I recently posted on the Joyce Carol Oats’ ghost story “the Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly”. It was unusual, because it was a ghost story told from the point of view of the ghost as both she and her ghostly boyfriend watched the living go on. Well, never think that your idea is original. It really ALL has been done and if you don’t think so, ask around and someone will supply you with a source as an example of it having been done (even if done terribly – yes, I’m certain someone has done groundhog’s day on the moon). For example, Anne Sexton, has also done a ghost story from the point of view of the ghost. But she exceeded her predecessor in quality and ghastliness.
Sexton’s “The Ghost” is the story of a spinster who lived out her entire life in purity never having allowed a man to touch her and always following the rules. She even states that ghosts have rules about who or where they are to haunt, but are prohibited from telling the living how or why and this ghost will never break those rules either. She is drawn to her niece, because she was named after her. She follows this rule to nth degree watching her obsessively and picking at her faults constantly. She put bugs into her food if it’s the wrong food causing the niece to go ill, she puts songs into her head when the niece has extra marital sex (only with her husband which she must soon get). Eventually, she drives the niece insane and ends up being institutionalized. And the last few sentences – “She is at this point enduring a great fear [Ed. I wonder why], but I am with her, I am holding her hand and she senses this despite her conviction that each needle is filled with Novocain, for that is the effect on her limbs and parts. Still, the slight pressure of my hand, the sound of the song of the mistletoe must comfort her. Right now they scream to her and fill her with an extraordinary terror. But somehow, I know full well she is indubitably pleased that I have not left. And nor do I plan to.” – leave you haunted.
Sexton was trying for a very personal angle, drawing from life. I read her intro biography before the story and it became obvious as I read the story (which actually took me out of the story a bit) that the niece was actually her (they wrote: “She was hospitalized a number of times…some [of the diseases were] described as bipolar…Sexton lost the battle against the voices…and ended her life”), and, therefore, the aunt had to be someone who once harangued her in life.
It’s easy when comparing stories to say which you prefer, but it’s more difficult to say which is actually better. Both have their strengths. The former did a masterful job of speaking from different perspectives, even while staying in third person. It was easy to know who we were viewing the world through. The author just introduced that section with that person’s name and started describing his or her actions and we knew where we were. There were even points in the narrative where the point of view shifted to someone else, someone who was seeing what the ghosts wanted him or her to see, and, even if there were some clunky moments where it was unclear who was seeing what (there definitely were moments when I had to stop and re-read) it was mostly seamless and I was able to follow along. And perhaps there was a point to the clunkiness – who’s to say. But definite choices were made in how to tell this story.
Whereas the latter, Sextons [story title] with its strict, rule following aunt, answered every question quite thoroughly – and for good reason (if every question isn’t answered, then our aunt isn’t as strict as we thought). Sexton’s story was written first person and does a wonderful job at working within its limited view. We only see what the aunt wants us to see, even if a comment here or there lets slip that she might not be as sturdy as we thought she was (every once in a while she references how she is working for the devil). Yet we never get any hint as to what that influence might have been, plus, knowing a bit about the poet’s own tragic life and having it hinted at takes you out of the fictional construct of the story (so much so I almost gave up on it). So, as to which story is the better quality it’s a draw.
But I think that that better point to make is that we have here two stories that are the same exact idea, two ghost stories told from the ghost’s point of view, but it isn’t the subject matter that is important, but the manner in which they are executed. One was made to be a story that highlighted the author’s point of view on how society views her as a woman (showing how the women in the story are treated poorly, the more they deviated from the accepted norm of womanhood). The other was Sexton’s way of exploring her own personal emotional turmoil. This proves that even though every story has been told, it can still be told again from a different point of view. It will never be old or stale, because each story teller will claim it as her own (so long as the story is very personal for her, or told from her own emotional narrative).
In ancient times, when stories weren’t written, they were told, all of the stories were well known. If you were in ancient Greece, you listened to the Iliad over and over again, but each story teller made it his own story. There isn’t one version of the Iliad, there are thousands upon thousands. There are official versions to be told in each ancient Greek city and even those varied among tellers. It’s also why you will find very different versions of the Grimm’s fairy tales, because each village had their own, and some stories overlapped one another, and some swapped out details based on what values that particular village wanted to highlight (in some perhaps Red Riding Hood temped the wolf showing their value of women being persuasive, where in others she ran away, showing the value of a woman being modest).
But never shy away from a story just because that story has been already told. All the old ideas are taken, never mind that. Just make it your own, tell it as if it were your story and it will be unique enough.