It’s always a delight to discover scholarship on the ghost story, such as the following essay by Michael Newton. It is my favorite subject—ghosts in literature that is—hands down. I read them—new ones, old ones. I dread them (and dream them). I love both short stories and novella-length ones; novels, too, but real good ones are rare. I also like true stories of specters and spirits, haints and hauntings—they scare the bejeezus outta me, but they also fill me with a ferocious glee! I suppose it’s the idea that we may never know for sure—right?—whether they’re real or a figment of the global imagination. Either way, I love my ghost stories. I trust you do, too. So, here’s Newton’s Introduction from the Penguin Book of Ghost Stories, published in 2010. (I highly recommend every story in this collection. I recently finished Elizabeth Gaskell’s creeper “The Old Nurse’s Story.” It was superb.)
Leave a light on!
Note: Any photographs or images that follow—along with accompanying captions—are additions of mine, and are not part of the Introduction as it originally appeared in The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories. —Sanguine Woods
Introduction to The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories
Michael Newton, 2010
“The ghost is the most enduring figure in supernatural fiction. He is absolutely indestructible … He changes with the styles in fiction but he never goes out of fashion. He is the really permanent citizen of the earth, for mortals, at best, are but transients.”
—Dr. Dorothy Scarborough*, The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction
GHOST, n. The outward and visible sign of an inward fear.
—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
“It is the haunted who haunt.”
—Elizabeth Bowen, ‘The Happy Autumn Fields’
Above (click to enlarge): The famous “writing on the wall”** at England’s Borley Rectory is one of the most interesting manifestations of ghost writing ever encountered. The events and investigations at the rectory were among the very first cases of “ghost hunting” in the history of the modern world. Investigators, including Ed and Lorraine Warren, demonologists for the Church, believed the writings had come from the spirit of a young Catholic woman who wanted her body to be discovered and to be given a proper Christian burial. “Marianne” and her husband, Reverend Lionel Foyster, lived in the rectory during October 1930–her writing is in printed script and attempts to get clarification from the spirit as to the meaning of her scribbles, which include: “Marianne… please help get” and “Marianne light mass prayers”. Click here (and see other “Links” following this post) to learn more about The Borley Rectory Hauntings.
Someone is afraid. In a dark house or on an empty railway platform, at the foot of the staircase or there on a lonely beach. When critics discuss the ghost story, they often pay no more than lip-service to the intended impact of the tale itself. The critics’ words remove us from the place where the story’s words first took us. In the ghost story, through the representation of another’s fear, we become afraid. We take on the sensation of terror, the alert uneasiness that translates random sounds into intentions, a room’s chill into watchfulness, and leaves us with the anxious apprehension of an other’s presence. The stories fix images of profound uneasiness in our minds. These images remain and act afterwards, when the story is over, as paths to renewed anxiety. From the stories in this collection, memories rise up of Thrawn Janet’s crooked walk, like a rag doll that has been hanged; the bereaved mother desperately reaching for the bolt to the door in ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, with the visitor outside; or in M. R. James’s tale, on a sunless day, in a dream, a man running along the sands, breathless, worn out, pursued inexorably by a blind, muffled figure.
The ghost story aims at the retention of such pictures; it intends the production of such fears. It wants sympathetic shudders.