Ghost Stories: A Great Introduction to the Art—by Michael Newton, (Penguin Classics, 2010)


It’s always a delight to discover scholarship on the ghost story, such as the following essay by Michael Newton. It is my favorite subject—ghosts in literature that is—hands down. I read them—new ones, old ones. I dread them (and dream them). I love both short stories and novella-length ones; novels, too, but real good ones are rare. I also like true stories of specters and spirits, haints and hauntings—they scare the bejeezus outta me, but they also fill me with a ferocious glee! I suppose it’s the idea that we may never know for sure—right?—whether they’re real or a figment of the global imagination. Either way, I love my ghost stories. I trust you do, too. So, here’s Newton’s Introduction from the Penguin Book of Ghost Stories, published in 2010. (I highly recommend every story in this collection. I recently finished Elizabeth Gaskell’s creeper “The Old Nurse’s Story.” It was superb.)

Leave a light on!


Note: Any photographs or images that follow—along with accompanying captions—are additions of mine, and are not part of the Introduction as it originally appeared in The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories.  —Sanguine Woods

Introduction to The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories

Michael Newton, 2010

“The ghost is the most enduring figure in supernatural fiction. He is absolutely indestructible … He changes with the styles in fiction but he never goes out of fashion. He is the really permanent citizen of the earth, for mortals, at best, are but transients.”

Dr. Dorothy Scarborough*, The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction

GHOST, n. The outward and visible sign of an inward fear.

Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

“It is the haunted who haunt.”

Elizabeth Bowen, ‘The Happy Autumn Fields’



Above (click to enlarge): The famous “writing on the wall”** at England’s Borley Rectory is one of the most interesting manifestations of ghost writing ever encountered. The events and investigations at the rectory were among the very first cases of “ghost hunting” in the history of the modern world. Investigators, including Ed and Lorraine Warren, demonologists for the Church, believed the writings had come from the spirit of a young Catholic woman who wanted her body to be discovered and to be given a proper Christian burial. “Marianne” and her husband, Reverend Lionel Foyster, lived in the rectory during October 1930–her writing is in printed script and attempts to get clarification from the spirit as to the meaning of her scribbles, which include: “Marianne… please help get” and “Marianne light mass prayers”. Click here (and see other “Links” following this post) to learn more about The Borley Rectory Hauntings.

Someone is afraid. In a dark house or on an empty railway platform, at the foot of the staircase or there on a lonely beach. When critics discuss the ghost story, they often pay no more than lip-service to the intended impact of the tale itself. The critics’ words remove us from the place where the story’s words first took us. In the ghost story, through the representation of another’s fear, we become afraid. We take on the sensation of terror, the alert uneasiness that translates random sounds into intentions, a room’s chill into watchfulness, and leaves us with the anxious apprehension of an other’s presence. The stories fix images of profound uneasiness in our minds. These images remain and act afterwards, when the story is over, as paths to renewed anxiety. From the stories in this collection, memories rise up of Thrawn Janet’s crooked walk, like a rag doll that has been hanged; the bereaved mother desperately reaching for the bolt to the door in ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, with the visitor outside; or in M. R. James’s tale, on a sunless day, in a dream, a man running along the sands, breathless, worn out, pursued inexorably by a blind, muffled figure.

The ghost story aims at the retention of such pictures; it intends the production of such fears. It wants sympathetic shudders.

There is undoubtedly something disreputable about that intention. Certainly M. R. James, a Cambridge don and the greatest writer of ghost stories, was made to feel so. Like pornography, or the ‘weepie’, ghost stories are meant to evoke a physical reaction. Their art mobilizes emotion; it organizes feeling. In recent years, the figure of the ghost has been rehabilitated by theorists, taken as a symbol for almost any kind of cultural or philosophical haunting. In the process, the ghost has been taken seriously, made into a matter for the intellect. Ghosts are no longer dreamt, no longer felt, no longer feared, but rather played with and thought through.

Yet such theorizing surely obscures the main point. In pornography, we are aroused by another’s arousal; in a ‘weepie’, we shed tears for another’s sadness; in a ghost story, we are frightened by another’s fear. Imaginative sympathy lies at the centre of this art form. Exchange is the key; all the stories turn on this idea of correspondence. Yet it is curious how regularly such identifications falter at the figure of the ghost. The spectre is that with which, in most cases, we cannot identify. We see the ghost, we hear it, but we can rarely place ourselves in its position. The ghost acts as the limit of our compassion. Only those tales, such as Margaret Oliphant’s ‘The Open Door’ (1882), that can see the human in the spirit, allow pity for the ghost. More usually, it is precisely the sense that the ghost is not human at all, but somehow anti-human, that prevents our acknowledgement of kinship. Instead, we side with the haunted, not the haunters; with the terrified, and not the menacing. This may be because ultimately the haunters are the texts themselves, and the haunted their readers.

There have of course always been stories about ghosts; however, the ‘ghost story’ itself, as understood by literary critics, is a Romantic invention. Its prime begins, tentatively, in the 1820s, hits its stride in the 1850s, reaches its zenith between the 1880s and the outbreak of the First World War, and peters out in the 1950s, as its last great exponents, Elizabeth Bowen and Walter de la Mare, end their careers as short-story writers. Naturally, however, there are great ghost stories written after that period, notably Kingsley Amis’s The Green Man (1969), and the genre continues to enjoy great success in film and also on stage in the excellent plays of Conor MacPherson and in the highly popular stage adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (1983).

It is an interesting, but unanswerable, question as to why the ghost story should have flourished then, and why, in particular, in the British Isles and America. Some tentative explanations may be given, though ultimately they leave the central mystery unexplained. One reason for its sudden rise lies in the peculiar talents and interests of a few individuals. The fact that Walter Scott, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell and Henry James embraced the genre of the supernatural tale undoubtedly influenced their contemporaries and later followers. The sheer genius displayed in their tales exposed the possibilities of the form. These talented writers required –and found –equally talented readers. Such stories as Edith Wharton and others were writing presuppose a frightened reader, but also one who is peculiarly attentive, responding to events, creating meaning and weighing evidence.

Although he frequently voiced scepticism about spiritualism and spectral materializations, Charles Dickens was nonetheless an enthusiast for ghost stories. While the link is at least as old as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c. 1599–1601), it was very likely Dickens who established for Victorians the connection between Christmas and ghost stories, through the inset narrative of ‘The Story of the Goblins who Stole a Sexton’ in the Christmas celebrations in Pickwick Papers (1836–7) and, of course, through A Christmas Carol (1843). The festive ghost is a curious conjunction, though one that expresses the central paradox of the genre: that is, the intertwining of cosiness and terror. The bond between Christmas and ghost stories would in time become a cultural cliché: as a character in Elizabeth Bowen’s 1920s story ‘The Back Drawing-Room’ cynically remarks: ‘ “Bring in the Yule log, this is a Dickens Christmas. We’re going to tell ghost stories.” ’1 As well as his contribution to the genre as writer, Dickens encouraged ghost-story writing in others and his taste for such tales influenced his practice as editor: notable ghost stories by Elizabeth Gaskell, Wilkie Collins, Sheridan Le Fanu and others appeared in magazines he edited.

There was also, for later practitioners, the legitimating influence of Henry James. If the form could seem to some inherently vulgar, James’s fascination with ‘the fantastic-gruesome, the supernatural thrilling’ raised its status. 2 Clearly James recognized the possible embarrassment aroused by such a predilection –he commented that ‘one man’s amusement is at the best… another’s desolation’. 3 For James the ghost story represented the limit of his feeling comfortable with the tale of adventure; on the other side of the boundary lay the impossible pirates and detectives of Robert Louis Stevenson and Joseph Conrad. The ghost was somehow finer, deeper, more subtle, better attuned to James’s interest in the drama of consciousness. When someone as fastidious as he could approve, an element of refinement could elevate the form.

For writers, too, there was the appeal of genre fiction. The form itself with its loose set of rules enabled the talented writer to offer variations on the spectral theme. Exploiting the familiarity of the form’s repeated situations, the writers could allow the genre to do some of the work for them, using the frame to create their own peculiar effects. The ghost story could therefore at once be a rigidly limited genre and a form of striking variety.

As M. R. James pointed out, the ghost story is after all only a particular kind of short story. 4 The history of the short story is therefore necessarily entwined with that of the ghost. The reasons why the short story flourished as it did in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are clear to see. In the British context, although its effects can be exaggerated, the expansion of an educated reading public following W. E. Forster’s Elementary Education Act of 1870 led to a significant increase in demand for good literary material. New printing technologies (linotype, rotary printers and so on) fostered the mass production of books; a new raft of publishing houses entered the business. Though still in relative terms prohibitively expensive for most, book prices nonetheless had fallen significantly by the end of the century. The gradual demise of the three-volume Victorian novel and the rise of interest in briefer forms also contributed. Partly, the desire for the succinct was provoked by the proliferation of periodicals, many of which (from socialist bulletins to society journals, from children’s papers to cycling magazines) required fiction to fill their pages. Though novels continued to be serialized, short stories were increasingly seen as the ideal fictional form for magazine readers. For writers, short stories paid more for less work; hence the production of short fiction was an excellent way to remain solvent. Editors were eager for stories, and writers were keen to provide them.

Alongside such material concerns there lies an increasing critical interest in the short story as a literary kind. The form itself was rather fluid, its chief characteristic being the indeterminate matter of its length. It was the American critic Brander Matthews who coined the term ‘short-story’ in 1884; in theorizing about such texts, he borrowed much from Edgar Allan Poe, the first great theorist of the short story and also its first great practitioner. Poe’s idea that the story aimed at unity of effect achieved through concision became central to the understanding of the form. Compression brought greater impact.

When Brander Matthews published a book on the subject, he entitled it The Philosophy of the Short-story (1901). That ‘philosophy’ looked to many to be a matter of fragmentation, as though the story, through ‘unity of effect’, expressed the multiplicity, the contradictions of life. This interest in the broken was supposed by many to echo the disruptions of modern existence. Critics remarked that the very brevity of the form suited the short-winded modern mind, which could not attend to things for long, and was perpetually hurried from event to event.

At its most literary, the short story could be provocative, enigmatic. By contrast, some of the most popular forms of the short story were far from open-ended. The comic yarn that moved to a punchline, the tale that turned finally on some twist, the detective story that made for the unmasking of a crime, all enacted closure, a self-contained expression of finality. By rigorous critics such stories would be faintly damned as mere ‘anecdotes’, opposed to the uncertain glance, the subtle epiphany of the true ‘short story’. The ghost story itself would combine both options uneasily; a genre tale, certainly, but one where endings were troubling, unsettled, sometimes painfully unresolved. Ghost stories must need be brief, because their effect is so tentative, so tenuous, their enchantment so fragile.

Robert Louis Stevenson asserted that the end of a tale should be ‘bone of the bone and blood of the blood of the beginning’. 5 However, the question of how best to end a ghost story remained open. There was no compulsion to end with marriage, or detection; and if the end were death, it was always only a repetition of the original death that permitted the haunting in the first place. The telos of the ghost story remained unresolved, because in the nineteenth century the ghost no longer had a stock purpose to fulfil within the tale. In the early modern period (1500–1800), the ghost had appeared as minister of justice, engaged still with the business of life. It returned from the dead to settle wills and inheritances, or was engaged with matters of revenge, or busy with requests for burial. (The belief that the righteous laying of the body will end the walking of the spirit remains a theme in later ghost stories too.) The ghost was occupied with disturbances in the family (or in religious practice); it would set about putting these right, and as such was a figure on the side of law, of religion, of order.

In the late nineteenth/ early twentieth century, the ghost sometimes also has such a purpose –the spectres of Mary Austin’s ‘The Readjustment’ (1909) or Edith Wharton’s ‘Afterward’ (1910) come to mind, or the guardian ghost in M. R. James’s ‘A Warning to the Curious’ (1925). In different circumstances, the ghost could seem a mere spirit of place, tied meaninglessly to one location. Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Canterville Ghost’ (1887) parodies the righteous spirit in a tale where haunting becomes a pointless and self-imposed duty. The question of motivation therefore time and again rebounds on to the haunted, who seem now, in a turning of the tables, to be the active agent in the tale.

The ghost story depends upon anticipation touched with reticence. Forebodings reach us; a potentially unnoticed strangeness is there to catch the eye. Such stories most often avoid outrageous violence; they make us think horrors, not minutely witness them. From their beginnings, what might come lies hidden in the visible world of the story, itself so like the real world we live and die in. As with the detective story, a genre closely related, the reader must look for clues. 6 These are rarely hard to discern. That is because the ghost story is not about guessing an ending, it’s about dreading its inevitable arrival. The indications of the ghost’s coming are therefore not so much clues as forebodings and portents. Stories are based on hints, deferrals, postponements, while heading towards a dénouement that is a confrontation with the thing itself; the end of the tale is often merely the moment when the ghost comes into sight.


What is a ghost? It is a figure that remains at once interpretable and evading, exceeding interpretation. All in the self that cannot be understood stands personified in the ghost.

Therefore, perhaps above anything else, the ghost is a way of engaging with our mystification about death. It survives with the belief that there is something left over when the human body becomes a corpse, that there is a residue, or remnant, that does not cease in the moment of dying. Some ghosts exude the horrors of the charnel house; others remain imperturbably decorous. Freed from the necessities of life, these ghosts neither eat nor drink, breathe nor excrete; they do not rot or putrefy, processes that somehow shame our bodies, but remain always cool, dignified and therefore inhuman.

The ghost can also seem something of a performer. This was one of the jokes of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Canterville Ghost’, where the spook busies himself impersonating an entire gallery of housebound spectres. In Henry James’s ‘The Jolly Corner’ (1908), the ghost resembles a figure in a pantomime, a madcap Harlequin mocking the elderly Pantaloon that is the haunted man.

Such theatricality calls to mind the thought that the ghost (or the ghost-story writer) might, like an actor, be a professional deceiver. The modern ghost exists in the gaps caused by the fallibility of our perceptions. It occupies a world of doubt, where the senses can deceive. When A. E. Housman wrote to M. R. James regarding the haunted telescope in ‘A View from a Hill’ (1925), he observed coolly that something seemed to be wrong with the optics. 7 In the ghost story, there are many such faulty instruments and organs of sense. Repeatedly we follow the rapid correction of a mistake in perception; or just the opposite –the mind’s doubt that what we are perceiving can in fact be there. There is a ghost, we know it, but the seer cannot accept the fact. In any case, from the writer’s viewpoint, a ghost is an object best left vague. Appearance can produce bathos, and so humour.

Humour is rather awkwardly present in Grant Allen’s ‘Our Scientific Observances of a Ghost’ (collected in Strange Stories, 1884). Here the narrator and his accomplices subject a poor phantom to meticulous physical examination. Such thorough scrutiny had its real-life counterpart in the period, as the vogue for spiritualism (beginning in the 1840s) led to the scientific study of ‘supernatural’ phenomena. The key event –and very likely the subject satirized in Allen’s tale –was the foundation in 1882 of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Ghosts were seen by many at the time as the limiting border to scientific study, a subject on which science would necessarily have nothing to say. For others, the ghost, as a phenomenon within the real world, was a justifiable object for investigation. If supernatural incidents occurred within the physical realm, they could be enquired into and understood like any other. The ghost therefore existed on an uneasy boundary between the material and the immaterial, life and death, the analysable and the ineffable.

One means by which the ghost story could explore scientific investigation of spiritual phenomena was through the figure of the psychic doctor or private investigator. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Martin Hesselius, the fictional collector of the uncanny tales of In a Glass Darkly (1872), is the ancestor of such types. A practitioner of metaphysical medicine, Hesselius is also a kind of detective, one who sees what others miss. (This might also be said, in a darker key, of the Rev. Mr Jennings, the victim in one of Le Fanu’s tales, ‘Green Tea’.) Later examples of this type would include Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence or William Hope Hodgson’s Thomas Carnacki.

This technical approach to the ghost seemed to some a sad demystification. While Henry James knew and liked F. W. H. Myers, one of the central figures in the SPR, he also fretted that the Society might strip away the sacred horror from a ghost. In fact, James need not have worried. Myers himself enjoyed such a supernatural tale as Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). Moreover some of the SPR’s treatises could read uncannily like fictional ghost stories.

The division between feigning and truth was in any case necessarily evoked in documentary accounts of the ‘supernatural’. Issues of belief lay at the heart of both the SPR’s activities and the form of the ghost story itself. In both cases, the reader was to be persuaded of something that the rational mind hesitated to accept. As George Bernard Shaw once wrote to Henry James: ‘No man who doesn’t believe in a ghost ever sees one.’ 8 The fear in a ghost story is the fear of what we imagine: that is, of what we might fantasize and believe about others, about the world, about our houses, about ourselves. The ghost story is a literary form that invites us to imagine horrors. It operates in that realm where magic and science become confused, and where dreams and reality merge.


The essential structure of the ghost story, from the 1840s onwards, can be read as the account of an intrusion into a space. As such, one of the first questions it raises is that of social roles and proprieties: who here is the intruder, the haunted or the haunter?

The ghost’s intrusion brings the unassimilable, the fact of death, abruptly into view. Yet perhaps ‘intrusion’ is the wrong word. Rather in the ghost’s haunting something suddenly appears in correspondence with something else. It is an unexpected and unsettling connection that shocks us.

These correspondences derive from the classic ghost story’s leaning on the deviation from the accustomed world. The ghost brings to light interference from elsewhere, the unwarranted entry of a disrupting element –one that is uncannily at home there. The familiar unveils its association with the unfamiliar. M. R. James argued that the rooting of a story in the common world of habits and timetables would aid the process of sympathetic identification between the reader and the haunted one. This rapport was one more of the genre’s correlations, and the key to its power to frighten.

The territory of the ghost story itself operates within the quotidian world and obeys, except for the ghost, the rules of realism. In particular, the American ghost story gives us a neighbourhood ghost, tied to the literary regionalism of the period, as in ‘The Ghost in the Cap’n Brown House’ (1871) and ‘The Wind in the Rose-Bush’ (1903). British ghosts figure likewise in specific environments, including a surprisingly high count of stories in border districts, Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ (1852) exemplifying this tendency.

This interruption of the credible by the fantastic places the ghost story within the late nineteenth-century questioning of the facility of ‘realism’ to describe the world. In that sense, ghost stories were proto-modernist texts. In another, the genre was a parasite living off the realistic mode, an infringement of a literary convention on the basis of style. That violation itself becomes entirely acceptable, conventional and comprehensible in terms of genre. We just have to remember that it’s ‘only a ghost story’. Seen in these terms, the contravention of literary realism, its penetration by the fantastic, becomes safe, cosy and unthreatening.

Within the ghost story, there are many forms of similar encroachment. The spiritual intrudes on the physical, and in so doing becomes correspondingly physical itself. The most feared property of the ghost is its ability to touch you. As the American critic Dorothy Scarborough (1878–1935) put it: ‘it is through the sense of touch that the worst form of haunting comes. Seeing a supernatural visitant is terrible, hearing him is direful, smelling him is loathsome, but having him touch you is the climax of horror.’ 9 Yet can one be touched by the disembodied?

The other great fear evoked by the ghost story is that we will be dragged off from our own space, and taken to the place where the ghost comes from. That might be imagined as some intangible locale, a pocket in reality, another dimension. It may belong to some distant elsewhere, or be thought of as overlapping, a place jointly ‘owned’ by the haunter and the haunted, a coincidental time.

In another instance of such correspondences and invasions, the historical past can breach the present. During the late nineteenth century, some saw fear itself as atavistic, a return to archetypal primal panic. Yet rather the ghost story shows that fear is always new; it occurred before, it occurs now, and the past fear becomes a present one –much as the fictional character’s terror may be re-evoked in the reader. In M. R. James’s stories, this particular theme is exhibited through the discovery and handling of some antiquarian object: a book, a mezzotint, a whistle.

This historical interpenetration surfaces in many guises. The ghost’s return may signal a lingering form of pagan malevolence. Elsewhere, as in Margaret Oliphant’s ‘The Open Door’, the haunting may seem a mechanical repetition of the past, in which the ghost duplicates over and over some lost original action. The past stays on, but as a disturbance within the present. In other tales, the ghost symbolizes the enduring, while the living human stands for the transient.

The ghost may act as a symbol of the lost past, but it manifests itself in modern conditions. Newfangled electric lights do not dispel its presence; it haunts railways, modern flats, houses withdrawn from bustling streets. Within the city, the ghost is that which cannot be absorbed rationally, which cannot be taken by the blasé. Confronted with unavoidable presence (or its trace), the self is shocked into feeling, and out of logical thought.

Parallel to the haunting of the historical past is the idea that the ghost reveals adult life as suddenly being in correspondence with childhood fears. The theme is strong in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘At the End of the Passage’ (1890), where the company of male colleagues staves off a horrifying return to infantile dread in sleep. As the Irish writer Frank O’Connor (1903–1966) put it, talking more generally of Kipling’s work, but clearly evoking this particular tale: ‘If one were left alone, nightmare succeeded.’ 10 This was a further way in which ghostly horrors might seem atavistic. Lafcadio Hearn’s ‘Nightmare-Touch’ (1900) draws together the dread felt by primitive man and the night-fears of children. The dream itself, the night-terror, might similarly encroach, as in childhood, on the real world. M. R. James’s ‘ “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come To You, My Lad” ’ (1904) informs us that for the storyteller the haunting here was brought to mind by a childhood memory; the narrator’s ‘Experto crede’ (see p. 270) intimates a personal involvement in the tale.

There are purely literary forms of the ghost story’s characteristic intrusions, in which the genre elements themselves might seem to be interventions. The reader may also become aware of the incursion of extraneous texts in the form of quotation and allusion. The key example of this would be that moment in Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Green Tea’ (1869) where Dr Hesselius pauses to read passage after passage from Emanuel Swedenborg’s Arcana Coelestia, on the correspondence between the spiritual and material world, and for a moment one work haunts another.

Politically speaking, as has been often observed, the ghost story mirrors the imperial expansionism of the period and hence denotes the intrusion of the disturbingly ‘foreign’ into the comfortably domestic, hinting, as elsewhere, at their tacit interconnection. In the work of Kipling, and others, the colonized world was in any case imagined as the site for mystic horrors. For example, India could seem an uncanny place, replete with hidden secrets, dark beliefs and murky possibilities. The plot of W. W. Jacobs’s ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ turns on the arrival in Britain of an imperial property, one linked to fakirs and The Arabian Nights; the heroes’ family name of ‘White’ is perhaps a significant choice in this connection. Even in Henry James’s ‘The Jolly Corner’ there are such arrivistes: the gloom of ‘ombres chinoises’ (see p. 304) falls upon the domestic world.

Finally, the ghost raids our privacy. The haunting is a foray into the domestic realm. The very coldness of the ghost signals this; it enters like air from outside, and occupies that place in the house where the warmth of home falters. Ghosts are the intrusion –the link –between the private and the public. Their haunting demonstrates that this secure place is not sealed off, but lies open to others, to previous inhabitants, to strangers. In this sense, the ghost is a figure equivocally connected or contrasted with the domestic servant, also a sharer of the home who may or may not be counted as a part of the family. Certainly ghost stories frequently show an interest in such borderline figures, as in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898) and Edith Wharton’s ‘Afterward’, or the dependable or unreliable servants in tales by Robert Hichens, Edward Bulwer Lytton and Margaret Oliphant.

Most often, therefore, the intruded-on space is a house. There are of course many outdoors ghost stories –Algernon Blackwood specialized in them. Margaret Oliphant’s ‘The Open Door’ occupies a transitional place, the haunted site being a now disused boundary between inside and outside. The haunted house nevertheless stands at the centre of the genre. There may be psychological reasons for this: after all, the house is a convenient symbol for the human mind, spatially imagined.

Curiously, such spooky residences also evoke other more social concerns. Very often, temporary residents occupy the haunted house, moving in and moving on, as in Bulwer Lytton’s ‘The Haunted and the Haunters’ (1859), while the ghost itself –a more established tenant –stays put. In part, this follows from purely literary concerns: as ghost stories depend on shock, the ghost must be a discovery, just such a surprise as a new tenant might stumble on. However, such tales also fitted changing patterns of property ownership. A shifting population, estranged from lasting connection to place, could thrill themselves with tales where their own evanescence was displayed. It was not merely the increasing urbanization of Britain and America that provided the background for these spectral anxieties. It is notable that the haunted tenant is often someone returning from Britain’s colonies, a person displaced from ‘home’ by the processes of imperial expansion. Such fleeting inhabitants fitted the American situation too, as Fitz-James O’Brien’s ‘What Was It?’ (1859) or O. Henry’s ‘The Furnished Room’ (1906) demonstrate. The house in Henry James’s ‘The Jolly Corner’ itself has its double, being one of two houses that Spencer Brydon, the tale’s hero, owns in downtown Manhattan: one a long-unvisited family home, filled with memories; the other, a place for rent.

The transient tenant discovers his rooms to be already furnished with a ghost. In such a circumstance, the renter finds himself the trespasser. As casual references in ‘The Open Door’ and ‘Afterward’ clarify, the ghost could also be seen as a charming and even fashionable form of fixture and fitting: nothing else than a ghost is wanted to make a property perfect. This modish response to the supernatural rubs up against the fact that the tenants –particularly Wharton’s (and, in ‘The Canterville Ghost’, Oscar Wilde’s) American leaseholders –are contemporary intrusions into the ‘long, long story’ of a British house’s past. In this way, the ghost tale brings into connection the modern, brief, fragmented forms of the present (exemplified in the short story itself) and lingering, haunted history.

As the nineteenth century progresses, the old Gothic properties, the abbeys, the ruins, the graveyards, the castles, are slowly replaced by modern scenes. Often the haunting takes place in anonymous, shabby, unspectacular neighbourhoods. The old settings represent the abiding: such ruins are places of rest and stasis, symbols of durability too, for all their being wrecked. The modern environment seems essentially temporary. If the haunted do occupy some ancient house, they do so as passing tenants, fixed-term renters. The new haunted houses are provisional, merely passing estates. The building boom of the 1890s flooded the great cities with new –and often empty –houses. In 1917, Dorothy Scarborough noted: ‘But as houses are so much less permanent now than formerly, ghosts would be at a terrible disadvantage if they had to be evicted every time a building was torn down.’ 11 In these transitory cities the ghosts resided as paradoxical manifestations of solidity.


Who typically were the haunted? Callous lovers, governesses and lost travellers, certainly, but beyond those traditional groups, within the mass of stories from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, two new kinds of victim emerge: the bachelor and the troubled family. Both are seen as abortive examples of domesticity. Into their compromised worlds the ghost comes, an undead symbol of their failures.

In the case of the committed bachelor, the ghost stands for his inability to connect with others. The heroes of tales by Sheridan Le Fanu, Henry James, Robert Hichens, M. R. James and Oliver Onions all endure a version of this fate. Hichens’s ‘How Love Came to Professor Guildea’ (1900) stands as the archetypal account of such hauntings, where the ghost avenges a refusal to love. Such stories re-imagine the ghost as stalker, even as unrequited lover, as in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s ‘The Cold Embrace’ (1860). Some of these bachelor ghost stories were written by men who were most likely themselves hiddenly homosexual. Perhaps in this group of tales the fears of men threatened by the social conformity of marriage could find a fitting symbol for their ambivalence.

For the bachelor, the ghost marks an end to privacy. Haunting is an incursion into the private zone, the home that defines itself by the absence of others, by the rejection of unwanted sharers of the space. Yet the haunting too is a private experience, located within the prison-cage of consciousness, where the spirit is only visible, touchable, audible to the haunted one. It is an invasion within the sense of the self. Only the reader shares that experience.

The alternative sets of modern victims are unhappy couples and beleaguered families. These haunted tend to appear in tales authored by women. Examples would include: Margaret Oliphant’s ‘The Open Door’, Mary Wilkins Freeman’s ‘The Wind in the Rose-Bush’, Mary Austin’s ‘The Readjustment’ or Edith Wharton’s ‘Afterward’. Here the ghost points to the failure within a relationship. In Wharton’s tale, the wife discovers that in two senses she is domesticated with a horror: both the ghost that is only recognized as such afterwards, and the guilty, greedy husband she does not really know. Like most wives, Wharton tells us, the heroine of this tale never looked into what her husband does for a living. This willed blindness to the public life casts a spectral shadow over the private (rented) home.

For bachelors or confused relatives and spouses, being haunted offers a challenge to one’s ability to take in the finer elements of the situation. In the case of Henry James, the haunted one must needs be especially sensitive, an alert and perceptive observer, a ‘poor [pitiable, sensitive] gentleman’, as he puts it. 12 The experience of the ghost was to be, after all, a dilemma for consciousness, for our faculty of interpretation.

This view of the ingredients necessary for a good ghost story would not be shared by all the writers in this volume. There is an ‘extrovert’ as well as an ‘introvert’ version of the form. For Edward Bulwer Lytton, for instance, the supernatural story is not about the numinous, it is about a struggle. Such tales present fear through a depiction of the resistance to it. Bulwer Lytton’s hero in ‘The Haunted and the Haunters’ takes pistols and knives when he goes to encounter his ghosts. Such virile boldness tends to be a feature of the earlier nineteenth-century tales. By the end of the century, Henry James’s version of the form was triumphant. In the hands of Henry James and his fellow practitioners, the ghost story explored psychological complexity. These interests operated variously, offering diverse routes into the hinterland of consciousness.

For instance, in tales of madness such as Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Green Tea’, the ultimate fear is that we are haunting ourselves. As Dorothy Scarborough remarks of ghosts: ‘We’d rather see than be one.’ 13 Entrapped in a peculiar vision of the world, Mr Jennings cannot flee from the evil familiar that dogs his steps, and that is either an objective spirit or his private hallucination. He is imprisoned with another; but what if that other is himself? That this ghost story, like so many, ends with self-murder should not surprise us. For in suicide the self treats itself as though it were another. Henry James’s ‘The Jolly Corner’ presents an analogous doubled self, and if the self here is so split, then by definition it is not single or coherent, and above all not limited to the present body. That of course is the central fear –and consolation –of the ghost story: the idea that we are not limited to the physical. The resistance to the spectral therefore acts as a clinging to earthly life and to the possession of our single body.

The self may also come under threat from the removal of its will. Sleepwalkers, the hypnotized and entranced are all recurrent figures in the period’s literature of terror. This absence of will also appears in some ghosts, when they are automatic figures, locked within recurrent action and appearance. Bulwer Lytton remarks of such ghosts that they give the impression of being ‘soul-less’. (Of course, the most terrifying ghosts are precisely those who do manifest a will, and one attuned to malevolence.) Elsewhere, in this regard, the reflex movements of the ghost are strangely paralleled in the haunted. Frequently in the ghost story the haunted one becomes a mere spectator of events. Such tales present merely a reaction to something seen or heard. But such reaction need not be passive. Much as the ghost story looked to a speculative and astute reader, so the tales themselves posited a rational hero and heroine, alive to the nuance of what they witness. They are busy with the task of understanding.

However, within the ghost story could be found other kinds of observer, whose astuteness was certainly not of a kind to impress Henry James. It is a feature of the genre that beasts should be particularly alive to the presence of a ghost. But why should animals be able to detect ghosts where we cannot? The belief forges a link between the bestial and the spiritual, one that bypasses the human that connects the two. Moreover, this link brings up the definition of the human by being on either side of the necessary limits that allow that definition: we are not animals; nor are we ghosts. In this sense, both animal and ghost (and monster) possess one thing in common: they are generally without language. It is startling how rarely in these stories we encounter a conversable spook. The silent ghost appears to have lost its words in the act of dying.

In Ambrose Bierce’s ‘The Moonlit Road’ (1907), the ghost of Julia Hetman apparently talks, but her voice is channelled through the fictional medium Bayrolles. She speaks, but through another; the ghost’s words are sounded in another person’s mouth, possessing but not encompassing another’s voice. If Bayrolles is indeed some kind of pun on the French paroles or ‘words’ (as in the character Parolles in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well), then this may also be taken as Bierce alluding to the fact of speech, and its simultaneous presence within and radical alienation from the speaker (as paroles both loiter about and are not found in Bayrolles). Other stories play similar games. In ‘Green Tea’, we hear of the monkey’s voice, which interrupts Mr Jennings with dreadful blasphemies; yet this is a voice that cannot be quoted; it is in the tale, but never heard, never given the form of words.

If the ghost story does concern itself with the question as to what is a human being, it must do so primarily through an assertion that we, uniquely on this planet, are supposed to possess immortal souls. Some have described the monkey in ‘Green Tea’ as a Darwinian emanation, a symbol of our anxiety that no such distinguishing soul exists. It is surprising to discover how many ghost-story writers were Christians: Sheridan Le Fanu, Margaret Oliphant, Arthur Machen, M. R. James and R. H. Benson, to name only the most obvious examples. Yet no simple theological point of view adheres to the genre. The stories can suggest order, but also chaos; they can depict, as in incarnation, the interpenetration of the spiritual and physical worlds, but also a malignant and hostile universe. As many atheists, occultists and agnostics as Christians contributed to the form. However, questions of religious faith cling to such stories as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ‘The Ghost in the Cap’n Brown House’ or Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Thrawn Janet’ (1881). Enlightened deists and modern agnostics come in for a tough time in some of the stories in this volume. The religious sceptic, or Sadducee, makes a good victim, since his scepticism rules out the idea that he might be just imagining his persecution. There were other ways to set out the tension between faith and doubt. Bulwer Lytton focuses on the relation between scientific belief and occult phenomena, describing scientific processes of investigation directed towards the metaphysical. As these two discourses grow confused and intertwined, a productive tension arises; we are in a region between two forms of understanding. Here, as in other stories, the conviction persists that science has not covered all the ground; a residue of inexplicability remains.


M. R. James declared that the aim of his stories was to make the reader ‘pleasantly uncomfortable’. 14 The comfort may come from the fact that the ghost story evades far worse fears: the horrors, the losses, the wars and tortures of the material world. Kipling really did see ‘shadows and things that were not there’, as he puts it in his autobiography, Something of Myself (1936), but these were induced by the childhood breakdown brought on by the abuse visited upon him by his guardians at his foster-home in Southsea. 15 His hallucinations were put down as ‘showing off’, and, as a further punishment, he was separated from his sister. Here was a darkness deeper than that of a mere spook. In that sense, the ghost story might be a way of talking about our confrontation with such actual nightmares, a getting around the censor by evoking instead the supplemental fear of other worlds.

Nonetheless in the strongest ghost stories a highly uncomforting sense of life itself as essentially nightmarish is plainly there. It is curious that such darkness should be triggered by such odd elements. The ghost story relies on associations, on a bag of tricks, a strange assembly of tropes, objects and atmospheres, of narrative twists and unaccountable turns. Such things would elicit fear in life, just as they do in fiction. These might include: disembodied sounds, scents without objects, a touch without a person; the muffled, the hidden, the obscure; someone staring at us from a long way off; the emaciated and the small; a mirror in the dark; a cellar chill; a shadow in an upstairs window; children and the accoutrements of childhood–clowns, dolls or puppets; the melancholy of dusk; bat-squeaks and beetles humming; footsteps behind; lonely places–woods or bare platforms; invisibility and darkness; the feeling of being watched; a thing unexpectedly there.

It would be a hard task to account for the reasons why such haunted properties should still terrify us. If listing them makes the ghost story seem a perfunctory or automatic affair, then nothing could be further from the truth. It is the diversity and plenitude of the form that stays with the reader, the fact that it so often and so brilliantly works. The range of great and talented writers attracted to the form is likewise staggering. If the great Gothic sin is curiosity, then that fault remains intimately entangled with the Romantic virtue of wonder. For Henry James, it was the fact that such stories both touched on ‘the blest faculty of wonder’ and also endowed wonder with a motive that formed the chief enticements of such tales. They permitted a perilous foray into enchantment; they were, and remain, the ‘most possible form of fairy tale’. 16 They are expressions of pure art, and paths to a pure, if complicated, pleasure.


1. Elizabeth Bowen, The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen (London: Vintage, 1999), p. 203.

2. From a letter to Frederick A. Duneka, editor of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, in Philip Horne (ed.), Henry James: A Life in Letters (London: Penguin, 1999), p. 437.

3. Henry James, Preface to The Altar of the Dead, The Beast in the Jungle, The Birthplace and Other Tales, vol. 17 of the New York Edition (London: Macmillan and Co., 1909), p. xvii.

4. M. R. James, from the Introduction to Ghosts and Marvels: A Selection of Uncanny Tales from Daniel Defoe to Algernon Blackwood, ed. V. H. Collins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1924), p. v.

5. Robert Louis Stevenson, from The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew, vol. 7 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 155.

6. In an article, ‘Ghosts –Treat Them Gently!’, printed in the Evening News (17 April 1931), M. R. James writes: ‘The recrudescence of ghost stories in recent years is notable: it corresponds, of course, with the vogue of the detective tale.’

7. Quoted in Michael Cox, M. R. James: An Informal Portrait (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 145.

8. Quoted in Leon Edel (ed.), Henry James: Stories of the Supernatural (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1971), p. 314.

9. Dorothy Scarborough, The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1917), p. 101.

10. Frank O’Connor, The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story (London: Macmillan, 1963), p. 110.

11. Scarborough, The Supernatural, p. 106.

12. Henry James, Preface to The Altar of the Dead, p. xx.

13. Scarborough, The Supernatural, p. 81.

14. M. R. James, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (London: Edward Arnold, 1904), p. viii.

15. Rudyard Kipling, Something of Myself, ed. Robert Hampson (London: Penguin Books, 1987), p. 42.

16. Henry James, Preface to The Altar of the Dead, p. xvi.


*The ghost is the most enduring figure in supernatural fiction,” eminent author and professor Dorothy Scarborough, said in her 1927 book The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction [Read about the book here: Read three additional essays by Dr. Scarborough, here:

“The Imperishable Ghost”, “The Humorous Ghost”, and “The Psychic in Literature”]


“Legend of the Borley Rectory nun” by Barbara Clements, 2001 (

More About England’s Haunted Borley Rectory…

Borley Rectory’s “Writing on the Wall”…


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