The Oral Tradition, and a Ghost Story from Me

Photo by Elena Penkova

I used to have a university professor, who didn’t have a television. Back then, I thought that astounding. How could someone be that puritan, so as to say such a firm no to pop culture? I liked him, that professor. He read a lot. He was thoughtful and measured in his responses, and spoke more slowly than I was used to. I wonder if he still has no telly.

We know it well, this century, the deceptively alluring call of the box, the restlessness of channel surfing when you can’t find anything to watch and simply give in to the monotony of an evening on the sofa. I always feel a slight pang of regret if I channel hop as oppose to prerecording what I want to watch: the flickering images, the volume burst during the adverts, the tired formats we think soothe but somehow drain our energy.

It got me thinking about how we’ve always used stories to entertain, but how in the past decades we’ve broken with the oral tradition. Parlour games like exquisite corpse, or telling ghost stories around a camp fire or on car journeys are no longer the norm. I remember being riveted as a child by impromptu stories, ones my uncle especially would embellish, until they were a wild mix siphoned from history, personal experience, soap operas and neighbourly gossip.

Photo by Alexander Affleck

The world is still so mysterious when you are a child. Some of the stories I read or heard then still hold sway over me. At that age, before you have learned the logic of the adult world, your imagination swells to add even more colour and shape to already existing words. In many ways, once absorbed, you are able to focus more singularly than an adult. The world narrows and it is you in a tunnel with ghosts, or on a car journey where the shadows grasp at you.

I was told one such story on the motorway, as I sat alone in the back seat of our car. I was about sixteen years old, catching glimpses of my dad in the rearview mirror as he drove, my mum in solemn profile. Soon the motorway faded into B-roads lined with heavy banks of trees that the street lighting could not pierce, and it was easy to imagine the monsters lurking mere feet away.

The story was about the most beautiful girl in the village, who had given birth to her first child. She loved her husband but it pained her that her parents were not friends with her husband’s parents. Her father-in-law was said to dabble in dark magic, and in time, even the girl came to believe it, for her own father who had been in robust health began having terrible seizures.

The girl and her husband did not know what to do. They begged their parents to be friends, but the seizures continued until the girl’s father was half the man he had been, withered and fearful. The girl and her husband took solace from their faith. They believed prayer could right all. They wrote to their spiritual leader, a man of great magnanimity and wisdom, asking for help. Their letter took weeks to arrive at its destination. When the response finally arrived, marked with the seal of the great man, the girl and her husband were relieved. Surely their family’s suffering would finally end, and they could enjoy the joy of their new child?

Photo by David Callidae

The advice in the letter was clear. There could be no doubt that the girl’s father-in-law was practicing magic of the darkest kind. He had invoked a jinn to terrorise the girl’s father. Certain prayers could be recited to drive the evil jinn from the world and free the girl’s father. But the jinn could not be banished without taking something good with it, for the balance of the worlds had to be upheld.

What could the girl and her husband do? They could no longer witness the girl’s father in such pain, nor endure the warring of their families. So they prayed. Day and night they prayed. And sure enough, the girl’s father improved. His seizures eased. He smiled and began to take pleasure from his food again. The girl was happy. Her father beamed when she placed his granddaughter in his arms and told him how worried she had been.

The next morning, the husband rose with the crows to earn his living, and the girl lay still next to him, although the baby had woken and was fussing for milk. He nudged her. She lay in beautiful repose, her cheeks pale. He touched her again, noticing how cold she was, and called out her name but she did not answer. He cried out, realising at last that she no longer breathed. The beautiful girl had died, and the balance of good and evil had been restored.

So there’s my ghost story, embellished and certainly changed from what I first heard. I’d love you to leave me your favourite ghost story in the comments. Have a great week, folks, n

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