For some reason, today I’ve been thinking about ghosts.
Ghost tales are the poor cousin in the paranormal sub-genre. For every story of visitors from beyond the veil, you'll find dozens featuring vampires and werewolves. Ghosts are not nearly as trendy, at least not these days. That's one reason I enjoy writing about ghosts. An author has a great deal more freedom.
A long tradition constrains vampires and lycanthropes. Everyone knows how they behave, their strengths and their weaknesses, how they can be killed, and in the romance/erotica genre at least, why they're sexy. One can only tweak the conventions so far before readers will cry foul. I've actually read posts on discussion groups where readers complained that a vampire “couldn't really eat a steak” or “couldn't sire children on a human woman”. In “Vampires Limited”, published in the altruistic vampire erotica volume ComingTogether: In Vein, I have a member of the undead community who can walk about in daylight, as long as it's cloudy, and who is more endangered by electromagnetic radiation from a cell phone than by garlic or crosses. As I wrote that story, I really wondered if I was pushing things too far, whether I would incite angry protests from vampire-loving readers.
With ghosts, there are very few givens. A ghost represents some manifestation, in the physical world, of a person who has died. The author has fairly free rein in deciding the characteristics of that manifestation. A ghost may be ethereal, a permeable fog taking a human shape, or corporeal, able to interact physically with flesh and blood creatures. (The latter is perhaps more useful in erotica!) Specters may appear only in dreams, or only at night – in certain locations, or associated with specific natural phenomena. Some ghosts may not appear at all, making their presence known only through their effects on the environment, messages scrawled on mirrors, or clues leading to the discovery of secrets. Some of my favorite ghost tales, such as Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, are sufficiently subtle that they leave open the question of whether the ghosts actually exist at all, or whether they are projections of the character's imagination.
Ghosts' emotions and intentions can be at least as varied as their physical characteristics. They may be sorrowful, vengeful, compassionate or horny. A widely accepted belief is that ghosts hang around in the physical realm because of some sort of unfinished business: a murder to be avenged, a mystery to be revealed, a treasure to be guarded, a child to be guided and protected. On the other hand, some ghosts seem to exist purely for the sake of causing trouble, from simple mischief to genuine malevolence. A ghost can be a character as rich and full-bodied as a living being. The chains that tether a spirit to our world can provide a start on a riveting conflict.
In my ghost tales, the human character often doesn't understand that the ghost is a visitor from the grave until quite late in the story. “Twentieth Century”, which is included in my dark paranormal collection Fourth World: Erotic tales of monsters, myths and magic, is a tale of a woman more at home in the past than in a modern city, whose love of things antique draws her into an encounter with history. Only near the end of the tale does she realize that her lover is in fact long dead.
Tomorrow's Gifts, part of Total-E-Bound's “Christmas Spirits” collection, draws on the Dickensian concept of the “ghost of Christmas future”. However, Michael really has no idea exactly who or what Thorne is, other than a hot stud who understands his submissive needs, until the last scenes.
“Twentieth Century” has a bittersweet conclusion. Beth loses her ghostly lover forever, though she learns something about herself. Tomorrow's Gifts, an erotic romance, has a happy ending, but it does not involve the ghost. This highlights a bit of a problem with using ghosts as main characters in romance. How, when a human loves a ghost, to you engineer a happily-ever-after? No matter how deliciously corporeal and carnal a spectral lover may be, a long-term relationship is not likely to be very satisfying. On the other hand, what are the options? One of my readers wrote, in response to a question I posed in a contest:
I hate endings where the ghost just disappears/goes to heaven/finds peace and the heroine then meets a guy who reminds her of/is the reincarnation of/is the great-grandson of the hero. It doesn't count if he is not the hero, I don't want a reincarnation or any substitute, I want her to find happiness with the hero. But there is one ending that is even worse, where the heroine dies too so they can be together forever.
Herein lies the rub. A romance author can ignore this problem by simply offering a “happy for now” ending, where the human protagonist(s) and the ghosts are busily getting it on and not worrying about the future. This is not likely to be effective in a longer work, though. If the reader cares at all about the characters, she is bound to be frustrated, wondering how things will turn out them in the future.
This may be a partial explanation for the popularity of vampires as opposed to ghosts, at least in the realm of erotic romance. The same reader above said:
Funny, it doesn't bother me when a vampire hero turns his heroine into a vampire, but I don't want to have two ghosts living happily ever after.
As my followers have probably realized, I don't necessarily require all my stories to end happily, so this structural problem with ghosts doesn't really bother me. I love the other-worldliness of a ghost tale. There's not much mystery left in vampires. I also appreciate the fact that ghosts are not necessarily monsters. They may have supernatural powers, but fundamentally, they are as human as my living characters – heroes, villains, creeps and clowns. Ghosts offer a wide scope for the creative imagination.