The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories

ghost storiesI 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.

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6 Responses to The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories

  1. It’s gloriously blue skies and sunny today near Oxford! I don’t think I could read a ghost story when it’s this nice. Sounds a really good collection though.

  2. Steph says:

    Thanks for the recommendation! I inevitably am drawn to creepy stories, and when I read Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” earlier this year, I really enjoyed it (ambiguities and all). I really enjoy a good Victorian ghost story, but this collection sounds nice because you can see how stories have progressed over the years. I’ve heard good things about this one before, so I’ll have to keep it in mind…

    Question: Did you sit down and read your way through the collection uniquely, or did you intersperse the stories with other reading material, spacing the tales out over time? (I’m trying to develop more effective short story reading habits!)

  3. Jenny says:

    Annabel — I didn’t mean to cast aspersions on English weather! Well, not all English weather, anyway. :) I should have said that stereotypically, it’s weather of northern Europe that suits ghosts best. Glad to hear it’s sunny where you are!

    Steph — The Turn of the Screw is a favorite of mine. Cox and Gilbert also edited a collection of Victorian ghost stories, as you may know, but this was perfect for me, being a bit more varied.

    When I read a book of short stories, I tend to read it beginning to end, as I would a novel. I like to compare the stories to one another for theme, setting, style, etc. which is hard to do if you’ve read them too far apart. This can mean in some cases a serious surfeit of one type or author of story: I once read about 700 pages of T.C. Boyle’s short stories, and even though I loved them, I have been physically unable to pick up anything by him ever again! But mostly this method works quite well for me.

  4. sounds like a wonderfully crafted collection…even if it is 500+pages.

  5. Eva says:

    I’ll be grabbing this one for the RIP challenge!

  6. Jenny says:

    Serena — it is a great collection, wonderfully representative and highly recommended!

    Eva — this would be perfect for the RIP challenge. Enjoy!

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