It's very rare that I read a ghost story and it has any sort of chilling effect on me. Occasionally it does happen, but the instances tend to be few and far in between. I think we live in a too technologically advanced era, plus the whole TV/electricity thing puts a damper on the idea of ghosts. That doesn't stop me from wanting to read them and generally I find them very entertaining if not for the "hair raising" effect than for a taste of place, time and atmosphere. Perhaps it would have helped had I not read J.S. Le Fanu's "An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street", smack dab in the middle of a sunny afternoon in April. Ghost stories are good anytime, but there's something about reading them on a chilly, rainy, Fall afternoon when the light of day is failing. So I guess I'll just pretend!
I mooched a copy of The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories, edited by Michael Cox and R.A. Gilbert, and have been anxious to give some of the stories a try. I'm also in the mood to immerse myself in some Victorian atmosphere as I plan on reading Mary Elizabeth Bradden very soon. I wanted to give Le Fanu a try as I have a copy of Uncle Silas (which I also want to read soon), and I heard he does the whole sinister, creepy story very well and have read he had quite an important influence on the development of the ghost story. I didn't realize that the anthology is meant to show the development of the Victorian ghost story from c. 1850, but as this is only the second story in the collection (published in 1853) I can go back and read Elizabeth Gaskell's story and get back on track. Interestingly (and not surprisingly) the end of the traditional ghost story came to an end in 1914 with the beginning of WWI when the world was witness to even greater horrors of a different sort.
I always find the information elicited in the introductions to these anthologies very helpful and illuminating in some cases. Sometimes I feel like all the different books and stories I read are just part of a larger literary puzzle and it's nice to see how things fit together.
"For almost the whole of the Victorian period the ghost story is of a piece: traditional in its forms and intentions, but energetically inventive and infused with a relish of the supernatural that parallels the more general Victorian fascination with the trappings of death--the dark, extravagant splendour of the funeral, the baroque richness of the cemetery, the guilt-laden luxury of mourning. And then, at its most basic, the function of most Victorian ghost stories, like all similar fictions, was simply to produce what Michael Sadleir called 'the pleasurable shudder'--'a horror which we know does not--but none the less conceivably might--threaten ourselves'."
Cox and Gilbert go on to say in the introduction:
"The successful ghost story, like the successful detective story, depends on using conventions creatively. The ghost story's basic dynamics are settled in the reader's expectations at the outset. We know that we are to be shown a climactic interaction between the living and the dead, and usually expect to be unsettled by the experience. The skill comes when an author is able to work closely within the limited conventions of form whilst at the same time reassembling familiar components into something that can still engage and surprise. To some extent this requires a certain complicity between author and reader, whereby the latter becomes a willing accomplice in the whole design. But it also calls for fluent invention, well-developed dramatic instincts, and story-telling capability of a high order on the part of the author."
Le Fanu's story falls very firmly within these dynamics as the editors call them. It is narrated by a young man, Dick, who along with his cousin Tom are students of medicine in Dublin. I liked how Le Fanu begins the story with Dick telling the reader about the events that occurred when he was younger.
"It is not worth telling, this story of mine--at least, not worth writing. Told, indeed, as I have sometimes been called upon to tell it, to a circle of intelligent and eager faces, lighted up by a good after-dinner fire on a winter's evening, with a cold wind rising and wailing outside, and all snug and cosy within, it has gone off--though I say it, who should not--indifferent well."
He goes on to say how putting the story down in ink on paper and reading it is a far less superior method of conveying his story. "Pen, ink and paper are cold vehicles for the marvellous." Readers tend to be more critical than listeners, so he urges the reader to at least wait until after nightfall to read the story. It concerns a supernatural event, which occurred in a very, very old house owned by Tom's father. To save on rent Dick and Tom live there, but it ends up being a very short residence. It was at one time inhabited by a Judge, known particularly as having a reputation as a 'hanging judge'. Ironically he ended his days by hanging himself with a child's skipping rope over the massive bannisters in the house. The coroner's jury had found his actions to fall under the impulse of 'temporary insanity'. But the reader is left to wonder and if you let your mind wander just a bit about the circumstances concerning the Judge's death, especially since the Judge makes his unhappy presence still known almost nightly to Dick and Tom. The story is certainly dramatic and Le Fanu does tell a good story, even if I don't believe in ghosts! A dark, stormy night might even be more conducive to raising a few hairs on the back of the neck...
Although I want to read all the stories in this collection, I'll save them for more suitable reading conditions (ie. a dark and stormy night). Next week I plan on choosing something from American Short Story Masterpieces, edited by Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks. It might even serve as a good text to draw from over the course of the year (and I'll have to find one similar with international short stories). I also scored a copy of Daphne Du Maurier's The Breaking Point, which is out of print, from Bookmooch. I've already read two of the stories in the collection (found in library books), but I do want to read all her short stories. Considering I would rarely pick up a short story collection in the bookstore, I've been accumulating quite a few of them lately. I'm not sure I'm reading the most famous of the lot, but I've been enjoying those I have read, so maybe it doesn't matter?