Possibly because I’m a half-assed artist of sorts myself, I love book illustrations. I have an idea that one reason Wuthering Heights is my alltime favorite is that I first read it in a Reader’s Digest Condensed Classics of a 1943 edition illustrated with woodcuts by Fritz
Eichenberg. The illustrations left as much of an imprint on my heart as the story itself. (Which explains, in a roundabout way, why I’m still waiting for Heathcliff. ;))
The same is true of the ghost stories of Edith Wharton.
Sometimes there’s a dry wit in Wiki articles that gives me the giggles. Take this quote, for example, about the Pulitzer Prize winning American expat author Edith Wharton: “In addition to writing several well-respected novels, Wharton produced a wealth of short stories and is particularly well-regarded for her ghost stories.”
She came from an astronomically high class of New York society, born into the Joneses—yep, the actual ones we metaphorically try to keep up with—in 1862. She might have lived out her life in the approved Victorian fashion that dictated that a lady was mentioned in the papers at birth, marriage, and death, had she not chosen to write. She married at twenty-three; the marriage was unhappy, and she and her husband separated for good in 1907, divorcing in 1913. Thereafter she lived mostly in France; it was in France that she completed her 1921 Pulitzer novel The Age of Innocence, and in France that she died in 1937.
Her writing was most believable when she wrote of the shibboleths and scandals of that class she was born into, and her ghost stories are no exception to that generalization.
At one time, it was the custom in Knobite Corner’s high school for freshmen to be assigned Wharton’s novel Ethan Frome in literature class. I missed that assignment by some years, and came to be a Wharton fan through her ghost stories, particularly of a collection of eleven tales published by Scribner in 1985 called The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton. The stories themselves lack the chilly majesty of Montague Rhodes James, arguably the greatest writer of literary ghost stories. In some respects, they are reminiscent of the work of Wharton’s close friend Henry James, no mean hand at ghost stories himself. The greatest charm of the book is a series of black and white illustrations by the Hungarian-American artist Laszlo Kubinyi, which are occasionally spookier than the stories themselves.
Take, for example, this one, which accompanies the 1902 story The Lady’s Maid’s Bell in which a wealthy woman’s deceased maid returns from the grave to try to save her mistress from an abusive husband.
The dead maid’s specter, in the background, has a look of decay about her that could frighten even the husband witless—as indeed she does.
The illustration accompanying the 1909 story Afterward seems to show a protective householder going out to give a trespasser a piece of his mind—until you notice how transparent and oddly out of place the man outside the window looks.
Even at that, no one—least of all the bewildered wife, looking out the window at the intruder—realizes exactly what he is.
The most genuinely terrifying of the eleven stories, though, is Mr. Jones (1929), in which a butler will stop at nothing to protect his master’s family secrets, though both are long in their graves.
There is something infinitely menacing in that form, bent over the dropfront secretary where the family papers are hidden. When it comes to those papers, it is a fatal error to cross Mr. Jones, as proven in the story’s shocking ending (which is reminiscent of a Henry James story called “A Romance of Certain Old Cloths”, but handled with more finesse than James, whose story ended up an outright clunker).
This little volume is one I return to frequently—especially on long winter evenings with snow threatening. But I confess, I make sure the lights are bright when I settle in with Wharton’s ghosts. Thanks to Kubinyi, they’re uncomfortable guests in the house.