I joined a “Classic Ghost Stories” interest group recently (It’s called “The Classic Ghost Story Tradition” on Facebook, if you’re interested); the group focuses on “classic” ghost stories, those from the mostly British tradition written around the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Authors from this tradition include M.R. James, E.F. Benson, Sheridan Le Fanu, Robert Aickman. Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a few of these, too.
I’ve enjoyed the discussions, and gotten a few good recommendations. But I realized that while I very much like the authors and the stories that tend to come up, they aren’t the stories that have struck me the most, in my reading.
It’s got me thinking about what I like in a good ghost story.
They don’t have to be scary (though a little frisson is nice: just one scene, or even just a single image that makes me gasp or my pulse to skip a beat will do it). The ghost doesn’t have to be malevolent or evil. The story shouldn’t be gory or bloody, but a touch of gruesome is okay.
The stories that have really stuck with me — I won’t call them my favorites, but rather the stories that have crept into some corner of my mind and stayed there — aren’t always the best known stories by their authors. They aren’t always the stories by those authors that I think are the scariest, or even the best written. But for whatever reason, they haunt me.
Afterward, by Edith Wharton
“Oh, there is one [a ghost], of course, but you’ll never know it.”
I love this story. An American couple becomes unexpectedly wealthy, and decides to live the life they’ve always dreamed of. This entails moving to the English countryside for a while, so the husband can write and the wife can paint and garden. They search for the perfect house to rent: it must by old-fashioned, picturesque — and of course, haunted. What’s the point of a charming old house in England if it doesn’t have a ghost? And Lyng is haunted, their friend Alida tells them. But you won’t know that you’ve seen the ghost, until afterward.
Long, long afterward. Much like you don’t realize the turning points, the decisive moments of your life, until long after the fact. A beautiful, sad tale, and a meditation on legality versus morality, as well as on what it means for a wife to be her husband’s life partner.
The Romance of Certain Old Clothes, by Henry James
This is one of James’ earlier stories, written when he was in his twenties. He hadn’t yet developed his characteristic baroque style (thank goodness!), but he already shows a preference for long sentences, and very long, run-on paragraphs. This works well for the story. Two well-bred sisters in colonial New England both fall in love with the same man. Of course, he can only marry one of them. The story has nothing supernatural until the very end, but James’ style gives this tale of jealousy and avarice an implacable, nonstop pace that hurtles right into the supernatural denouement like a boulder rolling down a mountain. I liked The Turn of the Screw well enough, and James’ other supernatural and gothic tales, too. But this one is my favorite.
Mr. George, by August Derleth
“Mr. George” was published in the March 1947 issue of Weird Tales magazine, under the pseudonym Stephen Grendon. A young girl, Prissie, inherits a house and a fortune after her mother dies of tuberculosis; she lives in the house with her mother’s dear friend, Mr. George — until Mr. George gets sick and dies, too. Now she’s living in the house with her mother’s cousins, who are next in line to inherit the fortune. But Prissie’s only five years old; she doesn’t understand any of this. She only knows that she misses Mr. George….
It’s like Saki’s Sredni Vashtar, with a ghost instead of a ferret. I re-read “Mr. George” for this post, after re-reading the Wharton and James stories. I have to say, it suffered from the comparison. Derleth got a little preachy, and his exposition is clumsy when compared to the graceful way that Wharton slipped in her protagonists’ backstory. But the cousins’ comeuppances were pleasantly gruesome, in an almost fairy-tale like way (fairy tales are pretty gruesome), and I still enjoy it a lot. “The Lonesome Place” is a more famous (and probably better) ghost story, but I still have a soft spot for “Mr. George.”
Lost Hearts, by M. R. James
I adore everything M. R. James wrote: his ghost stories, his essays and letters, his children’s novel The Five Jars, even that portion of his scholarly work that I’ve read. My “favorite” of his ghost stories varies with my mood (currently, it’s “Casting the Runes”). “Lost Hearts” was the first James story that I read, and it’s the one that sticks with me the most. A young orphaned boy comes to live with his elderly cousin, an expert on the religious practices and superstitions of the later pagans. You wouldn’t think that such a dry, dusty, bachelor scholar would have any regard for children, but apparently he does. He’s taken in two other children before, who were ungrateful enough to run away — or so it seems. And why is Mr. Abney so interested in his young cousin’s age?
So cheerfully matter of fact, and yet so gruesome, unusually so for James. And so casually erudite, too. Everything I came to love about James, and a little more.
The Shadows on the Wall, by Mary Wilkins Freeman
“Mary E. Wilkins’ The Wind in the Rosebush: quite successful domestic New England: I like it,” wrote M.R. James in a letter to Nico Davies (one of J. M. Barrie’s foster sons and Lost Boys). “The Shadows on the Wall” isn’t the best story in the collection (that would be “The Southwest Corner” or “The Lost Ghost”) nor the most famous (probably “Luella Parsons”) but it’s the one I remember the most.
Five siblings: three sisters, two brothers, four of them living in the family home. The younger brother dies under questionable circumstances (of “gastric distress”). The older brother, a doctor, certifies the death. The three sisters aren’t so sure that everything is legit, but their surviving brother has a terrible temper, and they don’t dare question him. And every night, when they light the lamps in the parlor, a shadow springs up on the wall, a shadow shaped like their younger brother. A shadow not due to anything in the room.
The language is a little stiff at the beginning, and the backstory isn’t brought in very gracefully, but there’s something about the sisters’ sheer terror of their brother that I can’t forget. He’s far more frightening than the ghost. I assume he’s meant to be.
Do these stories have anything in common?
All the authors are American, except M. R. James. We may think of Henry James as English in his outlook, and “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” is set in the British colony of Massachusetts, but it’s definitely an American story. Two of the stories are by women, and all but “Lost Hearts” have female main characters. Except for M. R. James (and maybe Derleth) none of these authors are known primarily as ghost story writers — Wharton, Henry James and Wilkins Freeman are primarily known as realists. And one way or another, all these stories are about dysfunctional families, of secrets kept, and of greed.
I think that’s the part that appeals to me, in most of these stories, at least: how the haunting is woven into the secrets of the household. It’s the families that are scary; the ghosts are the manifestation of what’s really wrong.
Image: Fulk-Nerra Assailed by the Phantoms of His Victims, Gustav Dore. Sourced from WikiArt.