It’s the time of year when we particularly remember our communion with the dead. Among their other delights, works of the literary imagination can help make our sense of this communion more vivid. Dante’s Purgatorio and Paradiso spring readily to mind, as does the ghost in Hamlet, who introduces himself to his melancholy son with the following words:
I am thy father’s spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.
But among more recent fiction I cannot think of a more haunting, and more Catholic, ghost story than Dame Muriel Spark’s “The Portobello Road.”
Spark was a Catholic convert, short story writer, and novelist with a blackly comic sensibility. She wrote several ghost stories, sufficient to make up a collection (The Ghost Stories of Muriel Spark). “The Portobello Road” is narrated by a young woman whom we first meet on a high summer day enjoying an outing in the country with friends.
Something odd happens: “lolling with my lovely companions upon a haystack, I found a needle.” Because of this curious and ironic occurrence, the young woman from that day onward is known to her friends as “Needle.”
“Already and privately for some years I had been guessing that I was set apart from the common run,” Needle attests, and finding the needle in the haystack seems to have proved it. But the wonder of the needle brings with it a disturbing note: “The needle had gone fairly deep into the thumby cushion and a small red river flowed and spread from this tiny puncture.” It is a pinprick that foreshadows greater evils to come.
I cannot say much of substance about “The Portobello Road” without spoiling the story’s most striking effect. After the opening episode regarding the needle in the haystack, Spark flashes forward to one Saturday “in recent years” when she comes upon Kathleen, one of her old friends from that country outing, shopping along London’s Portobello Road. “I stood silently among the people, watching,” Needle tells us. “As you will see, I wasn’t in a position to speak to Kathleen.”
Why Needle can’t speak to Kathleen becomes clear momentarily, but first she spies another old friend walking behind Kathleen along the Portobello Road, a man named George who is Kathleen’s husband. “It was not for me to speak to Kathleen,” Needle explains, “but I had a sudden inspiration which caused me to say quietly. ‘Hallo, George.’”
George turns around and sees Needle. But what might result in a happy reunion of old friends turns out to be a menacing encounter that changes George’s life forever. Because Needle is dead.
George insists to Kathleen that he has seen Needle and that she spoke to him, but Kathleen, knowing full well that Needle died years before, ushers George home.
“I must explain that I departed this life nearly five years ago,” Needle tells us. “But I did not altogether depart this world.” Like old King Hamlet, Needle is doomed for a certain term to walk the earth. She frequents the shops along the Portobello Road, which she and Kathleen used to enjoy together when Needle was alive.
Though sometimes Needle is “in attendance, as it were” in church whenever Kathleen, who is Catholic, has a Mass said for her. “But most Saturdays I take my delight among the solemn crowds with their aimless purposes, their eternal life not far away.”
Interestingly, Needle spends more time contemplating her detachment from the enticements of the Portobello Road than she does of the splendors of a Mass said for her soul. The solemn crowds fill her with “delight,” even though their purposes are aimless and they grasp at things that they must lose in just a very little time.
One gathers that the sight, for Needle, of the hordes of shoppers quivering along the edge of eternity on the Portobello Road is richer food for contemplation even than the beauties of the Mass.
How is it possible that Needle, a ghost, is able to call out to George? “I would not have spoken had I not been inspired to it. Indeed it’s one of the things I can’t do now – to speak out, unless inspired. And most extraordinary, on that morning as I spoke, a degree of visibility set in.”
Needle supposes that from poor George’s point of view “it was like seeing a ghost.” She doesn’t think of herself as a ghost, at least not in the sense that many people think of ghosts. Though she never says so explicitly, the fact that Needle faithfully attends the masses said for her indicates that she is a soul in Purgatory. And she is a soul with a mission. She is “inspired” to call out to George and even to appear bodily to him.
Farther in spoiling the pleasures of this story I will not go. But suffice to say, again, that the mission Needle has been given is one that will change George forever. And – who knows? – perhaps it will also help purge the effects of whatever sins Needle committed in her life.
The story’s ending is indeed blackly comic, as is characteristic of Spark, but it is this disarming mode of comedy, akin in some ways to that of Evelyn Waugh, in others to that of Flannery O’Connor, that makes possible the presentation of characters against a supernatural backdrop that never strikes the reader as pious or preachy.
The blackness of Spark’s comedy, in fact, makes the supernatural element more readily believable, as it becomes no less strange than the strangers, “their eternal life not far away,” flickering down the Portobello Road.