The Ghost & Mrs. Muir was on cable not too long ago. This ghostly romance (if there ever was one), along with The Canterbury Ghost (a WWII romp, if you can believe it!), and Heaven Can Wait, another ghostly romance, are among my favorite movies. With the movie fresh in my mind, I decided to delve into the paranormal sub-genre of romance.
While some publishers such as Jove are continuing to publish such books, and, indeed, have launched successful new lines in this arena, other publishers are doing away with them altogether.
While in flux with publishers, ghostly romances are popular with many romance readers. While most often the ghost is there to haunt characters or assist them in getting together, sometimes ghosts were actually a part of one of the lead character’s lives in the far or recent past.
Ann Josephson aka Sara Jarrod (The three Heaven titles were written in collaboration with Sara Brockunier), came to my attention last year when she wrote Heaven Above. A close friend of mine reviewed it and was disturbed by the ghost’s relationship to the lead characters. Neither Ann nor I are ones to shy away from controversy, so when I asked her to write about ghostly romances, I made sure I asked her about this in particular, which, in turn led us to briefly discuss the HEA ending.
This is what she had to say:
What is the appeal of ghost romances? After thinking this question over for many hours, I spent an afternoon in my favorite local independent bookstore, asking this question to customers while they selected their weekly or monthly book fixes.An interesting conclusion I drew was that many readers do not consider their favorite friendly ghost romances “paranormal,” but rather historical or contemporary, depending on the time period where the story is set. While readers tend to lump romances with ghosts and angels together, they do not usually equate ghost stories with time travel or fantasy books.
One voracious reader of ghost romances told me that she loves to read about spirits returning from beyond the grave because she believes in ghosts, and she likes to read about other mortals who have seen what she has merely felt. Her favorite ghosts are heroes, in whose ability to return to mortal life she has no doubts. Telling me she has been reading ghost romances for years, she pointed me in the direction of Rita Clay Estrada’s The Ivory Key (Harlequin Temptation #166), published in 1987.
Her comment was that if I had trouble suspending disbelief in ghosts who miraculously return to life (which I do), I should read this book, which now resides near the top of my TBR stack. Its back cover blurb says, “Armand Santeuil had waited lifetimes for her the woman he loved with an ageless and burning passion. And finally he had Hope. Nothing would stand in the way of their boundless love, he vowed. Not even destiny . . . .”
The ghost protagonist is a mortal being, human in form yet with qualities that are ethereal and timeless. He will have some supernatural powers, such as the ability to appear and disappear at will or the facility to hear and see action taking place some distance away. While he has no bodily substance (until he becomes a mortal via the love of his heroine, reincarnation, or some other phenomenon), he can project the image of mortal beauty and masculine strength.
It is not difficult to imagine how such a hero could capture readers’ hearts, the way Lynn Kurland’s medieval ghost does in her debut novel, Starlight of Yesterday, which to me had the feel of a time travel book even though it has a contemporary setting. Whispers in the Wind, by Donna Fletcher, also features a ghostly hero with a different twist. Still, I prefer writing, and reading, books in which the ghost or ghosts play supporting roles.
My own take on why ghostly characters appeal is that readers generally know of many real-life people who have died before their time by fair means and foul, who have left unfinished business here on earth. Reading about ghosts returning to right wrongs and complete open agendas gives me a warm feeling, that perhaps spirits do return if for no other purpose than to watch over loved ones they have left behind.
Glenna, the ghost of the hero’s wife in my first book, Heaven Above, dies suddenly, leaving a grief-stricken widower and the pregnant surrogate mother of the baby Glenna wanted above all else. Her spirit cannot rest until she sees the loose ends she left behind neatly and happily tied up in other words, her much-loved husband and the child she could never give him, married and deeply in love with the surrogate mother.
Facilitator ghosts can be serious or funny, selfless like Glenna or bent on achieving their own goals, like Cyrus and Laura Bliss in Heavenly Bliss. This pair, having been trapped in the house where they died for a hundred years, do their worst to bring mortal lovers together so that they may, as Harriet Klausner put it in her review for Painted Rock, avoid spending eternity in the Hell Hotel. They can even be meddling mamas shoving their adult children together from their vantage point in Paradise, as you can see next spring in my next Haunting Hearts romance, Arranged in Heaven. One of the funniest ghost facilitators I have encountered is the mother-in-law ghost in Casey Claybourne’s Ghost of a Chance.
Whether the ghost is hero, heroine, or facilitator of romance, his or her basic appeal revolves around an element of fantasy which is easy to embrace without the author resorting to mechanical contrivances to explain the inexplicable. Readers do embrace the shadowy but lovable spirit characters we create, without having to go overboard to suspend disbelief in them!
I don’t think I would want to read a romance in which the heroine of an earlier book that I had loved was killed off – the scenario you mentioned about some authors’ series. As for Heaven Above’s ghost of the hero’s dead wife, I had not originally envisioned Glenna appearing “live,” either in a preceding book or (as it happened), in the initial chapters of the book. My editor requested those initial chapters before Glenna’s death, so that readers could get to “know” Glenna – as a condition for her buying the book.
The result was a romance which had, for all practical purposes, two heroines. While I tried hard to make the surrogate mother of Blake’s child (who Glenna wants Blake to fall in love with to fill the spot in his heart left by her death) the real heroine, some readers identified more with Glenna. I’ve always felt this was the case with the review you mentioned to me at The Romance Reader.
Glenna the ghost, in her role as matchmaker, popped in on Erin at random times, leaving some readers with the impression that she was always lurking, observing everything – including, at least for Ms. Scribner, the first love scene between Erin and Blake. While that comment infuriated me when I first read the review, I realize in retrospect that while it was specifically stated that Glenna did not venture into the bedroom, her presence in the hallway as Blake made the decision to make love with his wife-in-name-only could conjure up a picture of voyeurism in the mind of a reader firmly identified with the ghost and not the heroine.
If anyone asked me for advice about crafting the dead lover, I would suggest that she not let readers become too close to the dead character when he or she was alive. I certainly wouldn’t suggest that anyone write a book about the hero she created in one book finding a new heroine in another book. I don’t think readers would look kindly at an author who decided to kill off a heroine they loved. . .
Although it might work if the first heroine had been diagnosed with some terminal illness, and they decided to go for happiness for the short time she had left. Bittersweet, of course – but it just might be a setup that would allow readers to go after the second book, in which the new heroine helps the grieving hero get along with the business of living after his beloved wife passes on from her terminal illness. It would also help readers accept the new heroine, I think, if the hero had been grieving a good long time before falling for his new lover.
Ann’s Backlist (written as Sara Jarrod):
Arranged in Heaven
(to be published in May of 1998)
Written as Ann Jacobs: The Barbarian from the anthology Secrets III
Read an AAR Review of Ann Josephson aka Sara Jarrod’s Arranged in Heaven
Read an AAR Review of Ann Josephson’s Coming Home
Read an AAR Review of Ann Josephson aka Sara Jarrod’s Enduring Love