On the Supernatural in Poetry*
Anne Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udolpho)
[*First appeared in the New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, Vol. 16, no. 1, 1826 (pp. 145-152)]
One of our travellers began a grave dissertation on the illusions of the imagination. “And not only on frivolous occasions,” said he, “but in the most important pursuits of life, an object often flatters and charms at a distance, which vanishes into nothing as we approach it; and ’tis well if it leave only disappointment in our hearts. Sometimes a severer monitor is left there.”
These truisms, delivered with an air of discovery by Mr. S––, who seldom troubled himself to think upon any subject, except that of a good dinner, were lost upon his companion, who, pursuing the airy conjectures which the present scene, however humbled, had called up, was following Shakspeare into unknown regions. “Where is now the undying spirit,” said he, “that could so exquisitely perceive and feel?–that could inspire itself with the va,rious characters of this world, and create worlds of its own; to which the grand and the beautiful, the gloomy and the sublime of visible Nature, up-called not only corresponding feelings, but passions ; which seemed to perceive a soul in every thing: and thus, in the secret workings of its own characters, and in the combinations of its incidents, kept the elements and local scenery always in unison with them, heightening their effect. So the conspirators at Rome pass under the fiery showers and sheeted lightning of the thunder-storm, to meet, at midnight, in the porch of Pompey’s theatre. The streets being then deserted by the affrighted multitude, that place, open as it was, was convenient for their council; and, as to the storm, they felt it not; it was not more terrible to them than their own passions, nor so terrible to others as the dauntless spirit that makes them, almost unconsciously, brave its fury. These appalling circumstances, with others of supernatural import, attended the fall of the conqueror of the world–a man, whose power Cassius represents to be dreadful as this night, when the sheeted dead were seen in the lightning to glide along the streets of Rome. How much does the sublimity of these attendant circumstances heighten our idea of the power of Caesar, of the terrific grandeur of his character, and prepare and interest us for his fate. The whole soul is roused and fixed, in the full energy of attention, upon the progress of the conspiracy against him; and, had not Shakespeare wisely withdrawn him from our view, there would have been no balance of our passions.”–” Caesar was a tyrant,” said Mr. S––. W–– looked at him for a moment, and smiled, and then silently resumed the course of his own thoughts. No master ever knew how to touch the accordant springs of sympathy by small circumstances like our own Shakspeare. In Cymbeline, for instance, how finely such circumstances are made use of, to awaken, at once, solemn expectation and tenderness, and, by recalling the softened remembrance of a sorrow long past, to prepare the mind to melt at one that was approaching, mingling at the same time, by means of a mysterious occurrence, a slight tremour of awe with our pity. Thus, when Belarius and Arviragus return to the cave where they had left the unhappy and worn-out Imogen to repose, while they are yet standing before it, and Arviragus, speaking of her with tenderest pity, as “the poor sick Fidele,” goes out to enquire for her,–solernn music is heard from the cave, sounded by that harp of which Guiderius says, “Since the death of my dearest mother, it did not speak before. All solemn things should answer solemn accidents.” Immediately Arviragus enters with Fidele senseless in his arms…
“The bird is dead, that we have made so much of.
–How found you him?
Stark, as you see, thus smiling.
–I thought he slept, and put
My clouted brogues from off my feet, whose rudeness
Answered my steps too loud.”–”Why he but sleeps!”
* * * * *
“Writing a short story is one of the most difficult disciplines there is. Writing a short horror story is even more difficult. The reason being that most horror stories tend to be concise narratives or sick jokes. The latter is a trap I’ve fallen into myself. You spend four or five pages describing and setting up characters or story only so you can deliver a “punch line” at the end. “And she held out her hand revealing his freshly torn out heart,” that kind of thing. Writing a short story and a screenplay I’ve always thought are similar because you’ve got limited time and space to get character across so it needs to be done economically. With a novel you’ve got 90-150,000 words to convey the same things so, if you want to, you can take your time. Short stories add restraints that a novelist doesn’t encounter. There are no restraints when you’re writing a novel. You make up your own rules to a degree. Having said that, the need for brevity and pace has always been something that attracted me as a writer both in short and full length fiction. In a short horror story there’s no time for waffle, no space for superfluous material. Short horror stories are bullshit free. Or they should be.
Some of the most memorable pieces of writing I’ve ever enjoyed have been short stories. “The Graveyard Rats” by Henry Kuttner, “The Outsider” and “Pickman’s Model” by H.P. Lovecraft, “The Little Girl Eater” by Septimus Dale, “Children of the Corn” by Stephen King. “The Bats” and “The Fur Brooch” by Dulcie Gray. “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs. There are many more. All those short stories made an indelible mark on me as a reader and also as a writer. They all have that pace, economy of language and lack of bullshit. And they work brilliantly.
A novel can ease you in. A short story should throw you in.
Some ideas are just better suited to the short story format. They don’t work across 90,000 words. Some ideas have an impact that is only achievable in 10,000 or 20,000 words. One short horror story which appeared in the Pan Books of Horror Stories series, “Tanith” is only about 100 words! What many writers fail to realize is that a story should be told in as many words as it takes. It’s as simple as that. If you can tell your story in 10,000 then do it. If it takes 120,000 then you do that. Never add extra detail just for the hell of it. Don’t expand characterisations because you think you should. Write from your heart. If it feels right then chances are it is! The writers of the stories contained within this volume have raecognised the restraints the short story puts upon them but they’ve embraced that. They used brevity, economy of language and have thankfully dispensed with the bullshit. For that they should be congratulated.
There is nothing worse than a story that is stretched beyond its limits. A story that the author hasn’t realized has run its course. My own novels have sometimes been criticised for their shortness but any critics who have been dumb enough to do that have missed the point (most critics usually do). When someone reads horror they usually do it to be entertained. They don’t want superfluous waffle or self-indulgence. They want to be gripped. They want to be frightened. They want to be taken on a ride they cannot control. One where the only person who knows the destination is the author. And readers will forgive the writer anything if he twists and turns on that journey. They might even forgive him if the ride is a bit bumpy and uncomfortable.
The writers of these stories you’re about to read have done the same thing and they’ve done it brilliantly. If these stories had been any longer they wouldn’t have worked. They probably wouldn’t have worked as novels.
The art of the short story is one that has been perfected by some authors after years of honing their craft. The stories offered here are the work of authors who are still learning and some who are just starting out. Where they go on their journeys no one knows yet but that is part of the fun. Just like the stories themselves.
Personally, I’ve written a fair few short horror stories over the years, published in everything from magazines and newspapers to radio and TV. One story I did for Radio was read out as if it was a news story and, within 2 minutes of broadcast, the radio station had CNN on the phone wanting to know where the explosion had occurred and exactly how many fatalities there’d been. That was fun. But, believe me, I’m still learning this discipline. I’m not sure that anyone ever masters it completely but we all carry on writing, hoping we hit the right spots. Some of my stories have been so bad I’d never even consider getting them into print. Writing takes courage as well as skill, you know. Elements of both are displayed in this volume so read on and, if the writers have done their jobs properly, hopefully you’ll still be reading deep into the night.
If they’ve really done their jobs you’ll be awake long into the night anyway, because they’ll have scared you into not sleeping. So enjoy and then sleep tight. Or maybe not.
– Shaun Hutson, Foreword to Kill for a Copy, Dark Chapter Press, 2016
The Humorous Ghost
Dorothy Scarborough, PhD, 1921
Lecturer in English at Columbia University, and author of the essay: The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction,* and editor of the anthropology: Famous Modern Ghost Stories.”
The essay below was printed in 1921 as the Introduction to the anthology G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York and London, The Knickerbocker Press.
The humorous ghost is distinctly a modern character. In early literature wraiths took themselves very seriously, and insisted on a proper show of respectful fear on the part of those whom they honored by haunting. A mortal was expected to rise when a ghost entered the room, and in case he was slow about it, his spine gave notice of what etiquette demanded. In the event of outdoor apparition, if a man failed to bare his head in awe, the roots of his hair reminded him of his remissness. Woman has always had the advantage over man in such emergency, in that her locks, being long and pinned up, are less easily moved—which may explain the fact (if it be a fact!) that in fiction women have shown themselves more self-possessed in ghostly presence than men. Or possibly a woman knows that a masculine spook is, after all, only a man, and therefore may be charmed into helplessness, while the feminine can be seen through by another woman and thus disarmed. The majority of the comic apparitions, curiously enough, are masculine. You don’t often find women wraithed in smiles—perhaps because they resent being made ridiculous, even after they’re dead. Or maybe the reason lies in the fact that men have written most of the comic or satiric ghost stories, and have chivalrously spared the gentler shades. And there are very few funny child-ghosts—you might almost say none, in comparison with the number of grown-ups. The number of ghost children of any or all types is small proportionately—perhaps because it seems an unnatural thing for a child to die under any circumstances, while to make of him a butt for jokes would be unfeeling. There are a few instances, as in the case of the ghost baby mentioned later, but very few.
Ancient ghosts were a long-faced lot. They didn’t know how to play at all. They had been brought up in stern repression of frivolities as haunters—no matter how sportive they may have been in life—and in turn they cowed mortals into a servile submission. No doubt they thought of men and women as mere youngsters that must be taught their place, since any living person, however senile, would be thought juvenile compared with a timeless spook.
But in these days of individualism and radical liberalism, spooks as well as mortals are expanding their personalities and indulging in greater freedom. A ghost can call his shade his own now, and exhibit any mood he pleases. Even young female wraiths, demanding latchkeys, refuse to obey the frowning face of the clock, and engage in light-hearted ebullience to make the ghost of Mrs. Grundy turn a shade paler in horror. Nowadays haunters have more fun and freedom than the haunted. In fact, it’s money in one’s pocket these days to be dead, for ghosts have no rent problems, and dead men pay no bills. What officer would willingly pursue a ghostly tenant to his last lodging in order to serve summons on him? And suppose a ghost brought into court demanded trial by a jury of his peers? No—manifestly death has compensations not connected with the consolations of religion.
The marvel is that apparitions were so long in realizing their possibilities, in improving their advantages. The specters in classic and medieval literature were malarial, vaporous beings without energy to do anything but threaten, and mortals never would have trembled with fear at their frown if they had known how feeble they were. At best a revenant could only rattle a rusty skeleton, or shake a moldy shroud, or clank a chain—but as mortals cowered before his demonstrations, he didn’t worry. If he wished to evoke the extreme of anguish from his host, he raised a menacing arm and uttered a windy word or two. Now it takes more than that to produce a panic. The up-to-date ghost keeps his skeleton in a garage or some place where it is cleaned and oiled and kept in good working order. The modern wraith has sold his sheet to the old clo’es man, and dresses as in life. Now the ghost has learned to have a variety of good times, and he can make the living squirm far more satisfyingly than in the past. The spook of to-day enjoys making his haunted laugh even while he groans in terror. He knows that there’s no weapon, no threat, in horror, to be compared with ridicule.
Think what a solemn creature the Gothic ghost was! How little originality and initiative he showed and how dependent he was on his own atmosphere for thrills! His sole appeal was to the spinal column. The ghost of to-day touches the funny bone as well. He adds new horrors to being haunted, but new pleasures also. The modern specter can be a joyous creature on occasion, as he can be, when he wishes, fearsome beyond the dreams of classic or Gothic revenant. He has a keen sense of humor and loves a good joke on a mortal, while he can even enjoy one on himself. Though his fun is of comparatively recent origin—it’s less than a century since he learned to crack a smile—the laughing ghost is very much alive and sportively active. Some of these new spooks are notoriously good company. Many Americans there are to-day who would court being haunted by the captain and crew of Richard Middleton’s Ghost Ship that landed in a turnip field and dispensed drink till they demoralized the denizens of village and graveyard alike. After that show of spirits, the turnips in that field tasted of rum, long after the ghost ship had sailed away into the blue.
The modern spook is possessed not only of humor but of a caustic satire as well. His jest is likely to have more than one point to it, and he can haunt so insidiously, can make himself so at home in his host’s study or bedroom that a man actually welcomes a chat with him—only to find out too late that his human foibles have been mercilessly flayed. Pity the poor chap in H. C. Bunner’s story, The Interfering Spook, for instance, who was visited nightly by a specter that repeated to him all the silly and trite things he had said during the day, a ghost, moreover, that towered and swelled at every hackneyed phrase, till finally he filled the room and burst after the young man proposed to his admired one, and made subsequent remarks. Ghosts not only have appallingly long memories, but they possess a mean advantage over the living in that they have once been mortal, while the men and women they haunt haven’t yet been ghosts. Suppose each one of us were to be haunted by his own inane utterances? True, we’re told that we’ll have to give account Some Day for every idle word, but recording angels seem more sympathetic than a sneering ghost at one’s elbow. Ghosts can satirize more fittingly than anyone else the absurdities of certain psychic claims, as witness the delightful seriousness of the story Back from that Bourne, which appeared as a front page news story in the New York Sun years ago. I should think that some of the futile, laggard messenger-boy ghosts that one reads about nowadays would blush with shame before the wholesome raillery of the porgy fisherman.
The modern humorous ghost satirizes everything from the old-fashioned specter (he’s very fond of taking pot-shots at him) to the latest psychic manifestations. He laughs at ghosts that aren’t experts in efficiency haunting, and he has a lot of fun out of mortals for being scared of specters. He loves to shake the lugubrious terrors of the past before you, exposing their hollow futility, and he contrives to create new fears for you magically while you are laughing at him.
The new ghost hates conventionality and uses the old thrills only to show what dead batteries they come from. His really electrical effects are his own inventions. He needs no dungeon keeps and monkish cells to play about in—not he! He demands no rag nor bone nor clank of chain of his old equipment to start on his career. He can start up a moving picture show of his own, as in Ruth McEnery Stuart’s The Haunted Photograph, and demonstrate a new kind of apparition. The ghost story of to-day gives you spinal sensations with a difference, as in the immortal Transferred Ghost, by Frank R. Stockton, where the suitor on the moonlit porch, attempting to tell his fair one that he dotes on her, sees the ghost of her ferocious uncle (who isn’t dead!) kicking his heels against the railing, and hears his admonition that he’d better hurry up, as the live uncle is coming in sight. The thrill with which you read of the ghost in Ellis Parker Butler’s The Late John Wiggins, who deposits his wooden leg with the family he is haunting, on the plea that it is too materialistic to be worn with ease, and therefore they must take care of it for him, doesn’t altogether leave you even when you discover that the late John is a fraud, has never been a ghost nor used a wooden leg. But a terrifying leg-acy while you do believe in it!
The new ghost has a more nimble and versatile tongue as well as wit. In the older fiction and drama apparitions spoke seldom, and then merely as ghosts, not as individuals. And ghosts, like kings in drama, were of a dignity and must preserve it in their speech. Or perhaps the authors were doubtful as to the dialogue of shades, and compromised on a few stately ejaculations as being safely phantasmal speaking parts. But compare that usage with the rude freedom of some modern spooks, as John Kendrick Bangs’s spectral cook of Bangletop, who lets fall her h’s and twists grammar in a rare and diverting manner. For myself, I’d hate to be an old-fashioned ghost with no chance to keep up with the styles in slang. Think of having always—and always—to speak a dead language!
The humorous ghost is not only modern, but he is distinctively American. There are ghosts of all nationalities, naturally, but the spook that provides a joke—on his host or on himself—is Yankee in origin and development. The dry humor, the comic sense of the incongruous, the willingness to laugh at himself as at others, carry over into immaterialization as characteristic American qualities and are preserved in their true flavor. I don’t assert, of course, that Americans have been the only ones in this field. The French and English selections in this volume are sufficient to prove the contrary. Gautier’s The Mummy’s Foot has a humor of a lightness and grace as delicate as the princess’s little foot itself. There are various English stories of whimsical haunting, some of actual spooks and some of the hoax type. Hoax ghosts are fairly numerous in British as in American literature, one of the early specimens of the kind being The Specter of Tappington in the Ingoldsby Legends. The files of Blackwood’s Magazine reveal several examples, though not of high literary value.
Of the early specimens of the really amusing ghost that is an actual revenant is The Ghost Baby, in Blackwood’s, which shows originality and humor, yet is too diffuse for printing here. In that we have a conventional young bachelor, engaged to a charming girl, who is entangled in social complications and made to suffer mental torment because, without his consent, he has been chosen as the nurse and guardian of a ghost baby that cradles after him wherever he goes. This is a rich story almost spoiled by being poorly told. I sigh to think of the laughs that Frank R. Stockton or John Kendrick Bangs or Gelett Burgess could have got out of the situation. There are other comic British spooks, as in Baring-Gould’s A Happy Release, where a widow and a widower in love are haunted by the jealous ghosts of their respective spouses, till the phantom couple take a liking to each other and decide to let the living bury their dead. This is suggestive of Brander Matthews’s earlier and cleverer story of a spectral courtship, in The Rival Ghosts. Medieval and later literature gave us many instances of a love affair or marriage between one spirit and one mortal, but it remained for the modern American to celebrate the nuptials of two ghosts. Think of being married when you know that you and the other party are going to live ever after—whether happily or no! Truly, the present terrors are more fearsome than the old!
The stories by Eden Phillpotts and Richard Middleton in this collection show the diversity of the English humor as associated with apparitions, and are entertaining in themselves. The Canterville Ghost, by Oscar Wilde, is one of his best short stories and is in his happiest vein of laughing satire. This travesty on the conventional traditions of the wraith is preposterously delightful, one of the cleverest ghost stories in our language. Zangwill has written engagingly of spooks, with a laughable story about Samuel Johnson. And there are others. But the fact remains that in spite of conceded and admirable examples, the humorous ghost story is for the most part American in creation and spirit. Washington Irving might be said to have started that fashion in skeletons and shades, for he has given us various comic haunters, some real and some make-believe. Frank R. Stockton gave his to funny spooks with a riotous and laughing pen. The spirit in his Transferred Ghost is impudently deathless, and has called up a train of subsequent haunters. John Kendrick Bangs has made the darker regions seem comfortable and homelike for us, and has created ghosts so human and so funny that we look forward to being one—or more. We feel downright neighborly toward such specters as the futile “last ghost” Nelson Lloyd evokes for us, as we appreciate the satire of Rose O’Neill’s sophisticated wraith. The daring concept of Gelett Burgess’s Ghost Extinguisher is altogether American. The field is still comparatively limited, but a number of Americans have done distinctive work in it. The specter now wears motley instead of a shroud, and shakes his jester’s bells the while he rattles his bones. I dare any, however grouchy, reader to finish the stories in this volume without having a kindlier feeling toward ghosts!
Table of Contents
Introduction: The Humorous Ghost…..vii
The Canterville Ghost, Oscar Wilde 3
The Ghost-Extinguisher, Gelett Burgess…..51
“Dey Ain’t No Ghosts”, Ellis Parker Butler…..69
The Transferred Ghost, Frank R. Stockton…..89
The Mummy’s Foot, Théophile Gautier…..109
The Rival Ghosts, Brander Matthews…..129
The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall, John Kendrick Bangs…..159
Back from that Bourne, Anonymous…..175
The Ghost-Ship, Richard Middleton…..187
The Transplanted Ghost, Wallace Irwin…..205
The Last Ghost in Harmony, Nelson Lloyd…..229
The Ghost of Miser Brimpson, Eden Phillpotts…..247
The Haunted Photograph, Ruth McEnery Stuart…..275
The Ghost that Got the Button, Will Adams…..295
The Specter Bridegroom, Washington Irving….315
The Specter of Tappington, Richard Barham….341
In the Barn, Burges Johnson…..385
A Shady Plot, Elsie Brown…..403
The Lady and the Ghost, Rose Cecil O’Neill…..425
From a New Yorker interview with writer John Lanchester…
“I wanted to catch the way phones and their uses (and misuses) have become something people genuinely do think about for hours a day.” – John Lanchester
Here is a link to John Lanchester’s ghost story, “Signal”, at the New Yorker…
‘Your story in this week’s issue, “Signal,” (see March 27, 2017 issue of The New Yorker) is set at an English country-house party over New Year’s Eve. It’s a very twenty-first-century country-house party—the host, an old college friend of the narrator’s, is some kind of finance gazillionaire (“the kind of rich that even other people who were rich considered rich”), rather than an earl. When did you first think about using this kind of gathering as the setting for a story, and how interested were you in its contemporary trappings?
A thematic element in fiction, for me, anyway, often comes from an impulse which was in the first instance structural. Here, the contemporary setting was necessary because the story was, right from the start, about the image of a strange man wandering around the halls of a big country house looking for a cell-phone signal—and then you realize that the man isn’t a man at all . . . So it had to be set here and now, to account for the fact that it all turns on cell phones. The contemporary details really grew from that, and as a kind of misdirection, because they lead the reader to think it’s one kind of story but then it turns into something else.
The narrator is there with his wife and two children, ages nine and seven. The house seems to offer everything someone seeking entertainment might want—a home cinema, a video-game room and a retro-gaming room, a swimming pool. The one thing it doesn’t have is a reliable Internet connection, leaving guests to wander, phones in hand, in search of a spot where the Wi-Fi actually works. Why did you want to write about phone signals?
Because phones and their trappings—and a signal is the most important trapping—are so central to modern life. You see different figures for it, but the consensus seems to be that smartphone users in the developed world spend around three hours a day using their phone! I’ve also noticed that nothing makes people more obsessed with their phone connectivity than when it is almost working but not really working properly. It’s like a bad relationship: the ones which really make people go crazy are the ones with people who are sometimes there, sometimes not. I wanted to catch the way phones and their uses (and misuses) have become something people genuinely do think about for hours a day.
You recently published a piece in the London Review of Books looking at advances in mobile technology. You observe, “Smartphones have also had an extraordinary impact on behavioural norms. In between the first two paragraphs of this piece, I went out to get a coffee. There were ten people in the café and nine of them were on their phones, undertaking activities which, a decade ago, didn’t exist, or did exist but couldn’t be done over the internet. Not one of them was reading a book or a newspaper or talking to anyone physically present. This is the case everywhere you go, everywhere you look: people with their heads down over the phones. I wonder if any technology in the history of the world has ever changed how people behave in public as fast as these devices have?” Did you notice how your own behavior changed over the last few years? Can you imagine going back to life without a smartphone?
I’d like to pretend to be all Olympian and above it, as if this is a phenomenon I’m observing from a great height, nothing to do with my own behavior at all—but the fact is I’m absolutely one of those people in the café staring at my phone. I think smartphones are one of humanity’s most remarkable creations: computers are amazing enough, but a supercomputer you can carry in your pocket and communicate instantly with anyone, anywhere . . . it’s no wonder they’re troublingly addictive. I’m trying to scale back and use mine only for tasks that are in some sense practical. I’m also trying to consume my news in the form of newsprint, where someone has made choices about what matters and what doesn’t, and you don’t just disappear down a hole of endless clicking. For a while I had a rule of no smartphone in bed but now I’ve upgraded to no smartphone in the bedroom. The fact that we need rules shows how much these things have invaded our lives.
In the story, a mysterious tall man, who is never without his phone, appears to take too close an interest in the narrator’s children. The narrator worries that he’s been filming them—the man, he fears, has been behaving “inappropriately.” How menacing a figure do you want the tall man to be?
Gradually more menacing as the story goes on, and ending by being properly scary. I read a draft of the story to my family and their main comment was to make him scarier, so I did. I’d like to note, though, that from his own perspective, he is a sad, maybe even a benign figure, helping the children, trying to get in touch with them. It’s not the fault of ghosts that we are so frightened of them.
At the end of the story, the mystery—a tragic one—is revealed, and it becomes clear that we’ve been reading a ghost story. Is this the first ghost story you’ve written?
Not just the first ghost story but the first short story I’ve ever written. I’ve had short fiction published before, including in this magazine, but it was cut down from longer work. I love short stories but I’ve never had the impulse to write one. Same for ghost stories. The starting point for this came from a visit to friends years ago, which was unlike the one in the story in every respect. It did give me the idea, though, to write about a house party in which one of the guests wasn’t who he seemed to be. We were visiting the same friends five years later, and I suddenly thought, I know, I’ll write that story and read it out loud on New Year’s Day, as a kind of entertainment—so that’s what I did.
Did you model it on any other stories? Are there any you’d recommend to readers?
No model as such, but I love the atmosphere of classic ghost stories, especially those of M. R. James, the provost of King’s College Cambridge, and then of Eton, who used to read them aloud to gatherings of friends and colleagues on Christmas Eve. (That’s where I got the idea of reading it aloud.) He’s very good at depicting a particular kind of psychological repression which builds slowly into something genuinely frightening. A great one to begin with is “Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” which was made into an extraordinarily powerful short black-and-white film by the BBC in the sixties—I highly recommend both the story and the film (which you can find on YouTube). The greatest ghost story in the language is Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw,” but recommending that is like recommending “Hamlet”; all I’d say is that if you haven’t read it, do. These two stories were published in 1904 and 1898, respectively: it was obviously a good moment for the supernatural sublime.’
(The New Yorker)
A. V. Laider
Max Beerbohm, 1919
‘“My hands,” he said, staring at the backs of them, “are the hands of a very weak man. I dare say you know enough of palmistry to see that for yourself. You notice the slightness of the thumbs and of he two ‘little’ fingers. They are the hands of a weak and over-sensitive man—a man without confidence, a man who would certainly waver in an emergency. Rather Hamletish hands,” he mused….But Hamlet was luckier than I in one thing: he was a murderer by accident, whereas the murders that I committed one day fourteen years ago—for I must tell you it wasn’t one murder, but many murders that I committed—were all of them due to the wretched inherent weakness of my own wretched self.’
I unpacked my things and went down to await luncheon.
It was good to be here again in this little old sleepy hostel by the sea. Hostel I say, though it spelt itself without an “s” and even placed a circumflex above the “o.” It made no other pretension. It was very cozy indeed.
I had been here just a year before, in mid-February, after an attack of influenza. And now I had returned, after an attack of influenza. Nothing was changed. It had been raining when I left, and the waiter—there was but a single, a very old waiter—had told me it was only a shower. That waiter was still here, not a day older. And the shower had not ceased.
Steadfastly it fell on to the sands, steadfastly into the iron-gray sea. I stood looking out at it from the windows of the hall, admiring it very much. There seemed to be little else to do. What little there was I did. I mastered the contents of a blue hand-bill which, pinned to the wall just beneath the framed engraving of Queen Victoria’s Coronation, gave token of a concert that was to be held—or, rather, was to have been held some weeks ago—in the town hall for the benefit of the Life-Boat Fund. I looked at the barometer, tapped it, was not the wiser. I wandered to the letter-board.
These letter-boards always fascinate me. Usually some two or three of the envelops stuck into the cross-garterings have a certain newness and freshness. They seem sure they will yet be claimed. Why not? Why SHOULDN’T John Doe, Esq., or Mrs. Richard Roe turn up at any moment? I do not know. I can only say that nothing in the world seems to me more unlikely. Thus it is that these young bright envelops touch my heart even more than do their dusty and sallowed seniors. Sour resignation is less touching than impatience for what will not be, than the eagerness that has to wane and wither. Soured beyond measure these old envelops are. They are not nearly so nice as they should be to the young ones. They lose no chance of sneering and discouraging. Such dialogues as this are only too frequent:
A Very Young Envelop: Something in me whispers that he will come to-day!
A Very Old Envelop: He? Well, that’s good! Ha, ha, ha! Why didn’t he come last week, when YOU came? What reason have you for supposing he’ll ever come now? It isn’t as if he were a frequenter of the place. He’s never been here. His name is utterly unknown here. You don’t suppose he’s coming on the chance of finding YOU?
A. V. Y. E.: It may seem silly, but—something in me whispers—
A. V. O. E.: Something in YOU? One has only to look at you to see there’s nothing in you but a note scribbled to him by a cousin. Look at ME! There are three sheets, closely written, in ME. The lady to whom I am addressed—
A. V. Y. E.: Yes, sir, yes; you told me all about her yesterday.
A. V. O. E.: And I shall do so to-day and to-morrow and every day and all day long. That young lady was a widow. She stayed here many times. She was delicate, and the air suited her. She was poor, and the tariff was just within her means. She was lonely, and had need of love. I have in me for her a passionate avowal and strictly honorable proposal, written to her, after many rough copies, by a gentleman who had made her acquaintance under this very roof. He was rich, he was charming, he was in the prime of life. He had asked if he might write to her. She had flutteringly granted his request. He posted me to her the day after his return to London. I looked forward to being torn open by her. I was very sure she would wear me and my contents next to her bosom. She was gone. She had left no address. She never returned. This I tell you, and shall continue to tell you, not because I want any of your callow sympathy,—no, THANK you!—but that you may judge how much less than slight are the probabilities that you yourself—
We Came Back Haunted
Ernest Rhys, 1921
In my recent Ghost Book (The Haunters and the Haunted,1921), M. Larigot, himself a writer of supernatural tales, collected a remarkable batch of documents, fictive or real, describing the one human experience that is hardest to make good. Perhaps the very difficulty of it has rendered it more tempting to the writers who have dealt with the subject. His collection, notably varied and artfully chosen as it is, yet by no means exhausts the literature, which fills a place apart with its own recognised classics, magic masters, and dealers in the occult. Their testimony serves to show that the forms by which men and women are haunted are far more diverse and subtle than we knew. So much so, that one begins to wonder at last if every person is not liable to be “possessed.” For, lurking under the seeming identity of these visitations, the dramatic differences of their entrances and appearances, night and day, are so marked as to suggest that the experience is, given the fit temperament and occasion, inevitable.
One would even be disposed, accepting this idea, to bring into the account, as valid, stories and pieces of literature not usually accounted part of the ghostly canon. There are the novels and tales whose argument is the tragedy of a haunted mind. Such are Dickens’ Haunted Man, in which the ghost is memory; Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, in which the ghost is cruel conscience; and Balzac’s Quest of the Absolute, in which the old Flemish house of Balthasar Claes, in the Rue de Paris at Douai, is haunted by a dæmon more potent than that of Canidia. One might add some of Balzac’s shorter stories, among them “The Elixir”; and some of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, including “Edward Randolph’s Portrait.” On the French side we might note too that terrible graveyard tale of Guy de Maupassant, La Morte, in which the lover who has lost his beloved keeps vigil at her grave by night in his despair, and sees—dreadful resurrection—“que toutes les tombes étaient ouvertes, et tous les cadavres en étaient sortis.” And why? That they might efface the lying legends inscribed on their tombs, and replace them with the actual truth. Villiers de l’Isle Adam has in his Contes Cruels given us the strange story of Véra, which may be read as a companion study to La Morte, with another recall from the dead to end a lover’s obsession. Nature and supernature cross in de l’Isle Adam’s mystical drama Axël—a play which will never hold the stage, masterly attempt as it is to dramatise the inexplainable mystery.
Among later tales ought to be reckoned Edith Wharton’s Tales of Men and Ghosts, and Henry James’s The Two Magics, whose “Turn of the Screw” gives us new instances of the evil genii that haunt mortals, in this case two innocent children. One remembers sundry folk-tales with the same motive—of children bewitched or forespoken—inspiring them. And an old charm in Orkney which used to run:
“Father, Son, Holy Ghost!
Bitten sall they be,
Bairn, wha have bitten thee!
Care to their black vein,
Till thou hast thy health again!
Mend thou in God’s name!”