If 100 people were surveyed Family Fortunes style about the best time of year to read ghost stories, the “top answer” stampede would be for October 31st. Me? I’d be trailing behind (with that trademark incorrect “X” on the screen) for suggesting Christmas, but to me there is something inherently spooky about the dead of winter. Innocent trees chopped down in their prime, dead-eyed fairies and maniacal Santa Claus laughter loops? It’s the stuff of Stephen King’s nightmares. In reality, I blame the BBC for this seasonal association. In the 1970s, they started A Ghost Story for Christmas, a series of TV adaptations of classics of the genre, including Dickens’ The Signal-Man and several M.R. James stories. It ran for eight years but since 2005, episodes have been sporadically revived, with new versions and repeats of the originals. I always hoped that they would eventually tackle Sheridan Le Fanu, the Irish writer born 100 years ago this year. The godfather of Gothic immortalised Chapelizod in one particular collection of short stories, while Green Tea regularly appears in ‘Best of’ lists of the genre. The main protagonist is tormented by a demon monkey – but is it mere hallucination or an actual ghost? Roald Dahl – in the introduction to his favourite ghost stories – said “the best ghost stories don’t have ghosts in them. At least you don’t see the ghost… you can feel them”. Possibly, but would The Shining have been as terrifying without Grady, Lloyd and those creepy twins?
If you explore the genre – and you should because of its diversity, and the thrill of being scared senseless – it’s becomes clear that it has reeled in all kinds of writers: Henry James, Ali Smith, Robert Louis Stevenson and Edith Wharton. The latter two feature in a newly published series by Galley Beggar Press. Wharton’s ‘The Eyes’ tell the story of ocular hell, while Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Body Snatcher‘ overlaps with the real-life tale of Burke and Hare.
All of these revered writers may be bygone, but the ghost story itself is no relic. Susan Hill (The Woman in Black) consistently returns to the supernatural, and has just published Printer’s Devil Court. A film of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger is in the works and along with John Boyne’s This House is Haunted, is a recent bonechiller. Hammer, stalwarts of camp horror films, has also invited literary writers like Jeanette Winterson and DBC Pierre to write scary tales. But it’s the classics I keep returning to and many appear in a recently published anthology by Professor Darryl Jones of Trinity College. There’s Le Fanu, Bram Stoker and Charlotte Gilman Perkins – The Yellow Wallpaper is not just a chilling piece, but a Feminist classic. Ghost stories remind us of our mortality, of the thrill of terror, that someone else is having a worse time than us. We jolt when we see Peter Quint at the window in The Turn of The Screw, but we can always close the book.
This article originally appeared in The Irish Times on December 20th, 2014.
A Book Show ghost story special was broadcast on RTE Radio 1 on Saturday, December 20th. The show featured a piece about eyes, doctors and medicine in the supernatural, and included a visit to the archives of the Royal College of Surgeons. We examined some 19th century surgical equipment used in eye operations.
Here’s a fascinating post about these objects by RCSI’s archivist, Meadhbh Murphy, who featured in the programme. One story we discussed was Edith Wharton’s ‘The Eyes’, which features in this new quartet from Galley Beggar Press.
We also discussed mirroring and doubles in the supernatural with author of The Thirteenth Tale and Bellman and Black, Diane Setterfield and by Darryl Jones of Trinity College, Dublin – author of the recently published Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffman to Hodgson and editor of MR James’ Collected Ghost Stories. Matthew Holness talked of his admiration of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Story, ‘Green Tea’ and Regan Hutchens visited Le Fanu’s Chapelizod with Brian. J Showers of Swan River Press. We ended the show with a ghost story, ‘The Gardener’, from James Robertson, who recently published 365 Stories – an anthology of 365 short stories of 365 words each. To listen to the show, go to the Book Show website or listen on Soundcloud.