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.
'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?