Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

I first came across one of Edith Wharton's ghost stories in the Joyce Carol Oates-edited anthology American Gothic Tales.  I was suitably impressed by that story, "Afterward," to buy the imaginatively-titled collection The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton.  I read a few of the stories, and then, as often happens to me for no good reason, I lost track of the book, and it sat on my shelves for a year and a half.  Then, while looking for a relatively slim book to help me break my record for most reading in a single month (oh, the fun-filled life I lead), I saw it sitting there at the tail end of my horror bookcase.  And I thought, Why not?

In the preface to the collection, Wharton, like many early 20th century practitioners of the form, bemoans an assumed downfall of the ghost story, collapse of the fantastic imagination, etc., in terms that will probably seem overblown to modern readers aware that the ghost story has not, in fact, died out.  But she also offers what I think are sage words on the aesthetics of the ghost story:
The "moral issue" question must not be allowed to enter into the estimating of a ghost story.  It must depend for its effect solely on what one might call its thermometrical quality; if it sends a cold shiver down one's spine, it has done its job and done it well.  But there is no fixed rule as to the means of producing this shiver, and many a tale that makes others turn cold leaves me at my normal temperature.  The doctor who said there were no diseases but only patients would probably agree that there are no ghosts, but only tellers of ghost stories, since what provides a shudder for one leaves another peacefully tepid.  Therefore one ought, I am persuaded, simply to tell one's ghostly adventures in the most unadorned language, and "leave the rest to Nature."
That Wharton denies that the "moral issue" is not relevant to the estimation of a ghost story should not lead the reader to conclude that her stories are only light-hearted divertissements.  They are, in point of fact, almost always driven by a philosophical concern or a metaphorical connection to actual daily life.  "Mr. Jones," for example, is simultaneously a satisfying antiquarian ghost story, with the discovery of a family secret among ancient papers; an ironic reflection on the delicate balance of power between servants and masters in the early 20th century; and a genuinely dark piece of fiction with a mostly absent yet powerful and malevolent ghost.

One of Wharton's virtues is her ability to take the plot devices used in stock ghost stories and, by using her gifts for atmospheric descriptions of place and succinct evocations of human psychology, breathe new life into them so that they become terrifying all over again.  "Afterward," perhaps the single finest of her ghost stories, takes what could be a trite concept of ghostly revenge and turns it into a disturbing meditation on the nature of guilt and complicity and the sheer mysteriousness of the universe.  "The Triumph of Night" uses its ghostly forewarning of disaster to emphasize its narrator's isolation and fear.  And "Pomegranate Seed" begins with a ghost so narrowly metaphorical that it could seem like a joke, and treats its psychological effects so seriously that what started in humor ends in genuine despair.

There are a couple stories here that are non-supernatural.  I won't say too much about them because the absence of ghosts sometimes comes as a surprise, but I will note that both are satisfying in subtly different ways from the stories with "genuine" ghosts; one is almost bitterly satirical, while another is quietly melancholy and rather touching.

In narrative terms Edith Wharton's ghost stories, often concerned with the aristocracy, with old, large houses, and with shadowy spectres who have unfinished business, may sound too traditional for the knowing sensibilities of the contemporary reader.  But, like her friend Henry James, Wharton was interested in the psychological as well as the literal trappings of the ghost, and it's that interest that makes her ghost stories satisfying, relevant, and perhaps even unsettling to the reader of today.  Surely the point being made in the following excellent paragraph is timeless:
No, she would never know what had become of him-- no one would ever know.  But the house knew; the library in which she spent her long lonely evenings knew.  For it was here that the last scene had been enacted, here that the stranger had come, and spoken the word which had caused Boyne to rise and follow him.  The floor she trod had felt his tread; the books on the shelves had seen his face; and there were moments when the intense consciousness of the old dusky walls seemed about to break out into some audible revelation of their secret.  But the revelation never came, and she knew it would never come.  Lyng was not one of the garrulous old houses that betray the secrets entrusted to them.  Its very legend proved that it had always been the mute accomplice, the incorruptible custodian, of the mysteries it had surprised.  And Mary Boyne, sitting face to face with its silence, felt the futility of seeking to break it by any human means.
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The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton is in print in an inexpensive trade paperback edition.  For collectors and those with money to spare, there's also The Triumph of Night, a limited hardcover from the good people at Tartarus Press, which includes four stories not found in the other version.

1 comment:

  1. What a delicious excerpt. Edith Wharton was so sensitive to atmosphere and very gifted at evoking it in her work. Her literary houses breathe. When I visited The Mount, there was the sense of a breath just exhaled and another waiting to be drawn.