folklore, and he lectures four or five times a week on everything from dining table superstitions to "A Gardener's Guide to the Supernatural."
"British ghosts are very different to American Ghosts," he said, and he might have added that British ghost hunters are nothing at all like the high-powered industry of fear that generated millions of dollars with "The Amityville Horror," the Georgetown exorcist and other ventures.
For one thing, he has a light touch. For another, he refuses to exploit the fear of death or the unknown. He keeps his equanimity, even in the face of the Phantom Archbishop. (Actually, this archbishop doesn't have a face because his head is kept in a glass case at Sudbury and he can't get it back.)
"Death and life are all part of the same thing," remarked Maple, who at 64 describes himself as a pantheist. "Some say a ghost is a person whose life was cut short before its allotted time, so that the left-over energy lives on."
Ghosts, he belives, are souls on our conscience, a debt that humanity owes the dead.
He saw one once, in a friend's flat. He visited it because the tenant had reported hearing a woman crying and wanted to know what to do about it.
"I was sitting in the room alone," he said, "and I was disappointed. There was no plot to this, no story, nothing I could use in my lectures. Then I saw a figure near the door, a woman carrying a shopping bag and looking rather surpirsed to see me there. I assumed it was someone who had just popped in. Then she was gone."
The shape was not diaphanous or transparent, but "completely and absolutely solid."
He offers the story as is. It could have been a hallucination, a trick of the emotions. Take it or leave it.
The friend reported that he turned chalk-white at the sight, but that surely was from sheer surpise, for Maple believes that ghosts are simply a somewhat recondite aspect of nature, and that "everything that exists has its structure, and if you can get into the rhythm of it, you can handle it."
Wide experience with British audiences and Americans in Britain (this is his first visit to the States) convinces him that the British are more relaxed, less furtive about the supernatural. When he quit the National Gas Board 10 years ago to study folklore, he wangled an assignment from a womenhs magazine ("I like women -- in a sort of supernatural way") to do a piece on England's stately ghosts.
But he soon found far more interesting stories in what his readers told him. Everyone, it seemed, had a ghost story of his own.
Gradually he built up enough legends about ghosts and witches to fill book after book. When he spoke on TV against a proposed law against witchcraft, arguing for religious freedom, he was invited to visit some East Anglian covens and now says he knows all the secrets of modern witches.
"I don't think, however, that there is the slightest connection with the old witchcraft," which was, he has written, "one of the greatest tragedies of the human race, consuming thousands in a holocaust of blood and sorrow . . . . These fantastic witches with their suburban orgies and comic covens belong to the horror comic rather than to history."
The orginal witch hunt, as we know, was political, a community weapon against the new and the feared, from the Inquisition to the murder of a midwife who dared give laudanum to a suffering woman.
The quote is from "The Dark World of Witches" (A. S. Barnes), one of his angrier books. The lighter ones deal with all sorts of lore, including the magic of perfume.
Despite all attempts by publicists to turn Maple into a threatening Karloff figure -- the classic photo with a flashlight held under his chin -- he remains invincibly chipper and cheerful, a connoisseur who appreciates the perfection of an ancient legend, polished by generations of retelling until it has become a parable.
Most of all, he refuses to be infected by fear.
"There's an infallible way to get rid of a ghost, you know. It works for British ghosts, anyway, and I give it to Americans -- even though it could ruin the ghost industry here.
"A ghost can't speak until spoken to, of course you knew that. And the thing is, it always needs to say something, it wants to confess something, that's why it hangs around.
"So if you see a ghost, you simply say, right out, 'O Ghost, what troubleth thou?' and then it will come to you and embrace you close and whisper into your ear. And that will give it relief, and it will be freed at last."
That's all very well for the ghost. But I just jumped out of my skin.