This November, Thanksgiving feels particularly ghost-ridden and incomplete. Instead of tight seating in a crowded dining room, there will be empty chairs. Many families can’t risk traveling or even getting together because of the surging pandemic; others are mourning loved ones who fell victim to this cruel and relentless disease. In my own case, I find myself aching to hear again the voice of my gentle, eldest sister Sandy, who died two years ago from a rare and virulent cancer; I still wish I could joke over a glass of wine with my friend and neighbor Joe, who succumbed in 2019 to a massive heart attack. More than ever, Thanksgiving can’t help but be a day of remembrance.
Two recently published books reflect this week’s autumnal mood. In “Ghostland” the English writer Edward Parnell has created a composite work that blends autobiography, family chronicle, travel journal, a birdwatcher’s life list, a photo album and an introduction to some masters of the British ghost story. This may seem an improbable combination, except to readers of W.G. Sebald, the writer who obviously inspired Parnell. Sebald’s books, especially “The Rings of Saturn” and “Austerlitz,” are similar genre-slippery explorations of spiritual desolation. As it is, Parnell aims at nothing less than “to lay the ghosts of my own sequestered past.”
To do this, he revisits scenes from family excursions, mainly places that have been used as the backgrounds for fiction and films about ancient sorceries, hideous traditions, pagan rituals, cruel folkloric practices. In his more than 400 pages Parnell discusses the antiquarian ghost stories of M.R. James, Kipling’s poignant fantasy, “They,” William Hope Hodgson’s nightmarish tour de force, “The House on the Borderland,” Arthur Machen’s terrifying fiction about a stunted, malevolent race lurking in the Welsh hills, and Algernon Blackwood’s unrivaled tales of arboreal horror, “The Man Whom the Trees Loved” and “The Willows.”
Parnell also touches on the work of slightly less familiar masters of the uncanny, notably E.F. Benson, L.P. Hartley and Walter de la Mare, while writing more expansively about such YA classics as Lucy M. Boston’s “The Children of Green Knowe,” Susan Cooper’s “The Dark Is Rising” and, two of my favorites, Alan Garner’s “The Weirdstone of Brisingamen” and “The Owl Service.” In one long section he explores the settings for “The Wicker Man,” that cinematic high point of British folk horror.
Still, one never forgets that this isn’t just a Michelin guide to the eerie sites that inspired various supernatural classics. From the beginning, Parnell hints — sometimes ponderously — that bad things are eventually going to happen to his mother, father and brother. They do happen, and they are terrible, wholly unfair and heartbreaking. We all live with ghosts.
In Dorothy Gallagher’s “Stories I Forgot to Tell You,” the “You” in her title is Ben Sonnenberg, the founding editor of Grand Street magazine and author of the brilliant Casanovan memoir “Lost Property” (recently reissued as a New York Review Books paperback). Its style, as I noted years ago, is “darting, anecdotal, slightly bemused, possessing a lilting irony that makes for compulsive readability. There is also something funny, sexy or shocking on every page.”
Gallagher, who has written biographies of the anarchist Carlo Tresca and the playwright Lillian Hellman, was married to Sonnenberg during the last 30 years of his life. They were years full of love, though often difficult as her dashing, sociable husband grew increasingly debilitated from multiple sclerosis. Gallagher’s memoir opens with a heart-rending paragraph:
“Tell me this: Do you think that in the years since you died my life has continued as before? Do you think that I still walk through our rooms, that my clothes hang in the closets, our pictures crowd the walls, the bookcases are crammed full, all our belongings remain in place? Do you imagine that when evening comes I light the lamps and our friends gather?”
The answer, of course, is “No, none of that. I’m not there anymore. Almost everything is gone — sold or given away.” For a long time after Sonnenberg died in 2010 at age 73, Gallagher would still send him emails with the same, repeated message: “Wish you were here, wish you were here, wish you were here.” Sometimes she even called their old telephone number. Now she surrounds the void in her heart with stories, telling us about her youthful passion for photography, her love for an old Royal typewriter, her discoveries in thrift stores. Every page in this little book is beautifully composed, but Gallagher never leaves us doubting how much she still misses Sonnenberg.
I once spent an afternoon with him, when he was already a quadriplegic, though the wit and dazzle that had made him so irresistible an intellectual charmer still shone through. Later, I attended his memorial service, where I lingered afterward with Robert Silvers of the New York Review of Books and my old friend the novelist James Salter. They too, like Sonnenberg, are now among the ghosts who sometimes keep me company on long evenings when I’ve drunk too much wine.
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.