At the Back Fence Issue #272

July 23, 2007 

From the Desk of Anne Marble:

Do Ghost Romances Have a Ghost of a Chance?

Before there were vampire romances, there were ghost romances. If you grew up in the 1970s, you probably saw the TV show The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. I grew up watching that show, so that’s probably why I picked up R. A. Dick’s novel The Ghost and Mrs. Muir at the local library when I was in high school. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be more a metaphysical love story than a ghostly romp. I loved that book. Although there was no pottery wheel scene, it became my Ghost.

While the TV show was mainly about the comic escapades involving the ghost and the other characters (particularly the Charles Nelson Reilly character), the book was a classic love story. Although like Robin, I agree that the captain, played by Edward Mulhare, was sexy, I was disappointed in the ending of the classic movie adaptation. Near the end of the movie, when the heroine ends up falling for the cad, Miles Fairley, the captain decides she’s better off with a living man, so he removes her memories of him. When Miles turns out to be married, and her heart is broken, Mrs. Muir is all alone again, for the ghost has left her, with not even her memories. Sometimes, you think she is going to remember, and yet she can’t, even when she tries, and it’s heartbreaking. Eventually, she finds a happy life by herself at the cottage, and only when she dies years later is she reunited with the captain’s ghost. Only then can they touch.

In the book, though, the ghost does leave her for a fairly long time, but he comes back to her – much like the long separations in the romance novels I was reading at the time, when the hero and heroine often split apart over some misunderstanding. To me, it was much more emotionally satisfying to have the two of them together for all those years, even if the relationship had to be platonic. Only after she died could they truly be together. Though the characters couldn’t touch, their relationship was romantic. Sure, the captain had been dead for several years when they met. Yet he and Mrs. Muir had more chemistry than many romance couples who have sex every chapter. The commentary on the recent edition of the DVD mentioned that in the book, Mrs. Muir never saw the captain’s ghost, she only heard his voice. In fact, you don’t know if the ghost is real or if he is a figment of her imagination. Real or not, the chemistry between them was so good that I’d completely forgotten she never saw her.

This week, I watched the movie adaptation of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir again for the first time in years, and I appreciated it more. Like Ghost, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is more love story than ghost story. The movie adaptation goes one step farther by letting her see the captain’s ghost. He’s played by the young Rex Harrison at his sexiest and most alpha, and you can see the tension and frustration in him. The captain clearly led a bawdy life, yet because he’s a ghost, he can’t touch the woman he comes to love. They can’t so much as kiss, although there’s one achingly romantic love scene where he comes close to kissing her, as close as he gets. This frustration scorches their love scenes with an intensity missing from so many more physical love stories. But lest you think all ghosts are incorporeal wisps, you should read Topper by Thorne Smith. Forget any knowledge of the movies or TV shows. Remember the cute, adorable, loving ghostly couple from the TV shows and movies? In the book, the ghostly wife wants to be sexually free. (After all, if you’re dead, surely “till death do us part” no longer applies.) Because of this, her angry, jealous husband pursues her. And Topper and Marion, this ghostly woman, take a vacation together, away from her husband. He catches up with Topper and tries to kill him in a bizarre duel where they fling clam shells at each other, but everything comes out all right in the end, and Topper returns to his wife a renewed man, and finds that his marriage has been renewed as well. In Topper, Thorne Smith proved that ghosts can be surprisingly earthy.

So how come ghost romances are often flatter than a white sheet? Sure, there are ghost romances, but after a recent plea on the message board, the list I ended up with was fairly short. Why aren’t ghosts more popular with paranormal fans? It’s not as if ghosts themselves aren’t popular. Bookstores have shelves full of ghosts stories (both real and fictional). You can’t turn around in a video store these days without seeing ghost movies. I love Asian horror movies, particularly the ghostly ones. These movies prove that the best ghost stories are about more than just a scare — they can be about alienation, sacrifice, revenge. All the big themes. For example, the Japanese ghost movie Kairo is a philosophical movie about alienation caused by cell phones and the Internet. This movie, with its vague, disturbing /wp-content/uploads/oldsiteimages, avoided gore yet still managed to pack a punch. Why can’t ghostly heroes and heroines in ghost romances be as powerful and scary as these ghosts, without the annoying tendency to do evil and kill innocents? Where are the ghosts with the swaggering manner of Captain Gregg? Most of the ghosts I’ve come across in romance novels were alpha men when they were alive, so what happens to them when they die?

Compare the ghosts of horror movies to the ones in the ghost romances I reviewed for AAR. I can really only remember one all that well – Eternal Sea – and what I remember about it as that it came across as a tribute to The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. While I have a couple of boxes of ghost fiction anthologies, I’d be hard pressed to find any ghost romances. While I have a bookshelf that’s almost all paranormal romance, it’s mainly vampires, werewolves, and spellcasters. Where are the ghost romances that will set my heart afire? Who is the Christine Feehan or J. R. Ward of ghost romances?

I’m not the only one who feels this way. Why aren’t ghost romances more popular? Is it because one of the people is dead? Vampires are undead after all. Is it because ghosts are old-fashioned, fusty, intangible? As Topper, and movies like The Ring (and the Japanese version, Ringu) proved, ghosts don’t have to be fusty and intangible. They can be bawdy and sexual, they can be powerful, scary, even deadly. Just as a vampire hero can be all those things. Is it because the HEA is so challenging in ghost romances? KristieJ is a fan of ghost romances but sees the HEA as a challenge because to have the HEA, the ghostly character has to come back to life. LinnieGayl has also enjoyed ghost romances, particularly those by Lynn Kurland.

On the other hand, kassiana says, “I don’t like putting things off to some afterlife when it comes to romance. To me, romance has to be lived out in this lifetime, even if for some reason it gets extended (e.g. becoming a vampire, being a long-lived creature).” Maybe that’s the problem so many have with ghost romances. Vampires often spend their long lives plotting against evil vampires, killing bad vampires, stuff like that. Ghosts spend their time hanging around, mourning for a lost past, often reliving a past tragedy. One of the ultimate extremes of this might be in the Japanese horror movie The Eye (you knew I was going to mention another Asian horror movie, didn’t you?), where the ghost of a young woman hangs herself at the same time every day.

Unless they’re careful, a ghostly hero can wind up seeming like the extreme version of an Elizabeth Lowell alpha hero. You thought it was annoying when Lowell heroes distrusted all women because they were betrayed by their girlfriend ten years ago. Imagine a hero forced to haunt a castle for hundreds of years while moping about a betrayal. In the wrong hands, it would make you want to slap that ghost, although your hand would go right through him. In the right hands, it would be tragic and poignant, and surely worthy of a romance novel. Certainly ghosts are no stranger to tragic love. At Girl Scout camp, I learned about the ghost of Belle Manor. The master of Belle Manor went off to fight the Civil War, and soon, his wife was informed that he had died in battle. Distraught, she killed herself. Of course, the message was wrong, and her husband was still alive. But he came home just in time to find his wife’s body hanging in a closet. In typical ghost story fashion, the husband killed himself, and now, both their spirits haunt Belle Manor. Even then, I realized the story had been taken from Romeo and Juliet, or at least Pyramus and Thesbe. That didn’t stop it from being both sad and spooky. So why can’t more romance novels capture that feeling?

I wish romance authors could tap into what drives ghost stories. There is room for ghost romances that remind us of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, rather than Casper the Friendly Ghost. Readers want a hero they can believe could scare people. As the writers of ghost stories know, fear and sex are intertwined. A powerful hero can bring out both feelings, especially if he is a ghost or some other paranormal creature. Readers want a heroine with the guts to pick the dangerous man, be he ghost or vampire or pirate, rather than opting for the nice, safe guy her family picked for her. In older stories, that choice was often taken out of the heroine’s hands, because the men (and often even the women) in her life wanted to “protect” her. In The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Mrs. Muir must hold her own against a mother-in-law and domineering sister-in-law, and against a real estate agent who at first refuses to show her Gull Cottage. Even the captain made the choice to leave her to give her the physical love she needed – of course, that turned out to be a disaster for her.

In Dracula, Mina wanted Dracula, and I don’t blame her. Dracula was hot. Of course, women weren’t allowed to like hot men, even if they weren’t vampires. So the men in her life killed Dracula. (Maybe this is why I loved the Fred Saberhagen’s take on the story, The Dracula Tape, where we learn from Vlad himself about how he fooled those mortals and survived, and he and Mina remained in love through the years. Maybe that’s why so many fans have written Phantom of the Opera “phan” fiction in which Christine comes back to Erik.) In those stories where the woman married the darker force, she found a tragic end. In Sheridan Le Fanu’s A Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter, Shacklen loves Rose Velderkaust, but she is forced to marry a mysterious man, Vanderhausen, because he can offer her family more wealth. Only after the agreement is signed does it turn out Vanderhausen looks demonic. Months later, poor Rose shows up at her uncle’s house, half-starved and desperate, and when she is left alone, she is killed under mysterious, and horrific, circumstances. Take that, families who want to marry their daughters off to creatures of the night! Take that, women who want the bad boy!

Today’s heroines are stronger, and if they want to end up with the ghost, they will make that choice for themselves. If he turns out to be a bad ghost, they will perform an exorcism and find a nice lawyer to shack up with. But at least in today’s romances, the supernatural creatures more than often turn out to be the good guys – after all, they’re more interesting than that nice lawyer. And if I wanted to read about a heroine who falls in love with a nice lawyer, why would I be reading a ghost romance? One of the pioneers of Gothic romance, Virginia Coffman, was familiar with the early Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe, and knew that while the heroine often ended up with the bland hero at the end, the most interesting characters were the villains. She reversed this in her book Moura, a twist on one of Radcliffe’s plots, in which the brooding man, a convicted murderer, turns out to be the true hero.

Oh to fall in love with a ghost! Being special enough to make a ghost fall in love with you must be heady stuff indeed. Like vampires, ghosts can be symbolic of the ultimate “forever” commitment. If you can attract the attention of a ghost who was been haunting a castle for hundreds of years, then you must be special. The idea of a love that transcends time and death is a powerful one, and it can be made even more powerful when the story is a romance and a happy ending is dangled in front of the reader. Even ghosts deserve love and hope now and again.

Years ago, most people avoided vampire romances, and werewolf romances were even more rare. Now they’re in every bookstore. Why? Because one day, enough vampire and werewolf romances blew people away, and the idea caught on. So what could ghost romances do to win more readers? Maybe writers have to stop thinking of ghost stories as old-fashioned. Maybe they have to stop thinking of ghosts as ephemeral and weak and find some way to put “life” back into their romantic ghosts. Because ghosts are a very romantic ideal, and it’s a shame they don’t often become the love interest in romance novels.

Questions To Consider:

What has been your experience with ghost romances? Have you ever found ghost romances that captured the intensity of the best ghost stories? If not, what do you think was missing?

What do you see as the challenges of the ghost romance to the reader? How do you think writers can overcome those challenges?

One reason ghost romances are less popular might be because the HEA is hard to pull off. Do you think this is the case? Also, how can writers of ghost romances work around the HEA?

It seems that the most beloved ghost romances are often found outside of the romance genre – for example, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Tryst by Elswyth Thane, and Ghost. Why do you think those stories are successful when most ghost romances are not?

Outside of romance, are you a fan of ghost stories? Who are your favorite ghost fiction authors? Also, what do you find as the attraction of ghost stories, and how do you think ghost romances could capture that intensity?

Anne Marble

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(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)