I’m a more-or-less rational person. Anything with even a whiff of mysticism strikes me as a great yawn. And I believe dead is dead. Case closed. La commedia è finita. Curiously, I’m also a fan of ghost stories. Contradictory? Maybe it’s that I’ve been working at the New York Public Library for so long, I’ve come to feel like a ghost myself, haunting its marble corridors.
Not to split genre hairs, but I’m not so enamored of horror stories--or movies, for that matter--particularly not modern ones, whose main purpose seems to be to dispatch as many people (frequently teenage girls) as gruesomely as possible. If I wanted to be horrified, I’d read the newspaper. I much prefer the quiet suggestiveness of the classic ghost story, whether it takes a fusty antiquarian approach or a cool modern one--as long as it’s based on the notion that the most frightening possibility is what might be lurking in the shadows. The minute we find out that the shadows contain some drooling, rat-faced thing with tentacles is when the giggles start.
Although ghost stories represent only a small, specialized niche in the world of popular fiction, the New York Public Library does not neglect it. A few years ago, while searching for quirky additions to the library’s collection, I discovered Ash-Tree Press, a small publisher located in British Columbia, which specializes in limited editions of both original and newly-edited collections of classic ghost and horror stories.
Over the years, we’ve been ordering these works volume by volume, as they are published, and we currently list 106 of them in our catalog. These are works with such appealing titles as The Undying Monster: A Tale of the Fifth Dimension, The Night Wind Howls, The Rose of Death and Other Mysterious Delusions, and At Ease with The Dead (pictured above). Who could resist? One publication I was particularly glad to see--and an example of what Ash-Tree Press does so well--is The World, The Flesh, and the Devil, the first volume of the collected fantastic stories of Gerald Kersh, an extraordinarily prolific author long out of print whom I’d thought completely forgotten.
Beyond Ash-Tree Press, I have a few personal favorite ghost stories which I read again and again, whenever an unearthly sort of mood strikes me. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959) the ultimate ghost story, although no ghost actually appears. Certainly it contains the most vividly and compellingly created haunted house in all fiction:
Hill House itself, not sane, stood against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
(This is also one of those rare occasions when the film version—of 1963, not the 1999 remake--is almost as powerful as the book.)
“The Beckoning Fair One” by Oliver Onions, is a subtle, psychological English novella about a haunting that takes place by insidious degrees in its main character’s mind and features a surprising degree of repressed Victorian sexuality.
Any ghost story by M. R. James would qualify as among the finest of the traditional variety. The supernatural manifestation in these tales is often disturbingly touchable, like the presence beneath the pillow in “Casting the Runes,” that feels like “a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and [. . .] not the mouth of a human being.”
And finally, Robert Aickman is a particularly fascinating, if non-traditional, writer. One of his most notable stories is “Ringing the Changes," about a newly married couple (the husband, significantly, being thirty years older than the wife), who honeymoon in a small, damp seaside town where the church bells are ringing constantly, maddeningly. The purpose of the ringing, we learn, is literally to summon the drowned dead.
Which frightening tales would you add to the list?
If I were cleverer, I might have saved this post for Halloween, but you don’t really need a special season to be scared. At any time, the fabric of rationality can be torn apart, plunging you down into the swirling dark, where the ghosts dwell.