I know I’m not the only one who likes to read ghost stories this time of year. I usually stick to what I consider the classics – M. R. James, E. F. Benson, Oliver Onions, etc., from the Victorian/Edwardian golden age. I love Arthur Machen, but begin to have mixed feelings about his spawn H. P. Lovecraft and absolutely detest Stephen King and his fellow contemporary horrorists. Like a lot of contemporary culture there’s no ambiguity there, no subtlety, no style, no SOUL – just a lot of fake shock and awe special effects and computer generated monsters (Lovecraft’s creatures always struck me more like Godzilla style guys in rubber suits).
I don’t know why the Victorian/Edwardian era seems so right for ghost stories. Maybe it’s just that it was a period trying to crawl to modernity with the specters of the past grasping at its ankles, or the last time readers could believe that spooks plausibly existed. There’s a curious relationship between the Decadent movement and ghost stories, with Oscar Wilde’s classic Picture of Dorian Gray being exhibit A. Freud wrote of the uncanny, and the genre is certainly powered by the unconscious, sexual repression and repressed memory. I learned from a Wilde biography that Benson was a friend of his, a fellow "Uranian," but one who was not at all comfortable with his sexual orientation. I couldn’t help but think of that as I recently read through a marvelous collection of Benson’s horror stories, many of which featured a malevolent creature he describes as follows: "On the ground there lay a monstrous thing, half slug, half worm. There was no head to it; it ended in a blunt point with an orifice. In color it was grey, covered with sparse black hairs…" Hmmmmmm….. I guess sometimes a cigar is NOT a cigar. My favorite story of his is called "The Face," which features neither worms, slugs nor caterpillars, but is a masterful weaving of dreams, foreboding and the siren call of the open grave.
Interestingly enough the one contemporary ghost writer I’m enthusiastic about, Susan Hill, sets her stories in the Edwardian era. I first heard about her from a rather eccentric customer from Hawaii who loved ghost stories and would send me multi-page, capitol lettered missives written in pencil detailing the books he was looking for. He also wanted a movie called The Woman in Black, which he said was the scariest he’d ever seen, and so naturally when I found him a DVD I got one for myself, too. He wasn’t kidding, either, because The Woman in Black is a masterful, subtle masterpiece of mounting terror that’s far more disquieting than a thousand Saw’s. What my customer didn’t know was that it was from a long running play which was adapted from a book of the same name by Hill which is just as well done. It’s still available and I highly recommend both book and movie to those seeking seasonal thrills, and in fact I’m going to make my daughter and her friends watch it at the teen Halloween party that’s taken the place of trick or treating. This season also saw the publication by the Overlook Press of a charming miniature hardback of her latest ghost novella The Man in the Picture, another chilling effort worthy of the golden age and perfect for treating a like minded friend. Usually I mistrust historical fiction, but Hill is able to replicate the diction and mind set of an Edwardian in a eerily convincing manner that delivers her work from the perils of pastiche. Fortunately for my Halloween reading another customer brought in an English edition of an earlier out of print title of Hill’s called The Mist in the Mirror which I’m halfway through and is building up the chills in her usual masterful manner.
At work I’ve been working my way through The Virago Book of Victorian Ghost Stories. As the title suggests they’re all by women, with many lesser known gems, including works by faves like Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Vernon Lee and Violet Hunt. After a while it’s hard to find stuff in anthologies that you haven’t already read in other anthologies, but this one has some fresh material in it, not to mention a great cover with Rossetti’s Proserpine. Too bad you can’t get it in the U.S. any more, but there are copies around.
In the end I guess the song The Headless Horseman from Disney’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow probably sums it up best – "You can’t be a haint if you ain’t kind of crazed, I guess you’d say…"