I’ve had a idea for a ghost story and it has set me thinking about scary stories that I have read in the past. It is the measure of a good one that it lingers in the mind for years after you have read it. I have to admit that the story that has terrified me most – I was only nine or ten when I read it – was not a ghost story. It was a Sherlock Holmes story: ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band.’ Unfortunately I had a ventilator in my bed-room and though the chances of a swamp adder (‘the deadliest snake in India’) slithering through it in the middle of the night were extremely small, the thought of it disturbed me for many, many nights to come. A few years later ‘W. S.’ by L. P. Hartley, about a writer who is haunted by a character from one of his own novels, gave me the creeps, so much so that I recognised it instantly when I came across it a few years ago, even though I’d long forgotten both title and author.
Generally speaking I don’t like novel-length horror stories, though I’ll make an exception for James Hogg’s CONFESSIONS OF A JUSTIFIED SINNER, a strong contender for one of the most sinister stories ever written and more recently Tiachi Yamada’s STRANGERS (reviewed in an earlier blog). To my mind the short story or the long short story (such as ‘The Turn of the Screw’) is the most appropriate form. M. R. James is my favourite writer of ghost stories and I love the way they so often have such deceptively cosy openings: dons bickering at high table in ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, my Lad’; poor Mr Anstruther being hen-pecked over the breakfast table by his formidable wife in ‘The Rose Garden.’ One is lulled into a false sense of security, all the while knowing that something nasty is about to happen. This is why the sub-genre of the haunted house is so effective. Houses are just where we should be safest and yet . . . ‘The Empty House’ by Algernon Blackwood has stuck in my mind. I have just skimmed through it again and I felt a chill on the back of my neck. It is masterly. Edith Wharton’s ‘Afterward’ and D. K. Broster’s ‘The Pestering’ are also the stories of haunted houses, though very different in tone from Algernon Blackwood. What they all have in common is the skilful characterization that underpins the overall effect. 1880-1930 is for me the golden age of the ghost story, but a recent ‘haunted house’ story that had me on the edge of my seat was Ruth Rendell’s ‘The Haunting of Shawley Rectory’.
I could go on listing favourites: ‘Man-Sized in Marble’ by E. Nesbit, ‘The Open Door’ by Mrs Oliphant, ‘A Story of Don Juan’ by V. S. Pritchett . . . Why don’t you tell me about some of yours? I’d love to know.