The following brief responses to some of the ghost fiction in my book collection were posted on Facebook between Oct 1 and 31, 2022. I didn’t post every day though I tried to post as many days as possible. The original Facebook posts contained photos of the books.
Kingsley Amis, The Green Man (1969)
This book has a better reputation than it deserves, I think, and the same might be said of its author Kingsley Amis and even his son, novelist Martin Amis. Still, the horror and haunting elements of The Green Man are very effective and suggestively extreme. I wish I could say the same about the dated sex romp satire portions regarding a group of bored families of the suburban British middle class.Those sections take up more than half of the book and are tedious to get through and I found myself skipping chunks of them. Bonus points for the very funny characterization of a parson who tells his congregation at an afternoon drinking party that they need to get beyond the mythological elements of Christianity, but demerits because the novel seems to suggest that he’s wrong. This book is an interesting lesson in the potential dangers of trying to write slipstream fiction: The supposedly trashy horror elements are much better (and classier!) than the actually trashy and supposedly more important human relationship elements that have led this book to be considered a significant work of literary fiction.
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Collected Ghost Stories (1974)
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930) was an American writer of primarily realist fiction set in New England. She is most known for her feminist perspective in creating strong, often independent women who stood out at the time from more standard late 19th century portrayals of women in American fiction. Her stories have a firm grounding in culture and place. Her precision and insight in connecting character and environment carries over to these quite well done, understated ghost and horror stories. In fact she didn’t draw a hard line between ghost and horror stories and her other writing; although she did publish one book of ghost stories during her lifetime, others of her ghost stories were published in other books alongside her realist stories. Collected Ghost Stories is a posthumous publication from 1974.
Peter Straub, If You Could See Me Now (1977)
Peter Straub claimed that this was one of his favorite books, and I understand why. It might be my favorite of his too. His horror scenarios are often mixed with mystery, action, and adventure, and sometimes take place on an epic scale, but If You Could See Me Now always feels intimate (not to mention occasionally cosmic), an intimacy no one could possibly want. Also, in most of his books, Straub usually goes for subtle, often effectively understated horror. While the story here still works through understatement, it’s probably his most viscerally frightening book, with a number of really scary moments. One scene in it is, for me, one of a handful of the most memorably frightening moments in all of horror literature. Yes, like other early books of his, this is a ghost book. And this ghost is not messing around.
Jean Ray, Malpertuis (1943)
What do you get if you cross gothic narrative, surrealist dream lunacy, plenty of ghosts, and high energy pulp-style trashy writing from the first half of the 20th century that just keeps coming and coming? Jean Ray’s Malpertuis, of course, and there’s nothing like it except for other writing by Jean Ray.
Susan Hill, The Woman in Black (1983)
The 2012 film version of The Woman In Black is at least energetic and entertaining. However, the 1989 British ITV version is terrifying, one of the best film adaptations of a classic ghost story ever. The ITV version was hard to come by for some years, but it now seems to be available again.
Really, though, the 1983 book (published in 1986 in the U.S.) is the place to start. It was written as a consciously retro version of a 19th century British ghost story, and it outdoes almost all its predecessors. Mood, shadows, tension, menace, chills, and many truly terrifying moments. For anyone interested in the history of the ghost story, The Woman In Black is essential reading, by far the best 19th century ghost story written in the 20th or 21st centuries that I’ve come across (and yes, many others have tried). The version of the book I have has some fun illustrations too.