Toward a Useful Melancholy: On Howard Norman’s Ghost Stories

August 16, 2019   •   By Mark Athitakis

IN AUGUST 1977, the novelist Howard Norman traveled to Churchill, Canada, a small town on the western edge of the Hudson Bay in Manitoba. He’d been employed by a Toronto museum to visit with a cantankerous resident there named Mark and transcribe his folk tales, nearly all of which described the calamities that befell Noah when his ark took a wrong turn somewhere and became trapped in the frozen North. In every variation of the story, the ark’s arrival spelled “a collision of cultures — as if life were not unpredictable enough,” he wrote in his 2005 memoir of the experience, In Fond Remembrance of Me: A Memoir of Myth and Uncommon Friendship in the Arctic.

The heart of that book is Norman’s brief friendship in Churchill with Helen Tanizaki, a British folklorist who’d been assigned to do the same transcription work by a Japanese publisher. The two were effectively competitors, but Norman, 27 at the time, generously conceded he couldn’t compete. Tanizaki’s grasp of Inuit was stronger, as was her grasp of life’s unpredictability: she had recently been diagnosed with stomach cancer and knew she would die soon.

Near her typewriter in Churchill she kept a comforting quote by the Japanese novelist Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892–1927), best known as the author of Rashōmon (1915): “What good is intelligence if you cannot discover a useful melancholy?” When Norman asked her why the quote appealed to her, she explained: “It’s haunting, that’s the thing […] My beloved Akutagawa is dead and gone. But — and I can only imagine how this might sound — he speaks to me.”

He spoke to Norman as well. He speaks 40 years on: the quote has appeared in four of his 13 books. But more than simply repeating the quote, Norman has spent his career as a writer striving to evoke its ineffable sensibility, what Graham Greene called a “noir of the heart.” This is no way to become a literary celebrity. Norman gained attention early in his career — his first two novels, 1987’s The Northern Lights and 1994’s The Bird Artist, were National Book Award finalists — but he has since settled into the role of quintessential midlist novelist. Regardless of the attention his work has or hasn’t received, though, his style and thematic interests have remained consistent: he’s still seeking a useful melancholy. He’s as admirably steady as a cop novelist who never leaves a beloved city, except the beat he walks is heartache that never intensifies into grief but can’t quite be subdued.

Every Norman novel is as reliable in their particulars as they are in their broad themes. The setting is usually Canadian, most often the Maritimes, blessed with places that have a novelist’s dream names: Little Economy, Witless Bay. He is punctilious about time, usually giving the date if not exact minute when particular events occur. Novels and poetry abound; a radio, usually playing classical music, is rarely far from earshot. Peculiar jobs abound as well: bird artist, museum guard, professional mourner, symphony publicist, accident photographer, spirit photographer. Birds can be as essential to the storytelling as dialogue; in his 2004 memoir, My Famous Evening: Nova Scotia Sojourns, Diaries, and Preoccupations, he fills nearly six pages just listing Nova Scotian birds, whose names represent a “found poetry” to him.

And then there are the melancholy conflicts and Noah-in-Manitoba-style calamities. In The Northern Lights, a unicyclist crashes through a frozen lake; a husband and wife commit suicide by jumping off different Halifax bridges on the same night in 2010’s What Is Left the Daughter; a zeppelin crashes in 1998’s The Museum Guard; trains collide in 2002’s The Haunting of L.; a woman is shot by a hotel bellman in 2014’s Next Life Might Be Kinder.

Norman writes about these scenarios with the equipoise of a journalist — here is a thing that happened, now what can we make of it? He asks: what is the value, the use of such melancholy incidents? The plain prose is in a kind of conflict with the metaphysical concerns of his storytelling: Norman’s scenarios often contain ghosts, or suggestions of ghosts, or a sense of loss so profound it contains an aura of ghostliness — a collision between the real and the uncanny that’s sustained a shelf worth of books.

That’s why, for all the gentle elegance of his writing, Norman’s novels always feel a little twitchy to me: the driving question of his work is how we can reconcile ourselves with the unsettling truth of absence. Sometimes those absences are modest: 2007’s Devotion turns on its narrator splitting from his wife because she’s wrongly concluded he’s cheated. But more often the vibe is spectral, as in the title story of his 2002 collection, The Chauffeur, in which the narrator is certain that the Tanizaki-like woman he ferried around before her death has been reincarnated as a pelican.

Similarly, the narrator in Next Life Might Be Kinder is sure he sees his late wife arranging books on a beach in Nova Scotia every night. His therapist tries to guide him away from what must be hallucinations and toward the solid emotional ground of closure, but that word only stokes his sarcasm. “[W]here’s the Office of Closure?” he snipes. “Can you write down the address, please? We’ll drop by soon as we can. Are there many forms to fill out?” Because how can you have closure when humanity’s default setting, if we’re honest with ourselves, is melancholy?


As its title suggests, Norman’s new novel, The Ghost Clause, is also a ghost story, but this time he’s not just hinting at ghostliness: it’s a no-fooling ghost story, with an actual ghost doing something you could call haunting.

In this case, the specter is the narrator, Simon Inescort, a novelist who had a heart attack and tumbled over the railing of a ferry off Nova Scotia on May 23, 1994. Since his death, Simon has somehow found his way back to the 19th-century farmhouse in Vermont where he used to live with his wife, Lorca (the house is located in a town called Adamant, a fitting home for somebody who won’t go away). Much of his time is spent observing the house’s new residents, who arrive from Norman’s offbeat-intellectual-job hiring center: Zachary, a private detective, and Muriel, a literary scholar with a specialty in Japanese poetry. When Simon isn’t peeking over Zachary’s and Muriel’s shoulders and reading their interview transcripts and translations, he’s availing himself of their library, where he bides his time reading the likes of Wallace Stevens, that most astral and diaphanous of 20th-century poets.

Under Norman’s logic of what ghosts can and can’t do, Simon is effectively trapped on his former property — his widow, Lorca, lives nearby, but he sees her only when she visits Zachary and Muriel. Regardless, he rattles no chains, spooks no inhabitants. At worst, his movements around the house seem to trigger the alarm system that the couple had installed. But who can say what a ghostly presence does or doesn’t trigger? “If you consider, as I do, an old house as a sentient being that gets into moods and does things on its own volition, then perhaps it’s not me setting off the alarm in the first place,” Simon explains. Maybe we live in a world full of ghosts. Without question, we live in a world full of unpredictability. In our world, a pelican in the backseat of a car could be an accident. Norman, in his, can persuade us it can be a message.

Novelists — good ones, anyway — give coherent form to the ambiguity and arbitrariness of life. That’s Simon’s role in The Ghost Clause — both as a novelist, whose biographical details are distinctly Normanesque, and as a specter, who is both in our world and not. (The Hungarian writer László F. Földényi writes that “melancholics live in the same world as other people, yet they do not see the same world.”) In that regard, Simon underscores the sense of loss and incompleteness of existence. The dramatic plot of The Ghost Clause turns on the case of Corrine, a missing girl whose disappearance Zachary is investigating. But the whodunit plot operates at a simmer; Norman doesn’t focus on the clue hunting that Zachary engages in so much as how everybody in town attempts to reckon with the loss in a stumbling way.

He attends community prayer meetings and listens to rambling speculations, which Zachary dutifully records, no matter how unreliable the leads. People’s urge to fill the space that Corrine left behind becomes infuriating to both Zachary and Corrine’s parents, because that space is unfillable. “A lot of proselytizers — I don’t know what else to call them — a lot have rung our doorbell, and they want to give us spiritual guidance, as to how to live through what we’re living through,” Corrine’s father says. “We try to slam the door in a polite fashion.”

Corrine is just one lost child in the story: Lorca experienced a miscarriage, a child she and Simon made the mistake of naming (“Lorca lost Hattie — we lost her”); and she muses on the children who were born in the farmhouse’s library years before, commemorated by trees in the yard nearby. She struggles to give a name to this absence. “The daughters are gone, but the trees aren’t,” she told Simon when he was alive. “I don’t know what to call it, really. It’s a kind of … ongoingness.”

“Ongoingness” is a word Simon has held fast to from beyond the grave:

[H]ere’s a phrase I am tempted to begin every single sentence with: In the hours still left. Because that is what I really feel, that my hours of consciousness, of ongoingness, in whatever one might call my present status — I prefer to call it the ongoingness — are limited.

Norman is striving to change our concept of the afterlife — not as something that is the opposite of living, but its palimpsest, its echo. Death delivers us not to heaven or hell but to the library. And aren’t books, like ghosts, echoes of our lives?

In tweaking our conception of the afterlife, Norman is abandoning the ghost story as we’ve been conditioned to understand it. Simon is not a scarifying, otherworldly creature here to remind us of a past transgression, nor a friendly intercessor, nor an allegory for a historical failing that demands attention — “the past clamoring for redress,” as Parul Sehgal put it in a recent essay for The New York Times on the persistence of the ghost story. In contemporary American literature, Sehgal writes, the ghost is a proxy for our guilt. But Simon comes bearing no ill will. The “ghost clause” in the novel’s title refers to the original deed for the antebellum farmhouse. As Lorca explains, the clause states that

if the seller of the house is aware of a malevolent … entity occupying the house, the seller has to inform the purchaser of it ahead of time. Because if it turns out this entity is a rabble-rouser of some sort — or I suppose however “malevolent” might be interpreted — then the buyer is obligated to repurchase the house.

But Simon is not malevolent. Nor is he a symbol. He’s a reminder: because we are living with absence, we are already ghosts of a kind in our own lives. We are already filled with ghost stories. We’re already living in them. Norman knows that particularly well.


Norman’s superb 2013 collection of personal essays, I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, concludes with “The Healing Powers of the Western Oystercatcher,” which relates a horrifying event that occurred in his Washington, DC, home in 2003. Norman and his wife, Jane Shore, had opened their home that summer to a house sitter, Reetika Vazirani, and Jehan, her two-year-old son with the poet Yusef Komunyakaa. On July 16, while Norman and Shore were away, Vazirani killed her son in Norman’s living room, stabbing him multiple times, then killed herself.

“[T]his was visited upon us,” Norman told NPR not long after the incident, in an interview quoted at the opening of the essay. “[Y]ou don’t let someone else’s demon, if you will, chase you out. […] [I]t was a powerful feeling, to step into the house.”

Norman hadn’t explained the half of it. One early morning, shortly after returning to the house, Norman entered his attic study and discovered a Penelope Fitzgerald novel on the floor. Opening it, he discovered that Vazirani had filled its pages with marginalia, mostly angry and dismissive comments. That discovery prefaced a more harrowing experience — the house was filled with small black notebooks that he discovered in odd places: in the freezer, under a mattress. Norman found 33 in total, in which Vazirani had scribbled rants, drawings, and murder plans. “[T]hey required a macabre sort of treasure hunt whose negative reward was a gut-wrenching and permanently regretful reading experience,” he writes. “In that one notebook alone, amid drawings of Medusa heads, gargoyles, and clearly identifiable Hindu gods — some devouring children — were succinct rehearsals of the murder of her son, mentioning him by name.”

Norman, understandably sickened by the notebooks, burned them in the alley behind his house. He feared for his well-being, wondered if he was damned to, as John Keats wrote, a “posthumous existence.” Living with death is a melancholic but natural thing; constantly living in it is something else entirely.

Norman goes on a trip to California to clear his head. Let’s not call it an act of closure; “reconciliation with melancholy” might be the better term. The process Norman describes in “Oystercatcher” — echoed in The Ghost Clause — involves communing with but rejecting trite notions of “healing,” recognizing loss but refusing to succumb to it. In California, Akutagawa’s quote is much on his mind, and it’s underscored when he comes across a woman taking photographs of a dead dolphin on the shore. “That dolphin was definitely not a sad sight for me,” she tells him. “[D]eath happens in nature and I like to take pictures of it. The way I look at it, the beaches are always full of such news — natural-history news, I call it. The dolphin was like an obituary from the sea.”

The melancholic mood thickens in The Ghost Clause, as Simon, Lorca, Zachary, and Muriel contemplate their losses (the missing child, the miscarriage, Simon himself). Yet the novel’s trajectory also ultimately stabilizes the mood, as Corrine’s case is resolved and the nature of Simon’s presence becomes clearer. This isn’t the same thing as saying the novel has a happy ending any more than a dead dolphin on a beach can be a happy event; it simply acknowledges the push and pull of joy and loss. Across the novel, that sensibility is reflected in the poems that Muriel translates by an imaginary Japanese poet, Mukei Korin, who tucks lightly erotic parentheticals into generally mournful verse. One poem captures the feeling this way:

Tragedies befall us one after the next,
each more difficult to recover from.
Still, the light this morning was beautiful
in the distant pines, and close by, light was
beautiful in the willow […]

Friends named their daughter after an actress
who drowned.
Eventually the daughter won every swim
competition — her nickname was Flying Fish.
The morning light is again beautiful.
Today a tragedy may befall us.

It’s a palindromic poem, moving from death and renewal and back again. But it pointedly begins and ends with loss. The story in The Ghost Clause resolves, but the ongoingness never vanishes, and the living share in it as much as Simon does. Ghosts are so often ambassadors of unfinished business. Norman wants to remind us that living is unfinished business in itself.


Mark Athitakis’s work has appeared in the Washington Post, Humanities, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many other publications. He lives in Phoenix.