This Halloween, as readers search for ghost stories, they can find one in an unlikely place: a new collection of letters written by George Orwell.
Although Orwell was famous for forecasting the horrors of totalitarianism in groundbreaking novels such as “1984” and “Animal Farm,” he wasn’t known as a master of the macabre.
But in “George Orwell: A Life in Letters,” published earlier this year by Liveright in hardcover, editor Peter Davison reminds readers that Orwell once reported seeing a ghost. Orwell’s claim was especially surprising since he also claimed to have no belief in the afterlife.
In an Aug. 16, 1931 letter to friend Dennis Collings, Orwell said he’d seen a ghost in England’s Walberswick cemetery. Orwell was so shocked by the incident that he included a detailed diagram of his walking route in the letter, charting out the geographical impossibility that a figure he had just seen would have been able to walk away so quickly.
“I happened to glance over my shoulder, & saw a figure pass ... disappearing behind the masonry & presumably disappearing into the churchyard,” Orwell told Collings. “I wasn’t looking directly at it & so couldn’t make out more than that it was a man’s figure, small & stooping, & dressed in lightish brown; I should have said a workman. I had the impression that it glanced towards me in passing, but I made out nothing of the features. At the moment of its passing I thought nothing, but a few seconds later it struck me that the figure had made no noise, & I followed it out into the churchyard. There was no one in the churchyard, & no one within possible distance along the road – this was about 20 seconds after I had seen it; & in any case there were only two people in the road, & neither at all resembled the figure.... The figure had therefore vanished. Presumably an hallucination,” Orwell concluded.
But 82 years after Orwell’s curious experience near an English cemetery, what he saw – and how he saw it – remains a mystery.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”