As a child I was always annoyed by ghost stories. There was always some vital aspect to them that was frustratingly imprecise. Or else they harkened to a time or a concept that felt tremendously remote and improbable. When had it ever been a good idea to pick someone up on a road where there seemed to be nobody else about? Why were ghostly apparitions always either malevolent, or cruelly doomed to re-enact the circumstances that led to them becoming ghosts in the first place? Something registered as faulty.
My older reading self has a more sympathetic understanding. Everything from the stories of Herman Charles Bosman – those mostly unparalleled in their blend of simplicity and human understanding – to more recent cinematic adventures seems to indicate an enduring local interest in stories about ghosts and ghost-adjacent creatures.
Perhaps it says something about our need to shine a light on the mystic unknown that lies beyond the boundaries of our worlded knowledge. South Africa has many vagrant variants of the genre, shiftless story forms that echo or call to each other, that proliferate and disappear and reemerge over time and place, always sounding distinct to the South African ear. This country has always trucked with the fantastical because the supernatural has seemed to be the most hospitable ground on which to encounter the full and richly resonant history of life here.
The ghost story, to be sure, is a form of trace by which we might perceive vanished worlds, give voice to unjust silencings from the past, and bring incidents, accidents and phenomena into the domain of the speakable. It is a genre for engaging the existential, for reckoning with belief and disbelief, for contending with what appears to be outside the real but nevertheless cannot be ignored. Ghost stories are the public appearance of what is hidden, and in a broad sense, they provide a way of understanding something about who we are. The ghost tale rakes over old coals and finds the spark for new fires.
So it goes with Hauntings, a collection edited by Niq Mhlongo, this book is a collage of 19 short stories and explainings by a selection of South African writers. Among them are familiar names – Sibongile Fisher, Fred Khumalo, Lester Walbrugh – and others in close company. Remember Breton’s oft quoted saying, “tell me whom you haunt and I’ll tell you who you are”? Most of the time, hauntings signal beyond themselves to the preoccupations of their storytellers. The variety of narratives on display here testifies to that, with the whole coming together under a compelling rubric.
Short story anthologies are a worthy way to introduce readers to the work of a variety of authors in our financially straitened literary landscape. They give a sense of the writing scene at any given time: browse a few of the notable anthologies and you readily see whose star is in the ascendancy, whose writing furnaces are permanently ablaze, and who has all disappeared from view like Bruegel’s Icarus. The problem with them can be summed up in a simple analogy: a curry and a salmagundi are both foods concocted by mixing different ingredients. One is cohesive and uplifting, and the other is weird and upsetting to contemplate.
Hauntings has many salvatory points, but overall, it leans more towards being a strange salad. Part of the problem is that anthologies work better when there is a sense of rigorous and careful consideration about what has been included and what has been left out. The work of the editorial introduction is key here. In Hauntings, Mhlongo, whose preferred style in his own writing is a casual insouciance, has here penned an introduction feels like he couldn’t be bothered to take his jacket off and have a seat. It begins jocularly enough, before trailing off halfway along, and it barely does the necessary work of framing the collection. Mhlongo’s writing, away from his own novels (which are so thrillingly original), is often characterized by a dismaying level of superfluity, as though someone had badgered him to write something as he was sitting in an airport lounge.
It’s a pity because there are excellent stories in this collection. Lester Walbrugh is perhaps one of the finest writers on the more contemporary South African scene, and his story Mercy’s Drift is a granitic cornerstone characterized by a pleasing combination of elegant sentences and meanings that allow themselves to emerge gradually, like steeping flavours. Meanwhile, Sibongile Fisher’s Belted Lights opens on a line that fizzes with fear: “It was Malefu’s idea to bury the body at the abandoned Kempton Park Hospital” (197). Fisher’s story releases its revelations in a well-paced drip of detail that feels knitted to the present. Similarly, Fred Khumalo’s Peace of Storms, though a touch rough around the edges, demonstrates why Khumalo is the most prolific South African author of the current moment.
Sabata-Mpho Mokae’s Platfontein, which outlines a visit to a dusty Northern Cape town with a history that is being steadily buried by time, is deeply evocative. The town’s history as a settlement for displaced !Xun and Khwe is outlined in a contemplative and meditative piece of writing that forms no easy conclusions. It shares its concern with the afterlife of apartheid with another story in the anthology, Styles Lucas Ledwaba’s amusing and poignant The War Veteran. Elsewhere, Zanele Dlamini’s narrator riffs amusingly on the ways places acquire their names – how different groups establish their own meanings for the same places:
The history of the name of the small town is interesting too. Some say it comes from ‘Umenzi wezinto’ a Zulu word meaning ‘where things happen’, as it was the first town with a public company, a sugar mill and a textile industry in Natal. The urban legend says the name came from two men who visited this small town, one of them was named ‘Um’. On their walk, they were crossing the stream when a crocodile bit Um in half. His friend’s exclamation, “Um’s in two!” was later ascribed to an Irish author, writing of settlers and colonisers. I remember odd things sometimes.
Dlamini’s story is also about the way that serial killers are remembered more in the collective cultural memory than those they kill. It’s a sobering point, driving home the way even heinous violence has become a banal part of the world.
The good stories do battle with the clunkers for control of the reader’s patience. Some of the other stories in this anthology are appallingly wretched in their simple-mindedness. Poorly conceived and leadenly obtuse dialogues share space with others where the story simply peters out like a rutted path, and the result is an irritatingly potholed reading experience. Mncedisi Shabangu, who died suddenly earlier this year, has a story with an intriguingly South African premise (how often have you seen those newspaper articles about errant cars sailing into people’s houses or pools?), but it maunders along, never getting out of second gear. Niq Mhlongo contributes a rather phoned-in allegory about corruption, that among other writing crimes, contains the following description:
She was wearing a very short blue dress, so tight that it was almost one and the same with the shape of her firm breasts and her broad hips. She came towards him with wide strides, alternating the weight of her body on one foot then the other so that her buttocks swayed from side to side.
This is so bad it would be parody if it wasn’t completely po-faced. The generation of authors who cannot write women except as they are seen by men were writing about women in this way almost two decades ago, are apparently still doing so today, and if the chauvinism was lamentable then, it is distinctly outmoded now. Stories in which women’s breasts are compared to avocadoes or where homosexuality is introduced as a vaguely comedic explanation of a character’s strangeness are not just passé, they’re bad.
This collection of stories is also edited negligently, which is a sadly common occurrence with many recent local publications. Aside from the not-always-relevant matter of grammatical correctness, many of the stories would have been stronger had they been trimmed and sutured in a developmental editing process.
Characters who have been severely burned have casual conversations in caves. Others express unusually strident emotions or drive cars that behave in ways cars shouldn’t generally behave. And it’s a terrible soap opera cliché to stand at a window with your back turned to the person who has invaded your home. Poor editing makes one distrustful of the care that has been taken in selecting and driving stories towards publication, and in a mixed collection, it proves frustrating because some of the stories fail simply because nobody seems to have advised the authors on where the emphatic moment should fall, or how a short story should be structured.
Carping about shoddy editing in our etiolated publishing environment may seem churlish. This is, after all, a collection of the kind that brings new and unfamiliar authors into the orbit of the professionalized literary scene, and the short story collection has a good history in this country. But what seems self-evident to me is that if we want to trace that elusive place between light and shadow where our stories are formed, we should get the details right. If we want people to buy our words, it’s the least we can do.