“Ghosts prefer the past. That’s when they were alive.” The wry intelligence of Jeanette Winterson seems well suited to a collection of ghost stories. Her work to date – 13 novels, two collections of short stories, children’s books, nonfiction and screenplays – is characterised by a sensibility that is curious, probing, open-minded yet discerning, which is to say, ideal for an exploration of life, death and the liminal spaces between.
Winterson’s career began in 1985 with the semi-autobiographical debut novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a Künstlerroman where a young woman begins to interrogate her upbringing in an evangelical religious community as she looks for direction and a place in the world. Four decades on, the 12 stories of Night-Side of the River, divided under the headings Devices, Places, People, Visitations, also feature characters who are lost and looking for something: meaning, escape, new identities, revenge and, most frequently, a way to deal with grief and the death of a loved one.
A dedication to the writer AM Homes, “who knows that life is more than we can see”, is followed by a short, generic introduction with a few diverting literary history notes, featuring among others, the Epic of Gilgamesh; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; and A Christmas Carol, which Winterson deems “the most famous ghost story of all time”. This brief overview of the genre feels somewhat tokenistic but is perhaps included as a way to acquaint readers with the unusual form of the collection, where each of the divisions mentioned above is bookended by a short memoiristic piece detailing Winterson’s own experiences with the supernatural.
“I have never ‘seen’ a ghost, only felt their emphatic presence,” writes Winterson. “I do want to stress this; there is no vagueness about it. Ghosts are intangible but they are not vague”
It’s a neat structural touch, with the mesh of forms, fictional and real, mirroring the blurred line between life and death that is the focus of the collection as a whole. Each memoir piece is vibrant and insightful, offering glimpses of the writer’s life, and that of her family: “I lived with two generations of [war] traumatised adults who had been taught to laugh it off and carry on. They all had tales of the Dead. All of them, without sensationalism, told me stories of being visited by a wartime pal, or loved one, only to discover later that the person was already dead.”
Winterson’s personal experiences – a friend’s face on a computer screen, a vision of her terminally ill grandmother in the garden, the presence of a woman on the second floor of her Georgian house in a historic part of London – are deftly described and pleasingly unsentimental, reminiscent of Hilary Mantel’s memoir Giving up the Ghost. “I have never ‘seen’ a ghost, only felt their emphatic presence,” writes Winterson. “I do want to stress this; there is no vagueness about it. Ghosts are intangible but they are not vague ... I don’t understand it, I am not sure that I believe it, but I go on experiencing it.”
These sections are so enjoyable that occasionally the stories suffer by comparison, feeling less tangible, to use Winterson’s word, because of course, they are. Nearly all of them are written in the first person, with a mix of past and present tenses that works to obscure the timelines and connections of the living and the dead. The best of the stories ask pertinent questions of our modern world, riffing on technological advances, particularly the largely undiscovered country of AI. Winterson excels at creating ghosts for our current age, ghosts for now. “Is consciousness obliged to materiality?” she asks, reminding us of her 2019 novel Frankissstein, a mash-up of science and Romanticism that reimagined Shelley’s novel against a backdrop of 21st-century tech.
In Night-Side, the opening story Apparition sees a deceased husband continue to exert control over his wife through the apps on her smartphone. In Ghost in the Machine, a widow lives mostly in the metaverse, where her seaview home on Prosperetto Island has spooky shades of The Tempest: “In the metaverse, the past doesn’t have to get in the way of the present. You can have the past you deserve.” It’s an interesting, layered story about the potential for escapism – from boredom, poverty, grief, society, life – and the dangers of manipulation of people at their most vulnerable.
Under the headings Places and Visitations, there is room for plenty of Gothic tropes, from haunted Scottish castles to treacherous weather, filthy rivers, isolated settings of ruined grandeur, even items of clothing with deadly impulses. But the collection’s standout story comes under People, the moving No Ghost Ghost Story about a bereaved man, Simon, and his partner William, who is damned to watch his lover’s suffering back on earth. Shifting between both perspectives, it captures beautifully the essence of this intriguing and unusual collection, the sad but strangely comforting feeling of having lived, loved and lost.