Monday, October 15, 2012

Give me thy foggy lips divine - please suggest some ghost stories

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.


  1. I love the genre, but I don't expect everyone to share my taste. I was actually a planning a post for Halloween examining not the gernre of the ghost story, as such, but why I personally love the genre. I actually think that the more rational a reader is, the more that reader is likely to be affected by a good ghost story, as the irruption of the irrational appears all the more shocking.

    A ghost story sets out to evoke fear. One of the most frightening of stories, "The Red Room" by H. G. Wells, has no supernatural in it: but it does evoke supernatural terror.

    A lot of thinking needs to be done, however, before I can embark on a Halloween ghost story post with any confidence that I'll have anything coherent to say!

  2. I've never been disappointed with the work of M. R. James, considered by many to be the finest writer in that genre in the English language.

  3. I'll drop in the Twitter recommendations, too:

    RL Stevenson's "Thrawn Janet" and F. Marion Crawford's "The Upper Berth" from Himadri.

    William Hope Hodgson's "The Gateway of the Monster" from Pykk.

    I've never read M.R. James, a huge hole given the subject. Must fix.

    A ghost story sets out to evoke fear.

    Is this true? Can't a ghost story serve any number of functions, the usual purposes of fiction? I doubt Gilbert and "The Ghost to His Ladye Love" set out to evoke fear.

    Looking forward to that post Himadri! The whole point of this week of ghost stories is to save the thinking for later!

    1. M. R. James is amazing, Tom.

      I'm a huge fan of the supernatural, but I'm having trouble coming up with ghost stories. Machen, Lovecraft, Dunsany, Poe, Hodgson didn't write many of them, that I know of. They were more into cosmic weird stuff.

    2. Yes, you're right. There is a surprising variety of ghost stories, and those intended to evoke fear form but a subset of the whole - although, admittedly, that is the subset that I enjoy most.

      There are many fine ghost stories that are written by writers not very well-known outside the genre, or are "one-offs", and are generally found in anthologies rather than in "Collected Works of ..." The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories is an excellent collection, as is the old Penguin Book of Ghost Stories edited by J. A. Cuddon, if you can find a copy of it. There are many other very fine anthologies out there also.

  4. It's really time for me to read The Turn of the Screw, isn't it? Le sigh.

    I have two ghost story suggestions for you, both too long, but one longer than the other. The shorter, more serious one is H.G. Wells's The Croquet Player, because I think you would have a lot of fun with that.

    The other one is The Confidence-Man. Who ain't a ghost?

  5. Are we omitting Dickens and Stevenson that we know you've read? I think A Christmas Carol is a great old ghost story.

  6. I'm reading some of the stories in Richard Garnett's "Twilight of the Gods" collection (1888). All have some supernatural touch. I need to check for ghosts.

  7. For an appreciation of how deep-rooted ghostlore is in anglophone literature, I'll mention "Hamlet" and "Macbeth." "Hamlet" inspired Voltaire to write a ghost into his play "Sémiramis"; he was roundly mocked for it.

    Gautier's "Omphale," of course. There must be some Bierc.

    I was going to mention M. R. James too. The "Fortean Times" recently ran a cover article on him; there's a website at

    One of my favorite literary ghosts is the one in Lewis Carroll's "Phantasmagoria." He's not very scary, though.

    And there are ghosts aplenty in Richard Barham's "Ingoldsby Legends," as well as witches, demons, and other horrible things, all in rollicking verse. Barham is a delight, a hidden treasure.

  8. I'll put in a plug for Pu Songling. Also, I give credit to Miguel at St. Orberose for turning me onto Lord Dunsany, a few of whose ghost stories I greatly enjoyed a few months ago. Thirteen at Table was charming.

    Finally, I know I'm violating at least two of your rules (and genre as well), but I thought the best contemporary ghost story I've read in a long time was Irish playwright Conor McPherson's play, The Weir.

  9. You may have read it already, but in case you haven't, I'll put in a plug for Gaskell's "The Old Nurse's Story."

  10. I have read a lot more weird tales than ghost stories. Most of Lovecraft, a little bit of Dunsany, Derleth - more that I forget. Weird tales are curiously related to the ghost story.

    Bierce, who I only just read, is in part interesting as an in-between figure. He has been on my mind, although I doubt I will re-read him this week.

    I just read a Machen ghost story, a clean, straight ghost story, that was generic and mediocre. Now I have so many good suggestions I don't have to write about it, although who knows, it may prove useful.

    Gautier came up at Emma's link, 'cause I brought him up. Something about no French ghost stories because the French are too rational. What! What! No no no no no.

    As Sparkling Squirrel suggests, just because I'm not going to read a story now (too long, etc) doesn't mean it shouldn't be mentioned. I agree about The Christmas Carol, that it's an ideal ghost story, but I am coming across people who want to define it out of the genre.

    The Confidence Man - very funny. Send that to Levi Stahl. He got one of his wishes!

    I have seen The Weir, a play that 1) consists of ghost stories and 2) is about ghost stories.

    Gaskell, now I thought her ghost stories were too long for my purposes, but "The Nurse's Tale" is reasonable. Maybe I was thinking of someone else.

    Any specific recommendation I did not mention I have filed away. Thanks, thanks, thanks!

  11. Sine we're breaking the rules and dipping into play territory--I remember seeing a moving performance of John O'Keefe's play Ghosts many years ago. While the text is online, you have to see it...strike that (since much of it is in the dark and you can't see)...experience it to get the full impact.

    I'm not familiar with Strindberg's The Ghost Sonata, but I'll mention it. Maybe others can recommend it or not.

    1. The Ghost Sonata is one of Strindberg's "dream plays", in which the logic of our waking world seems to dissolve. I never quite understood it myself. Strindberg used the most public of art forms to communicate the most private and personal of matters, and I can't often follow where he leads.

  12. M. R. James is superb, as is Algernon Blackwood who has written my favorite "The Willows" along with others. LeFanu has a number of good ones out there too, along with William Hope Hodgson.

  13. Another vote for M. R. James.

    You might try the Brad Leithauser anthology ("Ghost Stories") for more older tales (Wharton, Henry James, M. R. James, LeFanu, etc.).

    Look at "Ghosts by Gaslight" (Jack Dann & Nick Gevers anthology) for recent stories that have an older feel.

  14. I'll mention Bierce again, to quote his definition of a ghost: "The outward and visible sign of an inward fear." That's certainly how Shakespeare used them. Apollinaire's short story "The Blue Eye" is a sly variation on that approach.

    What, no Twain? "The Golden Arm" (which he used to perform a version of in his lectures) and "A Ghost Story" are both Twainian glosses on the tradition. He also ran across ghost stories as a journalist, like this one:

  15. Nobody has mentioned Elizabeth Gaskell yet?

    And another vote for MR James.

  16. Anna, ahem, "Nurse's Tale," see above, post following later today.

    Does anyone have a special feeling for an M. R. James story that is not in his first book? "'Oh Whistle, and I'll Come to You My Lad'" is in process. (That means I'm reading it now).

    Now that Twain "article" Doug links, now that is a ghost story. "What do you think of that? what would you think of a ghost that came to your bedside at dead of night and had kittens?"

    1. There are several MR James not in the first volume that I like very much, but I'll restrict myself to recommending "Rats".

  17. Turn of the Screw is too long? Oh but it is so good! How about The Jolly Corner then? I've not read it but supposedly it is one of James's best ghost stories.

  18. "The Jolly Corner" is almost 15,000 words, which is almost OK but I think too long.

    The conceit, remember, is that I am going to read a bunch of stories I have never read and write about them right now. So I also have to be able to read them right now. Read tonight, write tomorrow.

  19. Thanks for the link, Tom.

    The season for ghost stories? Sooo American :-)

    Since I have froggy lips and not foggy ones, I'm still looking for French ghost stories, apart from Gautier and Le Horla by Maupassant. I googled Histoires de fantômes and found Roald Dahl and Henry James as first references.

    On the French Wikipedia, when you type "histoire de fantôme" it's written that this genre is of English origin and mostly takes place in a Victorian manoir.
    So it seems I'm not that far off the mark with my assumption that this is really not a French thing.

    Unlike Shakespeare, Corneille, Racine and Molière don't use ghosts in their plays. (and if Molière used one somewhere, I bet the spectator knows it's a fake one used to make fun of a character)


  20. As I mentioned above, Voltaire was inspired by "Hamlet" to introduce a ghost into "Sémiramis"; the audience laughed (the poor actor had to thread his way through the spectators on stage, which didn't help).

    I see that a man with the appropriate name of Daniel Sangsue has devoted a book to French ghost stories of the 19th century; he mentions Nodier, Nerval, Merimée, Sardou, and others:

    I believe Gautier was influenced mostly by Hoffmann; there's a German tradition as well...

    1. Poor Voltaire always wanted to be a successful classic playwright and never quite managed. I don't think his plays are much read now.

      I've never heard of Nodier and Sardou and thanks for the link.

      Yes, it's a bit odd to be named Sangsue and write about ghost stories but not as much as if he wrote about vampires. (for non French speaking visitors who might read this, it's like being named Bloodsucker)

    2. Voltaire was actually quite successful as a playwright, wasn't he? "Zaïre" especially was a hit, and inspired no less than 13 operas! But tastes in theater change; the plays are less read and performed today.

    3. That's what I understand, that it was Voltaire's plays that made him rich.

  21. I understand the French are catching up fast, embracing Halloween more and more. The Germans have already swallowed Halloween completely. I guess the English tell their ghost stories at Christmas.

    That French wiki page would be better if it were written by someone familiar with French literature, someone who knew that French Romanticism or Villiers de l'Isle-Adam existed. Or for that matter German or Chinese literature - "of English origin," please.

    I have no doubt that there are many fewer French ghost stories than English, just as there are many fewer drawing room mysteries. But their presence or absence is in no way related to the "rationalism" of a literary tradition starring Villon, Rabelais, Sade, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Jarry and so on, the most extraordinary anti-rational literary tradition I have ever seen.

    It is exactly the English tradition that I realized I did not know about. I guess I have always considered it to be a little pale compared to French or German weirdness. But I'm likely wrong.

  22. "the Ghost and the Bone Setter" and "Mrs Crowl's Ghost" by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, great stories. Le Fanu is author of Carmilla, first lesbian literary vampire, and a large number of paranormal stories. Can be found online. I will see if Charlotte Riddell has ghost stories.

  23. Other than Kipling's tales and Stevenson's Thrawn Janet the best old English short ghost stories that I know are Max Beerbohm's Enoch Soames and the following very short story by I. A. IRELAND:

    How strange!, said the girl, moving cautiously. And how heavy is this door!
    -While still speaking, she touched the door and it closed suddenly, with a bang.
    - God!, said the man. It seems not to have a handle on the inside. You have doomed us both!
    -Both of us, no: just one. The girl said.
    She walked through the door and disappeared.

  24. I finally got some actual dang writing done - Gaskell & Mary Wilkins Freeman are up first. Not bad, not bad. M. R. James is up tomorrow.

    Le Fanu is a good idea. I read Uncle Silas long, long ago. I guess it has no ghosts though - more of a proto-mystery - so maybe that's why I did not think of him.

    I love "Enoch Soames." Oh yes, good one, good one. And who or what is I. A. Ireland? I could read more of those.

  25. Has anyone mentioned Algernon Blackwood yet? His stories are maybe not that old, but Algernon's good and dead.

  26. Another ghost tradition- Japanese- crossed into English with the work of Lafcadio Hearn.

  27. Fred up above recommends "The Willows" by Blackwood; the anthologies keeping me company have a couple of other stories.

    I have read some of Hearn's ghost stories, actually, Kwaidan. Maybe I have read more ghost stories than I remember. Aside from the ghost stories, Kwaidan contains as essay on ants that is among the craziest things I have ever read.

  28. Maybe "the canterville ghost" by Oscar Wilde. Sticking with the Irish, Charlotte Riddell wrote some very good ghost stories.

  29. Here is a link to 28 Victoria ghost stories

  30. I like the sound of "My New Year's Eve among the Mummies" but I fear that a title that good can only lead to disappointment.

  31. Not properly a ghost story, but I just remembered Collins' "A Very Strange Bed." No doubt your post today brought it to mind, stories about rooms etc.

  32. A very strange bed, of course, sure, pile it on. It turns out that 75% of ghost stories are about very strange beds.