So it’s All Hallow’s Eve and whilst the wind might have stopped howling, the nights have drawn in and the thermometer is dropping. The sofa by the fire beckons, as does that blanket, as you curl up and tuck into a good book. You will not be surprised to learn that I have opinions – nay, criteria – for a spooky story. I don’t want contemporary bloodshed and gore – or the literary version of schlock horror. I want a proper, old fashioned, ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ story that provokes shivers rather than terror.
A Christmas Carol is probably the most famous ghost story ever written – but I like to save it for Christmas (every year I read after the tree goes up – and find myself growing increasingly sentimental. Tiny Tim’s “God bless us every one” gets me every time). I recommend you do the same – nothing, but nothing, gets you in the festive mood faster. ‘Til then, read Dickens’ collected Ghost Stories. It begs for a long afternoon whilst the rain lashes the window. Dickens tells the best stories. Fact. He is as interested in – and brilliant at – plot as he is in the mastery of language. I promise you, it does not get better than this.
(By the way, this collected does include A Christmas Carol. Save it for December.)
If Dickens is a master, then M.R. James is the high priest of the ghost story. Closed rooms. Darkness. Isolated country houses. Ancient manuscripts. Forces unleashed. There are chills aplenty. Menace. You’ll probably sleep with the light on. Like Dickens’, James’ stories were written to be read aloud (by the light of a flickering fire on Christmas Eve). You’ll be glad of the company.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
Not a ghost story per se. But all the more terrifying in it’s power because it relies upon the unknown; the equivocal. A young, naive governess has sole charge of Miles and Flora, at their (mysteriously absent) uncle’s remote (of course) country house. She sees the figure of an unknown man on the tower and his face at the window. It is Peter Quint, the master’s dissolute valet, and he has come for little Miles. But Peter Quint is dead. The novel becomes a battle between the governess and Quint and Miss Jessel (the former governess – also a ghost) for the souls of the children. But is it? Are the ghosts real or figments of her fevered imagination? Are the children corrupt or simply suggestible?
I actually have chills just writing about it.
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
I love Sarah Waters. She is such a gem of a novelist. Everything she writes is worth reading. This is no different. A tale of longing, envy, desire, a crumbling mansion (that classic ghost story trope) and Henry James-esque spirits who may – or may not – be present. Dr Faraday becomes inveigled with the inhabitants of Hundreds Hall, down-at-heel aristocrats. Strange things start happening (bumps in the night – but spookier) and Caroline, the daughter of the house and a love interest for the good Doctor, becomes increasingly unhinged. Waters takes tips from masters of the genre – and her novel has a similar quality to James’: is it all in the heads of the inhabitants, or are there darker forces at work?
I read this on maternity leave – on a freezing November day just before my baby arrived. The snow swirled outside, the (new-to-us) house was silent. I had to put down the book, turn on the radio VERY LOUDLY and make conversation with myself. That is how spooked I was by The Little Stranger. Do not say you weren’t warned.
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
This has been terrifying theatre-goers for years, but the novella is well-worth revisiting (or visiting if it is as yet unread by your fair eyes). It is riveting – and genuinely, magnificently eerie. A friend of mine read this with a cricket bat by her side, to ward off, um, unwanted spirits.
Junior solicitor Arthur Kipps is summoned to attend the funeral of reclusive Mrs Alice Drablow of lonely Eel Marsh House (perpetually surrounded by fog – the signs are all there, people). At the funeral he glimpses a wraith of a woman, attired in black. As he sorts through Mrs Drablow’s papers, strange things start happening – and he is met by resistance from the locals to speak of the house or its inhabitants. As he unpicks the threads of the story, he becomes enmeshed in the midst of its eerie, evil mire. And as this is a horror story – he can run, but he cannot hide.
Let me put it this way: the signs are not there for a happy ending.
The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse
The Great War has robbed Freddie Watson of his beloved brother – and his peace of mind. Seeking respite from his grief, he is travelling through the Pyrenees, when his car spins off the road during a blinding snowstorm – and he is compelled to seek refuge in a nearby tiny village. Where it’s no longer 1933 but the thirteenth century – and the beautiful, mysterious Fabrissa: it is though his grief has rent a slip in time. But in the tale of what happened to this village all those years ago lies possible salvation for his bruised soul.
This is a beautiful, mystical tale – a good ghostly start for those of a more delicate disposition. The spirits here are friendly ones.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
And now for something completely different: Toni Morrison’s staggering, Pulitzer-winning novel of slavery and survival. It is also a ghost story.
Sethe is haunted by the ghost of her daughter, who she killed out of love, to prevent her being taken back into slavery. Her lost daughter is known only as Beloved – the only word Sethe could afford to have engraved on her child’s gravestone. And then, one day, Beloved appears. Or so Sethe thinks… Lyrical, heart-rending, realising the unimaginable, this is a ghost story like no other. (And a novel we should all read, in my very humble opinion. ‘Sixty Million and more’ reads the epigraph – the estimated figured of Africans who died as a result of the slave trade; a ghost which haunts humanity.)
Yes, Wharton wrote ghost stories, too. Jolly good ones. They have an air of dark gentility which is surprisingly creepy. Try ‘Mr. Jones’ in which Lady Jane Lynke inherits an estate (quite unexpectedly, as one is wont to do, I find) and yet cannot make the servants obey her orders because they already have another master. A dead one.