What is a ghost? A disembodied spirit or just the product of a troubled mind? Does it matter? It does for paranormal investigators, whether they're William James and the American Society of Psychical Research or the team on Syfy Channel's "Ghosthunters." Ghostly phenomena have to be measurable to be taken seriously – a hallucination just won't cut it. Investigators devote their lives to finding "reliable" data. (For an entertaining recent view on all this, check out Gregory Lewis' post "Why I Don't Believe in Ghosts" on searchwarp.com. )
The 18th century bookseller John Holdsworth is not one of these devoted ghost hunters in Andrew Taylor's absorbing new novel "The Anatomy of Ghosts" (Hyperion: 412 pp., $24.99). He's an accidental one. How so? He needs work. He doesn't have a place to stay. In fact, he's been at wit's end since his young son Georgie's accidental drowning and, not long after, his wife Maria's suicide.
"It is strange how soon a life can collapse if the foundations are removed," writes Taylor. "He still moved through a solid world in three dimensions, a world existing in time and populated with flesh-and-blood people; but … he had become as formless as the fog over the river."
Holdsworth's days are spent aimlessly wheeling a barrow of books up the London streets. He enjoys a minor reputation thanks to "The Anatomy of Ghosts," a book debunking ghostly phenomena he wrote in a fit of rage after Maria desperately tried to contact their dead son using a medium. That book is noticed by Lady Anne Oldershaw, who asks Holdsworth to go to Cambridge and assess her son Frank, a student under doctor's care ever since seeing a friend's dead wife walking the college grounds.
"[Y]our qualifications are of particular interest to me," she tells Holdsworth. "I believe my son is not beyond reach of reason. You will look into his alleged sighting of this apparition on my behalf. You will demonstrate to him that it was a delusion. I believe it may be the first stage towards his cure. Indeed, it may be all he requires."
When he gets to Cambridge, however, Holdsworth faces a wholly alien world. Frank's school, Jerusalem College, a fictional place that Taylor vividly imagines down to its flagstones, is "a world within a world," says Elinor Carbury, the attractive wife of Jerusalem's master. "So is any college in this University, or perhaps at any University. A college is a world with its own laws and customs."
"A world with its own laws and customs"—-Elinor's words provide the novel's key. What Holdsworth finds isn't gooey ectoplasm left by a phantom but layers of secrecy in a school whose fortress-like design is still porous enough to let people drift about at night.
With Taylor you are in the hands of a consummate storyteller: He's a recipient of a Cartier Diamond Dagger award for good reason. His narrative moves fluidly along as characters enter and exit the stage. He gives us not only cartoony figures like Elinor's husband, Dr. Carbury, who punctuates each comment with a belch, but a sympathetic hero in Holdsworth. Holdsworth struggles so deeply with guilt and grief for Maria, and his agony is even greater because he can't help being drawn to Elinor, who's clearly interested in him. What would Maria think?
This is a skeptic's ghost tale, and Holdsworth (not to mention readers) knows early that something is afoot with the oily scholar Richardson and with Philip Whichcote, the ne'er-do-well widower of the story's alleged ghost. Taylor introduces us, in the opening pages, to the Holy Ghost Club, a supposedly harmless dining fraternity with a debauched tradition of having members rape a virgin as a rite of initiation.
Frank Oldershaw is a member, and soon Holdsworth suspects that Frank's madness may hide a more earthly, rational explanation for why, on a mostly male campus (except for Elinor and a few female servants), a dead woman's apparition might have been seen.
"There had been nothing scientific about this investigation," Holdsworth realizes, "nothing that a man could write up in a pamphlet and put before the world."
The ghosts that get written about in a pamphlet may be paranormal ones, but there are others, Taylor reminds us, springing from grief, lust, guilt and jealousy. Elinor knows that. "It seems that we constantly manufacture them," she tells Holdsworth. "We are factories of ghosts."
Perhaps she has spent some time reading Virgil in Jerusalem College's library. The Roman poet didn't sweat the distinction between the mind and reality either. In his epic, when Aeneas sees his dead father and others in the underworld, the word the poet uses to describe them is "animae" — usually translated as "souls" or "shades." Some Latin dictionaries stretch the word so that it also means "memory," which leads to a poignant conclusion.
Anyone with memories has ghosts. We are all haunted.
The hunt for UFOs is a lot like the hunt for ghosts — just as subjective, just as frustratingly inconclusive.