October 21, 2020

Ghost of John

         Today’s fantasy poem is a little different: the lyrics of a traditional folk song that many a generation of children has learned around Hallowe’en.  Because it’s sung as a round, the verse is actually very short.
     Have you seen the ghost of John?
     Long white bones with the skin all gone…
     Wouldn’t it be chilly with no skin on?

        If you aren’t familiar with this one, I recommend listening to it with music, because it’s not really much of a poem, and it’s the music that contributes significantly to the feel and interpretation of the piece.  Here’s a pretty basic version.
      Okay, so let’s look at this first as horror.  Horror (to my irritation) is quite frequently lumped in with sci fi and fantasy, and of course some horror certainly includes those elements.  Axe murderers not so much, but ghosts can be a legitimate fantasy topic when they’re about exploring something that doesn’t follow our natural laws and explanations of everyday “reality.”  But as for horror, this song cranks it up in both words and music.  The story begins like all the scariest horror: there’s something here.  No, here, where you thought you were safe.  Have you seen it?  You might, because it’s nearby, in your neighborhood, among people you know, where any dark and lonely place might suddenly reveal those long, white bones that cannot be explained by the rational mind… Those ghostly white bones that are the presence of unquiet Death.  The tune, meanwhile, is in a minor key, with a slow build to the keening like wind or worse…  Many people have fun trying to make it sound as creepy as possible, with organ, or eerie sound effects, or dour and dismal children’s choirs.
The canon should offer John his cloak.
        I do not like horror.  For one thing, I scare easily.  For another, once something gets into my head, it stays there, and the danger of a good imagination is that when it gets to work on something, it’s very difficult to stop.  And most of all, I simply don’t enjoy being afraid.  Apparently many people find fear exciting or invigorating or something, but I just find it completely unpleasant.  So why was this little horror ditty one of my favorite songs that I learned in music class back in first grade or so?  Because of the last line, which gives the poem a wonderful fantasy twist ending.  It turns us suddenly from victims of a haunting to companions of a fellow being.  It asks us to empathize with the ghost of John, and my imagination is now engaged not in creating scenarios of horror against me, but in inhabiting another character’s experience.  John is an object of sympathy, rather than fear.  The way I learned the song, the tune heightened this twist ending because we sang the last three words suddenly staccato, for comic effect.  I was disappointed that most of the versions I listened to on-line didn’t make that contrast, and instead continued legato and creepy through the whole thing, which I think slightly misses the delightful point of it all.
        This little poem is hardly a serious exploration of anything, but I do think it illustrates an important point.  The horror genre is all about seeing oneself as the victim and expecting everyone and everything else to be malicious and deadly - and necessary to destroy.  This song turns horror into fantasy by reminding us that perhaps we can have a little empathy with the “other.”  What do we discover when we try to see from someone else’s point of view, instead of fearing them as a monster?  What “reality” did it turn out we just might have been wrong about?

[Pictures: De Anatomia, wood block print possibly by Ugo da Carpi from Isagogae breves by Jacopo Berengario da Carpi, 1523 (Image from National Library of Medicine);

Death and the Canon, wood block print with hand coloring from Totentanz by Heinrich Knoblochtzer, before 1488 (Image from University of Heidelberg).]

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