The lost art of writing ghost stories

Image credit: Daily Telegraph

Image credit: Daily Telegraph

I love a good ghost story—but, as a general rule, I don’t read them during the summer. Sunshine and swimming pools minimize the creep factor. This month, however, I made an exception. I’ve been trying to read every unread volume on my bookshelf. I have no set strategy; I simply grab whatever catches my fancy. The most recent book to do so was Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories. It’s been sitting on my shelf for several years and, for whatever reason, has always been overlooked. It’s a collection edited by Dahl and contains some real gems. Ignoring my rule about specters and summer, I dived in and was pleasantly creeped out by a good number of tales. If you enjoy the macabre, check it out.

While reading the book, it occurred to me that writing a genuinely good ghost story is very much a lost art. Horror stories today focus on the gory and have an in-your-face quality to them. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with this, it’s a lot harder to scare someone by what they don’t see. I prefer English ghost stories for the simple reason I’ve never read a decent one by an American author (okay—Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is an exception). The Grand Master of the English ghost story is, without doubt, M.R. James (1862-1936). He served in his lifetime as provost of King’s College, Cambridge, and Eton—but it’s for his disturbing tales that he’s best remembered. In total, he published four books. Penguin has collected all his stories in two great volumes, Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories and The Haunted Dollhouse and Other Ghost Stories. In the preface to his 1911 volume More Ghost Stories of An Antiquary, James details what makes an effective ghost story:

I think that, as a rule, the setting should be fairly familiar and the majority of the characters and their talk such as you may meet or hear on any day. A ghost story of which the scene is laid in the twelfth or thirteenth century may succeed in being romantic or poetical: it will never put the reader into the position of saying to himself, “If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!” Another requisite, in my opinion, is that the ghost should be malevolent or odious: amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story. Again, I feel that the technical terms of “occultism,” if they are not very carefully handled, tend to put the mere ghost story (which is all that I am attempting) upon a quasi-scientific plane, and to call into play faculties quite other than the imaginative.

No doubt he would have loathed Casper the Friendly Ghost.

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