Ghost stories for dark winter nights

There’s a time and a place for reading a ghost story. You can’t, for instance, read a ghost story on a crowded commuter train. Nor can you read it on a sunny afternoon in the garden . No – a ghost story should be read late at night, in the light of a solitary lamp that is casting weird shadows around the room. One may be sitting comfortably in a favourite armchair; or one may be in bed, shortly before putting out the bedside lamp and submitting to the dark. The story is all the more effective if there is a howling wind outside, making eldritch sounds at the window-pane; or, better still, if there is a deathly, still, silence – a silence that one dreads being broken.

Recently, Tom in Wuthering Expectations – not, I believe, a diehard aficionado of the genre – has posted nonetheless very sympathetic accounts of some classic ghost stories. He identified different types of ghost stories, and quite rightly disagreed with my unargued assertion that the purpose of ghost stories is to evoke fear: a ghost story, he argued, could serve any number of functions. This is certainly true enough: but it’s the ones that evoke fear that I love the best. So, before I go on to prescribe, as I fully intend to do, what does and what doesn’t make for a good ghost story – or, at least, what makes for my kind of ghost story – I suppose I should describe the kind of ghost story I am talking about.

I am not really interested in ghost stories that are comic, or satirical: comedy may act as relief to lower the tension at appropriate moments, but I remain to be convinced that one may laugh and be frightened at the same time. Neither am I interested in ghost stories that seek to evoke disgust rather than fear – a common failing, I find, with much of modern horror. I like the creepy type of story – the type that evokes in me a sense of supernatural dread. It may be said, with some justification, that it’s a comfortable type of dread: it is easy to feel fear when safely ensconced in a nice, warm bed, especially when that fear is caused by beings one knows to be imaginary. That’s true enough. But, as I was reminded during a recent visit to Hermitage Castle, irrational fear, inexplicable dread, unreasoned terror, are all too real, even if ghosts and vampires aren’t. One may be perfectly rational and not believe in the supernatural, and yet find certain places to be, for want of a better word, spooky, and prefer not to be there after dark. Why we should feel this way, I do not know: but the finest ghost stories – or, to be more precise, the finest ghost stories of the type I like – do, I think, evoke something of just this sort of fear – a fear all the more unnerving because its object remains so shadowy and vague. And that is important: as soon as the objects of fear acquires too distinct a solidity, the fear that its vagueness had occasioned naturally dissipates.

This type of ghost story is, I think, a very conservative genre: its effectiveness usually comes from doing established things well, rather than from innovation. But since, as I have been told, and as I tend to agree, my cultural tastes are conservative anyway, I don’t have a problem with that. The master of the genre is, for me and for many others, M. R. James. What James understood so well is that the irrational is frightening for the very reason that it is irrational: it is precisely because the irrational irrupts into a solid and rational world that it terrifies. This is why I have never enjoyed the short stories of Poe very much: the framework of his stories is so far removed from the everyday, and the pitch is so hysterical to begin with, that when the irrational or the macabre does emerge, it is neither surprising nor incongruous.

And I think this is also why I tend not to enjoy stories in which some sort of rationale is provided for the haunting; or when some alternative plane of existence, perfectly in accordance with the laws of nature were we to be fully acquainted with these laws, is hypothesised to explain the apparition. I am happy to suspend my normal rational frame of mind when the irrational is depicted as irrational, but when that irrational is rationalised by an alternative type of reasoning, I find myself getting bored. I have read far too many ghost stories that have been spoiled by over-explaining: what matters is the projection of a sense of terror, and presentation of some parallel fantasy world that explains the apparently inexplicable merely diminishes that sense of terror.

Similarly with over-plotting: it is enough to know that phantoms haunt; we do not generally need to know why they haunt. There is nothing objectionable in suggesting some reason, but, once again, I have read far too many ghost stories that have been spoiled by too great an emphasis on this aspect: mere mechanics of the plot are rarely interesting, and the best ghost stories – once again, of the type I like – do not give us more of this than is absolutely necessary.

M. R. James knew exactly how to do it. In story after story, he got it just right – neither complete bafflement, nor too much explanation that would detract from the terror; the terror glimpsed, as he put it, “in the corner of the retina”; and just the right depiction of solidity to make the supernatural appear incongruous, and hence, shocking. After all, we all expect unspeakable horrors in a Gothic dungeon, but when you are in your own room and you slip your hand under the pillow to retrieve your watch, and … No, sorry, I’d better stop here: I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who has not yet read “Casting the Runes”.

As has often been remarked, the late Victorian and the Edwardian era – the era, in other words, in which M. R. James (and his namesake Henry James, who wrote probably the finest ghost story of them all) flourished – is the golden era for this type of story. Why this should be, I don’t know, although I am sure literary theorists have their own hypotheses on this matter: it’s probably all to do with social and economic changes, or something equally fascinating. But whatever the reason, the majority of the creepy stories I love were written in this period. And the sheer entertainment these stories have provided over the years has been immense.

As I write, we are just a few days away from Halloween, but Halloween was never – in the UK at least – a particularly major event as I was growing up, and it still doesn’t register particularly strongly with me. Traditionally, in Britain, it was Christmas that was the time for ghost stories. There is something about the darkening winter light in these latitudes that particularly lends itself to this sort of thing. But Halloween or Christmas – what matter? Now the time of year is approaching when I can once again enjoy reading these stories on dark nights before switching off the bedside lamp.

And then, the darkness.

33 responses to this post.

  1. My little ghost story event was informative and enjoyable. The good stuff is, as usual, in the comments of my posts. “[N]ot a diehard aficionado” is close, but “ignoramus” is closer. But now I am 8 or 9 stories closer to knowledge.

    It would be interesting to come across a ghost story that frightened me. But I am a cold, cold reader. I am not scared by texts – texts are scared of me! The two M. R. James stories I read were a lot of fun, but they both made me laugh, not shiver.

    The narrowness or conservatism of the genre is worth thinking about more. People keep writing haunted house stories, and they keep coming up with new variations, but I wonder if the cleverness then becomes the point of the exercise (I admire cleverness, so this is not entirely a criticism).

    It is like a mystery writer doing a locked-room murder today. Are we really interested in how the murderer did it, or how the author did it – what variation has he cooked up? How does the author get away with going back to this old conceit?

    Perhaps the appeal of the Edwardian ghost story is that fewer stories then were written as clever commentaries on the genre. They are meant to do what they seem to be meant to do, not parody what earlier authors meant to do.

    PS – “or something equally fascinating” – good sarcasm!


    • I suppose it’s a matter of the temperament of the individual reader: I find it quite easy to suspend my disbelief, as they say, and, at least while I am reading the story, to believe in the supernatural. But not in all cases: some writers manage it, but others don’t. If I were less susceptible, however, to suggestions of the supernatural, then it would be the technique rather the content that would strike me most prominently. But technique really is but a means to an end, and if the end is not achieved, the only point in studying the technique is to determine where it failed.

      Genres are strange creatures. If you enjoy a genre, it needs no excuse; but if you don’t, you wonder what all the fuss is about. I suppose once a genre is exhausted (which may well be the case with the ghost story genre), then all you can do is parody, or clever smartarse “commentaries” – i.e. fiction about fiction. I find this sort of thing a bore, to be frank. It’s all a nudge and a wink and “We don’t really take this seriously, do we folks?”

      Whether the ghost story genre has been exhausted, I really don’t know, but i suspect that the very fact that modern ghost stories can at times send a shiver up my spine suggests there’s some life in it yet. I had reservations about The Ghost Writer, for instance, but the creepy bits genuinely were creepy. I think the haunted house story will continue to scare, with or wothout new variations.

      I hope so, anyway! 🙂


  2. Posted by alan on November 2, 2012 at 11:56 pm

    “a sad tale’s best for winter” – OK perhaps not a Ghost story but the sentiment is similar.
    The ghost story still has its appeal but I wonder if our awareness of all too natural horrors has dampened the effect of the supernatural.
    A world that now understands about psychopaths and no longer believes in natural justice, has its own terrors.


  3. An interesting post. I would rate Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger and Helen Dunmore’s The Greatcoat as very fine examples of the genre – although full length novels rather than short stories. I find myself occasionally dipping into the outlandish reaches of literature with the annual Mammoth Book of Horror Stories, the 2012 version of which has just been published.


    • Hello Tom, I have heard much about the books you mention, but haven’t yet got round to reading any of them. I’ll try to rectify that this winter. Of the more recent horror stories, I did very much enjoy “Banquet for the Damned” by Adam Nevill (I’m told his subsequent novels aare just as good), and also, more recently, “The Ghost Writer” by John Harwood. Although I did have reservations about them both, mainly due to the padding that is almost inevitable when this sort of material is stretched out to novel length. However, there are occasions when a suprnatural story at novel length really does work: The Turn of the Screw is an obvious exampe – perhaps too obvious – as is the excellent Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.


  4. I did not stick strictly to ghost stories this season, but my Halloween reading was quite entertaining all the same. Here’s a peak at what I was perusing throughout October and into early November:

    Dan Simmons’ Summer of Night

    M. R. James’ The Residence at Whitminster

    H. P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror

    Dan Simmons’ A Winter Haunting

    The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

    The Monkey’s Paw and other tales of mystery and the Macabre by W. W. Jacobs

    The strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robt. L. Stevenson

    M. R. James’ The Diary of Mr. Poynter

    William Hope Hodgson’s House On the Borderland

    H. P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth

    The Horror from the Hills by Frank Belknap Long

    Jeff Long’s The Descent

    Richard Matheson’s Nightmare At 20,000 Feet (short story collection)

    M. P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud


    Currently reading Justin Cronin’s The Twelve (sequel to The Passage)

    Have on the shelf in readiness:

    Ray Bradbury’s classic Something Wicked This Way Comes


    F. Paul Wilson’s The Barrens and Other Stories (short story collection)

    Soon, I’ll have to start my Christmas season Dickens reading. This year will be The Battle of Life and The Haunted Man.

    Enjoy your reading time!



    • That looks a terrific list for winter! I was thinking of having a supernatural themed winter myself!

      Just one word of warning though: while The Haunted Man is excellent, The Battle of Life is a real turkey. I have read it through once because I’m a completist – but never again. It reminds me of that famous anecdote regarding Samuel Johnson and a minister of the church:

      – How did you like my sermon, Dr Johnson?
      – It was brief
      – Yes, I like to avoid being tedious
      – But you were tedious!


      • HAHA! Well, I’ll get back to you later this year with my thoughts on both of those Dickens Christmas stories. 😉

        By the way, I’m about 1/2 way though Bradbury’s “Something
        Wicked…”. I don’t know how I never read this before, but I’m glad I’m reading it now. I love his descriptive prose style in this story.

        A sample:

        There, on the world’s rim, the lovely snail-gleam of the
        railway tracks ran, flinging wild gesticulations of lemon or
        cherry-colored semaphore to the stars.

        There on the precipice of the earth, a small stream feather
        uprose like the first storm cloud yet to come.

        The train itself appeared, link by link, engine, coal-car, and
        numerous and numbered all-asleep-and-slumbering-dream-filled
        cars that followed the firefly-sparked churn, chant, drowsy autumn
        hearthfire roar. Hellfires flushed the stunned hills. Even at this
        remote view, one imagined men with buffalo-haunched arms
        shoveling black meteor falls of coal into the open boilers of the

      • Hello Eric, As you know, I have a bit of a mental block when it comes to science fiction. Don’t ask me why. Maybe I was viciously attacked by a science fiction writer in my infancy, or something. Whatever the reason, I just can’t seem to get interested in it. I did read Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” back in my schooldays, I remember.

        I look forward to reading what you make of the Dickens Christmas Books. Now, I am going to retire to bed with a good ghost story! Good night!

  5. I love ghost stories, and recently bought The Wordsworth Book of Horror Stories which should keep me busy for a while as it it is over 1,000 pages long.
    M.R. James is a great writer, The Secret of Crickley Hall was a very enjoyable read.
    I’m intrigued by the fact that you don’t like Poe. I find his work amazing.


    • James Herbert wrote The Secret of Crickley Hall, and not M.R. James. It was the wrong James, sorry for the mistake.


    • Hello Delia, and welcome. I don’t have that particular anthology you mention, but I don’t know my bedside table can take any more big anthologies right now!

      I think I like ghost stories that take pace in a realistic environment: it’s the irruption of the irrational into an otherwise rational world that I find so shocking. When the environment itself is unrealistic, then the intrusion of the supernatural does not shock. That’s the problem I ave with Poe. I have that problem also with much of Lovecraft: all that stuff about Chthulu I find frankly silly. The supernatural frightens because it is inexplicable: when explanations are provided, it just doesn’t convince; and it doesn’t frighten either.

      I suppose I really just like a particular *type* of ghost story. I do appreciate though that I am in a minority in not caring for much for Poe or for Lovecraft!


      • I agree with Tom – Poe is much more believable that Lovecraft when it comes to the setting of the story. Besides, there is a dreaminess and melancholy in some of Poe’s works that appeals to me. Not to mention his poems, The Sleeper is my personal favourite.
        I remember picking up a copy of Lovecraft’s stories and abandoning it about halfway through – it just did not work for me, but I haven’t given up on him yet.

      • Hello Delia & Tom (if I can respond to you both simultaneously),

        First of all, sorry about the delay in responding. I won’t bore you with the reasons! 🙂

        The kind of ghost story that appeals to me most are those where the normality of everyday life is subverted by the intrusion of the uncanny. I have rarely felt in reading Poe that I am ever in a normal, everyday world. Even those that are set in the “real world” are narrated by madmen – “The Black Cat”, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “Berenice”, etc. There are others where we may doubt the sanity of the narrator – “The Cask of Amontillado”, “The Imp of the Perverse”. “The Fall of the House of Usher” starts with a long depiction of a very dark, gloomy, and dreamlike Gothic setting. “The Masque of the Red Death” is set in a fantasy world, as is “Hop Frog”. “The Pit and the Pendulum” in a torture chamber. Very rarely do I feel any strong contact with reality, so when the macabre makes its appearance (Tom makes the very interesting point that there’s actually very little of the supernatural in the stories), it doesn’t really surprise: the sense of the macabre is with us from the very beginning. And because it doesn’t surprise, it doesn’t shock. Not me, at any rate.

        Possibly I am too much in thrall to the M. R. James style of story, where the irruption of the irrational into a rational world is the very point. And of course, there is no reason other than that of personal taste to prefer the M. R. James-type of story to that of Edgar Allan Poe. I must admit it has been some time since I last read Poe, and I find myself intrigued by Delia’s mention of melancholy in his stories. I think I’ll try some of his stories, so that, even if I don’t get converted, I’ll have a better idea about why I don’t quite find his works congenial to my taste.

  6. Now I am puzzled. There is little supernatural stuff in Poe, and there is a lot of rationality. The Dupin stories are supposedly pure “ratiocination”!

    “The Masque of the Red Death” is a pure fantasy, granted, but “The Cask of Amontillado”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, “A Descent into the Maelström”, that one where the fellow is buried alive – these all have more or less realistic settings.

    This is putting aside Poe’s humor pieces, his hoaxes, his poems, and his hilarious book reviews.

    How much Poe even qualifies as a ghost story? Maybe “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat”? I am sure I am forgetting some, but I am also sure I am not forgetting very many.


  7. That is a great response about Poe. There are many good reasons to not have a taste for Poe (although, as I wrote in my big Poe series long ago, there is more than one Poe). But now I have a followup question.

    When I read those two M. R. James stories a while ago the appearance of the supernatural phenomena was not at all a surprise. Even though the sense of the macabre was, as you say, not there from the beginning, I was nevertheless not surprised by the intrusion of ghosts for the simple reason that I knew I was reading a ghost story. What else is going to happen in M. R. James?

    So, when rummaging around in something like The Giant Book of Ghost Stories, how do you maintain that sense of surprise?


    • It is a good question, and I wish I knew the answer to it. I suppose it’s not unrelated to our feeling a sense of shock when Lear enters in the final scene bearing the corpse of Cordelia. Even if we don’t know the play, we know the thing’s a tragedy; so why should we feel shocked? And yet, we do. We know these are but actors playing the roles, and soon they’ll be up taking their curtain calls. And at the same time, we feel all the terror and pity that Aristotle told us we should feel.

      In short, it’s a mystery. Our minds seem capable of dividing itself into several parts, with certain parts powerfully affected by certain things while certain other parts know there’s no reason to be affected at all.

      I trust the above is a good way of saying “I don’t know what the answer to your question is”…


  8. You have your blog set to only allow threaded comments three deep. That’s OK, though. I have mine set the same way.

    Anyway, in regards to my comment about Bradbury’s “Something Wicked…”, you replied:

    “Hello Eric, As you know, I have a bit of a mental block when it comes to science fiction.”

    Not all Bradbury is Sci-Fi, Himadri. I thing “Something Wicked…” would fall into the horror genre much more comfortably. You should give it a whirl. I think you might like it.


  9. Have you tried Stephen King? I think you might like the kind of horror he writes about: it creeps into the seemingly normal life of the characters.
    As for science fiction, I had a mental block, too, but I have to agree with Eric – some of Bradbury’s books don’t really fall into that genre. Fahrenheit 451 is an excellent novel, beautifully written and short. 🙂 I’d love to read “Something Wicked…”, it’s on my TBR list. Someday…


    • Delia (A pretty name, by the way. I have a cousin named Delia),

      Read the entire Green Town series if you get the chance. They’re not really related other than they take place in Bradbury’s fictitious Green Town, IL. You may like them. I’m just now finishing “Dandelion Wine”. I’m amazed that I never read these Bradbury books before. I always equated him with Sci-Fi. He was ever so much more.

      Green Town books:

      Dandelion Wine
      Something Wicked This Way Comes
      Farewell Summer

      Enjoy! 🙂



      • Hello Eric & Delia,

        I had read “Fahrenheit 451” when I was still at school, and that’s many years ago now. In retrospect, it seems an idea-driven novel – by which I mean that the most salient aspect of it are the ideas. I didn’t really think there was enough to justify a full-length novel. I have, I admit, principally thought of Bradbury as a science fiction author, but if he also wrote non-SF horror, then I’d certainly be keen to try it. I have a book-buying session in London coming up shortly, so I’ll keep a look-out for it.

        And Delia, strangely enough, I have never read Stephen King: I have been put off both by the adaptations – none of which has been to my taste – and also, I admit, by the length of his books: I really don’t think horror can sustain itself over any great length, and when they do, there’s inevitably a lot of uninteresting padding. But given his reputation, perhaps I should give him a try.

        Cheers for now,

  10. Himadri,

    In most cases, the movie adaptations are never as good as the books and that is true in King’s case. The only movie I really liked (not that I watched that many anyway) was The Green Mile – but I haven’t read the book. He does write chunksters but they are well worth a try. Needful Things was my first King book and because I liked it so much I went on to read at least 20 more. He can spin a tale, and make it last, yes, for a few hundred pages without any problem. His short stories are quite good as well, but I always found the novels better because there’s so much detail that keeps you well anchored into the tale. I hope you’ll give him a try.
    I found Fahrenheit 451 to be an extraordinary book, mostly because it depicted a time in which books were burned and thinking was discouraged. I still remember the day I found the book on the shelf and how I felt when I started reading – it was like falling in love.
    It will be interesting to see if your perception about the book has changed over the years.


    A friend of mine has recommended Dandelion Wine and I want to read that some day. “Something Wicked…” sounds good too, but after so many King books I’m afraid the story is going to be too familiar. Thanks for the recommendations, I will put the books on my TBR list.


    • Believe me when I tell you this…

      Dandelion Wine is not a horror novel. It’s a coming of age, philosophical story, if it’s anything at all.

      Something Wicked, while somewhat scary, is not really a horror novel either. It’s difficult to classify. It’s also a coming of age story of two young boys. Don’t even think Stephen King when you think of this book. It’s not even in the same universe. On one of my blogs I described, not altogether accurately, Something Wicked as Huckleberry Finn written by Stephen King. You have to read it to understand, I guess.

      Bradbury is a surprisingly descriptive writer in these stories compared to his Sci-Fi. Of course, it’s been many years since I read any of his Sci-Fi… F451, Robots, Mars, etc.

      Read ’em when you get the chance. You may be pleasantly surprised. 🙂

      Ta-Ta for now…



  11. That link was for a search engine for used real dead tree books, Himadri. 🙂


  12. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is the defendent in the dock guilty or not of not having clicked on the link before commenting? I put it to you, and to Your Worship, and to m’learned friend here, that, given that the defendent was under a misapprehension, subsequently admitted, regarding the nature of the link itself, the questionis superfluous: there is no requirement on the defendent’s part to click on a link if he believed, however erroneously, that he knew what the link links to. I therefore request, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, that you return a verdict of “not guilty”, and set the defendent free to return to the open arms of his tearful, grey-haired mother. I thank you.


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