Okay, I cheerfully admit, this is recycled from my previous blog. But at the moment, I’m in the midst of a mild attack of writer’s block, and this topic–literary ghost stories–is one near and dear to my heart. The ones below are all from British authors; I have another post waiting in the wings of stories by American authors that tickle my fancy in much the same way.
The Brits lost their world empire in the wake of two world wars; their cuisine will never dethrone the mighty French; they drink hot tea at odd hours; and as for what they call football–uh, nope. At the art of the literary ghost story, though, their dominance remains unchallenged, with a golden age that had its beginnings in the literary magazines edited by Charles Dickens in the 1850s and lasting well past World War II. Their ghosts can be romantic, benevolent, malevolent, funny, creepy, mere shadows or in your face, but they are remarkably memorable. I had a hard time choosing only five favorites, but here they are, in reverse order.
“Smee” (1931) by Alfred McLellan Burrage. Hide and seek is an innocent childish game that can nonetheless be enjoyed by adults. You’ll never think so again after reading this chiller about a variation on hide and seek that turns up one too many players. Burrage (1889-1956) was a World War I veteran who used the pseudonym Ex-Private X.
“Squire Toby’s Will” (1868) by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Two brothers are at war over their father’s will, with supernatural intrusions and deadly results. The brilliant Irish writer Le Fanu (1814-1873) is best known for his vampire novella “Carmilla” (1872). The great M.R. James (see below) regarded Le Fanu as “absolutely in the first rank” of ghost story writers. Trust me, James was right.
“A Warning to the Curious” (1925) by Montague Rhodes James. In East Anglia there is a legend of a Saxon king who buried three holy crowns along the coast as talismans against invasion from Europe. One crown was taken by the sea; another was reported to have been dug up, melted down and sold in 1687. The third was guarded by successive generations of a single family; does the death without issue of the last male in the line leave the crown unguarded? Not hardly, as the fool who tries to dig it up learns. M. R. James (1862-1936) wrote in this story a great description of the random nature of ghost sightings: “Sometimes, you know, you see him, and sometimes you don’t, just as he pleases, I think: he’s there, but he has some power over your eyes.”
“A Visitor From Down Under” (1926) by Leslie Poles Hartley. Hartley (1895-1972) was notable for infusing his ghost stories with mordant humor. There is none in this tale of an Australian murder victim who trails his killer to London. Interspersed with a radio broadcast of some rather unsettling children’s games, it builds to an appallingly bloody–and terrifying–climax. It’s thematically related to M. R. James’s “A School Story,” with its sinister “if you don’t come to me, I’ll come to you” motif, but “A Visitor From Down Under” makes “A School Story” look prim as a Sunday school picnic.
“Man-size in Marble” (1893) by Edith Nesbit. Nesbit (1858-1924) wrote her best ghost stories during the Gay Nineties, but this one has no decadent touches. The tomb effigies of a pair of medieval robber barons–“them two bodies, drawed out man-size in marble” as one character describes them–have an unsavory habit; on Halloween they rise “in their marble,” walk out of the church, and cross the fields to a tiny cottage, all that remains of their great house–and God help whoever’s home when they arrive.
If I want to scare myself silly I read them all, back to back.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to locate texts online for “Smee” and “A Visitor from Down Under”, but I first encountered “Smee” in an Oxford Anthology (the name of which, alas, escapes me at the moment) and “A Visitor from Down Under” in a volume of stories edited and illustrated by the great artist of the macabre Edward Gorey.