Dover Book

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Unlike some collections of ghost or horror stories, which can be more goofy than scary, this one is filled with real spine-tinglers. Made up of eleven creepy tales by an all-star cast of writers, these are the ones you probably should not read alone on a dark and stormy night. One amusing aspect of many of them, perhaps a Victorian quirk, is that they begin with an apology from the narrator, stating clearly that they do not believe in ghosts, but, here is what happened. In any case, this is a very readable collection. Here is a sneak preview:

An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street by J.S. Le Fanu tells of two cousins, Tom and Dick, both medical students who decide to live in one of the several houses owned by Tom's dad. They want to save money on rent, and currently no one occupies this particular house. There's a good reason for that, as we soon find out, and it has to do with a creepy phantom with a floppy foot that drags a rope around. Did someone commit suicide here? Hmmm. . . Read on and find out.

No. 1 Branch Line: The Signalman is by Charles Dickens. Lest we think Dickens' only creep tale was A Christmas Carol, this one reminds us that he could spin out a scary yarn with the best of them. Here, we meet a lonely railway signalman who has a recurring premonition by way of a man warning him that there will be deaths involving a train. Two have already happened. But what does the third one mean??

Mrs. Zant and the Ghost by Wilkie Collins is about a young woman widowed shortly after her marriage. She is found behaving strangely in the park by a little girl, Lucy, who is playing near her father, a widower. She seems to be in a daze, and frightens Lucy, upsetting her and sending her to her father's arms. Mr. Rayburn investigates, and concludes that the woman is ill. They pay her a visit at her rooms, and gradually her story unfolds, which now involves her late husband's brother. This is one of the longer ones, but I didn't find it as scary as the first two.

Reality or Delusion by Mrs. Henry Wood is told by the character named Johnny Ludlow. We know he lives with the Squire Todhetley family from Worcestershire, and are presently at a country estate at Crabb Cot because the child Lena is ill. Upon doing research, I discovered that Mrs. Wood wrote a series of Johnny Ludlow stories. Project Gutenberg has made the first series available to download as of October, 2012. In this story, John Ferrar, the overseer for the Todhetley estate, has died, leaving only his son Daniel. Daniel is good looking and a nice sort of guy, but hasn't much ambition. He is supposed to be marrying Maria Lease until a new girl, Harriet Roe, catches his eye. Though Maria has heard rumors, she chooses to deny Daniel's infidelity, until she spies on him, and finds out more than she ever wanted to know.

The New Pass by Amelia B. Edwards is one that will set your heart to pounding. It is about two friends who take a holiday in the Swiss Alps. After a week of leisure, they grab their backpacks and go on foot along with a guide. A new pass through the mountains has just been built, and the locals brag about it, its beauty and feat of engineering. Shortly before they reach it, a man comes into view up ahead, vehemently waving for them to go back. The thing is, only the sedate and skeptical Frank can see him. Egerton and the guide cannot. When Frank describes him, Egerton recognizes him as his dead brother, Lawrence, who never fulfilled his dream of traveling the Alps. He and the guide accept the fact that he appears as a warning, and turn back, but Frank thinks he must have hallucinated and continues on. Wrong choice, Frank. . .

The Body-Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson is about two medical students involved in securing dead bodies for their anatomy classes. Macfarlane seems to have no scruples, but Fettes is more naïve. Gradually he realizes that the bodies they receive aren't necessarily ones dug up from the grave. When the body of an acquaintance named Jane is delivered, Fettes faces the ghastly reality that their classroom is being supplied by murder victims. Still, he gets used to it, thinking this makes him a "strong man." That is, until one dark and rainy night when he and Macfarlane dig up what they think is the body of an old farmers' wife.

What Was It? by Fitz-James O'Brien is one of the more goofy ones. A house rumored to be haunted becomes occupied by a skeptical landlady and her equally skeptical tenants, two of whom enjoy each others' company over a regular pipe of opium. It is after one evening of smoking that the horror appears to one, the narrator of the story in the form of an invisible monster. Finally, he and his friend are able to tie it up, with the other tenants witnessing the spectacle. And the moral of the story is: don't smoke opium if you live in a haunted house. . .

The Real Right Thing by Henry James is about the passing of a man, Ashton Doyne. His widow hires a young writer, a friend of Ashton's, to write a sort of biography or memoir about her late husband. George Withermore is given unlimited access to Doyne's room: his books, his writings, his secrets. After a short while, he begins to feel the presence of his deceased friend, at first seeming to support him in his work. But things abruptly change, and Withermore and Mrs. Doyne must make a decision based on what they believe Ashton wishes to communicate. This is written much in the same style as the stories in The Beast in the Jungle and Other Stories, not so much scary, (in fact, both people involved welcome the ghost-presence of the late Doyne), but more as a deep psychological study, complete with James' usual carefully painted character portraits.

Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad by M. R. James is also found in Great Horror Stories: Tales by Stoker, Poe, Lovecraft and Others. I thought it was a little silly when I read it the first time, and the second time through, I still thinks it's silly. I mean, how scary is a ghost whose form is a walking bedsheet? Sound more like trick-or-treat to me. It is about a professor on holiday to study and improve his golf game. Though not his primary interest, others mention that the Inn where he is lodging is the site of Ancient Templars. Out of curiosity, Parkins investigates and finds a bronze pipe-shaped object that turns out to be a whistle. He blows it, and unwittingly summons a nasty Thing. However, taking a deeper, satirical look at this piece, it is really a statement about the evils of the Catholic Church from an Anglican viewpoint.

In Kropfsberg Keep by Ralph A. Cram is a tale about the haunted Kropfsberg Castle in Austria, and it's a real creeper. The legend was that Count Albert had invited guests for a celebration, then barred all the doors and started the lower floors of the castle on fire. While his guests burned to their deaths, he hung himself, wearing a suit of armor, on a hook in the ceiling of his third floor room, and hung there for twelve years. Two foolish young men decide to take on the ghost of the Count by spending the night in his room despite fervent warnings from the locals. Do they live to tell the tale? Read on. . .

The Lost Ghost by Mary E. Wilkins is more charming than scary, and has a perfect ending—a perfect way to end this collection! It is about two church ladies who get together to share gossip while doing needlework for the church fair. Mrs. Meserve always knows the latest, and shares with Mrs. Emerson the news that a certain house rumored to be haunted has been let. Mrs. Meserve, after Mrs. Emerson's promise of secrecy, shares her own story about a ghost, but this one is a little child who repeatedly shows up in a house looking for her mother, along with helping with the housework! Though it is hardly frightening, I guarantee the ending will give you tingles.

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