Have you ever seen a ghost? Or heard one? Maybe not. But perhaps you’ve had some experience or other you couldn’t easily explain, some weird occurrence which you mull on even now. Did it happen the way you remember? Or did you imagine it? That ambiguity, unfocused and inconclusive, is the essence of what we think of as the supernatural.
I grew up in a creaky Edwardian house, the only standalone in a street of terraces and semi-detacheds. It had roses round the door and old glass in the windows, glass that had moved over time and was faintly warped, like looking through water. In that house I had many experiences that I believed at the time to be ghosts, footsteps on the stairs, whispering from below after everyone had gone to bed, the dragging sound of movement from inside the crawlspace. I still think on many of these occurrences, burned into memory by the fear that engulfed me at the time. And while my adult, reasoning self looks for answers in the shifting and resettling of an old house or the overactive imagination of a child, many of these memories resist easy explanation, and I’m left with the unsettling feeling of a question unresolved. A mystery that remains mysterious.
When, later in life, I started writing seriously—by which I mean, writing with intent to finish—and was drawn to stories that touched on the supernatural, capturing this ambiguity felt not only important but intrinsic to that endeavour. To me it seemed (and still seems) that in order for the uncanny in a story to be plausible, some element of uncertainty had to also be present. This has been true to greater or lesser degrees since the earliest days of weird fiction and the ghost story. Is the yellow wallpaper really forming those unusual shapes, or is it just an indication of the narrator’s ‘nervous’ disposition? Is some otherworldly presence really haunting that stretch of the Danube, or is it just the effect of the whispering willows on the canoeist’s imagination? For the reader to believe in the unbelievable, a certain amount of incredulous questioning is required of the story or its protagonists, addressing by proxy and allaying the reader’s own incredulity.
That kind of ambiguity has always been central to fiction that deals with the supernatural, almost to the extent that it has become a trope. But it is almost always temporary, a question that remains unanswered only as long as it suits the author’s purposes. The first book I read that went all the way, that committed to a kind of radical ambiguity, pigheadedly refusing to answer any of the questions it poses, is Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece, The Haunting of Hill House.
I had seen the sixties British movie The Haunting many times before I finally read the original. It’s a great film, and wonderfully scary, but gives no hint of the depth and complexity of the characters, and the deep and prevailing uncertainty that, in the book, Jackson leans into with the surety of the virtuoso. There is something unquestionably wrong with Hill House, both reader and protagonists feel it from the very beginning. The weird occurrences are well documented and have been neatly signposted by the moody housekeeper’s warnings. When terrifying things start to happen, they happen to all of the investigators staying at the house—and yet there is no real evidence that they ever occurred, nothing measurable. The biting cold they all experience at the threshold to the nursery does not register on a thermometer. Mrs Montague, with her planchette and all her ‘sensitivity,’ sleeps soundly through one of the book’s most dramatic scenes, with banging and shaking and the sound of breaking glass. Odd and unsettling things are occurring—unquestionably—but… are they really? In what way are they occurring?
Then there is Eleanor, the book’s main character, and the one investigator whose somewhat muddled and mercurial thoughts we are given access to. There is a relationship growing between Hill House and ‘Nell,’ again without question, but is the house the cause of the mysterious and terrifying happenings, or is it Eleanor herself? Is the root of her strange and suicidal actions influenced by some dark presence in the house, or is it her, Nell, the burgeoning madness and the personality warped by her own life’s experiences? Is it, in the final reckoning, all in her mind?
I’ve always been frustrated by the materialistic notion that because something happens in the mind it is not real. Perhaps the mind is the mechanism through which the supernatural influences the natural world. Jackson seems to lean into this possibility, answering the question “Is it real or all in the mind?” simply “Yes.” The result is a Zen koan in novel form, a quantum experiment that consciously resists describing the phenomena of the supernatural as either particle or wave—yes, there is madness; yes, it’s in their minds; yes, it’s really happening; yes, the house is precisely as monstrous as we have been led, from the beginning, to believe. To misappropriate Einstein, “We have two contradictory pictures of reality,” and it seems Shirley Jackson is okay with that.
A similar kind of ambiguity is used to great effect in the Australian horror movie Lake Mungo (2005), in which a family is (maybe) haunted by the ghost of a drowned girl. The film expertly draws us in to the possibility of a true haunting through a mounting base of photographic and video evidence, which it then suddenly undermines. Is this a movie about a haunting, or the staging of one? Again the answer is “Yes.” The device of discrediting the main source of evidence of the girl’s return from the grave leaves a tiny window unexplained, and through this window we catch glimpses of something definitely otherworldly. What remains is more terrifying—more real—because of the certainty with which the rest has been disowned.
Paul Tremblay, bestselling author of horror novels A Head Full of Ghosts, The Cabin at the End of the World, and Survivor Song, among others, is on record as a great fan of Lake Mungo. And you can see the film’s influence across his books. Tremblay’s brand of ambiguity pushes the reader into assuming a supernatural or otherworldly explanation for each story’s occurrences. We want the girl to be possessed, the cultists to predict the apocalypse, the zombie plague to be really… well, zombies. But Tremblay resists confirmation, holding the resolution in doubt until the last pages. Unlike Jackson, however, Tremblay tends to err on the side of material reality. Those uncertainties are finally resolved, there is an answer, and it’s rarely if ever supernatural.
When writing Ariadne, I Love You, I wanted very deliberately to evoke the supernatural in a way that was at once unquestionably true and central to the story, yet at the same time easily explained away from a materialistic perspective. There are competing voices throughout, conflicting inputs, that tell both sides. The aim was to make it at once real and unanswerable, to embody—like Jackson—the Zen koan, the wave–particle duality, that keeps the reader questioning long beyond the closing of the final pages. In much the same way that I still look back and question those mysteries from my own childhood.
J. Ashley-Smith is a British–Australian writer of dark fiction and other materials. His short stories have twice won national competitions and been shortlisted seven times for Aurealis Awards, winning both Best Horror (Old Growth, 2017) and Best Fantasy (The Further Shore, 2018). His novella, The Attic Tragedy, was released by Meerkat Press in 2020 and has since been shortlisted for an Aurealis Award, an Australian Shadows Award, and a Shirley Jackson Award. J. lives with his wife and two sons in the suburbs of North Canberra, gathering moth dust, tormented by the desolation of telegraph wires. You can connect with J. at spooktapes.net, or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Ariadne, I Love You is available now from Meerkat Press.
This essay is part of the blog tour for Ariadne, I Love You.