I have never been much of a fan of horror fiction. So much of it always seemed overdone with graphic images and plot devices and I always suspected the writer was primarily looking for a movie deal and thinking first of what the special effects technicians could conjure up. But ghost stories are different because they are built on interesting characters, some of whom just happen to be dead but not really dead. These not really dead characters inhabit an eerie world that is sometimes seen and heard, but is often simply intuited. The true ghost story depicts a world in which things may appear normal and predictable on the surface, but in which there is a pervasive feeling that spirits of the dead live around us, generally unseen but sometimes flickering in ways that our senses can detect. These kinds of stories are the perfect bedtime reading for fall and winter nights.
The movie industry has made lots of money with computer animations and other special effects that allow producers to put shocking images on the screen, and writers have responded by providing the movie industry with lots of ideas for making maximum use of special effects technology. But the ghost stories that I have found the most engaging and memorable would not require much in the way of special effects. These works create an atmosphere permeated with a fear of the unseen and unknown simply through ingenious development of character. Here are some of my favorites.
Shirley Jackson was one of the great American writers in the mystery and thriller genre, and her novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959) is one of the spookiest things I’ve ever read. The protagonist of the novel, a shy and reclusive woman named Eleanor Vance, is invited by Dr. John Montague to the 80-year-old Hill House to assist him in his research into “psychic disturbances” at the mansion. Two other characters, Theodora and Luke, are also called to assist Dr. Montague in his research. It does not take long before Eleanor and the others begin to see and hear things, and over time the old house seems to possess Eleanor. The eeriness of Hill House builds with layer upon layer of noises and apparitions that signal the presence of things not of this world, and soon Eleanor seems so intoxicated with it that Dr. Montague and the others fear for her life.
Peter Straub’s Ghost Story (1979) does not quite fit my model for the kind of ghost story that I typically look for, but it was one of those guilty pleasures that was hard to put down. In the novel, five old men who call themselves the “Chowder Society” get together on occasion to tell each other ghost stories. Then one of them dies suddenly under mysterious circumstances, and the four survivors begin to experience nightmarish dreams of their own deaths. The backgrounds of the four survivors are then interwoven with the story of how they were each involved in the violent death of a young woman, and it becomes apparent that the woman’s spirit has vengeful designs on them.
I have a special fondness for Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw (1898). Henry James can be a real chore for a modern reader. His prose is heavy-going and long-winded, because his writings were so focused on the world of the late 19th century upper crust and his extraordinarily long attention span could sustain him over sentences and paragraphs of vast length compared to what modern readers are accustomed to. But James was a masterful ghost story writer and The Turn of the Screw is the ghostliest thing he ever wrote. In the novella, a young woman is hired as a governess by a rich Englishman to look after his young niece and nephew after the deaths of their parents. He wants to live in London completely undisturbed by problems relating to the children, Flora and Miles, while they are cared for at his house in the country. The young governess does her best to look after the two children, her only other companion being the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. It soon becomes evident that ghosts are stalking the children. The ghosts are those of Miss Jessel, a previous governess, and Peter Quint, another former servant at the house, and there is also a hint that Miss Jessel and Peter Quint had some kind of relationship before they died. The governess begins to notice odd behavior on the part of the children, and then the ghosts of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint begin to appear with steadily increasing frequency. But what is just as fascinating is how the children respond to the apparitions. The relationship between the children and the governess at first seems to flower but then quickly deteriorate.
The Turn of the Screw has been the subject of many different psychoanalytical interpretations. There is great depth to the characters and continuing uncertainty about whether the ghosts really exist or not, what they want of the children if they do exist, and what the governess is seeking out of the relationship with the children. The abrupt and melodramatic ending raises even more questions about just what was going on. As old-fashioned as Henry James’s prose can be, The Turn of the Screw is one of the greatest ghost stories in the English language.
Ghost stories of the kind Henry James wrote may be commonly associated with writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but modern writers continue to produce chilling fiction with ghosts as major characters. One of my favorite modern writers who has worked in this genre is Mary Rickert, who writes as “M. Rickert.” In her short story, “The Chambered Fruit,” the ghost of a teenage girl whose father unwittingly entrusts her to a sexual predator returns to visit her mother after the devastating loss of the girl’s rape and murder tears apart the marriage between her parents. Rickert’s prose is direct and unsentimental, and what evolves in the story is a wholly unexpected relationship between the mother and the ghost of her daughter. “The Chambered Fruit” is one of the most emotionally charged stories I have ever read, yet it is entirely free of cliché or melodrama, and behind the raw depiction of the crime that leads to the daughter’s death is an achingly beautiful tenderness. “The Chambered Fruit” was first published in 2003, but it is also included in M. Rickert’s short story collection, You Have Never Been Here: New and Selected Stories (2015).
If I were to select a single favorite story, I might pick a short story by Truman Capote, although it is one that I am not sure is really a ghost story at all. But for sheer creepiness it is hard to top. The story is “Miriam,” and it first appeared in Mademoiselle magazine in 1945. In the story, Mrs. Miller, a widow living alone in an apartment in New York encounters a little girl named Miriam in a movie theater. The girl seems innocent enough, about ten or eleven years old, and Mrs. Miller and Miriam strike up a friendship. But Miriam does not seem to have a home, and she begins clinging to Mrs. Miller in rather bizarre ways. And then Mrs. Miller begins to suspect there might be something not right, or perhaps even a little evil, about Miriam. The surprising end of the story is an excellent example of how a good writer can create an atmosphere of icy creepiness simply by suggesting the presence of dark things below the surface. “Miriam” can be found in The Complete Stories of Truman Capote (2004).
In 2009 the Library of America published a two-volume collection entitled American Fantastic Tales, edited by Peter Straub. The collection includes stories of ghosts and ghostly things and all sorts of eerie supernatural occurrences written by great writers from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe to Shirley Jackson and Stephen King. The Library of America collection is a true feast of the creepy and the macabre. Both “The Chambered Fruit” and “Miriam” are included in the collection, along with many other excellent stories, both famous and obscure. Particularly noteworthy inclusions are Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown, Edith Wharton’s “Afterward,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Daemon Lover,” and John Cheever’s “Torch Song Trilogy.” The Contra Costa Library system has a couple of copies of American Fantastic Tales, and they were both available as I write this. If you’re looking for something delightfully frightening to keep you awake at night as Halloween approaches, I highly recommend it.