The Ghost and the Omnibus:
the Gothic Virginia Woolf
In 1921 Virginia Woolf, writing of that generation we call ‘modernist’, warns the aspiring ghost story writer that ‘your ghosts will only make us laugh’ if they simply aim at the obvious sources of fear. For after world war, tabloid journalism and mass mechanical production ‘we breakfast upon a richer feast of horror than served our ancestors for a twelvemonth…we are impervious to fear.’ It only remains for us modernist writers, Woolf notes, to change the point of attack, to find ‘the weak spot in the armour’ of the impervious modern mind, to specify a new fear. 1
For fearlessness, properly speaking, is a treasure won from the sensitive experiencing of ideas or events genuinely fearful: it is not the affectlessness or moral stupidity that sometimes masquerades as fearlessness. The next year, 1922, would see the appearance of the first two great modernist tales of terror, The Waste Land, and Ulysses. Forster's demonically possessed Adela Quested and the ghost of ‘Esmiss Esmoor’ joined the spooked narrator of Eliot's poem and the mother-vampire-pursued young pedant of Joyce's novel with the publication of A Passage to Indiain 1927. And by the time Virginia Woolf had offered her variants of the modernist ghost in Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), A Room of One's Own (1929) and The Waves (1931), that haunted decade had fully earned ‘us moderns’ our new Gothic spurs, showing us the way to fearlessness through the encounter with our modern fear of the death of our most cherished illusion – ego, the self.
Like Henry James, her mentor and foil in this respect, Virginia Woolf went to the Gothic pantheon for ‘agents’ of the marvellous because these agents traditionally enforce in characters and readers that sudden opening, widening, shattering of consciousness, that dissolving of rational boundaries, which was one of the goals of her fiction. 2 Like