Five Best Books on Ghost Stories

From a Wall Street Journal story by Douglas Preston headlined “Five Best: Ghost Stories”:

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
By M.R. James (1904)

1. The name alone is so marvelously British: Montague Rhodes James. A medievalist and don at Cambridge University, James spent much of his professional life cataloging dusty manuscripts in the Cambridge library. A lifelong bachelor, he wrote his tales not for publication but to read to his fellow dons on a dark winter’s evening by a flickering fire. The telling of a new M.R. James tale eventually became a Christmas Eve tradition at Cambridge.

James created some of the finest ghost stories ever written, including “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” A professor, not unlike James himself, goes on a seaside holiday for golf and to examine some old ruins. In poking about, he turns up an ancient whistle decorated with a curious Latin phrase. Although “a little rusty” in his Latin, he puzzles out a translation: “Who is this who is coming?” He decides the best way to find out is to blow the whistle. Bad idea. The note that comes out has “a quality of infinite distance in it,” and it conjures up—well, to tell you would be a spoiler. Part of the charm of these stories is the donnish, faintly pedantic voice in which they are told, so at variance with the grotesque happenings, the freakish creatures and the delicious terrors that unfold.

The Monkey’s Paw
By W.W. Jacobs (1902)

2. “The Monkey’s Paw” is the most perfect ghost story ever written. Published in Harper’s magazine more than a century ago, it has lost none of its shuddering power. W.W. Jacobs was a British author of short stories, novels and plays, most of which are now forgotten, but his reputation lives on through “The Monkey’s Paw.” The story is deceptively simple, involving a monkey’s paw “dried to a mummy” that grants the bearer three wishes. This ordinary and not terribly original beginning leads to a shattering and unexpected horror.

It has been made into no less than seven films, a score of plays, television episodes, radio dramas and at least one opera. Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary” (1983) was a conscious retelling of “The Monkey’s Paw.” The last line of the story, so unassuming yet so freighted with awful meaning, has haunted me ever since I first read it: “The streetlight opposite shone on a quiet and deserted road.”

The Overcoat
By Nikolai Gogol (1842; translated by Constance Garnett, 1923)

3. Nikolai Gogol wrote a number of bizarre works now considered classics of Russian literature, including the short story “Diary of a Madman” and the novel “Dead Souls.” The Ukraine-born author greatly influenced Russian literature, especially the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Vladimir Nabokov praised Gogol’s “The Overcoat” as “the greatest Russian short story ever written.”

The story is quite different from the standard ghost story, being comically absurd rather than scary. We first meet the story’s main character in life: “a certain official—not a very high one, it must be allowed—short of stature, somewhat pock-marked, red-haired, and short-sighted, with a bald forehead [and] wrinkled cheeks,” who goes to his grave “without having done one unusual deed.” In death, however, the unhappy ghost makes up for it by terrorizing St. Petersburg, assaulting important officials and stealing their cloaks. More than a ghost story, the tale is a commentary on the soul-draining cruelty of Russian bureaucracy and the farcicality of human nature.

The Little Stranger
By Sarah Waters (2009)

4. This evocative and disturbing book is a masterwork of rising menace and psychological dread. Sarah Waters is known for her meticulous research, eye for detail and the ability to evoke a bygone era. The setting is Hundreds Hall, a formerly grand old country house in Warwickshire, England, in the late 1940s. It is inhabited by a decaying family whose members are struggling to maintain their way of life in a postwar society that no longer has any use for them. Penniless, they scrape by as the dilapidated mansion crumbles around them—and as they fall apart, hastened along by some evil presence.

The tale is told by Dr. Faraday, who finds himself inexorably drawn into the lives of this strange family. Nothing is quite as it seems, perhaps even Dr. Faraday himself. Is the young, seemingly reliable doctor telling us the truth? Or is something off about him? Is there a “bad thing” in the house, or are the inhabitants going insane? The writing is superb, the atmosphere exquisitely disquieting and the characters so wonderfully drawn that their awful fates leave the reader shocked and reeling.

Heart-Shaped Box
By Joe Hill (2007)

5. As a writer, I can’t help but admire the opening of this ghost story: “Jude [has] a private collection. . . . [He has] the skull of a peasant who had been trepanned in the sixteenth century, to let the demons out. . . . [He has] a three-hundred-year-old confession, signed by a witch.” He also has a snuff film and a used noose. Jude is always on the lookout for some morbid thing to add to his collection, and so, one day, he purchases a heart-shaped box containing a corpse’s burial suit, with a ghost allegedly attached to it.

The ghost is no elusive revenant but a violent and vengeful spirit bent on killing Jude for a specific reason. “Heart-Shaped Box” moves like a freight train, one of those novels you devour in a few sittings. This was the author’s first novel, a remarkably accomplished work. Joe Hill is, of course, Joseph Hillström King, the son of Stephen King. He decided to publish under a nom de plume to avoid riding on his father’s coattails and achieve success on his own—which he did with this novel.

Selected by Douglas Preston, the author, most recently, of ‘The Lost Tomb: And Other Real-Life Stories of Bones, Burials, and Murder.’

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