Friday, March 5, 2010

Good Old Fashioned Ghost Stories

Bumps in the night. Noises on the air. Shivers up and down your spine. Reading under the covers all night long, unable to shut the book—or turn the light off. Whether it’s a dark and stormy night or a bright and sunny summer day, a really good ghost story has the power to thrill and chill and remain stuck in your mind to jump up and spook you again and again. But the best ghost stories, the really scary, creepy, spine-tingling stories are the ones written dozens, even hundreds of years ago. From the monsters you know—Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman—to the monsters you don’t—the vampiress Carmilla, the vile Cthulu—these are the original good old-fashioned ghost stories.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories or, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. by Washington Irving, 2001, Modern Library Classics, originally published 1820 (Fiction Classics/ Horror) 


When smarmy schoolteacher Ichabod Crane comes to town, he immediately smirks and smiles his way into all the society that the little glen of Sleepy Hollow has to offer. Ichabod, gangly and gawky, is smitten with Katrina, the lovely only daughter of wealthy Mr. Baltus Van Tassel. His competition for the hand of the fair young lady is the hunky town jock “Brom Bones” Van Brunt. Ichabod, or so he thinks, has nothing to fear—his book smarts are more than a match for Brom’s rowdy looks. But for all his supposed confidence, Ichabod is exceptionally open to suggestion, and at a fancy party at the Van Tassel’s stately home, he hears the story of the Headless Headman. A hapless victim of “some nameless battle” of the American Revolution who got his head lobbed off by a cannonball, the Horseman spends the nights pounding up and down the roads in search of his long-lost cranium. When Ichabod leaves the party, he’s suddenly met by a ferocious fear—in the form of the good old Headless Horseman, who pursues poor Ichabod in what has become perhaps the most famous chase scene in American literary history. Originally published in 1820 as part of author Washington Irving’s (1783-1859) collection The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and its fellow tales marked the birth of the short story as a genre in the Unites States. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was, and still is, the heart of the collection. And since the tale is delightfully funny and wickedly spooky, Ichabod and his headless friend have become the stuff of American legend as well.

The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings by Edgar Allan Poe, 2003, Penguin Classics, originally published 1839 (Fiction Classics/ Short Stories/ Horror)


Roderick Usher is ill. He’s restless, uneasy, hyper-sensitive to light, sound, smells, and taste. Our unnamed narrator journeys to the House of Usher to cheer his friend Roderick, but neither narrator nor reader will find much comfort there. The manor house is bleak and gloomy beyond compare and its residents—Roderick and his twin sister Madeline—seem perpetually bathed in sorrow and despair. Roderick, in fact, believes the house, with its ancient stonework and strangely-arranged gardens, to be a sentient force unto itself. And when Madeline dies and Roderick insists on interring her body in the house’s vault before her burial, and an odd anxiety comes over Roderick and his guest in the days that follow, and Roderick’s paintings and books appear to come to life, it seems the House of Usher may indeed have something final to say before its doomed fall. Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) is one of literature’s greatest and spookiest storytellers—the enduring popularity of his narrative poem “The Raven” and his short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” certainly prove that. “The Fall of the House of Usher” is his other big hit, a classic little tale of a classic haunted house that, in Poe’s hands, becomes something much more—something innately unsettling and irresistible all at once. In fact, reading all three of Poe’s bests in row, from the mocking raven’s call to the mysterious thump-thump under the floorboards to the eerie House of Usher, is undoubtedly the best way to work yourself into a truly glorious literary scare.

Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu, 2000, Wildside Press, originally published in 1872 (Fiction Classics/ Horror) 


Forget about Bill Compton, Edward Cullen, the vampire LeStat, or Count Dracula—you haven’t really met a vampire until you’ve met Carmilla. Twenty-five years before Bram Stoker sat down and penned his tale of horror in Transylvania, fellow Irish ghost story lover Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873) crafted the tale of innocent young Laura and her strange, beautiful, deadly visitor. Pretty Laura lives in an old castle with her kind father and a couple of agreeable governesses; it’s a pleasant but sheltered existence. Laura had one terrifying incident in her infancy, when she dreamed a beautiful woman appeared in her room and laid down beside her—but then little Laura felt a sharp prick at her neck, and woke up screaming. But the years have passed and Laura is now a lovely young woman. When a dramatic carriage accident hurls an injured young lady practically onto the doorstep, Laura and her father are only too glad to extend their hospitality. Their guest is Carmilla, a sweet young thing whose face is exactly that of the woman who appeared in Laura’s dream so long ago. Carmilla sleeps late, eats little, reveals nothing of her past life, and lounges around in a most beautiful attitude. But Carmilla also adores Laura—adores her, in fact, well past the point of obsession. Laura is not very wise in the ways of the world so it takes her much longer to catch on than it does for the savvy reader, who is nonetheless quickly caught up in Le Fanu’s dreamy little tale of passion and terror combined. Carmilla was a direct influence on Dracula and on vampire mythology in general—we would have no sensual, seductive, alluring vamps if we had not had Carmilla first. That fact alone makes it an interesting read for any fan of horror or vampire fiction, but Carmilla is also a haunting ghost story that more than stands on its two feet—or fangs, for that matter. Take a bite; you won’t soon regret or forget Carmilla.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, 2001, Modern Library Classics, originally published in 1898 (Fiction Classics/ Horror)


A young gentlewoman begins her career as a governess when a singularly dashing bachelor hires her to care for his little niece and nephew. All trust and responsibility is given over to the governess and she heads off to Bly, the country manor where the children are tucked away under the protection of the housekeeper Mrs. Grose. Little Flora and her brother Miles are so adorable and angelic as to be called exquisite; the governess is instantly enamored of their childish charms. But before she can become a slave to their every delightful little whim, the governess sees—something. A pale face pressed against the window, a dark figure on the other side of the lake. When, frightened and disturbed, she describes these mysterious watchers to Mrs. Grose, they are identified as Peter Quint and Miss Jessel—and the horror immediately grows, because not only are Quint and Miss Jessel bad, immoral people, but they are dead. Convinced that the children’s young souls have been corrupted by the evil influence of the obsessive spirits, our nerve-wracked governess must fight to save some remnant of goodness in the preternaturally perfect little darlings—even while the ghostly fiends strive to posses them. Published in 1898, The Turn of the Screw practically marked the invention of the psychological thriller. Author Henry James (1843-1916) weaves a masterful web of intense and atmospheric suspense and offers no convenient solutions to the mystery at Bly. A unique structure—an unnamed narrator is listening to a manuscript read by a fellow houseguest; the manuscript is told in first-person by the hapless governess—completes the casting of the spell; wrapped in these layers of storytelling, a reader can never be sure what—if anything—is real and what—if anything—is imagined. One thing is certain, however: The Turn of the Screw will keep you biting your nails, jumping at every noise, and absolutely glued to the page.

The Best of H.P Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales Horror and the Macabre by H.P. Lovecraft, 1987, Del Ray Books, originally published between 1927 and 1937 (Fiction Classics/ Short Stories/ Horror)


H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) was a decidedly weird individual. Sickly, anxious, bookish, descended from an American founding family, Lovecraft was a mid-20th century gentleman with a really twisted imagination. And boy oh boy, do readers love him today. The sixteen tales collected here include Lovecraft’s finest: “The Call of the Cthulu,” which introduced legions of devoted fans to a giant pulpy sea monster with tentacles and scales and wings that dozes in the depths until it emerges in an apocalyptic age of horror and panic; “The Dunwhich Horror,” otherwise known as Wilbur Whately, who begins life on strange terms and ends it by horrifying, terrifying, and just plain scaring the socks off the neighboring townsfolk; “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” where dwells a sinister tribe of hybrid human-monsters who worship the demons of the deep; and “The Colour Out of Space,” which tells of a meteoric entity that brings insanity—and worse—to the residents of a small farm. Throughout his stories, Lovecraft creates a mythology all his own— the monsters Cthulu and Yog-Sothoth, the eerie towns of Arkham and Innsmouth, and demonic horrors galore that creep out of earth, space, and the very soul. Lovecraft wrote so convincingly of his fictional Necronomican, an ancient book of the occult, that publishers have printed versions of it to satisfy the reading public’s insatiable curiosity and insistence that it must be real. Modern-day fan-fiction is immensely popular (there’s even a Lovecraftian parody for children called Where the Deep Ones Are), which only proves how ahead of his time shy, nervous Lovecraft was. Almost seventy-five years after his death and almost one-hundred years since he first published, Lovecraft’s Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre are alive, well, and creeping out readers near and far.

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton by Link textEdith Wharton, 1997, Scribner Books, originally published in 1937 (Fiction Classics/ Short Stories/ Horror) 

Edith Wharton (1862-1937) is the author of The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth, and other great classics of Western literature. Edith Wharton wrote novels that are renowned for their insight into the innermost secrets of the stiff-upper-lip upper classes; her acute observations and critiques of the social classes still get her talked about in high school English classes. Edith Wharton was also scared of ghosts. She admits that “till I was twenty-seven or -eight, I could not sleep in the room with a book containing a ghost story.” What better way to get to over your fear of the unknown than by creating your very own collection of scary stories? The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton contains some of the author’s most elegant and insightful tales. “Pomegranate Seed,” for example, tells the story of Charlotte Ashby, a newlywed whose blissful marriage is disturbed by mysterious letters that arrive for her husband, Kenneth. In “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” a young servant is both drawn to her polite young mistress and spooked by the lady’s gloomy house, foul husband, and rumors of the lady’s previous—and now deceased—maid. “Kerfol” is the name of an ancient property that, when our intrepid narrator goes to visit, is haunted by silent ghostly dogs that belonged to the estate’s first mistress, a woman who was accused of her abusive husband’s murder years and years ago. These stories, and the others in the collection, feature crisp writing and plenty of suspense; they are, to put it simply, the sort of delightfully spooky tales that make chills run up and down your spine. To paraphrase Edith Wharton (who was paraphrasing someone else)—we may not believe in ghosts, but we’re definitely afraid of them.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, 2006, Penguin Classics, originally published in 1959 (Fiction Classics/ Horror)


Dr. Montague has been searching for a haunted house his entire life. At Hill House, in a small New England town, he finds one. Eager to explore the scientific possibilities of cohabitation with phantasmagoria, the good doctor invites three guests to share the place. Luke Sanderson is the black sheep of the family that owns Hill House. Theodora is a carefree, optimistic bright young thing. Eleanor Vance has spent her entire life caring for her ill, unhappy mother or under the thumb of her controlling sister. Accepting Dr. Montague’s invitation is Eleanor’s first act of freedom—and it might very well be her last. Because there’s no doubt that there’s something very wrong with Hill House. To call the place gloomy is a severe understatement; a history of tragedy and god-knows-what-else has made the house unlivable for years. But the new houseguests put on a brave face; they are witty and clever; they amuse each other and play nice. And still—doors refuse to stay open, chilling drafts sweep across the halls, things go bump in the night. Eleanor, always a shy loner, becomes more and more of an outsider even in the midst of the cozy little group. All too soon, it becomes almost impossible to tell where the emotional torment of poor Eleanor ends and the vengeful spirit of Hill House itself begins. But Eleanor is fragile, and Hill House has all manner of horrors at its beck and call. How—and if—the foursome will emerge from this all-too-genuine haunted house remains to be seen. In the vein of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, The Haunting of Hill House is a top-notch example of the psychological, supernatural thriller. Author Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) was a remarkably intelligent writer who knew exactly how to build layers of suspense that would captivate her readers. Working with so much more than just the bare bones of characters and plot, Jackson infuses her ghost story with a sense of foreboding that is too tempting to resist. For a true-blue ghost story, all you have to do is get good and lost in the very strange, very scary, very haunted Hill House.

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