Collected Ghost Stories, by M. R. James

Appendix: M. R. James on Ghost Stories

(i) from the Preface to Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904)

I WROTE these stories at long intervals, and most of them were read to patient friends, usually at the season of Christmas. One of these friends [James McBryde] offered to illustrate them, and it was agreed that, if he would do that, I would consider the question of publishing them. Four pictures he completed, which will be found in this volume, and then, very quickly and unexpectedly, he was taken away. This is the reason why the greater part of the stories are not provided with illustrations. Those who knew the artist will understand how much I wished to give a permanent form even to a fragment of his work; others will appreciate the fact that here a remembrance is made of one in whom many friendships centred. The stories themselves do not make any very exalted claim. If any of them succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable when walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying Ere in the small hours, my purpose in writing them will have been attained.

(ii) from the Preface to More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911)

Some years ago I promised to publish a second volume of ghost stories when a sufficient number of them should have been accumulated. That time has arrived, and here is the volume. It is, perhaps, unnecessary to warn the critic that in evolving the stories I have not been possessed by that austere sense of the responsibility of authorship which is demanded of the writer of fiction in this generation; or that I have not sought to embody in them any well-considered scheme of ‘psychical’ theory. To be sure, I have my ideas as to how a ghost story ought to be laid out if it is to be effective. I think that, as a rule, the setting should be fairly familiar and the majority of the characters and their talk such as you may meet or hear any day. A ghost story of which the scene is laid in the twelfth or thirteenth century may succeed in being romantic or poetical: it will never put the reader into the position of saying to himself, ‘If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!’ Another requisite, in my opinion, is that the ghost should be malevolent or odious: amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story. Again, I feel that the technical terms of ‘occultism’, if they are not very carefully handled, tend to put the mere ghost story (which is all that I am attempting) upon a quasi-scientific plane, and to call into play faculties quite other than the imaginative. I am well aware that mine is a nineteenth-(and not a twentieth-) century conception of this class of tale; but were not the prototypes of all the best ghost stories written in the sixties and seventies?

However, I cannot claim to have been guided by any very strict rules. My stories have been produced (with one exception) at successive Christmas seasons. If they serve to amuse some readers at the Christmas-time that is coming — or at any time whatever — they will justify my action in publishing them.

(iii) from the Prologue to J. S. Le Fanu, Madam Crowl’s Ghost (1923)

[Le Fanu] stands absolutely in the first rank as a writer of ghost stories. That is my deliberate verdict, after reading all the supernatural tales I have been able to get hold of. Nobody sets the scene better than he, nobody touches in the effective detail more deftly. I do not think it is merely the fact of my being past middle age that leads me to regard the leisureliness of his style as a merit; for I am by no means inappreciative of the more modern efforts in this branch of fiction. No, it has to be recognized, I am sure, that the ghost story is in itself a slightly old-fashioned form; it needs some deliberateness in the telling: we listen to it the more readily if the narrator poses as elderly, or throws back his experience to ‘some thirty years ago’.

(iv) from the Introduction to V. H. Collins (ed.), Ghosts and Marvels (Oxford, 1924)

Often have I been asked to formulate my views about ghost stories and tales of the marvellous, the mysterious, the supernatural. Never have I been able to find out whether I had any views that could be formulated. The truth is, I suspect, that the genre is too small and special to bear the imposition of far reaching principles. Widen the question, and ask what governs the construction of short stories in general, and a great deal might be said, and has been said. There are, of course, instances of whole novels in which the supernatural governs the plot; but among them are few successes. The ghost story is, at its best, only a particular sort of short story, and is subject to the same broad rules as the whole mass of them. Those rules, I imagine, no writer ever consciously follows. In fact, it is absurd to talk of them as rules; they are qualities which have been observed to accompany success.

Some such qualities I have noted, and while I cannot undertake to write about broad principles, something more concrete is capable of being recorded. Well, then: two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo. I assume, of course, that the writer will have got his central idea before he undertakes the story at all. Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage. It is not amiss sometimes to leave a loophole for a natural explanation; but, I would say, let the loophoole be so narrow as not to be quite practicable. Then, for the setting. The detective story cannot be too much up-to-date: the motor, the telephone, the aeroplane, the newest slang, are all in place there. For the ghost story a slight haze of distance is desirable. ‘Thirty years ago’, ‘Not long before the war’, are very proper openings. If a really remote date be chosen, there is more than one way of bringing the reader in contact with it. The finding of documents about it can be made plausible; or you may begin with your apparition and go back over the years to tell the cause of it; or (as in ‘Schalken the Painter’) you may set the scene directly in the desired epoch, which I think is hardest to do with success. On the whole (though not a few instances might be quoted against me) I think that a setting so modern that the ordinary reader can judge of its naturalness for himself is preferable to anything antique. For some degree of actuality is the charm of the best ghost stories; not a very insistent actuality, but one strong enough to allow the reader to identify himself with the patient; while it is almost inevitable that the reader of an antique story should fall into the position of the mere spectator.

(v) ‘Stories I Have Tried to Write’, first published in The Touchstone, 2 (30 Nov. 1929), 46–7; reprinted in The Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James (1931), 643–7

I have neither much experience nor much perseverance in the writing of stories — I am thinking exclusively of ghost stories, for I never cared to try any other kind — and it has amused me sometimes to think of the stories which have crossed my mind from time to time and never materialized properly. Never properly: for some of them I have actually written down, and they repose in a drawer somewhere. To borrow Sir Walter Scott’s most frequent quotation, ‘Look on (them) again I dare not.’ They were not good enough. Yet some of them had ideas in them which refused to blossom in the surroundings I had devised for them, but perhaps came up in other forms in stories that did get as far as print. Let me recall them for the benefit (so to style it) of somebody else.

There was the story of a man travelling in a train in France. Facing him sat a typical Frenchwoman of mature years, with the usual moustache and a very confirmed countenance. He had nothing to read but an antiquated novel he had bought for its binding — Madame de Lichtenstein it was called. Tired of looking out of the window and studying his vis-a-vis, he began drowsily turning the pages, and paused at a conversation between two of the characters. They were discussing an acquaintance, a woman who lived in a largish house at Marcilly-le-Hayer. The house was described, and — here we were coming to a point — the mysterious disappearance of the woman’s husband. Her name was mentioned, and my reader couldn’t help thinking he knew it in some other connexion. Just then the train stopped at a country station, the traveller, with a start, woke up from a doze — the book open in his hand — the woman opposite him got out, and on the label of her bag he read the name that had seemed to be in his novel. Well, he went on to Troyes, and from there he made excursions, and one of these took him — at lunch-time — to — yes, to Marcilly-le-Hayer. The hotel in the Grande Place faced a three-gabled house of some pretensions. Out of it came a well-dressed woman whom he had seen before. Conversation with the waiter. Yes, the lady was a widow, or so it was believed. At any rate nobody knew what had become of her husband. Here I think we broke down. Of course, there was no such conversation in the novel as the traveller thought he had read.

Then there was quite a long one about two undergraduates spending Christmas in a country house that belonged to one of them. An uncle, next heir to the estate, lived near. Plausible and learned Roman priest, living with the uncle, makes himself agreeable to the young men. Dark walks home at night after dining with the uncle. Curious disturbances as they pass through the shrubberies. Strange, shapeless tracks in the snow round the house, observed in the morning. Efforts to lure away the companion and isolate the proprietor and get him to come out after dark. Ultimate defeat and death of the priest, upon whom the Familiar, baulked of another victim, turns.

Also the story of two students of King’s College, Cambridge, in the sixteenth century (who were, in fact, expelled thence for magical practices), and their nocturnal expedition to a witch at Fenstanton, and of how, at the turning to Lolworth, on the Huntingdon road, they met a company leading an unwilling figure whom they seemed to know. And of how, on arriving at Fenstanton, they learned of the witch’s death, and of what they saw seated upon her newly-dug grave.

These were some of the tales which got as far as the stage of being written down, at least in part. There were others that flitted across the mind from time to time, but never really took shape. The man, for instance (naturally a man with something on his mind), who, sitting in his study one evening, was startled by a slight sound, turned hastily, and saw a certain dead face looking out from between the window curtains: a dead face, but with living eyes. He made a dash at the curtains and tore them apart. A pasteboard mask fell to the floor. But there was no one there, and the eyes of the mask were but eyeholes. What was to be done about that?

There is the touch on the shoulder that comes when you are walking quickly homewards in the dark hours, full of anticipation of the warm room and bright fire, and when you pull up, startled, what face or no-face do you see?

Similarly, when Mr Badman had decided to settle the hash of Mr Goodman and had picked out, just the right thicket by the roadside from which to fire at him, how came it exactly that when Mr Goodman and his unexpected friend actually did pass, they found Mr Badman weltering in the road? He was able to tell them something of what he had found waiting for him — even beckoning to him — in the thicket: enough to prevent them from looking into it themselves. There are possibilities here, but the labour of constructing the proper setting has been beyond me.

There may be possibilities, too, in the Christmas cracker, if the right people pull it, and if the motto which they find inside has the right message on it. They will probably leave the party early, pleading indisposition; but very likely a previous engagement of long standing would be the more truthful excuse.

In parenthesis, many common objects may be made the vehicles of retribution, and where retribution is not called for, of malice. Be careful how you handle the packet you pick up in the carriage-drive, particularly if it contains nail-parings and hair. Do not, in any case, bring it into the house. It may not be alone . . . (Dots are believed by many writers of our day to be a good substitute for effective writing. They are certainly an easy one. Let us have a few more. . . . .)

Late on Monday night a toad came into my study: and, though nothing has so far seemed to link itself with this appearance, I feel that it may not be quite prudent to brood over topics which may open the interior eye to the presence of more formidable visitants. Enough said.

(vi) ‘Some Remarks on Ghost Stories’, The Bookman (December 1929), 169–172

Very nearly all the ghost stories of old times claim to be true narratives of remarkable occurrences. At the outset I must make it clear that with these — be they ancient, medieval or post medieval — I have nothing to do, any more than I have with those chronicled in our own days. I am concerned with a branch of fiction; not a large branch, if you look at the rest of the tree, but one which has been astonishingly fertile in the last thirty years. The avowedly fictitious ghost story is my subject, and that being understood I can proceed.

In the year 1854 George Borrow narrated to an audience of Welshmen, ‘in the tavern of Gutter Vawr, in the county of Glamorgan’, what he asserted to be ‘decidedly the best ghost story in the world’. You may read this story either in English, in Knapp’s notes to Wild Wales, or in Spanish, in a recent edition with excellent pictures (Las Aventuras de Pánfilo). The source is Lope de Vega’s El Peregrino en so patria published in 1604. You will find it a remarkably interesting specimen of a tale of terror written in Shakespeare’s lifetime, but I shall be surprised if you agree with Borrow’s estimate of it. It is nothing but an account of a series of nightmares experienced by a wanderer who lodges for a night in a ‘hospital’, which had been deserted because of hauntings. The ghosts come in crowds and play tricks with the victim’s bed. They quarrel over cards, they squirt water at the man, they throw torches about the room. Finally they steal his clothes and disappear; but next morning the clothes are where he put them when he went to bed. In fact they are rather goblins than ghosts.

Still, here you have a story written with the sole object of inspiring a pleasing terror in the reader; and as I think, that is the true aim of the ghost story.

As far as I know, nearly two hundred years pass before you find the literary ghost story attempted again. Ghosts of course figure on the stage, but we must leave them out of consideration. Ghosts are the subject of quasi-scientific research in this country at the hands of Glanville, Beaumont and others; but these collectors are out to prove theories of the future life and the spiritual world. Improving treatises, with illustrative instances, are written on the Continent, as by Lavater. All these, if they do afford what our ancestors called amusement (Dr Johnson decreed that Coriolanius was ‘amusing’), do so by a side-wind. The Castle of Otranto is perhaps the progenitor of the ghost story as a literary genre, and I fear that it is merely amusing in the modern sense. Then we come to Mrs Radcliffe, whose ghosts are far better of their kind, but with exasperating timidity are all explained away; and to Monk Lewis, who in the book which gives him his nickname is odious and horrible without being impressive. But Monk Lewis was responsible for better things than he could produce himself. It was under his auspices that Scott’s verse first saw the light: among the Tales of Terror and Wonder are not only some of his translations, but ‘Glenfinlas’ and the ‘Eve of St John’, which must always rank as fine ghost stories. The form into which he cast them was that of the ballads which he loved and collected, and we must not forget that the ballad is in the direct line of ancestry of the ghost story. Think of ‘Clerk Saunders’, ‘Young Benjie,’ the ‘Wife of Usher’s Well’. I am tempted to enlarge on the Tales of Terror, for the most part supremely absurd, where Lewis holds the pen, and jigs along with such stanzas as:

All present then uttered a terrified shout;

All turned with disgust from the scene.

The worms they crept in, and the worms they crept out,

And sported his eyes and his temples about,

While the spectre addressed Imogene.

But proportion must be observed.

If I were writing generally of horrific books which include supernatural appearances, I should be obliged to include Maturin’s Melmoth, and doubtless imitations of it which I know nothing of. But Melmoth is a long — a cruelly long — book, and we must keep our eye on the short prose ghost story in the first place. If Scott is not the creator of this, it is to him that we owe two classical specimens — ‘Wandering Willie’s Tale’ and the ‘Tapestried Chamber’. The former we know is an episode in a novel; anyone who searches the novels of succeeding years will certainly find (as we, alas, find in Pickwick and Nicholas Nickleby!) stories of this type foisted in; and possibly some of them may be good enough to deserve reprinting. But the real happy hunting ground, the proper habitat of our game is the magazine, the annual, the periodical publication destined to amuse the family circle. They came up thick and fast, the magazines, in the thirties and forties, and many died young. I do not, having myself sampled the task, envy the devoted one who sets out to examine the files, but it is not rash to promise him a measure of success. He will find ghost stories; but of what sort? Charles Dickens will tell us. In a paper from Household Words, which will be found among Christmas Stories under the name of ‘A Christmas Tree’ (I reckon it among the best of Dickens’s occasional writings), that great man takes occasion to run through the plots of the typical ghost stories of his time. As he remarks, they are ‘reducible to a very few general types and classes; for ghosts have little originality, and “walk” in a beaten track.’ He gives us at some length the experience of the nobleman and the ghost of the beautiful young housekeeper who drowned herself in the park two hundred years before; and, more cursorily, the indelible bloodstain, the door that will not shut, the clock that strikes thirteen, the phantom coach, the compact to appear after death, the girl who meets her double, the cousin who is seen at the moment of his death far away in India, the maiden lady who ‘really did see the Orphan Boy’. With such things as these we are still familiar. But we have rather forgotten — and I for my part have seldom met — those with which he ends his survey: ‘Legion is the name of the German castles where we sit up alone to meet the spectre — where we are shown into a room made comparatively cheerful for our reception’ (more detail, excellent of its kind, follows), ‘and where, about the small hours of the night, we come into the knowledge of divers supernatural mysteries. Legion is the name of the haunted German students, in whose society we draw yet nearer to the fire, while the schoolboy in the corner opens his eyes wide and round, and flies off the footstool he has chosen for his seat, when the door accidentally blows open.’

As I have said, this German stratum of ghost stories is one of which I know little; but I am confident that the searcher of magazines will penetrate to it. Examples of the other types will accrue, especially when he reaches the era of Christmas Numbers, inaugurated by Dickens himself. His Christmas Numbers are not to be confused with his Christmas Books, though the latter led on to the former. Ghosts are not absent from these, but I do not call the Christmas Carol a ghost story proper; while I do assign that name to the stories of the Signalman and the Juryman (in ‘Mugby Junction’ and ‘Dr Marigold’).

These were written in 1865 and 1866, and nobody can deny that they conform to the modern idea of the ghost story. The setting and the personages are those of the writer’s own day; they have nothing antique about them. Now this mode is not absolutely essential to success, but it is characteristic of the majority of successful stories: the belted knight who meets the spectre in the vaulted chamber and has to say ‘By my halidom’, or words to that effect, has little actuality about him. Anything, we feel, might have happened in the fifteenth century. No; the seer of ghosts must talk something like me, and be dressed, if not in my fashion, yet not too much like a man in a pageant, if he is to enlist my sympathy. Wardour Street has no business, here.

If Dickens’s ghost stories are good and of the right complexion, they are not the best that were written in his day. The palm must I think be assigned to J. S. Le Fanu, whose stories of The Watcher’ (or ‘The Familiar’), ‘Mr Justice Harbottle’, ‘Carmilla’, are unsurpassed, while ‘Schalken the Painter’. ‘Squire Toby’s Will’, the haunted house in ‘The House by the Churchyard’, ‘Dickon the Devil’, ‘Madam Crowl’s Ghost’, run them very close. Is it the blend of French and Irish in Le Fanu’s descent and surroundings that gives him the knack of infusing ominousness into his atmosphere? He is anyhow an artist in words; who else could have hit on the epithets in this sentence: ‘The aerial image of the old house for a moment stood before her, with its peculiar malign, scared and skulking aspect.’ Other famous stories of Le Fanu there are which are not quite ghost stories — ‘Green Tea’ and ‘The Room in the Dragon Volant’; and yet another, ‘The Haunted Baronet’, not famous, not even known but to a few, contains some admirable touches, but somehow lacks proportion. Upon mature consideration, I do not think that there are better ghost stories anywhere than the best of Le Fanu’s; and among these I should give the first place to ‘The Familiar’ (alias ‘The Watcher’).

Other famous novelists of those days tried their hand — Bulwer Lytton for one. Nobody is permitted to write about ghost stories without mentioning ‘The Haunters and the Haunted’. To my mind it is spoilt by the conclusion; the Cagliostro element (forgive an inaccuracy) is alien. It comes in with far better effect (though in a burlesque guise) in Thackeray’s one attempt in this direction — ‘The Notch in the Axe’, in the Roundabout Papers. This to be sure begins by being a skit partly on Dumas, partly on Lytton; but as Thackeray warmed to his work he got interested in the story and, as he says, was quite sorry to part with Pinto in the end. We have to reckon too with Wilkie Collins. The Haunted Hotel, a short novel, is by no means ineffective; grisly enough, almost, for the modern American taste.

Rhoda Broughton, Mrs Riddell, Mrs Henry Wood, Mrs Oliphant — all these have some sufficiently absorbing stories to their credit. I own to reading not infrequently ‘Featherston’s Story’ in the fifth series of Johnny Ludlow, to delighting in its domestic flavour and finding its ghost very convincing. (Johnny Ludlow, some young persons may not know, is by Mrs Henry Wood.) The religious ghost story, as it may be called, was never done better than by Mrs Oliphant in ‘The Open Door’ and ‘A Beleaguered City’; though there is a competitor, and a strong one, in Le Fanu’s ‘Mysterious Lodger’.

Here I am conscious of a gap; my readers will have been conscious of many previous gaps. My memory does in fact slip on from Mrs Oliphant to Marion Crawford and his horrid story of ‘The Upper Berth’, which (with The Screaming Skull’ some distance behind) is the best in his collection of Uncanny Tales, and stands high among ghost stories in general.

That was I believe written in the late eighties. In the early nineties comes the deluge, the deluge of the illustrated monthly magazines, and it is no longer possible to keep pace with the output either of single stories or of volumes of collected ones. Never was the flow more copious than it is today, and it is only by chance that one comes across any given example. So nothing beyond scattering and general remarks can be offered. Some whole novels there have been which depend for all or part of their interest on ghostly matter. There is Dracula, which suffers by excess. (I fancy, by the way, that it must be based on a story in the fourth volume of Chambers’s Repository, issued in the fifties.) There is Alice-for-Short [by W. de Morgan, 1907], in which I never cease to admire the skill with which the ghost is woven into the web of the tale. But that is a very rare feat.

Among the collections of short stories, E. F. Benson’s three volumes rank high, though to my mind he sins occasionally by stepping over the line of legitimate horridness. He is however blameless in this aspect as compared with some Americans, who compile volumes called Not At Night and the like. These are merely nauseating, and it is very easy to be nauseating. I, mot qui vous parle, could undertake to make a reader physically sick, if I chose to think and write in terms of the Grand Guignol. The authors of the stories I have in mind tread, as they believe, in the steps of Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce (himself sometimes unpardonable), but they do not possess the force of either.

Reticence may be an elderly doctrine to preach, yet from the artistic point of view I am sure it is a sound one. Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it, and there is much blatancy in a lot of recent stories. They drag in sex too, which is a fatal mistake; sex is tiresome enough in the novels; in a ghost story, or as the backbone of a ghost story, I have no patience with it.

At the same time don’t let us be mild and drab. Malevolence and terror, the glare of evil faces, ‘the stony grin of unearthly malice’, pursuing forms in darkness, and ‘long-drawn, distant screams’, are all in place, and so is a modicum of blood, shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded; the weltering and wallowing that I too often encounter merely recall the methods of M. G. Lewis.

Clearly it is out of the question for me to begin upon a series of ‘short notices’ of recent collections; but an illustrative instance or two will be to the point. A. M. Burrage, in Sonic Ghost Stories, keeps on the right side of the line, and if about half of his ghosts are amiable, the rest have their terrors, and no mean ones. H. R. Wakefield, in They Return at Evening (a good title) gives us a mixed bag, from which I should remove one or two that leave a nasty taste. Among the residue are some admirable pieces, very inventive. Going back a few years I light on Mrs Everett’s The Death Mask, of a rather quieter tone on the whole, but with some excellently conceived stories. Hugh Benson’s Light Invisible and Mirror of Shalott are too ecclesiastical. K. and Hesketh Prichard’s ‘Flaxman Low’ is most ingenious and successful, but rather over-technically ‘occult’. It seems impertinent to apply the same criticism to Algernon Blackwood, but ‘John Silence’ is surely open to it. Mr Elliott O’Donnell’s multitudinous volumes I do not know whether to class as narratives of fact or exercises in fiction. I hope they may be of the latter sort, for life in a world managed by his gods and infested by his demons seems a risky business.

So I might go on through a long list of authors; but the remarks one can make in an article of this compass can hardly be illuminating. The reading of many ghost stories has shown me that the greatest successes have been scored by the authors who can make us envisage a definite time and place, and give us plenty of clear-cut and matter-of-fact detail, but who, when the climax is reached, allow us to be just a little in the dark as to the working of their machinery. We do not want to see the bones of their theory about the supernatural.

All this while I have confined myself almost entirely to the English ghost story. The fact is that either there are not many good stories by foreign writers, or (more probably) my ignorance has veiled them from me. But I should feel myself ungrateful if I did not pay a tribute to the supernatural tales of Erckmann–Chatrian. The blend of French with German in them, comparable to the French–Irish blend in Le. Fanu, has produced some quite first-class romance of this kind. Among longer stories, ‘La Maison Forestière’ (and, if you will, ‘Hugues le Loup’); among shorter ones ‘Le Blanc et le Noir’, ‘Le Rêvedu Cousin Elof’ and L’Oeil Invisible’ have for years delighted and alarmed me. It is high time that they were made more accessible than they are.

There need not be any peroration to a series of rather disjointed reflections. I will only ask the reader to believe that, though I have not hitherto mentioned it, I have read The Turn of the Screw.

(vii) ‘Ghosts — Treat Them Gently!’, Evening News (17 April 1931)

What first interested me in ghosts? This I can tell you quite definitely. In my childhood I chanced to see a toy Punch and Judy set, with figures cut out in cardboard. One of these was The Ghost. It was a tall figure habited in white with an unnaturally long and narrow head, also surrounded with white, and a dismal visage.

Upon this my conceptions of a ghost were based, and for years it permeated my dreams.

Other questions — why I like ghost stories, or what are the best, or why they are the best, or a recipe for writing such things — I have never found it easy to be so positive about. Clearly, however, the public likes them. The recrudescence of ghost stories in recent years is notable: it corresponds, of course, with the vogue of the detective tale.

The ghost story can be supremely excellent in its kind, or it may be deplorable. Like other things, it may err by excess or defect. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a book with very good ideas in it, but — to be vulgar — the butter is spread far too thick. Excess is the fault here: to give an example of erring by defect is difficult, because the stories that err in that way leave no impression on the memory.

I am speaking of the literary ghost story here. The story that claims to be ‘veridical’ (in the language of the Society of Psychical Research) is a very different affair. It will probably be quite brief, and will conform to some one of several familiar types. This is but reasonable, for, if there be ghosts — as I am quite prepared to believe — the true ghost story need do no more than illustrate their normal habits (if normal is the right word), and may be as mild as milk.

The literary ghost, on the other hand, has to justify his existence by some startling demonstration, or, short of that must be furnished with a background that will throw him into full relief and make him the central feature.

Since the things which the ghost can effectively do are very limited in number, ranging about death and madness and the discovery of secrets, the setting seems to me all-important, since in it there is the greatest opportunity for variety.

It is upon this and upon the first glimmer of the appearance of the supernatural that pains must be lavished. But we need not, we should not, use all the colours in the box. In the infancy of the art we needed the haunted castle on a beetling rock to put us in the right frame: the tendency is not yet extinct, for I have but just read a story with a mysterious mansion on a desolate height in Cornwall and a gentleman practising the worst sort of magic. How often, too, have ruinous old houses been described or shown to me as fit scenes for stories!

‘Can’t you imagine some old monk or friar wandering about this long gallery?’ No, I can’t.

I know Harrison Ainsworth could: The Lancashire Witches teems with Cistercians and what he calls votaresses in mouldering vestments, who glide about passages to very little purpose. But these fail to impress. Not that I have not a soft corner in my heart for The Lancashire Witches, which — ridiculous as much of it is — has distinct merits as a story.

It cannot be said too often that the more remote in time the ghost is the harder it is to make him effective, always supposing him to be the ghost of a dead person. Elementals and such-like do not come under this rule.

Roughly speaking, the ghost should be a contemporary of the seer. Such was the elder Hamlet and such Jacob Marley. The latter I cite with confidence and in despite of critics, for, whatever may be urged against some parts of A Christmas Carol, it is, I hold, undeniable that the introduction, the advent, of Jacob Marley is tremendously effective.

And be it observed that the setting in both these classic examples is contemporary and even ordinary. The ramparts of the Kronborg and the chambers of Ebenezer Scrooge were, to those who frequented them, features of every-day life.

But there are exceptions to every rule. An ancient haunting can be made terrible and can be invested with actuality, but it will tax your best endeavours to forge the links between past and present in a satisfying way. And in any case there must be ordinary level-headed modern persons — Horatios — on the scene, such as the detective needs his Watson or his Hastings to play the part of the lay observer.

Setting or environment, then, is to me a principal point, and the more readily appreciable the setting is to the ordinary reader the better. The other essential is that our ghost should make himself felt by gradual stirrings diffusing an atmosphere of uneasiness before the final flash or stab of horror.

Must there be horror? you ask. I think so. There are but two really good ghost stories I know in the language wherein the elements of beauty and pity dominate terror. They are Lanoe Falconer’s ‘Cecilia de Noel’ and Mrs Oliphant’s ‘The Open Door’. In both there are moments of horror; but in both we end by saying with Hamlet: ‘Alas, poor ghost!’ Perhaps my limit of two stories is overstrict; but that these two are by very much the best of their kind I do not doubt.

On the whole, then, I say you must have horror and also malevolence. Not less necessary, however, is reticence. There is a series of books I have read, I think American in origin, called Not at Night (and with other like titles), which sin glaringly against this law. They have no other aim than that of Mr Wardle’s Fat Boy.

Of course, all writers of ghost stories do desire to make their readers’ flesh creep; but these are shameless in their attempts. They are unbelievably crude and sudden, and they wallow in corruption. And if there is a theme that ought to be kept out of the ghost story, it is that of the charnel house. That and sex, wherein I do not say that these Not at Night books deal, but certainly other recent writers do, and in so doing spoil the whole business.

To return from the faults of ghost stories to their excellence. Who, do I think, has best realized their possibilities? I have no hesitation in saying that it is Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. In the volume called In a Glass Darkly are four stories of paramount excellence, ‘Green Tea’, ‘The Familiar’, ‘Mr Justice Harbottle’, and ‘Carmilla’. All of these conform to my requirements: the settings are quite different, but all seen by the writer; the approaches of the supernatural nicely graduated; the climax adequate. Le Fanu was a scholar and poet, and these tales show him as such. It is true that he died as long ago as 1873, but there is wonderfully little that is obsolete in his manner.

Of living writers I have some hesitation in speaking, but on any list that I was forced to compile the names of E. F. Benson. Blackwood, Burrage, De la Mare and Wakefield would find a place.

But, although the subject has its fascinations. I see no use in being pontifical about it. These stories are meant to please and amuse us. If they do so, well; but, if not, let us relegate them to the top shelf and say no more about it.

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38