A little "fresh blood" this week for my ghost story reading. I came across this new book via my public library's virtual new books list and couldn't pass it up. This hefty collection of stories, The Big Book of Ghost Stories edited by Otto Penzler, is put out by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard and assures me it is the "most complete collection of uncanny, spooky, creepy tales ever published". We'll just see about that, shall we? Actually it looks quite promising with over 800 pages filled with stories by a variety of writers--from O. Henry to E.F. Benson to Joyce Carol Oates and a number of authors I have never come across before. It has a suitably pulpy cover illustration and I think there are quite a few pulp writers represented. The stories are divided by themes such as "I'll Love You Forever (or Maybe Not), "Kids Will Be Kids", "A Negative Train of Thought", and "Beaten to a Pulp" which makes me think it's at least in part an irreverent collection, so it will be fun exploring the stories.
Where to start, that's always the question. With anthologies like this I like to dip into the book and pick and choose according to mood. I'm happy to see quite a few women authors included (though they are still outnumbered by the men), and as Ellen Glasgow is someone I've long wanted to read, I decided to start with her. Somehow I wouldn't have expected her work to end up in a collection of ghost stories, which just goes to show you how versatile some writers can be.
"There is such a strong sense of realism in the work of the noted Southern Writer Ellen Glasgow that it takes a little while to accept the notion that a story does, actually have supernatural elements. Her portrayal of Southern life within its aristocracy and lower social levels had a particular emphasis on the relationship between Southern women and the men in their lives."
It was the opening line of "The Past" which really caught my eye, however. "I had no sooner entered the house than I knew something was wrong." Glasgow was born in Richmond, Virginia but lived for a short time in New York City, where the story is set. It was first published in Good Housekeeping in October 1920 and later in her collection, The Shadowy Third and Other Stories. The story has very Rebecca-like overtones and concerns the haunting of a married couple by the husband's previous wife, though in this case the narrator is a woman who is the new secretary just arrived.
"Devoted as they were, a nameless dread, fear, or apprehension divided them. It was the thing I had felt from the moment I entered the house; the thing I had heard in the tearful voice of the maid. One could scarcely call it horror, because it was too vague, too impalpable, for so vivid a name; yet, after all these quiet months, horror is the only word I can think of that in any way expresses the emotion that pervaded the house."
Miss Wrenn takes immediately to her new employer, Mrs. Vanderbridge, a beautiful woman who seems to be stricken with a case of melancholy. Although the Vanderbridges seem companionably happy, something hangs over their heads casting a dark gloom in the house. She's taken aback one evening when at dinner a young woman, not really beautiful but most graceful, sits down at the table yet is ignored by all seated there and by the servants as well.
This Other One is Mr. Vanderbridge's former wife who's now dead but lingers. Not everyone can see her and she doesn't come always, but she is a presence who is a wedge driven between the two. Mr. Vanderbridge worshipped her and then lost her after only a year of marriage, and much as he loves his new wife, he'll never be completely hers while the former Mrs. Vanderbridge lurks in the background. She's an unspoken presence between the couple. Mrs. Vanderbridge tells her secretary, "She is killing him--and me. I believe that is why she does it." A vengeful spirit is not one easily delt with..
In its own way, like the Bradbury last week, this is a story of good vs. evil and the power it holds over the Vanderbridges. "The Past" comes with a clever twist, but unlike the Bradbury it ends on a more optimistic note. I like Ellen Glasgow's style. The story was nicely developed and well written and if it's representative of her work I'll definitely have to try some of her longer fiction soon.
A nod in the direction of creepiness. The Big Book of Ghost Stories has passed the test and I'll be picking another story from it for next week (may even have to add it to my wishlist as I think it's going to be a keeper).