What Makes a Great Ghost Story?

I do love a good ghost story, though I have to admit I don’t read enough of them. What better time of the year, well here in the UK, is there to read them? No, not just because of the obvious fact it is Halloween today (Happy Halloween). It is autumn, my favourite season of the year as the nights are drawing in and there is a certain chill in the air. Delightful.

Of course today is Halloween and whether you celebrate it or not you simply cannot miss the ghosts, witches, monsters and gargoyles in your local shops (and no I don’t mean the other punters). Naturally for a bookish sort this will lead to thinking about supernatural reads. Or even to Ghost Huntersthe not so bookish as I mentioned the other day that it seemed the supernatural spirit (see what I did there) took over The Beard and two new spooky tales came home from the super(natural)market. I am on fire with puns today, like a witch on a stake. I am currently devouring ‘The Ghost Hunters’ by Neil Spring, all about the infamous Borley Rectory, and its very good. I am most impressed at how in such a long book he keeps the spooky suspense going as I normally like a shorter sharper shock for a ghostly tale. Which of course leads us to today’s (first, there will be another later when it goes darker) post as I was wondering what makes a truly great ghost story?

You see for me ghost stories are a tricky bunch. I am much more of a ‘chills and suspense’ kind of reader than I am a ‘blood and guts and gore’ kind of reader. As I mentioned above I tend to like a sharper ghostly tale, short stories in the main or novella’s maximum, as I find that prolonged tension doesn’t really work as well. For me. I also find ghostly tales set in modern times just don’t work. You can all too easily whip out your mobile phone or some gizmo and the fear vanishes, a good Victorian ghostly tale tends to tick all my boxes. (I actually threw a gauntlet down once that modern settings for a ghost story don’t work and guess what James Dawson was inspired to prove me wrong, this was confirmed from his own mouth!)

So to investigate what I think makes the perfect ghostly tale, whilst also using Neil Spring as a good example of a longer tale, I picked four titles from my newly restructured shelves that I thought I would dip into over this Halloween and autumn too…

Ghostly Tales

Alfred Hitchcock loved a good spooky/horror story and this collection is of some of his favourite ‘Stories Not For The Nervous’. This appeals to me immensely as I love being made to feel nervous in fiction (not in real life, in real life nerves destroy me) and I think these twenty tales and three novelettes which are included will work wonders. Next up is a selection of ‘Ghost Stories’ chosen by Susan Hill (who to me is Queen of the Ghostly Tale) which features my favourite Mr Wilkie Collins and more surprisingly, to me at least, Elizabeth Bowen and Edith Wharton. ‘The Conan Doyle Stories’ are one of my most prized possessions in the world. My Great Uncle Derrick would memorise these and tell them to me when I was very young on walking holidays, ten miles a day roughly, and Gran always said she would desperately try to keep up with us so she didn’t miss the endings. I haven’t read these for ages and should. Finally a renowned author of all things horror (and quite weird), yet new to me, H. P. Lovecraft. I have no idea if I will love these or not but it will be fun finding out.

So before I head off and start reading these dark delights, and hopefully scaring myself silly, I wondered what it was that makes the perfect ghostly tale for you all and what ghost stories you would most recommend?

20 Comments

Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

20 responses to “What Makes a Great Ghost Story?

  1. pam

    hi simon! i started “hound of the baskervilles” today (for the first time!) in honor of halloween. let us know how you get on with those books.

  2. Victoria

    My favourite ghost story is The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, which is the scarest book I have read in a long time. I have also read and enjoyed The winter ghosts by Kate Mosse. I’m thinking of giving the H.P.Lovecraft stories a go, as I’ve heard they are supposed to be good.

    • I have not read The Haunting of Hill House, I have read other Shirley Jackson novels but not that one as I saw a dreadful movie version of the book and it really put me off. Maybe I should, though I really want to read her short story collection.

      I do have the new spooky short stories by Kate Mosse though and whilst I have not read anything of hers before (well I started Labyrinth) yet these tales sound brilliant, maybe they are in the same vein as The Winter Ghosts.

  3. I must admit, I tend to read more blood and gore than classic suspense, but one I’ve been meaning to read for years is Henry James’ The turn of the screw – for the old black and white movie of it (called The Innocents) gave me nightmares for years as a kid.

    • You know, that is the one ‘classic’ ghostly story that has left me cold, and not in the right way. One scene genuinely terrified me, the rest I just thought ‘oh okay, right’. I expected to be completely bowled over. Would love your thoughts.

  4. Like you I much prefer the spooky and moody sort of horror rather than full on gore. Great choices for Autumn reading. I really look forward to hearing what you think of Hitchcock’s Stories Not For The Nervous.

  5. MR James’s short stories are my favourites, very creepy rather than gory. I’m currently reading Mrs De Winter by Susan Hill, which is perfect for this time of year.

    • I simply HAVE to read MR James, I am slightly appalled at myself for not having done so already, he is supposed to be the master of the ghostly tale.

      What do you make of Mrs De Winter?

  6. a building sense of fear for ne real reason to steal a title a turning of a screw building the tension up ,all the best stu

  7. janakay

    Like you, I go more for the creep and chill, “things seen out of the corner of the eye” rather than blood and gore! I second the vote for Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House as one of the scariest books I’ve ever read (to paraphrase, “Some houses are born evil…” Hill House is one such). My second favorite would be something by Lovecraft (have to be careful here–some of his stuff is just too, too over the top), probably “Pickman’s Model,” “The Rats in the Walls” or “The Dunwich Horror.” If you’re in the mood for a full blown novel, Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire stays with one for a long, long time (it’s one of her earlier books, before she became too famous to be edited). And, of course, there’s always Stoker’s Dracula.

    • Another recommendation of Haunting of Hill House. I am going to have to get my hands on that book. I will have a look and see if my Lovecraft collection has those stories in it and turn to them first.

      I have read Dracula, not Interview With A Vampire.

  8. I had always intended to read Lovecraft, and finally got around to it earlier this year. I was rather pleased to find I enjoyed his work as much as I’d hoped.
    What I found most intriguing is how modern much of his language is and, coupled with a rich vein of gothicism and general weird, it certainly kept me entertained. (As others have said above, some of it is really, really, weird).
    I hope you enjoy it too. I am about to start reading some of Robert E. Howard’s lesser known works and hope these are equally entertaining.
    As far as ghost stories go, and again echoing previous comments, M.R. James has to be my favourite – his tales are chilling works of beauty, which somehow capture the essence of fear. (Le Fanu is also worth checking out).
    As this is my first comment on your site I’d just like to say thank you for the time and effort you put in here, it is certainly much appreciated.

    • That is a brilliant recommendation Alex, if you have been wanting to read an author for a while they have to really blow you away as you tend to have hyped them subconsciously in your head. I must check out MR James, Le Fanu is a new to me author I haven’t heard of them before… intrigued.

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