Author: Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, FG Loring, WF Harvey, Hugh Walpole, Margaret Irwin and many more.
Finished on: 29 January 2017
Where did I get this book: Inherited from our neighbour’s friend
I was prompted to dust this beautiful volume down when I signed up to take part in a ghost story writing workshop. A well-written ghost story is one of life’s greatest joys, second only to the perfectly-crafted whodunit on my list of favourite literary indulgences. And in advance of having a go myself, I wanted to see how it was done.
The truth is that this book contains a real mixed bag in terms of quality. And also in terms of spookiness. I was doing so well at being brave (and able to go to the loo alone), that I took it with me to babysit in a 17th century creaky cottage with vocal plumbing. What a fool. It unexpectedly got much scarier with WF Harvey’s The Beast With Five Fingers and then Hugh Walpole’s Mrs Lunt. Shudder. When you’re all alone (except for a sleeping child) and find yourself jumping at an imagined (I hope) severed hand running around on the carpet, it’s time to switch to the lightweight contemporary fiction.
There is a real craft to writing a good ghost story. The ghosts vary enormously in form and intent, as do the haunted protagonists. But the most successful here share those classic qualities of an atmospheric setting, a slow build-up of tension interspersed with the occasional sudden shock, and a healthy helping of something our workshop leader was keen to encourage, the uncanny. Something familiar made unfamiliar. It’s good advice. Illustrated by the most inspiring section of the workshop, where he gave each of us a familiar object, then asked us to imagine it haunted and what the story behind that might be. My sister and I (admittedly the two biggest wimps in the world) started to wonder if we’d made a huge mistake in attending, as we spooked ourselves silly.
Several of my favourites here are by writers I had never heard of before. The last of all, The Earlier Service by Margaret Irwin, is spectacularly good and I would love to read more by her. In contrast, I have always thought of Edgar Allan Poe as being right up my street, but found Ligeia frustratingly repetitive and slow to get to the point.
But all in all, a real gem of a book. Despite being very much not suitable reading for babysitting alone.