Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sarah Water's Ten Best Ghost Stories

Sarah Waters is the author of THE LITTLE STRANGER, a ghost story.

The Monkey's Paw" by WW Jacobs
This is one of the most anthologised of all ghost stories, and its "be careful what you wish for" message has become one of the clichés of the genre. Every time I read it, I realise how economical it is: we never see the son who, summoned up by the diabolical power of the monkey's paw, has dragged his mangled body out of its grave and back to his parents' house; we only hear his baleful knocks at the door. But it's the anticipation that makes it so hair-raisingly good.

Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu
This story of a beautiful revenant and her fascination with teenage girls is about a vampire rather than a ghost, but it can't be beaten. Most memorable is the "very strange agony" into which her voluptuous wooing plunges the story's unworldly narrator: "Sometimes it was as if warm lips kissed me, and longer and more lovingly as they reached my throat . . ."

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
As far as I know, none of Ishiguro's fiction is actively supernatural, but his novels have a brilliant strangeness to them, which makes reading them always an unnerving experience. Here his Nagasaki-born narrator has become so detached from her own traumatic past, she has effectively turned it into someone else's life. As in many great ghost stories, the result is a tightly controlled narrative surface, with half-glimpsed, terrifying depths.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
This is a brilliant depiction of a woman's decent into insanity. But the room in which its unnamed protagonist slowly loses her wits is definitely a "haunted" one: the ghosts are other women, trying furiously but fruitlessly to "shake the bars" of the claustrophobic patterns in which they are trapped.

"The Specialist's Hat" by Kelly Link
All of Link's stories are wonderfully odd and original. Some are also quite scary - and this, from her collection Stranger Things Happen, is very scary indeed. It's the story of 10-year-old twin girls in a haunted American mansion, being instructed by an enigmatic babysitter just what it means to be "dead".

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The definitive haunted house story, and one of the novels that inspired a fabulously scary film, the 1963 The Haunting (1963).

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
I'm not really much of a James fan, but I think this has to be on my list, if only because the story - of a lonely governess whose charges may or may not be being haunted by the ghosts of wicked servants - has been such an influential one. As far as chills go, I actually prefer the two films for which it provided the inspiration: the 1961 The Innocents, with a fragile Deborah Kerr, and The Others (2001), with a demented Nicole Kidman.

"The Demon Lover" by Elizabeth Bowen
In many of her novels and stories, Bowen beautifully captures the eerie atmosphere of wartime London, with its blitzed, abandoned houses. In this story, a middle-aged woman tries to evade an assignation with the sinister soldier fiancé, lost to her many years before.

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
Watching a BBC adaptation of this several Christmases ago, I got so frightened, I was sick. Admittedly, I had eaten a lot of Christmas pudding - but Hill's story is terrifying, a classic of the genre. The "woman with the wasted face", made so malevolent by the loss of her own infant that she destroys the children of others, is a fantastic creation.

Beloved by Toni Morrison
"Not a house in the country ain't packed to its rafters with some dead Negro's grief," one of the characters points out, when Sethe, the novel's protagonist, suggests fleeing from the spiteful spirit inhabiting her home. One of the great fictional studies of slavery and its scars, Beloved is also a sublime literary ghost story: a meditation on the ways in which individuals and communities - an entire nation - can be haunted by the violence and injustice of the past.

How do these stack up for you? I've only read four, sadly.


Loren Eaton said...

Embarrassingly, only two for me, the first and the last.

Deb said...

Patti--you're not alone in finding the ending of the book ambiguous (and not necessarily in a good way). See the exchanges between John Self and others (including me) on his blog regarding The Little Stranger. (Beware: Comments section does contain spoilers.)


Deb said...

Did you delete the sentence about not getting the ending of The Little Stranger--or did I imagine it was there? If the latter, just ignore my prior post.

R/T said...

I see _Beloved_ listed. While a person could read it as a "ghost story," I read it instead as ideological myth-making of the most transparent and awkward variety; if written with more finesse (instead of Morrison's heavy-handed, agenda-driven narrative style), the mythology could have worked, but the end-product (as critic Harold Bloom would agree) is so self-consciously stylized that the "ghost story" becomes little more than an incidental conceit in furtherance of Morrison's cultural game-plan and underscores he lack of narrative control. Well, take it or leave it, that is one reader's opinion. (P.S. Other titles on the list also deserve reconsideration, but perhaps I've already said too much and should leave those titles for another time.)

pattinase (abbott) said...

Although I read Beloved I can't remember it well enough to know if it's primarily a ghost story or a tract. Sad when the memory goes.
I did have that up there, Deb and took it down so as not to obscure the topic. I will go look at the comments. Thanks!

George said...

Women seem to write great ghost stories, Patti. I am partial to Henry James's THE TURN OF THE SCREW, though.

pattinase (abbott) said...

My all-time favorite, too.

Deb said...

The last sentence of "The Turn of the Screw" is, to me, one of the most devastating and haunting in literature.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Deb-I added my problem at the end of the comment section-unfortunately I used the name Ayres instead of Farraday so make that substitution and tell me what you think.
(aa2579@wayne.edu)or there, too.

Deb said...

Patti--I think your analysis is plausible, especially because Farraday makes it clear that he is very self-conscious about his social standing in comparison to the aristocratic Ayres family. I just wish Sarah Waters had been more inclined to "explain" things. Some ambiguity can be tantalizing, but I think Waters just ran out of steam and couldn't decide how to resolve her story.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I am not a fan of ambiguity I fear.

David Cranmer said...

And sadly for me only the Henry James story. But I've saved the list for my references.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think you can get the Kelly Link on online and probably some of the others.

Laurie Powers said...

I guess David and I get the booby prize - I've only read one - The Yellow Wallpaper. There are many on here I'd like to read, though, especially Henry James.

Todd Mason said...

No time for much comment at the moment, but the notion that THE OTHERS owes much to THE TURN OF THE SCREW can only be interpreted as misunderstanding one of both.

Todd Mason said...

Well, it isn't one of my posts or comments w/o a typo/mistyping..."one or both."

Jerry House said...

Only six for me.

Todd Mason said...

OK, I'm back. Another nit: "The Monkey's Paw" isn't a ghost story, it's definitely a zombie story, fwiw...much as Waters admits CARMILLA is not a ghost story (and, really, neither is "The Yellow Wallpaper" also given her quasi proviso). But that aside, a fairly reasonable list, from what I've read among them (I haven't yet read the Ishiguro nor the Hill, and put down the Morrison and have yet to bet back to it due more to requirements of one of my recent moves than anything to do with the book (I'd have to unpack it in a rather different way than RT does). And it's been decades (and decades) since the James and the Bowen for me.

Todd Mason said...

AMONG THE GHOST STORIES ONE NEEDS TO READ, AT ABSOLUTE MINIMUM (along with such cited work as Shirley Jackson's, and the likes of "The Lovely House"):

M.R. James: "Oh, Whistle, And I'll Come to You, My Lad" and "Casting the Runes"
Fritz Leiber: "Smoke Ghost" and OUR LADY OF DARKNESS
Thorne Smith: TOPPER
Noel Coward: BLITHE SPIRIT (well, a play is still a story--I'll resist the urge to list Shakespeare)
Theodore Sturgeon: "Shottle Bop"
...mulling which Lisa Tuttle, which Margaret St. Clair, which Ramsey Campbell, which E. F. Benson, if there's a Joanna Russ ghost story, as opposed to something like "Come Closer," that should be bracketed with these, which Manly Wade Wellman, hell, which Edith Wharton...Saki's "Laura" is a bit of a cheat, for this list, as not quite a ghost story, but closer than "Paw" or "Wallpaper"...and what the hell was the name of the guy who wrote "Proof" (not the Hal Clement "Proof," mind you, the short ghost story...).

le0pard13 said...

Three for me. And THE WOMAN IN BLACK movie adaptation is quite something. And I'd agree that women authors write superb ghost stories. Not on the list, but I'd also recommend Richard Matheson's HELL HOUSE. Thanks, Patricia.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I saw the play of Woman in Black. Alas, I do even worse with Todd's list.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've never read Beloved or a Pale view of hills but all the others I enjoy very much.

Paul D Brazill said...

The Monkey's Paw is the only one I've read. I read it when I was a kid and it made a GREAT impression on me.

Dorte H said...

Only two, but don´t tell me there are any out there which are better than The Yellow Wallpaper.

(Well, if there are, DO tell me).