Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The 14 Scariest Ghost Stories?

Ooh, that's a provocative title, isn't it? But I was prompted to quite literally type those words onto the interwebz because someone did indeed write this: 'The 14 Scariest Ghost Stories'. Which is asking for trouble. Not least because of the obvious question, 'Why 14, Smartarse?'

The article, to be fair, is a Hallowe'en piece from last year that someone recently raised on Facebook. It's typical of its kind. I suspect it was one of those 'Quick, we need X,000 words!' jobs, employing a writer with no particular expertise other than an ability to hit a deadline.

My suspicions were aroused partly because I hadn't even heard of some of the authors concerned, and partly because the synopses of the stories are... Well, if you read 'em you'll note they don't actually say anything that couldn't have been quickly cut 'n' pasted. Here, for instance, is the perfectly reasonable but essentially useless (in the context of the article) bit about M.R. James.
A thorough reading of ghost story literature quickly reveals that there has been no greater influence on the genre than Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936), arguably the greatest writer of ghost stories who ever lived. While he was a don and provost at King’s College, Cambridge University, it became his custom every year to write a new ghost story, then gather a group of friends and colleagues to a room on Christmas Eve, where he would provide a dramatic reading of it, taking great pleasure in acting out all the roles. “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” was first published in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (London, Edward Arnold, 1904).
Hmm. Then there's the obvious point that some aren't ghost stories at all. W.F. Harvey's 'August Heat' is a supernatural thriller, but there's no actual ghost. 'The Open Window' by Saki is about someone telling a ghost story, sure, but that's not the same as the genuine article. Wilde's 'The Canterville Ghost' is arguably scary if you are a nervous hamster. And so on.

But making lists of the Scariest, or the Biggest, or the Stupidest, is just one of those internet things, and we shouldn't expect too much from the Huffington Post, which rather scandalously (to me) doesn't pay most contributors despite having a huge volume of traffic. So, as just another unpaid blogger, what would I consider to be the 13 Best Ghost Stories?

It's a stupid question! For a start, I don't have nearly enough expertise outside English-language fiction. And, more importantly, individual tastes vary so widely that a story one person finds terrifyingly effective will leaved another cold. So, let's go for 13 Good Ghost Stories instead. If we confine ourselves to printed tales, to readily available works, and to short stories (as opposed to novels), we can have:

1. 'Thurnley Abbey' by Perceval Landon. To some a ludicrously contrived load of old tat, but to me and others a genuinely disturbing tale with a twist, if a bit OTT. While not especially well-written, it has a physicality that often transforms a good ghost story into a great one.

2. 'One Who Saw' by A.M. Burrage. Another tricky one, as many would class Burrage as a bit of a hack who churned out acceptable but not especially original work by the yard. However, I think the finale of this one makes a well-structured tale into a little classic. And again, there's that physicality...

3. 'Smoke Ghost' by Fritz Leiber. A story that straddles the borders of the genre and is arguably science fiction or fantasy. It's also a piece that foregrounds the author's thoughts on ghost stories, which might put off some people. But to me it's a remarkable example of how a gifted writer can put a new spin on an old theme and 'keep it real'.

4. 'Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance' by M.R. James. I'm deliberately courting controversy, there's no getting around it. Some find this feeble in the extreme, but to me it's a classic thanks to excellent ingredients, enigmatic plotting, and the fact that the protagonist is not required to be an idiot who ignores obvious warnings. Also, to be honest, I like stories with mazes.

5. 'The Waiting Room' by Robert Aickman. A fairly straightforward tale from a writer not renowned for his accessibility, this one is definitely about ghosts. It does have a recognisable twist ending that makes immediate sense in the context of the story, too. Most importantly, though, it argues for the enduring humanity of the dead and for compassion over vengeance - interesting themes for a ghostly tale.

6. 'The Face' by E.F. Benson. A variation on familiar themes of the 'demon lover' and haunted picture, plus a story that relies upon dream revelations to get up steam. But there is still a core of power in this one, not least in the way a female protagonist is offered no choice when it comes to a rendezvous with a very nasty piece of work.

7. 'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens. Yes, I know, but bear in mind that Dickens was working within a well-established tradition of spooky storytelling when he wrote this as an antidote to bland, forgettable Yuletide fair. And it is undeniably a ghost story - one that lies at the heart of our conceptions about our Victorian past.

8. 'Pollock and the Porroh Man' by H.G. Wells. Arguably a borderline case with a rather silly title, this is one of those tales in which all the weird stuff could well be happening in a character's head. But for me the clincher is that the eponymous anti-hero is such a brutal, crass git that he seems unlikely to have simply imagined his haunting.

9. 'Ancient Sorceries' by Algernon Blackwood. Here a man is haunted not by an individual ghost by an entire town. While the tedious John Silence (psychic detective) offers an explanation in the original collection, the story is far better read in isolation. It's also a classic example of an author who sets out to describe malign forces at work but can't stop himself from acknowledging the sensuous allure of the witch-cult (as he and other Victorians imagined it). Blackwood later tried to excel himself by having a magician conjure up an entire ghost culture, in 'Sand', which only shows that sometimes an author doesn't know when to quit.

10.  'The Moonlit Road' by Ambrose Bierce. I've always liked this one, though it's a bit oddly proportioned and depends upon a bit of light Spiritualism to deliver its denouement. As with the Aickman above, the reader is more likely to say 'Alas! Poor ghost' than be horrified, though in fact the events related are quite disturbing. It's arguably a proto-feminist tale, too, which is not what one might expect from Bierce.

11. 'The Yellow Wallpaper' by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. This is considered to be a classic feminist text, but can be interpreted in many ways. Suffice to say that, as a description of someone who may be haunted, going insane, or the victim of persecution it's hard to beat. A genuinely good ghost story must be a good short story in its own right, one that transcends mere gimmick or twist. This one qualifies.

12.* 'All Hallows' by Walter de la Mare. Some of this author's works are obscure to the point of tedium, as if the poet - when free of the constraints of rhyme and metre - found it impossible to state anything clearly in prose. But this story strikes a perfect balance between obscurity and precision, as a lone traveller is guided around an isolated cathedral that has started to show signs of supernatural restoration.

13. 'The Guide' by Ramsey Campbell. A tribute to M.R. James by a modern master, the story's central conceit is that James unearthed a true ghost story in East Anglia. The plot centres on a curious annotation to the author's popular guide to Suffolk and Norfolk. The actual ghost is original and convincing, and the story - while playful - has the genuine frisson of half-glimpsed horror that James advocated.

14. Okay, then, 13 stories and a novel - The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. This book (and Robert Wise's 1963 film of it) arguably represent the zenith of the 'long form' ghost story. Yes, people continue to write ghostly novels, but Jackson got it right in 1957. Any subsequent efforts look amateurish and half-baked by comparison. The novel is not a natural medium for the ghost story but I had to include this one. It proves it can be done.

*With consummate skill I managed to miss this one out of my original post. See lynx-eyed commenter below...


Steve said...

How many ghost stories has that HuffPo person actually read, do you suppose? Thanks for your list, which I enjoyed so much that I'm not even going to argue with you about Mr Humphreys.

valdemar said...

Thanks be to the Dark Ones...

James Everington said...

Damnation, I've only read half of them & now I feel inadequate.

valdemar said...

Well, that's how these lists are supposed to work, aren't they? I'll bet you could easily draw up a list of stories I haven't read. It's a big world out there.

Oscar Solis said...

Those lists that appear every Hallowe'en for scariest movies, books, stories are so dull because they don't reach further than the obvious.

It's always the same old topper for movies: The Exorcist ( I don't find that film frightening at all. Granted, it's well made, but scary? Hardly) or, worse, Poltergeist, which doesn't hold up to repeated viewings.

As for your list there's a few there that I need to read.

Myself, I'd place Lost Hearts over Mr. Humphries, but that's the thing about M.R. James. Almost any one of his stories could qualify for a top ten.

If you don't mind, I'll put five choices of my own down (in any order):

The Empty Schoolroom - Pamela Hansford Johnson. A story of cruelty and revenge with a ghost that is both frightening and pathetic.

The Beckoning Fair One - Oliver Onions. This one creeps up on you. It is subtle but powerful.

Lost Hearts - M.R. James. It's M.R. James, okay?

Smee - A.M. Burrage. I don't know about Burrage's reputation. I just know this is a nice story that has a great scene that drips with atmosphere and dread.

Toss in a couple of films:

The Changeling - dir: Peter Medak. (See it at night. If there is a better seance on film, I've yet to see it. And the scene that follows where George C. Scott hears the ghost's voice is absolutely chilling).

The Devil's Backbone - dir: Guillermo Del Toro. A frightening film with great set pieces. The ghost is well done.

Sorry to hijack your blog David. :)

Oscar Solis said...

I meant four choices.

By the way, if there was a category for one of the most disturbing and scary stories I've ever read, I would nominate "The Glyphs". It took me a while to shake that one off. I think you know the author.

valdemar said...

Thanks, Oscar, that's an unexpected compliment!

I agree about The Devil's Backbone - probably my favourite by G del T.

'Smee' is a much-anthologised Burrage tale. He's often dismissed as a hack because he produced a lot of stories to deadlines (in direct competition with E.F. Benson, who was hired by a rival magazine). But at his best he was very good.

While I admire Onions' technique and his obvious intelligence, I have to admit his stories leave me lukewarm at best.

rich garfinkel said...


rich garfinkel said...

Sorry about the hiccup of letters.Just one question.How come there's no number 12?

valdemar said...

Woops! I missed one out. But can you guess which one? Well, no, probably not. I will insert it with suitable footnote above.