Here’s something I have never done before, a sort of invitation-only event where everyone is invited. It is the season for ghost stories; I rarely read and know little about ghost stories. Please suggest some ghost stories. I’ll read a few and write ‘em up. I don’t know where I’m going with this, but I do know I’ll end up with Rudyard Kipling. So no need to suggest him.
More rules: to be read, the suggested story must be 1) short, 2) available, and 3) old.
It was not the season that got me thinking about ghost stories but a post at Book Around the Corner on The Turn of the Screw. Emma had a number of objections to James’s ghost-or-not-a-ghost riddle, but the one that struck me was the suggestion that her Cartesian rationalism, a French cultural inheritance, is immune to the charms of the ghost story: “skepticism won the battle and I didn’t manage to accept the concept of ghost as a prerequisite to the story.”
Meanwhile the Argumentative Old Git writes about “The Turn of the Screw” from what looks to me like an opposed viewpoint. The story is “frightening,” evoking a “powerful… sense of supernatural terror,” and “there is an immense evil lurking in these pages.”
Now, I am as skeptical as they come on the subject of ghosts, and I wonder just exactly what sort of ghost story could actually cause me the slightest sense of anxiety, much less frighten me. No, never mind, I know the answer to that: the ghost of Ralph Waldo Emerson haunts the author of a book blog, giving him terrifying advice about writing (“Good for that and good for nothing else”). Why did I even bring that up. Now I’ve got the sweats, I’ve got the chills, your basic waking nightmare.
I mean, I follow Nabokov in calling so-called “realism” like Madame Bovary a “fairy tale.” It’s all made up; even the parts that are not made up are made up once they pass into the text. I am a cold-blooded reader, I know. A jolly literary lizard.
At the same time, I am a great admirer of the free exercise of the artist’s imagination. I practically cheered when I discovered that Émile Zola, eminently French, not merely rational but scientific, slipped a ghost story into Thérèse Raquin! No, I admit, I did not cheer, but rather laughed loudly: “They could still feel pieces of him squashed revoltingly between them, freezing their skin in some places while the rest of them was burning hot.” Ha ha ha ha ha! Ghosts are wonderful!
If no one has any suggestion – “The Turn of the Screw” is much, much, much too long – I will browse around in an anthology, Masterpieces of Terror and the Unknown, ed. Marvin Kaye, 1993, with its marvelous Edward Gorey cover. The flap insists that “this collection intends to terrify the reader.” Sensitive readers may want to avert their gaze as I give a sample of the contents:
Come, essence, of a slumb’ring soul.
Throw off thy maidenly control
Un-shroud thy ghastly face!
Give me thy foggy lips divine.
And let me press my mist to thine.
And fold thy nothingness in mine,
In one long damp embrace.
That is the conclusion of “The Ghost to His Ladye Love” (1869) by W. S. Gilbert. The lady ghost is also lovingly described as “Thou cloudy, clammy thing!” and being “rich in calico and bone.” How can she resist these ectoplasmic endearments? Of course she cannot.
So if anyone knows a (short, available, old) ghost story better than Gilbert’s, which I know sounds unlikely, please, let me know, and I will give it a try.