Tough Travelling: Ghosts & Spirits
Welcome intrepid adventurers to Tough Travelling with the Tough Guide to Fantasyland!
That’s right, we’ve dusted it down and brought back this feature (created by Nathan of Fantasy Review Barn, revived by our friends over on Fantasy Faction, then dragged kicking and screaming to the Hive).
It is a monthly feature in which we rack our brains for popular (and not so popular) examples of fantasy tropes.
Tough Travelling is inspired by the informative and hilarious Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones. Fellow bloggers are absolutely welcome to join in – just make your own list, publish it on your site, and then comment with the link on this article!
This month, we’re looking at GHOSTS in Fantasy, and/or SPIRITS. Here’s what DWJ had to say on the matter…
Ghosts come both singly and in battalions. Single Ghosts are met in MANSIONS and out of doors, but very seldom in CASTLES, PALACES, or other places where people might have come to sticky ends. This is because Ghosts on the whole seem to exist not as a result of the way they died but because of unfinished business. This applies particularly to Ghosts in battalions, who will be waiting in a large cemetery or graveyard for someone to call them up to fulfil their vows. Single Ghosts will be feeling vengeful about some legal or magical matter they have had to leave to their descendants. Tourists should be careful of all Ghosts. In Fantasyland, Ghosts can interact with living substance and do real damage. Single Ghosts can hurt or bespell you. The called-up battalions usually fight like living soldiers but are, for obvious reasons, very difficult to kill.
A big thank you to Nils, Julia, Gray, and Theo for their recommendations…
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. As you can probably tell by the title, this book is all about ghosts. Our main protagonist Bod becomes an orphan very early on and in his desperation and loneliness he seeks solace in a graveyard, where he befriends many ghosts who help protect and raise him. In true Gaiman fashion, there is an abundance of humour, quirkiness and very eclectic characters, but what I was most surprised about was how sad the ending was. For a book aimed at a young audience, I didn’t expect the story to end so bittersweet.
I wouldn’t be Nils if I didn’t work in characters from Lord of the Rings now would I? So my next choice is The King of the Dead who was king of the Dead Men of the Mountains in Dwimorberg. His spirit resided along with that of his kin in the Paths of the Dead, where they have long remained due to Isildur placing a curse on them when they betrayed their oath to him. We meet these spirits when Aragorn travels to the mountains and calls upon the king to fight alongside him and fulfil their oath which will finally set them free.
There’s a very unique kind of spirit in The Fate of the Fallen by Kel Kade. Matthias is a spirit who dwells inside his own severed head, which is carried around by his closest friend, Aaslo, our somewhat reluctant hero. Unfortunately for Aaslo he can hear Matthias talking, and let’s just say Matthias rarely shuts up. This book made me laugh so much, it’s utterly ridiculous, very bizarre, but so entertaining.
Speaking of spirits possessing heads, there’s also Lews Therin, the original Dragon Reborn, the man who broke the world. Throughout the fourteen book Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, Lews Therin resides inside Rand, one of the most significant characters. Try as he might to keep the spirit’s voice inside his head a secret, Rand slowly begins to lose his grip on reality and those closest to him quickly notice something is not quite right.
If you’re looking for “traditional” fantasy then Ben Galley’s excellent Chasing Graves trilogy should serve you well when it comes to ghost-related mishaps. It is an Ancient Egyptian inspired setting where harnessing and trading the souls of the dead is the primary magic system.
If we’re hopping over to urban fantasy land, then Half-Resurrection Blues by Daniel Jose Older has a mature story told in the patois of its protagonists. Took me a moment to get into the rhythm, but once it hooks you, it holds on tight, and it has been on my mind ever since I read it years back.
Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas is a YA book about a young Brujah who needs to prove his magical powers so that his family will accept him, and the ghost that he summons in secret (and has to investigate the murder of, while trying not to fall in love with him.)
And how could I forget the Felix Castor books! Mike Carey’s series following a freelance exorcist living in London kicks off in The Devil You Know with major spiritual upheaval. While the mechanics of exorcism are relatively simple compared to all the plot twists, the fact that almost everything supernatural in this series somehow ties back to ghosts makes it kind of the perfect fit.
Ghost Story by Jim Butcher has almost a whole book set with a ghost as the main character. I really enjoyed the different view this allows. It was a fresh breath to an already ling urban fantasy, and I must admit there’s quite some problems with being a ghost I didn’t consider before reading it.
Ghosts don’t have to make for spooky reading, they can also add to an insightful and reflective story.
Fellside by MR Carey is about so many things! It is a ghost story and sometimes almost a thriller, it is about life in prison (including shady guards, drugs, violence), it is about guilt and redemption, about prejudice and corruption, about choosing what you think is right, and living with the consequences. It both leaves you exhausted and yet so how a tad hopeful.
As it’s slowly getting cold and dark, an obvious choice is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. One I don’t think needs much explanation. It’s one of my favourite seasonal reads. It seems having ghosts helping people to open their mind and get kinder is something I enjoy!
Nocturne for a Widow by Amanda DeWees has a strong female leading character who finds out she can actually interact with ghosts. She is a rather self confident person, and so isn’t easily spooked by some annoying spirits. No, she’s rather prone to telling them off and finding a solution for them and the people who suffer from being haunted. I enjoyed all the books I’ve read in the Sybil Ingram series so far.
Black Water Sister by Zen Cho has a young woman who grew up in America and then moves back to Malaysia with her parents as a main character. And because that isn’t enough of a mental adjustment, she suddenly also has the ghost of her dead grandma inside her head… One who is quite wilful and knows exactly what she wants! I loved how the different cultures and times clashed between the two, and how they manage to compromise…
Lord of the Rings also has the Barrow-wights who ambushed the four hobbits on their way out of the shire, but they were rescued by Tom Bombadil singing nonsense rhymes. I can’t think how you could have forgotten that Nils?!
(Nils: I didn’t forget!! I choose not to mention Tom Bombadil given that I really hate his character!!) ~
So there are the spirits of the first born of Eru (aka Elves) who dwell in the Halls of Mandos until they have thought about and repented enough of their sins during life. Feanor dwells there still – a kind of eternal naughty step in the Silmarillion.
In a similar vein, in Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass, Lyra journeys to hell and meets a lot of dead people who might be considered ghosts? Or do they have to have left the underworld first.
Just to show that Sci-Fi too can have its metaphysical moments, in Stark Holborn’s Ten Low her eponymous heroine is haunted by the ifs – beings that gather and tease her with glimmers of possible immediate futures, most of which end badly for her.
Also, despite its title Never Die there are a few ghosts in Rob Hayes plot twisting SPFBO5 finalist.
I’m really struggling to think of books with ghosts in them! I’m not a fan of spooky ghost type stories, so I don’t tend to read horror.
Although, having said that, I absolutely loved Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions! I’m not sure how applicable it is to this list, as there isn’t a specific ghost or spirit, but rather something equally eerie and unsettling. It’s never exactly clear if there are ghosts, or whether it’s all in the minds of our protagonists (split timeline).
Sarah Waters does something very similar in her novel The Little Stranger. Again, not fantasy, and not out-rightly a ghost story either, but another great and unsettling read!
Now then, if we’re going to dive into fantasy, lets give a shout out to Blood of Heirs by Alicia Wanstall-Burke, as she has a super creepy scene with a house of ghosts who try to trap our protagonist Ranoth. Wanstall-Burke did a great job ramping up the atmosphere for that passage, it properly gave me the heebie-jeebies.
If you’re looking for ghosts with a prominent role, you’ll find them in Patrick Samphire’s SPFBO6 Finalist Shadow of a Dead God. Although unnamed, I still felt drawn to their story and the mystery of what was keeping them tied to the world.
Finally, we have to visit the Discworld, of course. One of Terry Pratchett’s recurring protagonists is Death, so naturally ghosts pop up quite often throughout the series. However, Nils and I will be buddy-reading Wyrd Sisters, with it’s multiple references to Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear. So naturally, I have to mention the ghost of poor King Verence (sorry for the slight spoiler Nils, but it happens super early on, so doesn’t spoil that much… not to mention he’s on the cover of the damn book). He’s a pitiable and pathetic character throughout, if memory serves, and I’m looking forward to reading him again!
Next month, to celebrate Halloween, we’ll be looking at our fantasy SWORDS.
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