Ghostly Language in Lovecraft and James

Written by Rebekah Hobbs

Since the evolution of the genre, Gothic writers have employed subtle language cues to create a sense of uncanniness. In the Western tradition, an unnatural use of language often proves that something is not as it should be, that the reader has cause for alarm. In “The Tomb” (1922), H.P. Lovecraft creates uncanny effects with references to ancient languages and texts and a general knowledge of things that should have receded from the collective unconscious long ago. In The Turn of the Screw (1898), Henry James achieves haunting effects within the structure of the narrative itself by writing in a way that summons more questions than it answers.

The American thriller writer H.P. Lovecraft wrote in the early 1900s, a time of spectacular changes in society caused by the influx of new immigrant cultures and an adaptation to technology and industry that seemed almost otherworldly to people of the time. He used language to show an eerie sense of change in Jervas Dudley, the main character of his short story “The Tomb,” in which a young man happens upon a tomb in the woods near his home, said to be that of an old, deceased family by the name of Hyde. After spending his days and many nights in front of the tomb, he acquires a knowledge of lost, ancient information, and begins to adopt the speech of his ancestors: “My speech, always susceptible to environmental influences, was the first thing to succumb to the change; and my suddenly acquired archaism of diction was soon remarked upon” (Lovecraft par. 13). The alteration of language marks the changed intellect of our narrator as the tomb in the woods begins to influence him more heavily. He is separated from the town by his new knowledge of lost histories of mankind, something he could only have learned from an unnatural source.

In the nights of his vigil before he enters the crypt, he also catalogues voices coming from inside the tomb: “of those tones and accents I hesitate to speak; of their quality I will not speak, but I may say that they presented certain uncanny differences in vocabulary, pronunciation, and mode of utterance” (par. 10). His unwillingness or inability to articulate those voices might hint that they belong to something so “other” that it is incomprehensible, even for a student of “ancient and little-known books” (par. 2). It is noteworthy that the diction the voices represent spans the entire American English dialect, from the beginning to the protagonist’s present time, and that immediately after this encounter he begins to adopt the archaic speech patterns mentioned above. The diction clearly has a hold on the protagonist, but, at the same time, he is more interested in the light that he barely glimpses from the sepulchre.

What becomes of the light? We see immediately afterwards that a new style of speech is not the only souvenir from Jervas’ night at the maw of the tomb: “Upon returning home I went with much directness to a rotting chest in the attic, wherein I found the key which the next day unlocked with ease the the barrier I had so long stormed in vain” (par. 10). How can he have had this key all along and never searched the attic for it? That seems an obvious place to look for something archaic and mysterious. The light seems to impart a knowledge to Jervas of things that he should not know, and that is why he hesitates to describe them more fully: he knows that something “other” has invaded his mind, and as thrilling as this is to a scholar of ancient mysteries, he is also possibly very afraid of the invasion, as he is no longer in control of his knowledge or of his speech as a form of expressing it.

It seems that loss of narrative control is a common theme in Gothic fiction, as Henry James also uses a loose narrative structure in The Turn of the Screw to provide another method for readers to brush with the uncanny. The complex layers of narration (the main narrator, Douglas, the unnamed governess) mean that readers cannot be sure of anything in the story—neither the credibility of the various narrators nor the events to which they allude. The new governess speaks frequently in partial sentences, rhetorical questions, thinly veiled sarcasm, vague pronouns, and double negatives. We see this in the following excerpt from the novel in which the Governess and Miles are discussing his schooling:

“You forget?” He spoke with the sweet extravagance of a childish reproach. “Why, it was just to show you I could.”
“Oh yes—you could.”
“And I can again.”
“Certainly, but you won’t.”
“No, not that again. It was nothing.”
“It was nothing,” I said. “But we must go on.”
“Then when am I going back?”
“Were you very happy at school?”
He considered. “Oh, I’m happy enough anywhere!”
“Well then,” I quavered, “if you’re just as happy here—“
“Ah but that isn’t everything! Of course you know a lot—“
“But you hint that you know almost as much?” I risked as he paused.
“Not half I want to!” Miles honestly professed. “But it isn’t so much that.”
“What is it then?” (James 84)

This is an example of the semantic ambiguities that Christine Berthin discusses in her book Gothic Hauntings: Melancholy Crypts and Textual Ghosts: “The Literary Gothic… manifests itself by attacks on language: ellipses, semantic ambiguities, anachronisms, cliches, puns, homophones, and literalized metaphors” (5). Language, such as in the passage above, actually bars the reader’s access to the text, forcing readers to attempt to insert themselves into it so that they can understand and directly involve themselves in the ghostly effects of the narrative. With this method, language becomes not just a vehicle for telling the story, but an active participant in creating ghostly effects. Language can seem so definite and clear, yet these Gothic texts show us that it is only a minimal framework for expressing abstract concepts about our world, leaving us with horrifying gaps and miscommunications, a gnawing sense that there is much more to our world that we can fully grasp.

These spaces in the narrative and the invocation of a ghostly, anachronistic language create a trap for the unsuspecting reader—dangerous for those who spend too long in the catacombs of mystery they create and for those who are blind to the hidden meaning. Readers are left to navigate the story as confused and ill-informed as the characters. This is where the potential for haunting lies, in a world where language cannot be trusted to mean what it should. Without the illumination of a trustworthy narrator, we would expect nothing less than shadows in the dark corners.

Works Cited:

Berthin, Christine. Melancholy Crypts and Textual Ghosts. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print.

James, Henry. “The Turn of the Screw.” The Turn of the Screw: A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism. 3rd Edition. Ed. Peter G. Beidler. New York: St. Martin’s, 2009. 22-120. Print.

Lovecraft, H.P. “The Tomb.” Complete Collection of H.P. Lovecraft. Orintage, 2013.