Seeing a ghost is like experiencing a fragment of someone else’s memory; an insistent, present, repeated moment broken out of all context. Fiction takes such fragments and sets them in a reasoned and coherent narrative and emotional context.
For example, there’s Jack Torrance in Stephen King’s novel ‘The Shining’. He’s trapped in the Overlook Hotel, surrounded by ghosts. The book presents him as being possessed by the hotel – but in fact, the hotel is possessed by him.
Torrance gives the disparate iconography sets of the hotel – the topiary animals, the boiler in the basement, the various phantoms of 20s gangsters and their hangers-on, the lift, the Indian graveyard – a nexus, a narrative reason-to-be.
He’s a locus of meaning that both justifies their presence and defines how they should act. ‘The Shining’ is a great Gothic masterpiece, using the apparatus of the supernatural to amplify the impact of and comment on the nature of one man’s profoundly flawed and destructive emotional makeup.
In real life, ghosts don’t do that; but then again, in real life very little does that. Fiction creates entire, self-absorbed imitations of worlds; these worlds serve to very precisely focus the reader’s attention onto a very small set of characters, providing the imagery and event structures that support and intensify interpretation of their actions and intents.
If ‘Gothic’ describes stories where externalised and highly artificial events and locations respond to and are inspired by internal emotional turmoil, then – read on one level – all fiction can be said to be Gothic. None of it’s real; and it’s all driven by the author’s need to express and amplify what (s)he understands his or her characters to be, and what (s)he wants the reader to find out about them.