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Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Three Ghosts in a Boat

I once had a friend who told me a strange story about what happened to her father in their garden in Tehran. He saw a face peeping at him from among the flowers, a strange yellow face much larger than that of a person. He wasn’t sure if the face was itself a type of gigantic flower. Then it laughed at him silently and rolled its eyes and the father felt chills spread all over him. He retreated to the inside of the house, and it was a long time before he ventured into that garden again. We had been talking about ghosts, so I asked my friend if the peculiar face among the flowers might also be a ghost.

“There are no such things as ghosts!” she said with great emphasis. Then in response to my puzzled frown she added, “There are only genies who pretend to be ghosts,” and she went on to explain that genies are a class of beings unrelated to angels or humans, faster and stronger than people and that few of them are left now. What the one in the Tehran garden wanted can’t be ascertained. Maybe it just wanted to create some mischief. For my friend, it was very important to differentiate it from a ghost.

A ghost is the disembodied soul of a once living man or woman. But in the mind of my friend there was simply no room on the Earth for such spirits. Therefore, if someone sees a ghost, or if you see one yourself, it can’t be a ghost but something else. It must be an entity that only seems to be a ghost. If it looks, walks and talks like a duck then it’s a duck, but this rule doesn’t apply to ghosts. It is a problem for sceptics who don’t believe that the souls of human beings are able to survive death, or who don’t believe that souls exist at all, that they are illogical. Ghosts continue to be seen. So alternative explanations must be found as to what they are. Hallucinations, mirages, electromagnetism, autosuggestion or misinterpretation of something real. Or genies in disguise.

I don’t believe in ghosts and yet I once had a ghostly encounter. I was in a hotel bar with some friends. We had attended the wedding of a student we had been to university with. There were four of us. Apart from the barman, we were the only customers in the place. Suddenly a table in the middle of the room, at least three metres from where we were standing, flipped itself over so that its legs were pointing at the ceiling like those of a frozen dead horse. The barman remarked very casually, “The ghost is early tonight,” and we all just nodded as if this was perfectly fine, as if his explanation made utter sense. It didn’t feel odd, neither the event itself nor the barman’s observation. It just felt normal.

Later when we left the hotel, the four of us stopped and looked at each other. “Did that really happen?” The incident was already acquiring a dreamy aspect, as if it was something remembered from childhood rather than a very recent event. And now the barman’s words hit us with delayed force and became in hindsight as fantastical as one would have expected them to have been inside the hotel bar. This remains my most profound ghostly encounter despite its simplicity. Often, I have discussed it with those who are interested in such things. I developed a theory that I always knew was contrived and whimsical but which I offered as a serious idea anyway, just to gauge the reactions of others who had endured similar cases.

Perhaps there are other universes, an almost infinite number of them, all in parallel, with the most adjacent ones being most similar to ours, differing perhaps in only one detail or so. This is not an original concept by any means, but I wondered if somehow the bar of that hotel was a place where two almost identical universes overlapped. While we believed we were in a bar in our familiar universe, we were actually in a bar in the universe next door, a universe absolutely the same as ours with one difference, namely that ghosts existed there, were normal and nothing to elicit surprise, which is why we had accepted everything so calmly, almost disinterestedly. The moment we left the hotel we were back in our own universe, where ghosts don’t exist, and that’s why we were now surprised.

This idea resonated with people and the unsettling feeling that maybe it was true began to grip me. I was intrigued to discover that many people who’d also had ghostly experiences felt the same way at the time, blasé, aloof, very accepting of the manifestation. They were calm too until after the incident was over. Only then did they question the veracity of the phenomenon and their reaction to it, as we had done that day.

Of course, others offered jocular solutions to the occurrence. We had come from a wedding and were standing at a bar. Clearly, we were drunk! Or were we exaggerating for effect? Not in this instance, no we weren’t. Might I have dreamed the whole thing but thought it was real? Yes, that’s plausible, but that doesn’t change the fact that so many people I spoke to also had a feeling of ‘normality’ when they experienced the supernatural even if the events weren’t really paranormal.

But questions remain. If ghosts are not the spirits of dead people, then they are phenomena of psychology or physics that remain untested. They are a problem that hasn’t been solved, yet the probability is that one day they will be understood. Then sceptics will be able to rest more easily. They already force themselves to rest more easily by dismissing ghosts as an irrelevance in the modern world, but the solving of this problem scientifically will be a blessing. It will remove their need for coercing themselves to disbelieve. All of us are human beings, emotional beasts, including sceptics, and when a ghost appears we jump in fright and our hair stands on end. Even if we don’t believe in ghosts, our goose pimples do. Our rational minds don’t really have sufficient strength to enable us to act in tandem with our sceptical claims.

The incident in the hotel bar was my most remarkable ghostly experience but not the only one. The others were all sensations rather than sights, a feeling that something wasn’t right about the places I was in. Those places were always remote and always locations I encountered on hiking trips. Perhaps tiredness had something to do with my extra sensitivity or maybe it merely muddled my mind a little. Sometimes the unsettling experience happened in the daytime and sometimes at night. I might be looking for a spot to camp and after finding one would settle down. Then minutes later, or an hour later, or many hours later, I would be compelled to pack up again and move on, in a state of near panic.

Near the rather isolated Pwlldu Beach in Gower, South Wales, I heard what sounded like a bell tolling under the sea. I later learned that I was camping in a place called Grave’s End where on November 26th in the year 1760 a ship named The Caesar was wrecked on the rocks with the loss of ninety press-ganged men locked in the hold. The corpses of those unfortunates were buried in a gully that was filled with soil and a ring of limestone rocks was placed on top to mark the site. Unwittingly this is where I had chosen to bivouac. I had to leave and blunder my way through a wood that was pitch dark. Anything was preferable to remaining in that unwelcoming spot. That wood also has a reputation for ghosts and my panic compelled me to keep going until I reached the next beach along, where I slept soundly and happily.

It really does appear that some geographical locations come with a good feeling, some with a bad one. This is indisputable. But surely there are a host of rational explanations for this? I have felt a malevolent presence in a number of areas during these hiking trips and now I avoid those places at night. I regard myself as a sceptical man, yet my actions appear to indicate otherwise.

If we consider the matter closely, it will become plain that the malevolent quality of the atmosphere of those haunted places is an argument against the idea that ghosts are the spirits of dead people. In the unforgettable words of the most famous of all ghost story writers, M.R. James (1862-1936), ghosts are “the angry dead” and yet how can anger be associated with any entity that lacks a body? Anger is an emotion and absolutely requires a physicality in which to exist. It is not that the body is a vessel for anger but that anger itself is a function of a body.

Without a heart to beat faster, without lungs to breathe deeper, without blood to increase its pressure, without the glands to secrete adrenaline, how is anger practical? It simply isn’t. The most that a disembodied soul can feel in this regard is a cold and indistinct intellectual disdain. There are no opportunities for anger in the souls of dead people. And is true malevolence possible without the input of at least some anger?

I suppose that ghosts exist in ways that are tangential to our usual ideas of what they are and where they might be found. I believe they reside not in old castles but on the shelves of our own homes. A friend was talking about ghost stories and why the Victorians were so good at them. It occurred to me that whether or not they were good at them back then is irrelevant, because they are certainly good at them now. What I mean by this is that every story of any kind told by any Victorian has become a ghost story because all Victorians are dead.

Even a light comedy such as Three Men in a Boat (1889) is a ghost story in the present age because when we read it, we are reading the words of a dead man. It may well have been a story told by a living man once, but now it’s a dead man’s tale. A ghost story. In other words, the content of the story might not be a ghost story, but the form of it is. And yet we laugh when we read it. It appears that a story featuring ghosts written by a living person can be spookier than a story featuring men written by a ghost. How strange!

If a dead man whispered words in your ear while you were lying in bed, you would be scared. But when you read a book in bed by an author who is no longer alive, you are reading the words of a dead man, and if the book is a comedy you aren’t scared. Yet in both instances a dead man is communicating with you. In both instances the words of a dead man are going into your mind. It’s the same thing! So don’t laugh when reading Three Men in a Boat. Be scared instead! That book is a direct communication from a dead man to you! When we consider the matter objectively, Three Men in a Boat must be scary. Logic demands this.

So, let’s take logic seriously and always be scared by such books from now on. Because a dead man is communicating with us through it. That’s the very definition of a supernatural experience! When funny incidents happen in the book, tremble with fright. That’s the correct reaction. Shiver with dread. Because a GHOST is TELLING JOKES!

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.

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One reply on “Three Ghosts in a Boat”

Would love to meet you someday to exchange spooky experiences. Identified with your article as I too have “felt” something often at certain places. It’s good you’ve kept an open mind about things that go bump day or night.

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