Friday, 24 October 2014

Ghost Stories For Hallowe'en

At this time of year a lot of people develop a sudden interest in supernatural fiction. The few parts of the internet that aren't full of porn, conspiracy theories, and cats are full of lists. Lists like this one: 'Five Must-Read Ghost Stories for Hallowe'en'.

Oliver Tearle has a book to plug, as is the norm with such things, but his list is a decent one. His starting point is the late-Victorian 'shift from what Virginia Woolf called "the blood-stained sea captains, the white horses, the headless ladies of dark lanes and windy commons" towards newer, more ambiguous and more unsettling, types of ghost.

Hmm. It's nice to see William Hope Hodgson getting a mention, but I'm not sure if he represents a shift toward a more subtle, ambiguous approach to the ghostly. His inclusion is a classic example of academic over-egging the pudding with a writer whose work doesn't support his thesis. Much as I admire Hodgson's work, if you're looking for subtlety you won't find it in his Carnacki tales. They are rather too literal in their approach to the occult for my liking. (If you're looking for an unreliable narrator, The House on the Borderland is far better, but of course it is horror/sci-fi, not ghostly as such. And it's a novel.)

Then there's Henry James. I've never read 'The Friends of the Friends', or if I have I can't remember. Henry James is too long-winded to be an effective ghost story author. By the time I have hacked my way through the undergrowth to actually reach the point of one of his tales, I am far too aware that I am reading a literary construct. It is, I think, almost impossible to enjoy a ghost story if you are constantly being reminded that it is artificial. And yes, I acknowledge that 'The Turn of the Screw' inspired a great film, but imagine if the movie that taken as long to get to the point as old Henry did.

Tearle's other choices are Le Fanu's 'Green Tea', Stevenson's 'Markheim', and Onions' 'The Beckoning Fair One'. These are unexceptionable, though Onions is prone to Henry James syndrome - he reminds me too often of how literary he is trying to be. The art is to conceal the art, rather than flashing one's creative credential at the reader.

But what would I recommend for the uninitiated? What five ghost stories should someone read to get a sense of the diversity, playfulness and depth of the genre? 7

'The Middle Toe of the Right Foot' - Ambrose Bierce. There is nothing inherently British about the ghost story, and this tale of a haunted house is one of the best American examples of the form. As usual with Bierce there's a cynical tone, but that doesn't undercut the idea of supernatural vengeance.


'Lost Hearts' - M.R. James. While this early tale contains several Jamesian ingredients - garrulous servants, a sinister scholar, warning dreams - this is one of his darker creations, and might help dispel any notions that the ghost story is inherently cosy.

'The Fifteenth Green' by Margery Lawrence (collected in Nights of the Round Table). A story about a dispute over an extension to a golf course could not, on the face of it, be more banal. But Lawrence - who wrote detective fiction as well as excellent ghost stories - creates a sense of mystery and impending doom as her very modern (i.e. inter-war) characters are confronted by a timeless, evil force.

Robert Aickman 7.jpg

'The School Friend' - Robert Aickman. Whether Bafflin' Bob wrote 'proper' ghost stories or not, there's certainly a ghost in this one. His work provides the quintessential example of fiction that doesn't conform to standard commercial expectations of what supernatural fiction should be, yet succeeds in achieving the effect of a good ghost story - confusion over what is, or could be, real.

'The Companion' - Ramsey Campbell. The ghost story is not an historical curiosity - it is still alive and as well as can be expected. Ramsey Campbell is arguably the greatest living horror writer and has certainly produced some of the most original modern ghostly fictions. While he regards 'The Companion' as a clumsy tale, it is also powerful and memorable - genuinely the stuff of nightmare.

Well, those are my off-the-cuff suggestions. Which five stories would you recommend as good Hallowe'en reading?


Jason said...

Excellent choices you made there.
I have all these apart from the Campbell tale.

Any idea where I might find it - electronic or otherwise?

Ghostly wishes,


valdemar said...

Hi Jason, this online copy seems legit (i.e. not a pirated version), and has links to two other RC stories.

The original collection, Dark Companions, is available for Kindle:

Jason said...


Thanks for the link.

Seeing that photograph of Aickman reminded me of how truly disturbing his work was.

As a teenager in the 1980s, I read his work with a sense that he could create a narrative but also imbue a sense that at any given moment you could be take the wrong turn into some utterly wrong place.

Even to this day, I've no idea how he created some of his tales like 'The Inner Room', 'Never Visit Venice' & 'Into The Wood'.

As a writer, I imagine it's probably quite easy to scare people but to create stories where the reader finishes a tale and are themselves left haunted - that's a gift he alone possessed.

Even now, there are some of his stories I remember reading decades ago and yet somehow wishing I hadn't.

Anyway, thanks again.

Oscar Solis said...

A good list. Have to agree with your take on Henry James.

What would I recommend to someone for a good Hallowe'en read? Here are a few from the top of my head.

Rats by M.R. James because it's short and a fine introduction to the master and scared the hell out of me when I first read it.

The Smell of Cherries by Jeffrey Goddin because of it's unbearable build up and payoff.

Joan by Rosemary Pardoe. It's sweet and scary and succeeds at both.

Thurnley Abbey by Perceval Landon. It's in every anthology and for a good reason.

Halloween Girl by Robert Grant. One of the most beautifully written stories about childhood friendship.

Even though it's not a ghost story I'd also recommend One for the Road by Stephen King from the Night Shift collection. Now that's a story to read at night.

valdemar said...

Jason, I think Aickman is a significant writer for precisely the reasons you give. I certainly remember the stories you list. His own view is that he wrote down disturbing dreams, which makes him a Freudian writer, I suppose.

valdemar said...

Hello, Oscar! Your list is intriguing, as I'd never heard of two choices. Clearly I'm not as well read as I should be.

Jason said...

Yes, definitely Freudian. Although not all the tales were supernatural in subject, the effect they had on me was. Obviously there are many great writers the world over but only Aickman managed to get into my mind like no other.

It's been nice talking to you. I've been following your blog for a while. Always interesting reading.


Oscar Solis said...

Believe me, you are very well read on the subject of ghostly literature. One of the reasons I come here is to fill in the gaps.

I'm guessing the stories you haven't read are The Smell of Cherries and Hallowe'en Girl. They are well worth seeking out. The former is the type of story night was created for and, as for the latter, I've yet to encounter someone who didn't get a bit of a lump in their throat after reading it.

I'm getting ready to dig into Cold Hand in Mine and frankly the idea is daunting since Aickman can be the most intimidating of all the writers of supernatural literature.

galerius said...

My choices would be :

1) Jean Ray's The Last Traveler, one of most frightnening tales I've read.
2) Ramsey Campbell's Litter ( I know, and appreciate, "The Companion" ; but I like this better ).
3) M.R.James' An Episode in the Cathedral History ( with the only exception of "No. 13" I like every tale of James, but for some reason this one is my favorite ).
4) The aforementioned Thurnley Abbey by Perceval Landon.
5) Lord Halifax's Colonel P.'s Ghost Story ( though that book is a collection of 'real' ghostly encounters, this story is mere fiction - by Halifax himself - so I think it can be included in this list ).