Oct 24, 2010

The Sunday Salon - Three Classic Ghost Stories

Ghost Trees

For today’s Sunday-Salon-meets-Short-Story-Peril post, I want to tell you about three ghost stories by early-twentieth century women writers we don’t normally associate with horror or Gothic Fiction: Edith Wharton, Elizabeth Bowen and E. Nesbit. One of my goals for the RIP challenge this year was to read one or two complete short story collections and anthologies; unfortunately circumstances made this difficult, but I decided to take advantage of the fact that the Internet is a treasure trove of classic literature to at least read some individual stories online.

I picked Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Demon Lover” (PDF link) because Sarah Waters listed it as one of her top ten favourite ghost stories – and I’m sure I don’t need to explain why I’d read anything Sarah Waters told me to. “The Demon Lover” is set in London during the Blitz, and it tells of a woman’s return to the home she left behind when the bombings began. Mrs Drover returns to London in the middle of WW2 to collect some more of her family’s personal belongings; the ghostly aspect of the story, however, goes all the way back to WW1, to Kathleen Drover’s youth and to the fiancĂ©e who never returned from the Great War.

The story begins with a letter Mrs Drover finds waiting for her on the table of her house - but I don’t want to tell you much more about how events unfold, as this is such a short tale and therefore so easy to spoil. What I’ll say instead is that Sarah Waters is absolutely right: the most powerful and unsettling thing about this story is not the supernatural element per se, but rather how well it captures the atmosphere of wartime London: the emptiness and the silence, the eeriness of suspended lives, the daily uncertainty, the close brushes with death. Needless to say, “The Demon Lover” made me look forward to reading one of Elizabeth Bowen’s novels all the more.

A favourite passage:
The rain had stopped; the pavements steamily shone as Mrs. Drover let herself out by inches from her own front door into the empty street. The unoccupied houses opposite continued to meet her look with their damaged stare. Making toward the thoroughfare and the taxi, she tried not to keep looking behind. Indeed, the silence was so intense—one of those creeks of London silence exaggerated this summer by the damage of war—that no tread could have gained on hers unheard. Where her street debouched on the square where people went on living, she grew conscious of, and checked, her unnatural pace. Across the open end of the square, two buses impassively passed each other: Women, a perambulator, cyclists, a man wheeling a barrow signalized, once again, the ordinary flow of life.
Also, make sure you check out Mel U
s wonderful and detailed review of this story at The Reading Life.

Edith Wharton’s “The Eyes” begins, like other classic ghost stories such as The Turn of the Screw or The Woman in Black, with a group of people telling ghost stories as a way to pass the evening. As is customary in stories with this setup, one of the group turns out to have had a personal encounter with the supernatural. Mr Andrew Culwin tells the story of his nightly encounters with an eerie pair of eyes, and slowly his friends realise that this story is having a strange effect on another member of the party…

Naturally I don’t want to give too much away about the story itself, but I can say that Wharton takes a fairly common Gothic trope and turns it into a psychological story about personal relationships, communication, and the effects of subtly patronising others by doing what you think is best for them, or telling them what you think they want to hear. It’s interesting that Mr Culwin never does seem to realise why the supernatural pair of eyes visits him, even though this is obvious to readers. I suppose this was Edith Wharton’s way of keeping the story from becoming didactic or heavy-handed - and it works.

I regret not having had time to read a collection of Wharton’s ghost stories for the RIP challenge as I’d planned, but I suppose that any time is a good time for ghost stories, especially ones as well-written and layered as “The Eyes”.

Finally, there’s “The Power of Darkness” by E. Nesbit, which was my favourite of the three (not that I didn’t love them all). “The Power of Darkness” is set in Paris at the turn of the century, and it concerns two British art students who make a bet. The two young men, Edward and Vincent, are in love with the same girl, and when Vincent perceives that she favours Edward, he comes up with a plan to turn his old schoolfellow’s fear of darkness against him and thus gave his revenge. Only the plan doesn’t go exactly as expected, and in the end—well, again I won’t tell you what happens then.

As with the previous two stories, I absolutely loved the setting of “The Power of Darkness”. The cherry on top of this one was all the early twentieth-century slang: I don’t know why it is that a profusion of dash- its and don’t-you-knows and whats-at-the-ends-of-sentences never fails to charm me, but there you go. Most of all, though, I loved what “The Power of Darkness” had to said about fear, the notion of “cowardice”, and how these are ingrained in mainstream definitions of masculinity; as well as about the dangers of underestimating the human imagination and the power of suggestion. I’m determined to get my hands on this Wordsworth Classics of the Supernatural edition of Nesbit’s ghost stories as soon as possible.

A teaser:
The silence was intense, but it was a silence thick with rustlings and breathings, and movements that his ear, strained to the uttermost, could just not hear. Suppose, as Edward had said, when all the lights were out these things did move. A corpse was a thing that had moved, given a certain condition—life. What if there were a condition, given which these things could move? What if such conditions were present now? What if all of them—Napoleon, yellow-white from his death sleep; the beasts from the amphitheatre, gore dribbling from their jaws; that soldier with the legs—all were drawing near to him in this full silence? Those death masks of Robespierre and Mirabeau—they might float down through the darkness till they touched his face. That head of Mme de Lamballe on the pike might be thrust at him from behind the pillar. The silence throbbed with sounds that could not quite be heard.
Have you read any of these stories? As always, if so I’d absolutely love to hear your thoughts. And if not, have you read any good ghost stories lately? What are some of your all-time favourites?

Also: as per Neil Gaimans’ command, I wanted to give someone a scary book this Halloween. But instead of doing a traditional random giveaway, I thought I’d just give one to the first person who leaves me a comment telling me which book they want. The only thing I ask is that you promise to give someone else a scary book in return - it doesn’t have to be on your blog; it can be to a friend, family member, acquaintance, etc. And it doesn’t need to be a brand new book, of course. You don’t need to tell me which book you’re giving away yourself, but as a shameless book snooper I’m always interested. Happy spooky reading this week, everyone!

The Sunday Salon.com

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/aidanmorgan/3072704794/lightbox/


  1. I love scary books and would be thrilled to receive one I've never read. I think reading some excellent Edith Wharton tales would set the mood for a creepy Halloween. My radio theatre group is performing The Island of Dr. Moreau this weekend to get us ready for the season. Mmmm...what a way to set the mood.

  2. I bought Edith Wharton's collection of ghost stories last summer, but haven't been able to get to it. Should at least read "The Eyes" to celebrate the season!

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  4. Pretentious Wombat, consider the Wharton collection yours! Just drop me an e-mail with the address you'd like me to send it to and it'll be on your way asap. Happy reading!

    JoAnn, yes you should!

  5. Hi Nymeth,

    This is my first comment on your blog, so I'd first like to say that I find your blog an absolute delight. I now have a whole bunch of Post It notes with books I'd like to look into based on your recommendations and reviews. Thanks loads & keep up the good work!

    I'll certainly give the ghost stories you've mentioned in this post a try. There's nothing like a good, chilling read. :-)

  6. Thanks for introducing me to these three ghost stories! I am an idiot when it comes to short stories...

  7. Ah, I saw Gaiman had commanded us to do something for Halloween, but I didn't quite know what yet. Interesting! (Might see if I can't wrestle up a copy of Skin Hunger to pass off…)

    I don't usually read horror, I have to admit, although I do have a ghost novel or two on my reading list.

  8. These short stories might be just the thing to read on Halloween, in between entertaining a house full of sugar filled children and opening the door to the hundreds that knock for candy on Halloween.

  9. Ooh, creepy! I actually can imagine that Edith Wharton was great at writing ghost stories.

    I need to try some Bowen, I've got Heat of the day on the shelf, should move it up the tbr.

    I'll probably read The Victorian Chaise-Longue this week, to get in the Halloween mood :)

  10. Lovely reviews, Ana! I didn't know that Edith Wharton wrote ghost stories! Elizabeth Bowen's story looks really wonderful! I will try reading it at the link you have given.

  11. What a terrific plan for your trick-or-treat! I'm off to think about what might be right for my 11yo son, and thinking about Gaiman's _Graveyard Book_, maybe? (Of course, I may just have to buy myself a little Halloween reading-candy, too, while I'm at the bookstore...)

  12. Forgot to mention one more thing. I love the picture of the tree you have posted. Reminds me of the tree in Washington Irving's 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow' :)

  13. I am always quite adamant about not liking short stories, but plan on challenging myself next year to read a short a week (heh, yup I'm already thinking about my reading resolutions). I've bookmarked your links because I adore ghost stories and early 1900 writing. Yay.

  14. I keep seeing blog postings about Elizabeth Bowen -- must move her up on my to-read list. And I'll have to read The Demon Lover as well.

    I think my favorite of Wharton's ghost stories is The Dogs of Kerfol. It always surprises me that she wrote scary stuff as well as novels about upper-crust Americans, and that she was so good at both.

  15. Fabiola, thank you so much for the kind words :D I'm happy to hear you enjoy my blog, and I really hope you also enjoy those books whose titles you've taken note of :)

    Alice: You are not an idiot!

    Clare: I prefer subtle, atmospheric Gothic stories to downright horror - but having said that, I do want to give Stephen Kind a try one of these days.

    Vivienne: I wonder if I'll get any trick or treaters here! I live in a flat, so it's less likely than if it were a house, but I'd probably better get some candy just in case. If nobody comes, I eat it myself. It's a win-win situation ;)

    Bina: I need to get Heat of the Day out of the library one of these days! And I so hope you enjoy The Victorian Chaise-Longue! I found it scary on a psychological level, but then that's my favourite kind :P

    Lifetime Reader: The Graveyard Book is a wonderful choice, both for your son and for you!

    Vishy: I didn't know that about Wharton either until recently. The funny thing is that they aren't very different from her other fiction at all, and yet they are. Does this make sense? :P Also, that's such a good point about the tree!

    Christina: I love your one a week plan!

    Karen: Will look for The Dogs of Kerfol!

  16. Oh, I love this post! I have been looking for a prefect read for Halloween, and have managed to come up with very few. I love the fact that these are short stories, so I could, in fact, read them all! I so rarely read scary literature that I feel really hard pressed to find the perfect book when it comes to this time of year, but knowing that these stories come with your seal of approval means a lot to me. Great post! I am going to be looking into these stories this week!

  17. I just read The Power of Darkness via the link you posted - nice! I know what you mean about loving their style of speaking: I'm currently listening to The Inimitable Jeeves on audio CD, and it's full of that appealing early British twentieth-century slang.
    Also the ending epilogue (to be vague), what he says about his experience was v. cool.

  18. I'll have to check out those links you shared, Ana! Thanks for sharing!!

  19. I'm not a huge short story fan, but perhaps ghost stories will keep my interest better. I'll try the ones you mention!

  20. I'm not a huge short story fan, but perhaps ghost stories will keep my interest better. I'll try the ones you mention!

  21. I love scary stories and always seek them out at this time of the year. I had never heard of any of these, so thanks for the recommendations.

  22. Zibilee, I hope you enjoy them as much as I did! They're definitely perfect for this time of year :D

    Christy: That was definitely my favourite thing about the only Jeeves book I've read do that (I've been told I didn't start with one of the better ones, but I plan to try him again :P). So glad you enjoyed the story!

    Melody, you're most welcome!

    Joanna, I hope they do work for you!

    Bibliophile: You're welcome! I love reading spooky stories at around this time as well.

  23. I'm super late to this post, but just wanted to weigh in on Bowen - if you love her evocation of WWII-era London, I highly recommend The Heat of the Day - excellent use of that same setting, developed to novel length. From other things I've read of hers, Bowen's settings in general tend to be a real highlight but her characterization is kind of...cold. I have a hard time loving her novels for that reason.

  24. How fun! First of all, the stories themselves, of which I haven't read any of, and that you are giving away a scary book. Great idea :)

  25. I love Elizabeth Bowen, so hurray for mentioning her! :) Of her novels, I've read The Death of the Heart and The Last September and would recommend both. Now perhaps I need to read The Demon Lover this week...

  26. Oh Ana...I so want to go read each of these RIGHT NOW. If only time were on my side. :( Oh, I'm not really pouting--I bookmarked the last two for later, and just went ahead and printed out "The Demon Lover" to read while I'm fixing supper tonight. :D Thank you so very much for the links!

  27. Thanks so much for mentioning my post on Demon Lover by Elizabeth Bowen-the link to that story at which you and I read it appears down now and I could find no other one-

    I liked this story so much I bought four of her novels and her complete collection of short stories-near 800 pages-I like Wharton a lot but have yet to read one of her short stories-

    your post was wonderful

  28. Emily: That's a pity about her characterisation! I can see that bothering me as well, much more so in a novel than a short story. But hopefully I'll enjoy her books anyway for the historical setting.

    Amy: I love that Neil Gaiman and some other writers are campaigning to make this tradition stick. It would be awesome if it did!

    Carolyn: My library has The Last September, so hopefully I'll be able to read that soon!

    Debi: You're most welcome! How did you like it?

    Mel U: You're welcome! I need to get my hands on one of her novels soon. And that collection of short stories sounds both intimidating and appealing :P


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.