I love good ghost stories, and I have a particular fondness for the English ghost story. There’s something about English weather (mist, fog, damp, dripping trees) that lends itself to spookiness, and of course the sense of age and ritual and hidden corners of the country makes anything possible. Earlier this year, I spent some time reading all of the late great M.R. James’s ghost stories, and The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories (edited, I should add, by Michael Cox, author of The Meaning of Night, and by R.A. Gilbert) seemed like a natural progression.
Cox and Gilbert made inspired choices for this collection. The book is about five hundred pages long, spanning the period of time from the earlyish 19th century, with Sir Walter Scott and J.S. Le Fanu, through 1981, with a chilling story by T.S. White. The contributors include, it seems, nearly every famous author in England (and a couple from the English tradition across the Atlantic): V.S. Pritchett, Elizabeth Bowen, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Walter de la Mare, L.P. Hartley, and many more.
In my opinion, it’s difficult to write a really good ghost story. So very many of them can be boiled down to the Haunted Place story — basically the “in a dark, dark (manor, church, prison, lodging-house, swimming-pool) there was a dark, dark (organ, cupboard, room, desk), and in that dark, dark (staircase, attic, basement, graveyard) there was a GHOST!” story that we all heard when we were kids. And in fact, even though the stories in this book are written with craft, with care, with intelligence, and even, at times, with humor, a lot of them do come down to this.
There are many more than I expected, however, that are genuinely original. Charles Williams’ “Et in Sempiternum Pereant” (And May They Be Forever Damned) is a puzzling, almost mystical look at a man who literally enters his own hell in the middle of the English countryside. John Buchan’s “Fullcircle” is not about a ghost haunting a house, but about a house impressing itself on its owners. “The Friends of the Friends,” by Henry James, takes us to the very strangest and most ambiguous depths of jealousy. And there are many others that really impressed me (and still others that left me pleasantly shivering.) I lingered over these. If you enjoy ghost stories, this is an absolute must-read, something every fan should have on her shelf.