The Bolted Door: On Writing the Ghost Story

As I wrote the novel One Kind Favor, which is a sustained ghost story set in contemporary North Carolina, I put myself through my paces in trying to generatively reflect on what forces bring ghosts from behind bolted doors. Ghosts have always appeared in our country’s fiction, but they have asserted their presence more in certain key moments: after genocide in all of its forms (colonialization, slavery, religious persecution); after world wars and civil wars; after secret sempiternal wars against the powerless (by those with obscene power); after massive dehumanization (immigrant children placed in cages, women denied autonomy in choosing their bodies’ destinies, walls built to symbolize exclusion, the dissolving of human justice in governing systems like police forces and statehouses); after pandemics (widespread poverty, climate collapse, viral spikes, humans responding to other humans as antibodies); after a wanna-be dictator’s millions of wanna-be death-cult members demonstrate how easily the loving soul slips from the body and transmutes and hovers menacingly near as an unloving, irretrievable Lost Beloved.


We Americans have sat at our family tables with the shrieking ghosts of such Trump-era death-cult members, and we have left the table in favor of watching another episode of The Walking Dead and laughing through our tears and terrors. This family-wrecking has occurred in every region, and though it is affected by each region’s traditions, it is not specific to them. We can hear our Lost Beloveds talking trash about immigrants who have only wished for fullness of life for their children and themselves; talking trash about the COVID-19 and climate-change precautions of doctors and scientists begging them to recognize a planet’s life sentence in an individual’s life choices; talking trash about any person who bravely demands respect from a cowardly society that bullies them and has historically endangered them; talking trash about any educator who ever prodded them to use their own minds and hearts in order that they not be used by the mindless and heartless. Our fellow citizens consider narcissism the highest goal of life; they repeat me-first slogans at rabid, slobbering rallies that are eerie echoes of ghostly, white-robed congregations gathered beneath burning crosses and hanging trees.


We know ghosts are here in our twenty-first-century time of plague. They are our own relations, and they are, to borrow a ready-at-hand term, airborne. The rise of a soulless fascist and the shock of soul-shucking followers increase the voltage of our awareness that ghosts do not arrive occasionally from the past but arise continually from the present. Ghosts are not artifacts of old superstitions. Called by specific internal and external phenomena, they ride our breaths, and we see them appear and disappear as if we were outside in freezing temperatures, as if they were coming from us, as if they were coming back into us.


I have found I pay better attention to the ghosts in our American story if I reaffirm my trust in two basic processes: educing and enantiodromia. My trust in these processes is essential to my discipline as an attentive witness, by which I mean my craft as a storyteller. A storyteller, after all, is a watcher always looking for new methods to recognize human mysteries in their most paradoxical manifestations.


We all have secrets that will make their way out of us, no matter our efforts to shut them out. You’ve experienced this process of educing when you’ve tried mightily not to laugh, but a seizure of laughter has overcome you at the most inappropriate moment possible. You’ve experienced this when the right conditions have elicited from you exactly the wrong words, which you insist are “totally out of character.” Under the pressure of an extreme emotion, you’ve told a story about yourself that is a fiction in every particular yet is the hidden essence of who you are. You understand that a person can live a long life of answering his own needs without ever having committed to answering his own desires, his own wish for experiences that offer more than necessities can fulfill. A person’s hidden desires are often his ghosts, pressed far down but making themselves more and more urgently known.


This stubbornly enduring American story has been with us from the founding of our country by wounded, flawed idealists: A person’s suppressed desire to unselfishly serve others, even at the risk of self-annihilation, will uncontrollably emerge, and the consequences of her idealism in a world of cynics will be so severe that for the rest of her life she chooses to live with only the ghost of that idealism sealed in her like a small, lightless genie’s bottle.


The storyteller who studies the processes of educing observes in every individual and group that we all have Others within us who we unconsciously acknowledge though we often censor them from conscious awareness. When these Others make themselves unavoidably known to us, we stand in wonder, or horror, of how we will be changed if they should escape and become nakedly apparent to everyone around us. We’ve felt in our most important loving relationships the understanding that the abiding peace and the possibility of increasing love will require us to respect the invisible presence of the Others in our beloveds. We do not call out these ghosts, which we understand will come, in any case, unbidden. At this moment in the American experience, fully 44 percent of us (, September 2020, Trump approval rating) feel that in our most burdensome relationships—our hating relationships—the prolonging of conflict and the intensification of hate will require us to disrespect the invisible presence of the Others; consequences be damned, we call out the ghosts that are so hungry to be released.


Educing is merely a term for this phenomenon: beneath the face you show to everyone and to yourself is a different face, and beneath that face is another. You are able to acknowledge your own cognitive dissonances in a general way that helps you honorably imply to everyone and to yourself, This is my true nature. If you are a caregiver attuned to the dignity of those you serve, you show your respect: This is my professional demeanor. As time passes, you live with growing suspicion that you are never quite telling the truth because you actively postpone facing the profound contradictions evident in your hidden-most face. The more actively you hide this face over time, the more likely it will inevitably come to meet you. If what seems most recognizable about you is your calmness and fearlessness, what will come to meet you in your life will be a figure of disturbance and terror. If what seems most recognizable about you is your disturbing and terrifying nature, what will come to meet you in your life will be a figure of calmness and fearlessness. This is what the ancient Greeks called enantiodromia. Jung found it a useful term and so have many others who search to understand archetypal human behavior.


This has happened to you. On the day your child was born, what came to meet you was your opposite (utterly helpless, incomprehensibly desiring, and miraculously open), and you found yourself feeling that you (capable, self-controlled, focused) could not possibly welcome the figure so unlike you that is you.


This too has happened to you. In the process of butchering an animal you have killed, you unexpectedly break down because this manifestation of wildness seemed nothing like you, and only now that you have killed it and will consume it do you recognize that this creature is you.


Your relationship of mutually assured destruction with your in-law is a relationship confounding and perfectly understandable because each of you can(not) believe that your Other/Familiar has come to meet you: your double. A Gerasim will come to meet an Ivan Ilyich. A Kurtz will come to meet a Marlow. A Billy Budd will come to meet a Captain Veer. A woman locked up for The Cure will find another woman—unrecognizable and impossibly recognizable—in the yellow wallpaper of her place of confinement. A Beloved comes to meet Sethe. A Giovanni will come to meet David. The warrior who has confirmed what everyone thought about him—and, indeed, what he thought about himself—as he defeated the beast Grendel, must confront the mother of Grendel, which means that what was hidden behind Grendel was what waited to meet the warrior.**


I come to meet I nearly every day, but I deflect. I do not ask myself why, at the grocery checkout (one of ten open stations) where I stand in a long line of masked people, the one unmasked person in the entire store comes to stand behind me. I do not ask myself why the divorce attorney, the vicious and amoral person I hired long ago, believes we could be best friends and repeatedly phones me. I do not ask myself why the tattooer causing me pain that I sought seems himself to be in pain now that I have come to meet him.


As a storyteller I find that when I am really paying attention, I encounter a dozen ghosts in the real story of an ordinary day, a dozen more in the surreal story of the dream realm, and a dozen more in the irreal story of dreamlike commonplace occurrences. I wish for my fiction to reflect experiences of educing and enantiodromia. I have tried to bring them to bear in One Kind Favor. I wish for all my works of fiction to quietly but clearly ask the reader, Here are ghosts—yours, mine, our nation’s—and since they are knocking (we know they are knocking; we know they will not stop) shouldn’t we unlock the bolted door?




Works cited, respectively: The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy; Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad; Billy Budd, Herman Melville; “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman; Beloved, Toni Morrison; Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin; Grendel, John Gardner.

Kevin McIlvoy’s novel, One Kind Favor, has just been published by WTAW Press. For twenty-seven years he was editor in chief of the literary magazine, Puerto del Sol. He taught in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers in creative writing from 1987 to 2019, and as a Regents Professor of creative writing in the New Mexico State University MFA Program from 1981 to 2008.