“I told her to cherish the spirit
She just sat and cried at the grave”
– Deceased, A Very Familiar Stranger
Who doesn’t love a good ghost story? Many things change as we grow older and colored by the vagaries of life; suspension of disbelief becomes increasingly harder to achieve, much like how being scandalized by extreme metal becomes a thing of wistful reminiscences. I remember reading Jay Anson’s Amityville Horror from my father’s paperback stack as a seven-year old; I was not allowed to, so I would skulk in bed with the book concealed behind an innocuous comic. There was a particular scene where the red eyes of a pig in the dark stare in through the window at one of the children. The bed on which I read the book was itself located by the window sill, behind which loomed a large banyan tree; at that fanciful age, I couldn’t help turning around every other minute to see if there were malevolent pig eyes staring intently at me, too.
But though we may lose that delicious youthful naivete with time, we compensate for it by consciously looking for craftsmanship and sincerity instead. A good ghost story is eternal because it jolts us out of the mundane and into the realm of the numinous, if only for a while. It confronts us with our species’ most primal fears, the fear of the dark and of the unknown, and to be reacquainted with that raw sentiment for even the most fleeting of moments in this mechanized and brightly-lit age is a feeling that deserves to be preserved and savored for all its worth.
W.B. Yeats once said, “The hour of the waning of love has beset us, and weary and worn are our sad souls now“. Robert Frost’s The Witch Of Coos follows in much the same spirit; it is a witty but ultimately melancholic poetry on the alienating complacency that haunts so many domestic lives. It is a ghost story at heart, heavy with metaphor, relayed through the voices of a witch and her son, and recorded for posterity by the author. On a winter night some forty years prior, while her husband sleeps in the draughty bedroom upstairs, the witch idles away in the kitchen, presumably to escape his amorous attentions. Suddenly, she hears a rustling, dragging noise coming from the cellar. She knows them to be the bones, buried bones behind whom lies a secret long buried, too.
They hoist themselves up to the landing behind the cellar door. Unable to resist herself, she throws the door open and sees the skeleton, “so much like a chandelier”, flames licking out from its sockets. It tries to grope her, “much like the way he did in life once”, but she escapes its grasp and runs up to her husband. Terrified, they lie waiting in bed, as the bones pull themselves up through the kitchen and on to the stairwell leading up to the bedroom. Gathering their wits, somehow, they conspire to trap it in the attic, and nail the door shut with the bed’s headrest; there the bones remain to this day, and not infrequent is the occasion when you can still hear them knocking against the attic door, befuddled at their incarceration.
Deceased‘s ‘A Very Familiar Stranger‘ off their album Supernatural Addiction is one of my very favorite metal songs, a perfect molotov cocktail of fun, aggression, and surprising poignancy. If I remember correctly, the story is based off an old episode of The Twilight Zone; it is a relatively straightforward hitchhiker ghost story, and doesn’t carry the subtext of Frost’s poem, but that doesn’t make it any less gut-wrenching, especially when in the throes of some of the most heartfelt riffs and solos the band has ever written. People like us loathe the middle ground; if you’re capable of one extreme, then it is but natural for you to be susceptible to the other, too, else you would be living an imbalanced life. This applies to everything we do, the way in which we love and the way in which he hate. Many are the times I have not been able to contain the rapid palpitation of my heart when the arpeggiated bridge to the solo begins; many are the times when I have not been able to hold back a gently-shed wetness at the corner of my eyes, either, when the final bend in that solo is sustained for just that extra second longer. It is a curious feeling and a priceless moment, that leaves you spent but also with the strongest of reaffirmation. It is why we listen to this music, after all.