Ghost Stories

I know its not Halloween yet but I thought today I would mention Ghost Stories and spooky tales today, which seems a slightly spooky coincidence as when I was looking for perfect images on the internet I noticed that it would be Mary Shelley’s 213th Birthday today which I didn’t know. Ooooh spooky!  Anyway, today is less about horror and more the chilling which has come up in conversations and the like a lot of late. I always think if a good few people are talking about it then it must be something in a few peoples consciousness, then when it comes up on a podcast and in my weekend reading I kind of think its worth bringing up.

Actually I think ghost stories have been on my brain subtly for a month or so since I went and saw the brilliantly jump-out-of-your-seat scary ‘Ghost Stories’ in the West End a while back. I haven’t been that scared in a theatre since the first time I went and saw ‘The Woman in Black’. I was talking with my friend Vicky, who I went with and is also a big reader, afterwards and we were saying how rare it is a book can scare you. It isn’t on the whole a medium (no pun intended) that can make you jump out of your seat, or look over your shoulder when you are reading alone at night, or is it?


‘The Turn of the Screw’ by Henry James tends to be a book that everyone mentions if you talk about ghostly tales. I am going to admit to you all I didn’t really like it. I read it a while back (I think from the small review you can tell I was trying my hardest to be nice, hence minimal) with Polly of Novel Insights and I just remember feeling really underwhelmed. Having said that, a scene with a face at the window did make me jump, it’s just a shame the rest to me was a bit boring with rather melodramatic peaks now and again (I have nothing against melodrama but I do tediousness).  

In a big emailing conversation last week I asked the other judges of The Green Carnation Prize one of the judges started talking about Ira Levin’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (for reasons I cannot explain yet) and so the subject of ghostly tales came up. Apart from the mention of M.R. James and Mary Danby classic ghost tales aren’t that easy to come across, they tend to be in anthologies and most of those are sadly out of print. In fact Paul Magrs himself has done a great post on the wonders of a selection of second hand ‘Pan anthologies’ which look to be exactly what I am on the hunt for. Drat’s and bother to book buying bans.

I then listened to the Guardian Book Club podcast and who should be on it but Sarah Waters talking about ‘The Little Stranger’. Now that book, which has grown on me over time, sadly didn’t scare me or thrill me in the way I hoped it would, but her discussion on old ghostly tales and the state of the modern ghost story interested me because really modern ghost stories do seem to be thin on the ground don’t you think? Supernatural is incredibly popular, you can barely move in a book shop without seeing a vampire (on the shelves rather than in the aisles looking for prey) but these books aren’t scary (sparkly vampires for example), and horror as a genre has never really chilled me. A ghost story is less about blood and gore and much more about atmosphere and suspense.

In fact apart from Susan Hill, with ‘The Woman In Black’, ‘The Man in the Picture’, ‘The Mist in the Mirror’ (which I haven’t read yet) and the forthcoming ‘The Small Hand’ which looks like it could be amazing, I am struggling to think of any modern authors who write brilliant ghostly tales. Oh, apart from Michelle Paver whose forthcoming adult novel ‘Dark Matter’ sufficiently scared me this weekend, but as its not out until late October I shall say no more till then. I can say its put me in the mood for more things that go bump in the night in my fiction.

So where are the best modern ghost stories, and again I mean chilling rather than a horror blood fest, do you know of any? I have heard Paul Torday’s ‘The Girl On The Landing’ is quite spooky, has anyone read that? What of the golden oldies, who haven’t I thought of? Which tales have genuinely chilled and scared you? What are the best anthologies?

I have just realised I could have made this into a problem for The Prose Practise! Oh and if you want some fabulous old 70’s (I think, maybe 80’s) chilling viewing today then take a look at what I found.


Filed under Book Thoughts

16 responses to “Ghost Stories

  1. Rob

    Cheapie book publishers Wordsworth Editions have a great series of classic ghost stories, either by author or in themed anthologies. See here for the list. I’ve discovered some very entertaining writers through them, and maybe some not-so-great, but their books are cheap enough to be worth a gamble.

    For new ghost stories, have you looked at the PS Publishing list? Their site sadly doesn’t separate by genre, but they do publish new ghost stories, and there are usually a few in their anthology series Postscripts, too.

    • I cant buy any books at the moment but those Wordsorth ones will be perfect, and it doesnt matter if I loathe them as can give them away at less cost, so can take more risks. Hoorah!

      I will also take a further look into PS Publishing. Good call Rob.

  2. I love all kinds of spooky stories, horror, gothic and even the subtle ones like The Little Stranger. Rarely, though, will they officially scare me. I am very very tough to scare. Her Fearful Symmetry gave me nightmares (you know, the cat thing) but didn’t really spook me. The only book that I can think of that I had to stop reading from fright was Stephen King’s Pet Semetery. I guess that is probably horror, but is very psychologically terrifying as well.

    • Its not really about being scared for me its more about being thrilled and on the edge of my seat if you know what I mean and horror weirdly very rarely does that too me, in fact some crime thrillers have me held more in that way. Horror is great, it just doesnt get under my skin.

  3. I have to admit that I haven’t read many spooky books at all. Unless you can count Dracula as spooky 🙂

  4. I don’t know exactly when it was written (but probably wouldn’t fit into your “modern” category), but “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson scared the beejeesus out of me.

    • Rob

      The Haunting of Hill House is a terrific book, isn’t it? I’ve not read anything else by Shirley Jackson, but the Library of America published a huge book of her novels and stories earlier this year. I think there’s a review of it in the current issue of LRB. It’s very tempting.

    • Ooooh I read We Have Always Lived In The Castle and liked that alot so I think The Haunting of Hill House will be a definite for me.

  5. I had to read The Turn of the Screw for an assignement at Uni, was reading it online one night and got rather engrossed when I finially looked it up it had gone dark was a little spooked. I’m going to be honest the face at the window made me jump out of my skin.

    Except for The Little Stranger, which didn’t scare me, I can’t think of a modern ghost story. I would agree with Julie, Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is rather chilling. I’ve always wondered if Wuthering Heights could be classed as a bit ghostly what with the memory of Catherine roaming the moors haunting Heathcliff. I have always found the first scene where the narrator stays the night and the branch keeps tapping the window really quite scary, especially when he opens the window and a small hand grabs him!!

  6. LizF

    I have never got beyond the first twenty or so pages of Wuthering Heights despite numerous attempts -not sure why as it does start really well and I have loved all the other Bronte novels that I have read.
    Can I add another vote for The Woman In Black as the scariest modern ghost story? My other half read it while we were on holiday in a mobile home in France with three young children and nearly jumped out of his skin when one of the kids kicked against the wall next to their bed in their sleep.
    He was so spooked that I had to leave the light on in the main part of the mobile and our bedroom door open for the next couple of nights.

  7. Eva

    I’ve been working on a book list themed around ghosts, since I love them (in lit), so this made me smile! 🙂

  8. Louise Trolle

    Dan Simmons has written some spooky books, Song of Kali and The Hollow Man (where you learn what it’s like to mindread an insane person).
    Clive Barkers Books of Blood are also quite scarry! But more in the horror genre.
    There’s a whole series of books called Spooky Southwest, Spooky California, Spooky New York etc. with stories that are inspired by folklore and local myths.

    These next three are YA – but in my 34 y old opinion great reads for adults as well!
    Neil Gaiman’s Coraline is spooky! So I think is The Book of Dead Days by Marcus Sedgwick and the Spook books by Joseph Delaney.

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