Sunday 7 June 2009

My Favourite Ghost Stories

My parents have a huge collection of books. I would not be pretentious enough to say that they have a library as such, though one whole room in our house in London is lined from top to bottom with volumes on so many subjects, both fiction to non-fiction. I have my own books, both in my bedroom at home, and in my rooms at university. But a lot of my explorations and my discoveries were made in the hours I spent in that haven, amongst the treasures the two of them had gathered in the course of their lives.

I have one of Father’s books in front of me now, one he bought when he was sent away to school at the age of twelve. It’s simply called Ghost Stories, edited by John Hampden and published in paperback by Everyman in 1963, a reprint of an edition first published in 1939.

I’m looking at the contents page now, reminding myself of some of the great stories, which used to send me under the blankets when I was ten years old! There they are: Ligeia by Edgar Allan Poe; The Signalman by Charles Dickens; All Hallows by Walter de la Mare; The Watcher by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, The Beast with Five Fingers by W. F. Harvey and many more. But there are three in particular that really terrified me. I have read heaps of ghost and horror stories since but I would still include these I discovered over ten years ago now as the best ever. They are Count Magnus by M. R. James; Mrs Lunt by Sir Hugh Walpole and The Tomb of Sarah by F. G. Loring.

It’s difficult to know how to describe Count Magnus. Like much of M. R James’ work in this area it crosses the boundaries between genres; between horror and haunting. It’s a warning of a kind; over the limits of curiosity, of the dangers of getting to close to the evils of the past.

Mrs Lunt is about a ghost, oh yes, but one with a substantial and growing presence: that of a murdered wife determined on revenge and of a husband, wrapped ever more closely in terror, and unable to fight it off.

The Tomb of Sarah was my fist encounter with vampires, well before I had heard of Bram Stoker and Dracula. Sara still terrifies me far more than the caped count! Here I am now at the page with the inscription on her tomb:



For the sake of the dead and the welfare of the
Living, let this sepulchre remain untouched
And its occupant undisturbed until
The Coming of Christ.
In the name of the Father, the Son
And the Holy Ghost.

Amen to that!


  1. Bloody hell, Ana! There was I trying to start a discussion on the government, only to find myself swamped by FOUR new posts! Is this your devious method of terminating an earlier debate? There is only one other blogger I know of who publishes several posts in quick succession: an absolute bounder by the name of B.P. Perry. You are not in good company!

  2. I know of no Perry! Have a look at my very first post here, Zaki. I intended to use this place to consolidate pieces that I have published elsewhere, which accounts for most of what you see. But I could not resist adding some new stuff as I go along. I'm completely hyper. :-))

  3. Funny, isn't it, how the most sceptically-minded individuals are sometimes the most superstitious. Take Sigmund Freud, for example. He wrote a widely influential essay, 'Das Unheimliche' ('The Uncanny'), where he described the "uncanny" (insofar as his concept overlapped with our ordinary ideas of the supernatural) as the effect arising from a "conflict of judgement as to whether things which have been "surmounted" [e.g. belief in ghosts, witches or fairies] and are regarded as incredible may not, after all, be possible". Freud evidences a keen interest in the subject, particularly its depiction in art and literature, but never seems seriously to entertain the thought that it could ever arise in real life, other than through some sort of misunderstanding or delusion. And yet, privately, Freud was notoriously superstitious, obsessed by numerology and omens.

    I suppose I'm of a similarly sceptical cast of mind to Freud, and yet, like him, I'm not immune to the influence of the uncanny (although I certainly wouldn't describe myself as superstitious). I once lived in part of a Tudor manor house, built by the courtier and poet, Lord Vaux, in the time of Henry VIII. When drinking sherry with my elderly landlady, just after I moved in, she casually mentioned that the house was reputed to be haunted, the main part (where she lived) by Lady Vaux (who, as far as I know, never actually lived there), and the wing I occupied by some kind of ghostly presence loosely associated with a priest-hole located on the second floor staircase. Her conventional expressions of exasperated resignation couldn't quite conceal a certain impish pleasure, as she recounted how one of her carers left very suddenly, complaining of unexplained voices and strange noises in the middle of the night. I listened to these stories with polite interest, and then dismissed them from my mind.

    I have never regarded myself as what one might call a "suggestible" person. (But then, who does?) I never had the slightest misgiving about the short cut home through the churchyard, with only peripheral vision to help me pick my way through the gravestones. Nor was I at all fazed by the two or three hundred yard long drive, hemmed in by dense woodland and overhung by tall trees, most of which I had to negotiate in total darkness, and where the only sounds, apart from the ever more distant traffic and my own faltering footsteps, were the disconcertingly close rustlings of unidentified nocturnal animals, the occasional hoot of an owl, or the sudden noisy alarm of a roosting pheasant. My thoughts were always fixed firmly on my dinner and a nice cup of tea.

    Continued in next post ...

  4. ... continued from previous post

    I can't say that I ever saw or heard anything untoward during my year or so at the house. But I did experience an unaccountable, though unmistakeable, feeling of not being alone and being watched. This feeling only ever occurred at night, and it was always strongest on the staircase near the priest-hole. During the day I forgot all about it, and got on with my life much the same as before. But the feeling would always return soon after dark. I can't say that it ever caused me to lose any sleep, although sometimes, rather than go up to bed, and pass the dreaded priest-hole on the stairs, I would persuade myself that I was already comfortable in the armchair, pour myself a large scotch, and spend the night in my study (this might sound more than a little odd to you, but it wasn't wholly unprecedented behaviour for me). Even more curiously, I noticed that I was losing weight - a lot of weight (now this was more or less unprecedented). My metabolism suddenly shot up. I needed to eat a phenomenal amount (sometimes as many as half a dozen cream cakes on top of my usual, far from meagre, diet) just to be able to function at work, although some days were better than others. And then, one day, about six weeks or so after I first moved in, the feeling just vanished, and I discovered - much to my disappointment, I might add - that unless I gave up the cakes, a visit to the alteration tailor would soon be necessary.

    Perhaps I allowed myself unconsciously to be influenced by the idle - and quite possibly mischievous, in the nicest possible sense of that word - tales of a little old lady. And perhaps I ought to have mentioned before that I share your enthusiasm for ghost stories. I was most interested to discover that you admire the work of M R James, Walter De La Mare, and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, all great favourites of my own. The best work of Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood is also very good indeed. I have always found the quality of Hugh Walpole's writing very uneven, and, of course, he is one of those deeply unfashionable authors who catered for the "middle-brow" tastes of Edwardian and Georgian England. But some of his novels and stories are undoubtedly of a high quality, if sometimes a trifle sentimental for my taste, and I think it's a shame that he's so neglected nowadays. I agree with your assessment of Lovecraft. Some of his stories show great imaginative power, but many are hopelessly marred by his absurd prose style (which can rival that of Lord Lytton at his worst), and his inability to employ reticence and understatement as effective devices to evoke the feeling of the uncanny in his readers. I'm sometimes accused of "snobbery" for expressing this opinion (usually by the same people who sneer at Walpole) but I really can't regard him as a great writer. Some others, whom you didn't mention, but who might interest you, are Robert Aickman and Sarban, both accomplished post-war practitioners of the "weird tale", as opposed to the ghost story simpliciter, although their books can be rather expensive and hard to find.

  5. Oh, I love your ghost story, Alectus, your story about Lord Vaux. How absolutely splendid!

    I think I may have come across Aickman in anthologies. Sarban I don't know. I have Machen's The Great God Pan though I have yet to read it. I discovered Blackwood earlier this year and fell in love in the way that only I can fall in love. His tales of nature and the threat in nature are just so powerful. I have a piece here on Blackwood in my April archive as I'm sure you have noticed.

    Thank you for your detailed and interesting contributions. I really value your input. :-)