Monday, November 7, 2011

Great Ghost Stories

At the risk of sounding like one of those bloggers for whom every review is a fragment of autobiography, I think I should say that I bought Great Ghost Stories only because there happened to be a cheap secondhand copy that would use up the balance of an eBay gift certificate. A few days after it arrived, my mother happened to see it on my shelf, and I had so little interest in it that I immediately lent it to her. As with Haunts, also a ghost story anthology by Stephen Jones, she was roundly impressed with it and I, when I finally got around to reading it, felt rather less so. But, considering that I barely wanted the anthology in the first place, really it delivered more than I had anticipated.

Great Ghost Stories draws on the twelve volumes of The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories edited by R. Chetwynd-Hayes between 1973 and 1984. In addition to older stories, Chetwynd-Hayes also published recent or original work by contemporary writers, including himself. (In this he was to some extent following the precedent set by the editor of the first eight Fontana Book volumes, Robert Aickman, who included his own stories in several of those volumes. This does suggest a healthy ego, but at least history has justified Aickman's judgment.) As I'm not, with a few exceptions, much of a fan of the pre-20th century ghost story, I had expected to find the contemporary stories more involving. But the opposite was true. Although a few of the earlier stories are more technically interesting than frightening, most can still bring on a shiver, and they've stood the test of time better than the newer pieces, which are solid but far from great ghost stories.

I had high hopes for the opening story, "The Four-Fifteen Express," as its author, Amelia B. Edwards, is one of the few ghost story writers prior to M. R. James whose work I've enjoyed. But this story is short on eerieness and long on the gradual working-out of things that an alert modern reader will already have guessed. The narrative structure is by now so commonplace that it would take a more developed atmosphere than Edwards provides to overcome the sense of familiarity. That's even more true of Sir Walter Scott's "The Tapestried Chamber," an oft-reprinted story whose outline-- the houseguest, the disused chamber, the terrible experience, the corroborating discovery-- is by now so well-worn that the only way to find any interest in it is to foist onto it a psychosexual interpretation. A few other stories likewise roll along capably but without much interest.

But the older stories that fail to inspire are outweighed by those that offer at least a flash of the real thing. Richard Middleton's "On the Brighton Road" is another frequently-reprinted tale, but it has enough concentrated creepiness and contemporary relevance to overcome the curse of familiarity. "The Whittakers Ghost" by one G.B.S. manages to turn the lack of explanation common to a "true" ghost story into a virtue rather than a vice, creating an air of mysterious doom around what is really a standard haunting. Mystery also drives Guy de Maupassant's "An Apparition." One cannot say why that ghost should want what it does, and that makes the already disturbing request even more urgently terrifying. F. Marion Crawford's "The Dead Smile" is really more a Gothic tale than a ghost story, but it's a good one, with Gothic flourishes that are milder than usual, and all the more creepy for that. Two comic ghost stories, by John Kendrick Bangs and Jerome K. Jerome, balance the horrors nicely.

The 20th-century stories tend to feel disposable by comparison. Ramsey Campbell's "The Ferries," while perhaps a trifle overlong, is pretty spooky, but the rest lack both the pure chill of classic stories and the psychological or philosophical complexity of the best modern work. As Stephen Jones notes in his foreword, Stephen King's "The Reaper's Image" was, as a story by the bestselling author not previously published in Britain, quite a coup at the time of its Fontana Book appearance. But a few decades on, and after its republication in King's collection Skeleton Crew, "The Reaper's Image" is more a curiosity than anything else. Considering the author's youth (he was twenty-one at the time), its by-and-large competent crafting is impressive, but that doesn't make it a great ghost story, or even a particularly good one. Brian Lumley's "Aunt Hester," more Lovecraftian than ghostly, proceeds gamely towards its obvious conclusion, which it describes with an overdose of italics and exclamation points!  Sydney J. Bounds' "The Night Walkers" is so rudimentary in its concept and execution that I can barely understand why it was chosen for the original Fontana Book, let alone for this later culling.

Other stories are engaging, quite successful as products of their time, but lack the heft that would make them memorable. Those who (as I do) admire Steve Rasnic Tem's psychologically intense horror fiction will appreciate "Housewarming," but it's not one of his more powerful or surreal stories. Tina Rath's "The Fetch" involves a macabre scheme and a final twist that wouldn't be out of place on The Twilight Zone, but its cleverness replaces rather than complements anything truly frightening. Chetwynd-Hayes' own "She Walks on Dry Land" features a less-than-fully-successful pastiche of Regency style that nonetheless brings a cruelly ironic charm to another thoroughly traditional haunting.

In the end, I think Great Ghost Stories falls short of its title. Only a few of its stories can really be called great. But greatness in the ghost story is, after all, a rare commodity. Robert Aickman's contention that there were only a few dozen examples in the English language was too pessimistic, but not by much, and many of the best examples have been so endlessly reprinted as to lose much of their effect. And as a sample of ghost stories, especially pre-modern ones, that exist just below the level of greatness (as so many fine stories must), this anthology is well worth reading.

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