Those of us who aren’t 100% occupied with writing books or blog posts may want something suitable to read by the fireplace between visits by trick-or-treaters. I recently found myself thinking about stories of ghosts and the unexplained, and decided to come up with a list for the blog.
I read most of these stories years ago but had no trouble remembering them. Looking in the anthologies in which they live, I see many other stories that have left no trace in my memory. Maybe that speaks ill of said memory, but I prefer to think the stories I remember are more readworthy than the others.
Two come from a book rescued from a dumpster, its spine ripped off. It’s called 50 Years of Ghost Stories, and was published by Hutchinson of London in 1935 (1959 printing). “The Rosewood Door” by Oliver Onions (1873-1961) is played out in the civilized setting of an English country house. A curious door salvaged from a house being demolished seems like just the thing, but it comes with a disturbing history that meshes tragically with the lighthearted atmosphere of an early 20th century gathering of upper-class Londoners. Oliver Onions is also the author of “The Beckoning Fair One,” a story of quietly growing horror and ruin.
Another story from the battered book is “The Library Window” by Mrs. Oliphant (1828-1897). This is a poignant tale of a girl’s first love, that happens on a visit to an elderly aunt in a quiet Scottish town. The story is full of atmosphere and emotion, with beguiling descriptions of long summer evenings in which almost nothing happens. Except there is a window in the College Library across the street, and a room behind it, and a young man… Or maybe not. This is one of those stories that lingers in memory long after it’s read.
Now to a fat anthology called Black Water, edited by the Canadian man of letters, Alberto Manguel. It’s packed with a wealth of “fantastic literature,” as the subtitle states, but the story I recalled from it most vividly is “How Love Came to Professor Guildea,” by Robert S. Hichens (1864-1950). A professor who has no use for affection finds it inflicted upon him in a disturbing way. The nature of the phenomenon is never precisely defined, which makes it all the more intriguing and sinister, and a parrot plays a unique role in the revelation.
No selection of scary stories is complete without at least one mention of Stephen King. He is a master at creating real, memorable characters who are far more than vehicles for a plot. He then visits these people with sorrow and horror. A prime example of this is his novel Pet Sematary, but a story with the same flavour is “Sometimes They Come Back,” from a 1979 collection called Night Shift. A high school English teacher turns to black magic after a devastating loss that echoes a similar loss in his childhood. King’s experience as a teacher comes through strongly in this story. In the same collection is another well-crafted tale called “Strawberry Spring.” It vividly conveys the atmosphere of a New England college town where a serial killer is at work, complete with a slap-in-the-face surprise ending.
There are many collections of supposedly true ghost stories around, many with a geographical focus. Such is a slim volume called Ghost Stories of Saskatchewan by Jo-Anne Christensen. Having lived in that Canadian province for twelve years, I bought the book out of nostalgia. One story is incredibly creepy. “Mystery at the Moose Head” tells of multiple strange incidents in the early 1990s at the Moose Head Inn, a popular dine-and-dance spot on Kenosee Lake. The number and frequency, and the fact that many people experienced these things (noises, electrical malfunctions, locks and doors acting up) attracted attention from newspapers and television stations. The owner and his girlfriend lived in an apartment upstairs. After an especially disturbing manifestation, the girlfriend moved out. The owner stayed on, however…
Finally, I must recommend my all-time favourite fear-inducing story: “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951). I wrote a blog post about this tale a while ago, with a plot summary and my thoughts on why it works so well.
A final thought — the word “haunted” is more effective in inducing fear than the word “ghost,” maybe because “ghost” sounds concrete, while “haunted” provokes the question, “By what?”