What better way to celebrate Halloween in Archive services than to feature one of our very own spooky essays? ‘The Decadence of the Spook’ written by M B J in the 1920s is such a piece, although we sadly don’t know in what context it was written or anything about the author – could he or she have been a student? A Professor? Some-one else? – We may never know. But what is clear is that this work is fun to read, a creation of its time, and richly imaginative.
The essay seems to follow the fate and position of the ‘spook’ – defined as ‘slang for all manner of spectral apparitions’ – in literature and in society.
At one time ghosts – MBJ seems to theorise – were fully-fledged entities to be taken seriously and feared:
‘Once upon a time’, he writes, ‘no fine old family mansion was complete without its ghost . . . scarce a village, moor, or lake, but had an attendant spirit, ghost, kelpie, or hellhound . . . Our old ballad writers know them all, in their infinite veracity’
But now in this ‘matter-of-fact century’, they are sadly so rationalised, ‘reduced to “mere automatic projections from consciousness” that ‘the most chicken hearted rustic, the most ignorant village lass will hold them in derision’.
‘What a loss!’ MBJ regrets, ‘our civilisation is certainly a failure as regards the persistence of the spook’, he denounces, and even those expected to show themselves ‘the champion of the spook’ – namely the Psychical Society – ‘have betrayed their trust’.
Yet hope remains, this author promises, for ‘the spooks are not always to be trifled with. Someday, like Mark Twain’s pilot, they will “feel all the majesty of this great position and let all the world feel it too.” The ghosts, he seems to conclude, will return.
This is one interpretation of the essay and we would love to hear your views and interpretations of it, comment below and let us know what you think!
And now, in the spirit of Halloween, we have picked some of our favourite chilling quotes from ‘the Decadence of the Spook’:
(please find a digitised version of the original here)
“Primitive man encountered the spook by flood and field, heard him wail in the night black, and caught glimpses of his shadowy form in the glades of the forest. Our Viking forefathers had their spooks – of an efficiently grim and sturdy kind”.
“Those well remembered spooks of childhood, who used to walk along old corridors with clanking chains, those headless riders, those bleeding nuns”.
“That hideous corpse, for instance, that slowly drags itself along the floor of a certain house in London, grimly phosphorescent, or that helpless infant, which haunts many an ancient dwelling”.
“The wicked nymph of wood or glen, whose sole effect in waylaying the traveller is to feast in his mangled remains”.
And on that note, we wish you all, a Happy Halloween
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