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.
Mary Butts, From Altar to Chimney Piece: Selected Stories of Mary Butts (1992)
Maybe these aren’t exactly ghost stories in a conventional sense, but the hovering, not always graspable presence of the supernatural definitely has enough consistently ghostly qualities for me to think it belongs in this category. These are subtle, elliptical Modernist stories written between 1923 and Butts’ death in 1937. This collection, and a more recent edition of her complete stories, both feature introductions by John Ashbery, which makes sense because many of Butts’ stories have an oblique, suggestive, and disconcerting feeling that have more than a few similarities to Ashbery poems. From Altar to Chimney Piece is literature exploring the supernatural that you can read without feeling like you’ve sullied yourself with genre trash, if feeling sullied by genre trash is something you happen to worry about.
R.B. Russell, Ghosts (2021)
Anybody who thinks that the classic British ghost story is played out or is now just a nostalgia trip has not read R.B. Russell. These stories have some of the expected shape of ghost tales (and not all of them are about ghosts), but their turns are subtle, psychologically fascinating, and surprising. You might think you know what’s happening, but you don’t, and the ideas here about perception, memory, and longing are very contemporary in their perspectives while retaining a certain classic haunted story feel. Ghosts is a compilation of Russell’s first two short books, both published in 2009, the story collection Putting the Pieces in Place and his fabulously titled novella Bloody Baudelaire. One thing I especially love about these stories is that I don’t stop thinking about them after I’m done reading them. They continue to be disturbing and disorienting when I think back on what they are. And sometimes when one pops back into my head unexpectedly, I shudder.
Henry James, Stories of the Supernatural (Hardback 1970, Paperback 1980)
The material collected in this 750+ volume contains the most psychologically complex ghost literature I’ve read. James doesn’t confine himself to the realm of ghosts, of course, so there’s a range of supernatural subject matter, but all of it’s brilliant, and all of it is connected to people and their problems. The Turn of the Screw deserves all its praise as one of the best stories about a haunting ever written. And the thing is, as that short novel and some of the other stories in this collection show, the refinement and subtlety of James doesn’t mean that he holds back on the vicious. In his stories, it’s not just the supernatural that attacks people; it’s James understanding of what’s wrong with those people and exactly what it is that’s going to crumple them.
M.R James, Collected Ghost Stories (2011)
M.R. James is more or less the gold standard of the classic British ghost story. Compact tales, gentle by modern standards, but rich in history and moments of chilling surprise. If you want a precise 30-40 minutes by-the-fire-on-a-rainy-night ghost story, you can’t do better than these.
By ideology, James was the opposite of a materialist. He was a deeply closeted gay man (saying this so directly is still considered rude by some James fans) whose taste in literature and politics was very much traditionalist conservative, although he was often as closeted in his political positions as he was in his sexual orientation (he was provost for many years at King’s College, Cambridge, and later at Eton College). He believed that his important writing was his medieval scholarship and wrote ghost stories to entertain his colleagues, and it’s his knowledge and interest in history that makes his tales models of materialist precision about detail and location.
His stories are set in a precise real world against which their supernatural mysteries stand out. His horrors are often revealed only partly or indirectly. He’s not great with characterization; his bachelor scholar main characters aren’t particularly distinct from each other, with many of them being given to a scholarly curiosity that sometimes passes into dangerous obsession.
My Oxford Collected Ghost Stories hardback has great annotations and an essay by James on the ghost story, but I first read a lot of his stories in the two little Dover books which feature his first and second collections, the most essential of his four collections, although the later ones also have some great stories. The Dover books were given to me one Christmas by my father; I had read a few James stories in anthologies before and it was great to read his fiction more thoroughly.
By now I’ve read all these stories more than once, and I read them again from time to time, and I’ve watched them in various televised versions, and I don’t imagine I’ll ever be tired of them. Their suggestiveness about the strange things that lie just outside the narrow minds of human beings are for me among the most fully pleasurable of literary experiences.
Susan Hill, The Small Hand and Dolly (2012)
I own more than one book by many of the authors I have posted about this month, but Susan Hill is the only author I’m going to feature more than once. That’s because these two novellas are so different than her famous novel The Woman In Black. Written in the 1980s, The Woman In Black was a conscious attempt to write in the 20th century a 19th century ghost story that would outdo the originals, an attempt that pretty much succeeded.
The Small Hand, and Dolly, two novellas published together in 2012, are contemporary in setting, though they still have the classic feel of British countryside horror. They’re also sleek, precise, chilling, and relentless. They’re still part of the history of the understated ghost story as opposed to effects-heavy horror gore, but ultimately they’re also much more vicious than you might expect. Dolly might make you want to rush right back to the overexcited silliness of Chucky in order to feel less disturbed.