Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Great Ghost Stories, edited by John Grafton (1992)

Grafton, John, editor. Great Ghost Stories. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1992.
______. Great Ghost Stories. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications (Dover Thrift Editions). Undated reprint (my copy, pictured below right).

Great Ghost Stories at the ISFdb
Great Ghost Stories at Goodreads
Cover design by
Paul E. Kennedy

Overall Rating:     6.5/10

This small book contains ten stories over exactly 100 pages (therefore averaging ten pages per story--math simple enough even for me), and a two-page preface, or "Note," uncredited but presumably by editor John Grafton. Though many of these stories have frequently been anthologized in all kinds of collections, from ghost books and supernatural tales to Victorian fiction, quite a few are not seen very often and I had not read most of them.

Why have we not seen many of these stories more often? I suspect it is because many of them just aren't very good. We have three oft-reprinted classics in Ambrose Bierce's "The Moonlit Road," Bram Stoker's "The Judge's House" and the superlative "The Monkey's Paw" by W. W. Jacobs, and these three are easily among the strongest in the collection. Along with the stories by Edwards and Dickens, these make up the good half of the anthology. Sadly, there is a distinct weaker half, including forgettable entries by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and M. R. James. While these stories are not terrible, they are also not as inventive as their better works, and do not contribute anything new to the genre. They are well written, Le Fanu's in particular, I think, but it is as though the authors are going through the motions. (E. G. Swain arguably can be discounted here as he never attained the heights of the others, and his contribution to this little book is indeed better than that of his colleague and friend James).

Overall it is a quick read of some curiosities that a person like me might enjoy. I would not, however, recommend this to the casual reader, nor to those who tend to prefer more modern ghosts.

The Phantom Coach by Amelia B. Edwards     7/10
All the Year Round, ed. Charles Dickens, Christmas 1864

On a cold December afternoon, a recently married young man is lost while hunting in the moors. Snow starts to fall, and as our young narrator fears his demise is near, he encounters a crotchety old man and follows him to his home. There he meets the master of an isolated house, a man who settled far from society to study science, as his beliefs in the otherworldly were scoffed at by urban contemporaries. Yet even our own rational narrator's grounded beliefs are challenged that night as he makes his way toward his recent bride.

A very entertaining story, with an ingeniously woven speculation on truth and motive. For my article on the story, please visit this page.

To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt by Charles Dickens     7/10
All the Year Round, ed. Charles Dickens, Christmas 1865

Published one year after "The Phantom Coach," in the next Christmas volume of All the Year Round, this story seems to take as its starting point an idea from its predecessor. Specifically, in this age of reason, a person should not admit to others of having seen an apparition, otherwise they risk a comfortable livelihood. Yet while this idea comes up again half-way through the text, this is not the  main focus of the story. Dickens seems to be more concerned with criticizing England's judicial system.

The nameless narrator, a successful banker, becomes obsessed with a recent murder in England, which leads to a hallucination of one man angrily chasing another, and a brief vision of the chaser at the narrator's home. He is then appointed as a member of the jury trying the case of that same murder, and there continues to witness the apparition of the victim while the murderer is standing trial. An interesting concept, well delivered (it is Dickens, after all), and while we are confident of how the story will resolve, there is nonetheless an excellent final paragraph with a slight twist.

A ghost story which may not contain any ghosts, depending on one's interpretation. To read mine, please visit this page.

Dickon the Devil by J. Sheridan Le Fanu     6/10
London Society, December 1872

The nameless narrator in this one, most likely a lawyer, is sent to the isolated Barwyke Hall in order to partition the property between "two rich old maids," after the owner has died. In the region the narrator learns of strange goings on at the property. His first night there he meets the friendly caretaker and encounters the strange idiot called "Dickon the Devil." Following an odd incident in the middle of the night, he learns the next day of the former owner, Squire Bowes, who would never hurt a fly, but was loathe at the thought that old maids would inherit his home. Since his death there have been sightings on the land of the Squire Bowes, sickening of cattle and other strange goings on.

While Le Fanu is the author of one of my favourite collections, In a Glass Darkly, "Dickon the Devil" is the weakest of his stories I have so far read. It is well written, and has a good atmosphere and a nicely detailed setting, but lacks the thought put into his other work. Like Dickon himself, the story is in a sense simple-minded, not constructed with the care, the detail put into something like "Green Tea." The story doesn't wrap up as nicely, and the mystery here seems loose, leaving me with questions.

The Judge's House by Bram Stoker     7/10
Holly Leaves: Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic Life's Christmas Annual, 5 December 1891

Young Mathematics student Malcolm Malcolmson visits the remote English village of Benchurch in order to spend a month in quiet isolation with his books. There he rents a house that lay for many years uninhabited, known as the "Judge's House," since the last person to reside there was a cruel judge who it was said took pleasure to send persons to the hangman.

Subject-wise the story is a little confused as combines ghosts with possession. The characterization and atmosphere hold up well, however, and elevate the story to greater heights than the ending did.

A Ghost Story by Jerome K. Jerome     6/10
The Idler, September 1892

A conversation about ghosts leads one man to tell a tale of a victim in a crime of passion to pursue the wrongdoer across the globe. I never cared for stories set up via conversation, though I believe Jerome published this piece as part of a series of articles and not necessarily as a short story. The tale told, however, is quite good, though it would be improved in a modern rendering with addition detail.

The Moonlit Road by Ambrose Bierce     8/10
Cosmopolitan, January 1907

Told through three different points of view, we learn of a murder and a haunting that slowly reveal the facts of the tale. This is a story with a gradual twist, revealing the events little by little until the plot is  finally made clear. As each person is privy to only a small set of details, we need all three points of view, including a voice from beyond the grave, to explain the events of a single night.

A modern and ingenious short story, Bierce helped develop point of view in the short story, and this  early piece is a good illustration of how point of view can benefit a story. The story is quite tragic, and the tragedy is enhanced by its structure. Bierce knew a straightforward telling, while it can work itself into a fine story, would not in this case have the impact that this structure provided. This was my first reading of the story, though it has appeared in various anthologies, and for such a short piece it is insanely gripping.

The Monkey's Paw by W. W. Jacobs     9/10
Harper's Monthly Magazine, September 1902

Among the most famous of classic ghost stories, I'm not sure I need to even summarize the plot. On a stormy night, a man and wife and their son are at home, waiting for an old acquaintance of dad's to arrive. Sergeant Major Morris, once stationed in India, arrives obviously distracted, and tales of his experiences in foreign lands leads conversation to his possession of a monkey's paw. A dried paw cursed by a fakir to teach others of the value of fate, an item that will grant three separate owners three wishes. However, there is a caveat, as the wishes are fulfilled through terrible means.

What is there to say about "The Monkey's Paw"? It is a straightforward enough story with a simple, all-too-familiar lesson. One can argue the tale is a ghost story, and one can argue it is an early zombie tale. Either way it is highly effective, well written, and a horror story with a real tragedy, one that drives the plot and breaks the heart.

The Rose Garden by M. R. James     6/10
More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, London: Edward Arnold, 1911

Mrs. Anstruther wishes to add a rose garden to her and Mr. Anstruther's recently purchased property in Essex. Where she would like to install the garden is an old bench and a post deeply rooted in the ground. Once these are removed, Mr. Anstruther has a horrible nightmare and Mrs. Anstruther suffers a terrible shock. I wonder if there is a connection...

Not one of James's strongest stories. What is going on and what is causing the haunting is pretty much explained to the reader half-way through the story, and leaving the reader with no real ending but to confirm there was indeed a ghost. Not a shock since there is no ambiguity concerning the ghost's existence. It is, however, written with charm and some humour, unlike James's usual approach, and enjoyable as a result.

Bone to His Bone by E. G. Swain     6/10
The Stoneground Ghost Tales: Compiled from the Recollections of the Reverend Roland Batchel, Vicar of the Parish, 1912

Reverend Batchel is part of a long line of vicars at Stoneground. He is an insomniac, and took to sleeping in the small chamber by the library, as he is an avid reader. Late in the night there are noises coming from the library, which has always been assumed to be part of the workings of the house, until one night, searching for some matches, a box is placed into his hand! Then a book appears suddenly on the table, and the good vicar can hear the pages turn.

An enjoyable little story though nothing exceptional in narrative or technique. There is some genuine coziness in the winter reading space of Stoneground, but that is likely because I like cozy winter reading spaces.

On a side note, Swain was a colleague and friend of M. R. James, and part of the group of churchmen who liked to share ghost stories. The Stoneground Ghost Tales was his only major publication, but dwarfed greatly by James's 1904 Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.

The Confession of Charles Linkworth by E. F. Benson     6/10
The Cavalier and the Scrap Book, 13 January 1912

(Look at that publication date. We're on the cusp of its 110th anniversary.)

Mr. Charles Linkworth is hanged for the murder of his mother. Oddly, the rope used for the hanging appears to have disappeared, and since the hanging, Dr. Teesdale, the prison doctor, has been receiving an odd whispering phone call and senses the presence of the dead man at the prison.

No surprises in this one as the title relays the apparition's motive. The most interesting parts of the story were the early detailing of the murder, and the phone calls on a genuine vintage phone, circa 1911. Well written and constructed, it is nonetheless lacking and not among Benson's best work.

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As of 24 December 2015