What makes a great ghost story? I dunno—perhaps it's just a certain procedure in telling the tale; just the right
combination of words. I do know that, contrary to the title of this book, these are not even remotely chilling. It takes a lot to chill me. Gooey dead things
leaping out in the dark make me yawn—or giggle. Two of my favorites in this collection weren't even meant to be scary. They are more tender, and one is
comical. However, there are a couple that had that special something to make them real creepers. I think the psychological element, where the terror is
played out within someone's mind are the ones that scare me the most, I guess because they have an element of probability in them. Most likely, the average
person will probably go through life never having a gooey dead thing jump out at them, but most people probably do have experiences with the uncanny—that
feeling of anxiety that may or may not be originating with them personally, but has somehow lodged in their mind.
There are sixteen stories in this collection by a truly all-star cast of American writers, plus some that are less known. Even though these aren't spine tingling, they are good tales and the book is a fun read. The introduction is also informative and interesting. If you buy this Dover book, be sure to read it first. Here is a run down of what you'll find. The stories are arranged chronologically:
Edgar Allan Poe: Ligeia. Inspired by the death of Poe's beloved wife and companion, this story is about an enigmatic woman of exquisite beauty and intelligence. When she dies, her husband, the narrator is engulfed in grief, but eventually marries a woman whom he doesn't love, and is not loved by her. He is also addicted to opium, as was Poe.
Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Gray Champion. People from New England tend to write historical stories, I have noticed, and Hawthorne's ancestral background of witch hunters seemed to be his invitation to the supernatural. This one is about the steps leading up to the Revolutionary War, and a brave old man who appears out of nowhere, then likewise disappears, speaks an omen to those who are running the colonies with an abusive hand.
William Gilmore Simms: Grayling; or "Murder Will Out". This one also takes place during Revolutionary times. Mrs. Grayling's husband is killed during the war, but her fourteen-year old son joins up, along with Mrs. Graylings brother Joel Sparkman. After the war, they relocate. There is also a young daughter, Lucy. As they are camping one evening, a Scotsman shows up, whom they don't trust, but they show him hospitality, nonetheless. Later, they are joined by Major Spencer, a hero to James. The next day, Spencer says he must go because he has to catch a boat to England because a relative has died and there is an estate left to him. The Scotsman leaves also. Later, as James is scouting, he sees an apparition of the Major saying he is dead and the Scotsman did it. This one is a good story, except for the end which offers a logical explanation for what had appeared to be a ghost.
Henry James: The Real Right Thing. This story is about a man who dies, Ashton Doyne. His publisher approaches George Withermore on writing a biography, which his widow insists. However, the more George delves into Doyne's personal materials, the more he feels his presence, and his presence tells him the material should not be published.
Sarah Orne Jewett: Lady Ferry. Jewett had a particular talent for writing poignant stories about elderly people and gentle times. This is one of her best, and my favorite in the whole book, and it's not scary, nor meant to be. A girl goes to stay with elderly cousins, Agnes and Matthew, when her parents must make a trip abroad. She is told that there is a very, very old woman staying with them who has been around since her father was young. When she arrives, Agnes speaks to her about "Lady Ferry"—that her mind sometimes wanders, but she is sweet and harmless and there is nothing to fear. She is also told not to go to her room, but to wait until invited. It doesn't take long, however, for Lady Ferry to join the child in the garden, and they become fast friends. What makes this story suitable for this collection is that no one can remember when Lady Ferry wasn't around—she herself speaks of being friends with ancient people long dead, and complains that she is destined to never die—surrounding her with an air of mystery that is never solved.
Mark Twain: My Platonic Sweetheart. This is another of my favorites, humorous as is typical of Twain. It is about a woman who appears in the speaker's dreams throughout his life. When they meet, they call each other by different names, and she looks different over the ages, but they are always in their teens and they know each other no matter what they look like. They have a secret "dream language" that they understand.
Frank R. Stockton: The Philosophy of Relative Existences. Two men, a poet and a philosopher, come to spend the summer in a quiet place so they may work on their books. They see a town in the distance, and are told it was built by one man who refused to let anyone live there until it was finished, but he died, and now it is supposedly haunted. But they take a chance and go there anyways.
F. Marion Crawford: The Upper Berth. Here is a gooey dead thing story about a cabin in a ship that is not only haunted, but makes its guests commit suicide by jumping overboard.
Emma Frances Dawson: An Itinerant House. Of them all, this one is probably the spine-tingler. It is important that you understand that, in San Francisco at the time (1878), homes were movable, and were frequently moved around. (This is mentioned in the intro to the book.) Felipa, a Mexican woman, minds the house and its tenants while her man is gone. But when her man returns, she finds he has married. She flies into a rage and dies, but a certain tenant brings her back to life against her will, and she puts a curse on the house and the people involved. This is a very strange story, made confusing by the author's knowledge of music and the arts. (Really—very strange.)
Ambrose Bierce: The Moonlit Road. Here we have a ghost appearing to her husband and son out of love, not knowing that her jealous husband was actually the one who murdered her.
Harriet Prescott Spofford: The Conquering Will. A woman marries Captain Gilbert—she didn't mean to—but when you were around this man, his will dominated all. But one day he dies, and his widow finds that even in death, he runs her life.
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman: The Shadows on the Wall. Freeman, like Jewett, excelled in writing tender stories of elderly New Englanders. Here is a good example, and unlike Jewett's contribution to this collection, this one does contain some creepiness. Edward Glynn has died, and his brother Henry had words with him just before his death. His three sisters—two spinster and one married, quietly discuss the matter with anxiety, as Edward was their favorite, and Henry was known to be sometimes hot tempered. But then Edward's shadow appears on the wall, causing distress to Henry.
Edith Wharton: The Eyes. While this is a ghost story, it is also a tale of social behavior and morals, the favorite subject matter of this well-known author. A wealthy man of leisure, Andrew Culwin, collects friends for his pleasure, and one evening they all tell their ghost stories—except Culwin. As the other guests leave, the narrator stays, along with the newest young member of the group, Phil Frenham. They convince Culwin to tell his ghost story, and he does have one—eyes that appear when, the few times in his life he does what he believes is a good deed, but in fact, is a white lie, although he doesn't get it at the time. The appearance of the eyes is not the scary part, it is what happens at the end of the story that is creepy—and ambiguous. I actually did research on this one, and found numerous interpretations. The best way to sum up this one is perhaps by the saying, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."
Willa Cather: Consequences. Here we have yet another major author contribution, one not usually associated with the supernatural. It is about a young wealthy man living a loose life in New York, who has a ghost for his conscience.
Manly Wade Wellman: Call Me From the Valley. A man is visiting the hill folk when a torrential rain comes down. He and others gather in a shop, and the locals tell of the long-ago feud between the Meechams and the Donovants. Meecham learned to make it rain, and they believe this downpour was his doing. And though all the family hated each other to the last of them, there was a bit of Romeo and Juliet involved between Lute Meecham and Jeremiah Donovant, who wouldn't give up their love for the feud. But they are all gone now. Maybe.
Parke Godwin: The Fire When it Comes. Dover has included a very modern story (1981) in this collection of mostly early century tales, except for the one above, published in 1954. It begins ambiguous—we know nothing about the narrator, Gayla Damon, because she knows nothing either—until a young married couple come to rent her apartment. She finally begins to remember—she is dead. She becomes attracted to Lowen, and the memory of her life returns in bits and pieces. Gradually she is able to make physical contact with him while he's in the shower, then gets inside his wife, Alice's body while they are making love. They both know, and make plans to move. This was a good story, but I personally really didn't like the ending.
So there you have it. and while not being chilling, these are fun and interesting reads anyways. But at 300 pages, it's not a quick read either.
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