Well, my friends, I come to you today from a different computer altogether, thanks to the kindness of my friends Lily (who donated the puter) and Willard (who set it up) ;).
The following five stories are my favorite literary ghost stories by American authors. And they, also, I have been known to read back to back, simply to give myself the willies. 😉
Of course “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving has to be on the list. First published in 1820 in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, this tale of Ichabod Crane and the ghostly antics of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow is based on legends from the old Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (now of course the state of New York). Although Irving would go on to write other tales of the supernatural (“The Adventure of the German Student,” “Guests from Gibbet Island”) this is the most famous. A number of movies have been based on it, most recently Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow , a very loose retelling of the story starring Johnny Depp. Fun fact: Irving was buried in a cemetery in North Tarrytown, NY; a few years ago the town officially changed its name to Sleepy Hollow.
“The Shadowy Third” by Ellen Glasgow (1873-1945). Richmond, Virginia native Glasgow was better known as a novelist; her In This Our Life (1941) won a Pulitzer the following year. This creepy story was published in her 1923 collection The Shadowy Third and Other Stories, but may have been written as early as 1916. It’s fairly standard Victorian fare: a sickly wife married for her money by a society doctor, positive he murdered her daughter so he would inherit a fortune, a nurse who is told the woman is mad but who, like the mother, can see the child’s ghost–and the ghost’s revenge against the doctor following the mother’s death. Very eerie.
“The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” by Edith Wharton (1862-1937). The novelist Edith Wharton (a 1920 Pulitzer winner for The Age of Innocence; the first woman to win the award) was born into the wealthy Jones family of New York, from whom we derive the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses.” This story, about another sickly woman tolerated for her money by an insensitive drunken husband, treats of how her deceased personal maid returns from the dead to protect her beloved employer. The maid, Emma Saxon, usually appears after causing her bell, disconnected after her death, to ring, thus summoning her replacement; on at least one occasion she blocks the husband’s view of the new maid, prompting that worthy to blurt, “How many of you are there, in God’s name?” Originally published in Scribner’s Magazine in November 1902, this story leads off the collection The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton, first released in 1973.
“The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benet (1898-1943). Like Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker,” Benet’s story of a New Hampshire farmer who sells his soul to the Devil is based on New England folklore. It fits into this category because of the satirical but spooky scene in which Old Nick summons a jury of Americans remembered for their infamous lives: the Tory guerrilla fighters Walter Butler and Simon Girty; the New England Native American King Philip; Salem witch trial judge John Hathorne (an ancestor of author Nathaniel Hawthorne) and others. Benet also used the great New Hampshire native statesman and attorney Daniel Webster as the instrument of Jabez Stone’s salvation. Much of Benet’s output deals in the same mythic way with American history; he won a Pulitzer in 1929 for his long poem about the Civil War, John Brown’s Body.
“The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall” by John Kendrick Bangs (1862-1922) reminds me no end of the humorous writings of Mark Twain; they combine sidesplitting funny elements with genuinely frightening ones. The title story of his 1894 collection The Water Ghost and Others is a rollicking tale of an American who inherits an English manor house haunted by the extremely wet ghost of a suicide by drowning, and how he uses the new technologies of the time to lay the ghost.
If I remember right, the first of the stories on this list I ever ran across was “The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall”, when I was no more than nine or ten years old, in my middle school library. Alas, stories of this sort, and the others I list here, generally don’t turn up in school libraries or on high school reading lists anymore. 😦 They’re worth a read, though– 🙂