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REAL GHOST STORIES (Collected and Edited by William T. Stead) online

REAL GHOST STORIES by William T. Stead


Many people will object--some have already objected--to the subject of this book. It is an offence to some to take a ghost too seriously; with others it is a still greater offence not to take ghosts seriously enough. One set of objections can be paired off against the other; neither objection has very solid foundation. The time has surely come when the fair claim of ghosts to the impartial attention and careful observation of mankind should no longer be ignored. In earlier times people believed in them so much that they cut their acquaintance; in later times people believe in them so little that they will not even admit their existence. Thus these mysterious visitants have hitherto failed to enter into that friendly relation with mankind which many of them seem sincerely to desire.

But what with the superstitious credulity of the one age and the equally superstitious unbelief of another, it is necessary to begin from the beginning and to convince a sceptical world that apparitions really appear. In order to do this it is necessary to insist that your ghost should no longer be ignored as a phenomenon of Nature. He has a right, equal to that of any other natural phenomenon, to be examined and observed, studied and defined. It is true that he is a rather difficult phenomenon; his comings and goings are rather intermittent and fitful, his substance is too shadowy to be handled, and he has avoided hitherto equally the obtrusive inquisitiveness of the microscope and telescope.

A phenomenon which you can neither handle nor weigh, analyse nor dissect, is naturally regarded as intractable and troublesome; nevertheless, however intractable and troublesome he may be to reduce to any of the existing scientific categories, we have no right to allow his idiosyncrasies to deprive him of his innate right to be regarded as a phenomenon. As such he will be treated in the following pages, with all the respect due to phenomena whose reality is attested by a sufficient number of witnesses. There will be no attempt in this book to build up a theory of apparitions, or to define the true inwardness of a ghost. There will be as many explanations as there are minds of the significance of the extraordinary narratives which I have collated from correspondence and from accessible records. Leaving it to my readers to discuss the rival hypotheses, I will stick to the humbler mission of recording facts, from which they can form their own judgment.

The ordinary temper of the ordinary man in dealing with ghosts is supremely unscientific, but it is less objectionable than that of the pseudo-scientist. The Inquisitor who forbade free inquiry into matters of religion because of human depravity, was the natural precursor of the Scientist who forbids the exercise of the reason on the subject of ghosts, on account of inherited tendencies to attribute such phenomena to causes outside the established order of nature. What difference there is, is altogether in favour of the Inquisitor, who at least had what he regarded as a divinely constituted authority, competent and willing to pronounce final decision upon any subject that might trouble the human mind. Science has no such tribunal, and when she forbids others to observe and to reflect she is no better than a blind fetish.

Eclipses in old days used to drive whole nations half mad with fright. To this day the black disc of the moon no sooner begins to eat into the shining surface of the sun than millions of savage men feel "creepy," and begin to tremble at the thought of the approaching end of the world. But in civilised lands even the most ignorant regard an eclipse with imperturbable composure. Eclipses are scientific phenomena observed and understood. It is our object to reduce ghosts to the same level, or rather to establish the claim of ghosts to be regarded as belonging as much to the order of Nature as the eclipse. At present they are disfranchised of their natural birthright, and those who treat them with this injustice need not wonder if they take their revenge in "creeps."