Well, it’s autumn, the evenings are darkening, the clocks are about to go back and Hallowe’en is approaching. Time to think about ghost stories.
One of the most poignant I know is the Wife of Usher’s Well (Child Ballad no. 79). I have several people’s singings in my collection; here’s Karine Polwart’s rendition (absolutely spine-tingling if you can hear it live) and here’s a very different version by Bellowhead*. A mother loses her children and makes a wish:
“I wish the wind may never cease,
Nor fashes in the flood,
Till my three sons come hame to me,
In earthly flesh and blood.”
They do, and she does what any mother would: sits them down by the fire to warm them, offers food and drink and puts them to bed. Alas, it cannot last:
“Up then crew the red, red cock,
And up and crew the grey;
The eldest to the youngest said,
’Tis time we were away.”
And so they go, slipping away in the grey light before dawn to their graves, worms and winding sheets. There’s truth here, of a profound and difficult kind. Love dies not with death but dreams conjured in the dark fade with the morning. The best we can hope for is to say good bye.
I note in passing that the rules for ghosts visiting the lands of the living are fairly strict across various sources. Old Hamlet also can’t stay in Elsinore past the cock crow or the sunrise (Hamlet, Act 1 Scene I).
* From their very new album Broadside. Highly recommended – I’ve had it on repeat for most of the last three days.