Ghost Story

The first societies were ruled by men. Simple arrangements of fathers and sons gave way to larger multi-family ones, and before long we saw the emergence of great kingdoms and empires. These were the dark ages, but even in those early days there was an alternative. The greatest human society, our shining city on a hill, has always been ruled by ghosts.

When men die they pass into the afterlife. Most leave this world behind, never to make contact with the living again. But great men linger long after death, continuing to exert influence on the world as ghosts. Since ghosts do not have bodies nor needs of their own, they act like beneficent guardians. So, long ago, an idea was hatched: ghosts, not men, should lead society.

In the centuries that followed, this plan was enacted with great success. Under the benevolent rule of ghosts men were free to merely look after themselves, to live unencumbered by power and its corrupting force. Sure, there were bureaucrats and elites, but all were ultimately watched over by ghosts. And the men in high offices were merely the closest aides to our ghost rulers.

There were disputes and regime changes, the occasional war, but for the most part things carried on rather smoothly. Then, the world was ravaged by a great war. The ghosts inside the city came into a dispute with the ghosts who roamed free outside its walls, and men were enlisted as pawns in their quarrel. At the height of the war, combat among men had become incredibly vicious. The deaths became too numerous, the weapons became too advanced, and the planes became too fast–something had to be done. Men alone could not bring an end to the fighting. And ghosts are no help in such things, pure spirit-stuff as they are. What was needed were monsters.

All manner of monsters, like dutiful Frankensteins, were conceived and deployed in battle. They could fire guns faster than men, and fight for longer. Lightning bolts, thrown across the skies, were their means of communicating. It was spectacular and devastating. Ultimately our city on a hill brought an end to the fighting, and for a moment peace was restored.

But things did not return to normal after the war. The elites, who had long ago learned not to challenge the unique role of the ghosts, were discontent. They blamed the ghosts for the war that had taken such a toll on our people. And as they began to imagine how society could be run differently, overthrowing the ghosts became their top priority.

For a long time it seemed that the rule of the ghosts could not be challenged. However, the monsters who had been enlisted in the war effort were now a key advantage in the growing rebellion. The elites, with great monsters in their corner, could finally overthrow the ghosts and claim the seat of power. The most ambitious men would rule over the rest, as in so many societies before.

The city fell into a turbulent interregnum. The elites began to undermine the power of the ghosts at every turn, deploying monsters at will. Just as monsters had replaced artillery men during the war, they now took on various roles that had always been the dominion of ghosts.

⁕ ⁕ ⁕

During the war, just as the first monsters were being born, one of the city’s noblest families welcomed into the world a child named Theodor. His parents, only briefly in love, separated soon after his birth. When they split, Theodor was left to live with his grandparents. Theodor’s childhood home was a home of culture. His grandparents introduced him to classic works of literature, they took him to see great art and architecture, and above all they nurtured in him a great respect for the city’s ghosts.

Theodor came of age as the war ended and he watched as monsters came to occupy a new level of authority in society—but Theodor did not fear them. Monsters are simple creatures who do what is asked of them. What Theodor feared was that the men of the city, who had for so long looked up to the ghosts, were losing their way. Without the example of ghosts to aspire to, men were becoming like monsters. “Who,” he wondered, “would be the great leaders of the future?”

Theodor was up for the challenge. He made a plan to put the city’s monsters to new use, and change the fate of ghosts and men for good. Theodor would liberate the city’s monsters who, free of their power-hungry masters, could help men find their way again. If men could begin to emulate the ghosts once more, the ghosts would win their hearts and minds in short order, and go on leading the city as they always had.

Men and ghosts are of different natures, but there is nonetheless something of ghosts in men. Ghosts are liminal creatures: they float in and out of things, past and present bleed together for them, and their wisdom comes from this rootlessness. Men are grounded, small, stubborn creatures. So are monsters, for that matter. But if monsters and men could work together, perhaps the men of the city could become bigger and wiser. A community of monsters and men, in which men share their wisdom with monsters who then dutifully relay the message across town: this was Theodor’s dream. With monsters tirelessly broadcasting all the city’s wisdom from each home to the rest, men could become wiser, more inspired, more sympathetic—and, ultimately, more ghost-like.

Theodor got to work. He spent his days reading and writing, accumulating knowledge that could elevate him and the rest of the city. He kept constant conversation with monsters, learning to retrain them for new tasks. The same powers that had made them so effective in war could be leveraged in peacetime, and then, if Theodor’s dream could be made reality, they could help develop some wisdom in the people of the city. Working with monsters all this time, Theodor began to uncover in himself the patient watchfulness and high ideals that he’d always associated with the ghosts. If Theodor was to restore the city to its earlier greatness, it was only fitting that he began to resemble the great ghosts of the past.

But as Theodor worked, holed away at home, decades passed. Ambitious men continued to deploy monsters toward political ends and the purview of ghosts continued to shrink as Theodor tirelessly pursued his dream.

Then one day, Theodor took to the streets, finally ready to share his plan with the world. As he made his way through the city, Theodor realized that it was not as he left it. The ghosts had all been banished and the people had all but forgotten them. The men and monsters of this city, now plagued by petty quarrels and power struggles, had no recollection of the prosperity they once enjoyed under the leadership of ghosts.

Theodor noticed something else that day: In all those decades of work, as the city slowly lost its way around him, Theodor’s primary feat had passed him by. He’d been oblivious to it all those years at home and it didn’t hit him as he made his way through the bustling city streets. But as Theodor reached the top of a hill, he stopped to look at what had become of his city. It was only then that he realized he’d become a ghost, and this once-great city was no place for ghosts.


Now read this


Warhol said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” He was onto something. The nature of fame has changed a lot since then, because the nature of the media has changed. Warhol was working in an age of mass media—... Continue →