Chapter 26 of Martha’s Children, and ghosts

In all her life, both before and after she was killed, Ivy McIlwraith has prided herself on her extensive knowledge of sorcery and arcane lore, her keen mind, and her ability to handle herself in any situation. But she never contemplated spending a day in a basement with two coffins and Martha Fokker! We already found out in chapter 25 what Martha thought about the situation. Now, in the new chapter 26 of Martha’s Children, it’s time to hear Ivy’s side.

Bierce in 1892

Bierce in 1892

Ivy’s a ghost. Earlier this week, offline, I fielded a question about how ghosts function in Martha’s Children. Because, let’s face it, the popular conception of ghosts is even weirder than the popular conception of vampires. Let’s start with an “authority:” Ambrose Bierce (1842 – 1913?), author of “The Death of Halpin Frayser,” among other ghost stories. In The Devil’s Dictionary, a work exhibiting his cynical sense of humor, Bierce defined “ghost” as

The outward and visible sign of an inward fear. . . . Accounting for the uncommon behavior of ghosts, Heine mentions somebody’s ingenious theory that they are as much afraid of us as we are of them. . . . There is one insuperable obstacle to a belief in ghosts. A ghost never comes naked: he appears in a winding-sheet or “in his habit as he lived.” To believe in him, then, is to believe that not only have the dead the power to make themselves visible after there is nothing left of them, but that the same power adheres in textile fabrics. . . . And why does not the apparition of a suit of clothes sometimes walk abroad without a ghost in it?

There are other difficulties. How does an immaterial spirit speak? Why do they seem to be able to pass through walls at will, but typically treat floors, stairs, and the ground as absolutely solid? Why do they tend to hang around where they died? We should find Bierce’s ghost and ask him, if we can ever find out where and when he died. (He vanished in Mexico.)

In Martha’s Children, ghosts are the souls of dead people. Most people do not become ghosts; when they die, their souls go elsewhere, instead of sticking around on earth. The ghosts of normal people tend to act normally, which is to say they act the way they think ghosts should act. However, they are not material, and cannot alter the physical world beyond conveying their appearance and voice. (No doubt there is a culture somewhere that expects ghosts to smell of body odor, so ghosts in those cultures will typically have body odor.)

Ivy is exceptional, because she was a sorceress, and deliberately tried to conserve her powers when she was killed. Since sorcerers use their souls to draw magical power, sorcerer’s ghosts have a limited ability to do so, as well. That’s why Ivy can change her appearance and actually pick up objects. But it’s also why she can’t overpower any living sorcerer unless she can surprise them, trick them, or catch them at a significant disadvantage. She could plunder Love’s mind, because Love had made herself temporarily submissive in bespelling Kammen. She could take Martha by surprise, but in any fair fight that lasts for more than seconds, she’s going to lose. It was only because she needed only a few seconds that she was able to trick sorcerer Mitchell Foster long enough to have Sally Truax kill him.

By the way, ghosts over in the Dragon Lady world work a bit differently. They reside on the plane of magic when they aren’t appearing in the material world. And history records at least one magician who worked for the Office of Occult Affairs who destroyed her own soul in the last few years of her life, and thereby became one of the few people who could never be seen as a ghost or be summoned from her afterlife on the plane of magic . . . because her soul had died with her body, and, unlike 99.99% of the people, she had no afterlife of any kind.


About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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7 Responses to Chapter 26 of Martha’s Children, and ghosts

  1. Judy says:

    I rather like that definition of ghostly behaviour as an outward and visible sign of an inward fear. Reminded me of Sunday School where they taught us the definition of a sacrament was ‘an outward sign of an inward grace!’ I suppose all inward emotions have one outward sign or another!! Let’s hope the outward and inward are both healthy and beautiful!!

    • Brian Bixby says:

      There’s a similar relationship between faith and good deeds in Christian theology, although exactly what that relationship consists of was one of the issues dividing Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation.

      The argument has even been made for the genre of horror as a whole, that it externalizes internal fears. This explains why sexually active teenagers always got killed first when slasher flicks rose to prominence after “Halloween” (which curiously does follow the formula that far, without trying to enlist our sympathies on the side of the slasher). Bierce himself wrote many horror stories that encapsulate the idea of the outward expression of an inward fear, and they weren’t always supernatural, either — witness “Chickamauga.”

  2. crimsonprose says:

    Although not disagreeing with your definitions – that’s an author’s right in an author’s world – I have to add mine. A ghost is an uncontained bundle of energy. I say this from experience.

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