Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Night the Ghost Got In - James Thurber

Author: James Thurber
Date: 1933
Setting: 1915- the author's childhood home
Availability: Read The Night the Ghost Got In on line, free

Story: Told in the first person, a boy hears someone walking around the dining room table. He is upstairs, just getting out of the bath. Realizing that no one should be downstairs, he wakes his brother, who refuses to go down with him to check it out. The boys accidentally wake their mother, who of course, assumes that the walker is a burglar, not a ghost.

What ensues is a hilarious comedy of errors. But "none of us ever heard the ghost again."

Commentary: Thurber is one of my all time favorite authors. Most of his short stories are humorous, and they range from tongue-in-cheek to tales that will make you laugh out loud. "The Night the Ghost Got In" is very short, but it succeeds in its goal of being funny.

The point of this story is, of course, not whether there really was a ghost, but the crazy reactions that occurred as a result of hearing sounds that could not be accounted for. In fact, Thurber tells us in the second sentence exactly what is going to happen. He says "Its advent caused my mother to throw a shoe through a window of the house next door, and ended up with my grandfather shooting a patrolman." The beauty of the story is that, even though he's just told you the entire plot, you have to keep reading to find out how a ghost could have caused those bizarre events.

The stories Thurber tells of his childhood are at least partially fictionalized, but this story is based on definite facts. Thurber did hear this "ghost" walking around the table in the dining room, the year he was a junior in college (1912). He researched the house, and discovered that other owners had also heard the same sounds (choosing to move rather than live with it), and that there had been a man, 45 years previous, who had paced around the table in nervous frustration before running up the stairs to shoot himself.

If anyone wants to write humor, they would do well to study James Thurber's writing. He is a master of timing and of tweaking a story so as to make it funny rather than just exposition.

His stories are self-illustrated. Thurber's cartoon style is sketchy but unique, and anyone who is familiar with it will instantly recognize a Thurber cartoon.

Author info: James Thurber, 1894-1861, grew up in Columbus, Ohio. His father was often out of work, and his mother was a great practical joker. It is believed that many of his story ideas came from observing his parents. Playing William Tell with his brothers, as a child, James lost one eye. This forced him into more mental pursuits, rather than sports, and he turned to writing as a creative outlet. His collections of short stories are still well-read. Thurber is one of the classic American humorists.

Language skills 8
Depth of meaning 7