Michelle Paver: Ten of the Best Ghost Stories
I’ve loved ghost stories since I was a child. It helped that we lived opposite a church, and although it wasn’t a very old one, the graveyard had been in use since Saxon times. I was ghoulishly fascinated by the fact that the ground level was three feet higher than the surrounding streets – because of all the bodies. I used to wander about reading the inscriptions, then lie in bed at night listening to the owls, and reading ghost stories…
So, to my list. I’m defining “ghost story” loosely, to include something supernatural, but not necessarily the spirit of a dead person. And to be clear, these are ten OF my favourite ghost stories, NOT my ten absolute favourites, because I’d find a list of the latter impossible to produce, as it changes all the time. So here goes, in no particular order:
The Jolly Corner by Henry James
A psychologically complex tale, as one would expect from Henry James, this is about a man who has been abroad for years, and now returns to the house where he used to live. We follow him as he makes his way through the empty house, and his dread begins to build as he starts to suspect that he may not be alone. There’s a tour-de-force passage involving nothing more than a door, and the climax creates a genuine quality of nightmare.
The Upper Berth by F Marion Crawford
This is a real, traditional heart-thumper, albeit with a slightly unusual setting on board a thoroughly modern ship (at least, for its time). Once you’ve read it, you might think twice about sleeping in a lower bunk ever again, or about taking a cabin on board a ship. Especially one with a porthole.
"The Empty House" from Best Ghost Stories by Algernon Blackwood
This is just one of Blackwood’s many excellent ghost stories, and its premise couldn’t be simpler. Two people attempt, out of curiosity, to spend a night in a haunted house. That’s it. But instead of making the ghost-hunters the usual pair of overconfident young men, Blackwood adds interest by making them a man and his elderly yet impressively dauntless aunt. What they experience in the haunted house is completely believable, and very, very frightening.
The Horla by Guy de Maupassant
An utterly compelling, first-person account of – what, exactly? A haunting? Demonic possession? A man’s descent into madness, with horrifying results? It’s for you to decide. As so often with de Maupassant, the writing is astonishingly direct and way ahead of his time. And the “haunting” is so convincingly achieved that the story’s power stays with you long after you’ve finished it.
Man-Size in Marble by E. Nesbit
This is such a brilliantly original idea, but it’s hard for me to write about it without giving away too much. Suffice to say that it concerns a pair of Edwardian newly-weds, idyllically happy in an endearingly dated way as they settle into their country cottage. All would be well, except that the cottage happens to be in an isolated part of England, and near an old church, which contains a pair of marble effigies.
"At The End of The Passage" from Life's Handicap by Rudyard Kipling
Kipling wrote so many first-rate stories of the supernatural, and he made superlative use of a variety of atmospheric settings, such as India and deepest Sussex. In this one, a group of men, pillars of the Raj, struggles to stay sane in the unbearable heat of the Indian plains. What follows is beautifully observed and psychologically all too plausible.
"All Souls’" from The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton by Edith Wharton
Wharton wrote lots of truly unsettling tales of the supernatural, but this is one of her best, a deeply atmospheric story of a well-to-do woman who finds herself snowed in and unexpectedly alone in her well-appointed country house. Wharton wrote the story at the end of her life – it’s one of the last things she finished – and it’s imbued with the fears and anxieties of old age.
The Signalman by Charles Dickens
Dickens wrote a clutch of fine ghost stories, and to my mind, this is his best. It has another marvellous premise, which I won’t spoil by describing. What I will say is that the power of the story lies in the fact that the reader begins, fearfully, to realise what’s coming – but that the characters in the story don’t, until it’s too late.
The Open Door by Margaret Oliphant
A Victorian family newly returned from India takes a country house near Edinburgh. Their young son begins to be terrified by unaccountable noises while riding his pony to and from school. His father decides to investigate… This may seem like a deeply conventional tale of a haunting, and indeed it is, but the writing lifts it to another level. The leisurely set-up is expertly achieved, and the climax delivers an unsettling feeling of contact with the dead.
"Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad" from Ghost Stories by M. R. James
Finally, I could have chosen pretty much anything by the man I regard as the undisputed master of the English ghost story, M. R. James; but if I had pick one, I’d go for "Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad" (which features in Ghost Stories). A crusty academic unearths a whistle on a lonely stretch of Norfolk coast, and is unwise enough to use it. What follows has a feeling of dreadful inevitability, and the tension mounts to a nightmarish climax.
So that’s my list. If you love ghost stories, you might be wondering how I could possibly have left out anything by Sheridan LeFanu, or E. F. Benson, or M. E. Braddon, or a host of others. Well, because these are only ten of my favourites, not my absolute top ten. With luck, though, I may have reminded you of some old favourites, or maybe prompted a search for a new anthology.
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