Before his brother’s death, Henry James was ambivalent about the existence of the supernatural. The possibility of the supernatural stemmed from what James perceived as a spiritual encounter of his late mother. In order to appease their curiosity, James and his brother, William, made a promise: whoever died first would try to visit the other. William was the first to pass away and James had not received a visit from his late brother. Knowing that his brother would have kept his promise and still holding into account of his supposed encounter with his mother, James identified ghosts as a manifestation of our past and memory.
Kristen Boudreau quotes the following from Henry James’ “Is There Life After Death?” in her essay “Immensities of Perception and Yearning: The Haunting of Henry James’s Heroes”:
“’They must be dead, indeed,’ we say; ‘they must be as dead as “science” affirms…’ We think of the particular cases of those who could have been backed, as we call it, not to fail, on occasion, of somehow reaching us. We recall the forces of passion, of reason, of personality, that lived in them, and what such forces had made them, to our sight, capable of…”
Part of James’s idea stemmed from his brother’s ideas of ghosts in which they “are something halfway between a living person and a memory.”
Boudreau deduces that:
“if the beings that appear to him are not always the ghosts of dead persons—in some cases we might call them the ghosts of past experiences—they nonetheless assume the identity of disembodied consciousness.”
James’s ghost stories were not mere supernatural spoofs. According to Anna Despotopoulou in the introduction of Henry James and the Supernatural, she notes that James would portray a physical ghost but:
“his ghosts move from the exterior of his texts to the interior, where they are frequently connected to the figure of the writer.”
James lived his life experiencing his own concept of the metaphorical ghost—the ghost in which our minds and consciousness created discretely.
Applying James’s concept of the ghosts, I believe an individual can perceive his/her past, taboos, and fears from his/her environment with the same tension she/he suffers from the uncanny, supernatural, and spiritual.
In Greg Zacharias‘ “The Complexion of Ever So Long Ago: Style and Henry James’s Ghosts,” James’s use of ghosts in his stories are labeled as the ghostly—a literary term for spiritual. In his stories, James’s ghosts are the representation of a reoccurring memory that needs to be confronted.
“It is the ghosts of memory that constitute experience, consciousness, and truth.”
[Note: All the quotes above are from one source: Henry James and the Supernatural.]