I couldn't have asked for a nicer weekend to enjoy a little extra time off. It has been sunny but cool and even a little breezy. My windows are open and I'm starting to think fall is actually on its way. Of course since today I'm reading and writing about ghost stories, rather one in particular, it should really be a 'dark and stormy nighy', but I'm sure there will still be plenty of those in store.
I pulled some collections of stories from my shelves and should have lots of good ones to choose from. In the past I have tended to turn to names I know, but this year I am going to try and be a little more adventurous and try authors who are less known to me. I've actually started with an author who I have read before, but she is someone I wouldn't normally associate with the ghost story genre.
First let me share the books I've got handy. The Mammoth Book of 20th Century Ghost Stories is edited by Peter Haining. The contents are split into three sections: The Golden Era, The Phantom Army, and The Modern Tradition and includes authors such as Julian Barnes, Muriel Spark, Ruth Rendell and Agatha Christie. I bought this used, and while I could do without the library stickers (whyever did they weed it from their collection?), it seems like a great anthology. The editor writes that he chose authors based not on their association with the genre rather as writers who bring a "fresh eye and new ideas to the genre".
I have two volumes of stories by M.R. James, who seems to be a pivotal writer in the ghost story tradition: Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories and The Haunted Dolls' House and Other Ghost Stories. He transformed it from "a wispy, ethereal figure into an aggressive, malevolent, and all too palpable force of evil". He provided much inspiration for later writers in the genre. Somehow it seems like a close study of these two books to see how he developed as a writer would be a good thing, but I will likely only read a story or two.
A reread of Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (and Other Stories or, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.) is definitely in order. My edition has quite a few other stories as well, so I might try some of his other work. I've also got The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories edited by Michael Cox, which contains all the usual suspects like Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell, R.L. Stevenson and Henry James, but also quite a few new to me authors.
Last but not least I have two very chunky books that a reader here recommended to me and that I was pleased to find used (sadly these appear to be out of print): Blackwater: The Book of Fantastic Literature and Blackwater 2. Both books are edited by Alberto Manguel. These aren't so much ghost stories as "tales of hauntings, dreams, time warps, transformations, and dealings with God and the Devil--stories that take you to the edge of the twilight zone". I've yet read any of these stories, so this is the perfect opportunity. Between the two books there are well over 100 stories and all by a wide variety of authors from different time periods.
Today, however, E.M. Delafield has provided my afternoon entertainment. You might already be familiar with her (as am I) through her Provincial Lady books, which are totally charming and humorous reads. E.M. Delafield is a pseudonym. Eleanor Dashwood was the daughter of a Count and began writing in 1917 while serving in various wartime positions in England. "Sophy Mason Comes Back" was written in 1930 and is set in France. It is a tale of murder and a revenant.
Although the setting is France, the story is told in a typical English country house setting. A group of people are gathered together and the conversation turns to ghosts. A gentleman by the name of Fenwick relates a story that took place many years before, in the late 1800s, in the midi region. The murder occurred well before his time, but his frightful encounter was much more recent.
A young English girl named Sophy Mason had been living with a middle class French family looking after their children and helping with other household tasks. The family owned a house in the country and somewhat unconventionally Sophy was allowed to take the children there on her own and look after them while the parents were busy in the city. Sophy was an entirely respectable girl, though without close family and perhaps a little naive leading her into a compromising situation with the son of a local landowner. You can probably imagine what happens next. Love, betrayal, an act of violence and then body that lies unnoticed and forgotten for a very long time.
I don't want to give too many details away, but this story does have a ghost or revenant. What's so chilling is not so much that Fenwick meets the lover and sees the ghost so many years after the murder but the total and complete lack of remorse by the guilty party. There is no redemption and only sadness and perhaps that is chilling enough by itself. This was a story that was well constructed and nicely told with an eye for small detail, and definitely had a different twist to it than expected.