Tuesday, December 13, 2011

R.I.P. Challenge Catch Up: The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories

Newton, Michael, ed. The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories: From Elizabeth Gaskell to Ambrose Pierce. London: Penguin Books, 2010.

(Yes, I know it's December, but I'm still catching up on writing about my R.I.P. challenge books. I've got two more to tell you about after this one. Oh well, the winter is as good a time as any to pick up a spine-tingling book, so maybe I'll inspire some good winter reading for you -- or titles to put on your list for next year's R.I.P. challenge).

Ahh, what could be better than to sit down on a rainy afternoon in Maine, large mug of tea at hand, and a collection of ghost stories? I read the majority of these stories while in Maine in October. They were a perfect complement to a volume of Victorian vampire stories I'd also brought with me to read.

I liked this collection because it included some of my all-time favorite ghost stories (W.W. Jacob's "The Monkey's Paw", M. R. James's "'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad'"), but it also introduced me to stories I didn't know, most written by authors I didn't know (Mary Elizabeth Braddon's "The Cold Embrace", Mary Austin's "The Readjustment"). Talk about a book that leads one to read more. I could probably spend 2012 doing nothing but reading books and story collections I've been inspired to read just from this book. Instead, as is typical, despite notes I've made in the book and titles I've put into the T.B.R. tome, this book will probably go on a shelf, and I'll read nothing more that I learned about from its pages until years from now when someone says to me, "Have you ever read this collection of Margaret Oliphant stories? You really must."

What makes this collection great is Michael Newton's Introduction and his Notes. The Notes are terrific. They provide biographical information about each author as well as information on when and where each story was first published. I hate cheap collections that give the reader absolutely nothing to help put stories into context. Occasionally, I came across what I consider classic "Penguinesque" endnotes, the sort that make me think, "I flipped all the way to the back of the book and nearly lost my place for that?" Here's a prime example for you:

He was made welcome at the Globe Inn, was safely installed in the large double-bedded room of which we have heard, and was able before retiring to rest to arrange his materials for work in apple-pie order upon a commodious table which occupied the outer end of the room, and was surrounded on three sides by windows looking seaward. (p. 264)*
This passage is followed by an endnote. Hmm. What might it be? Perhaps there's some information about superstitions surrounding windows that look seaward. Or maybe the fictitious Globe Inn is based on a real inn that still exists. Or possibly (one of my favorite types of end notes), we'll get some details about how this story connects to some other story, either by the author or one of the author's friends. But, no, flip to page 406, and here's what you'll find:

"apple-pie order: perfect neatness"


Luckily, as I noted above, most of the endnotes weren't of this sort, and Newton's Introduction is well worth reading. He explains why he's chosen the stories he has, and he gives descriptions of different kinds of ghost stories (useful to those of us who dabble in writing our own such stories). He follows his Introduction with a "Further Reading List" that is more enticing than most such lists. He's done a superb job, really, of putting together an anthology, taking care to include all the bits and pieces that are necessary to make an anthology complete. That's the editor in me speaking. Now, let's hear the reader in me give you brief commentaries on each story.

Elizabeth Gaskell: The Old Nurse's Story
This one effortlessly and effectively combines many classic elements of the genre into one story.

Fitz-James O'Brien: What Was It?"
If you like a little humor thrown in with your creepiness, this is a story for you. Thank goodness for the endnotes, though. O'Brien expected his readers to be literate way beyond what I am.

Edward Bulwer Lytton: The Haunted and the Haunters: or, The House and the Brain
The alternate title says it all: the irrational meets the rational. We all know I love a good irrational v. rational tale.

Elizabeth Bradden: The Cold Embrace
Oh, if only this sort of vengeance could be visited upon all such cads. I think I must read more Bradden.

Amelia B. Edwards: The North Mail
This one's a great twist on the sort of fears loving wives have experienced ever since the institution of marriage was created.

Charles Dickens: No. 1 Branch Line: The Signal-man
Dickens was a Master when it comes to describing the ghostly. This is a good one for those of us raised on urban legends of ghosts of train wrecks.

Sheridan Le Fanu: Green Tea
(Beware, those of you obsessed with drinking green tea for your health.) This story's a prime example of the moving away from the romantic to the scientific. Here, spirit possession is nothing a physician can't handle, given permission and the time to do so. Oh, and there's a monkey, so wonderfully evil, a touch I loved.

Harriet Beecher Stowe: The Ghost in the Cap'n Brown House
Bet you didn't know that Beecher Stowe wrote ghost stories. I love the way so many of our classic writers experimented with the genre. This is a fine example of how urban legends might start and spread. Each of the two women in the story is convinced that her version of it is the honest truth. And what fun everyone in town is having with both.

Robert Louis Stevenson: Thrawn Janet
Was ever a more Presbyterian tale written? I found it difficult to read because of all the Scottish dialect but well worth the trouble. The Scottish glossary in the back of the book, whose inclusion I initially questioned (silly me!) came in handy.

Margaret Oliphant: The Open Door
Here's a story to verify everything the medium James Van Praagh would have to tell you about ghosts. I loved it! Oliphant's writing style is sublime. She's already in the TBR tome (thanks to you, fellow bloggers), and I must read more.

Rudyard Kipling: The End of the Passage
I found it interesting from a historical perspective, but I really didn't understand what happened. And not in a "Was there or wasn't there a ghost?" way. I mean in a "Huh? What are these characters doing and why?" way, the sort of story that has be rereading pages and still not understanding, while my mind wanders (basically, the way I read every story I had to read for high school English classes).

Lafcadio Hearn: Nightmare Touch
This story's horrific in its own right and is made even more so by the treatment of the poor child -- whether his horror was real or not.

W. W. Jacobs: The Monkey's Paw
Okay, I take that back about the way I read every story for high school English classes. I loved this one when I read it for high school, and I still love it, even though I've read it God knows how many times since then. Is there a single ghost story anthology that doesn't include it?

Mary Wilkins Freeman: The Wind in the Rose-Bush
(I wonder when we stopped hyphenating rose bush.) This is a classic ghost story, sort of an imaginative take on your friend's friend's brother's tale about the young hitchhiker who left her sweater in his car and when he went to return it to her house, his parents informed him she'd been dead for several years.

M.R. James: "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad"
It's the epitome of an M.R. Jamesian tale (clever, intelligent, funny, and creepy with great twists) and one of my favorites, especially since if I happen to be traveling alone, staying in some b & b with two beds, I can spook myself if I think about it too much (most especially if I'm dumb enough to watch one of those ghost hunting programs on the TV that's also in the room).

Ambrose Bierce: The Moonlit Road
I loved this one because it's a brilliant merging of mystery and ghost story.

Henry James: The Jolly Corner
I'm surprised I'd never read this one till now. Very Henry Jamesian. That means it's very erudite in a way I shouldn't like, that should bore me to tears, but I loved it anyway, which has been my experience with everything I've ever read by James. (I wish my last name were James. It seems then I'd automatically be a great ghost story writer.)

Mary Austin: The Readjustment
This one's a marvelous exploration of how a couple can love one another and never be able to communicate that love to each other.

Edith Wharton: Afterward
(How clever to end a book with a story called "Afterward".) I barely remembered anything about this one from the first time I read it, but I love Wharton's ghost stories, so it was a pleasure to read it as though I were reading it for the first time. Like Edwards's story (and also like many of Wharton's other ghost stories) it's another one that preys nicely on wifely fears.

* Guess the author of that quote. I'll put all correct guesses in a hat and send a copy of this book to the name I pull.


Grace said...

Oooh. The Monkey's Paw is so creepy!

Jenn said...

I love the Monkey's Paw, too! Very creepy! And the quote is by M.R. James, another of my favorite ghost story writers!

litlove said...

Grrr, silly end notes really, really get up my nose! But the book sounds delightful and I can imagine you loving it in Maine - the perfect setting. As for the quote, hmmmm, tricky. Henry James?

Susan said...

I need to get this book asap!!!! How do I not have it? Some of the stories sound so perfect. Thanks for the review, Emily.

I can't find you latest post (from now , early Jan) so I'll wish you happy 2012 to you and Bob, and that it be a quiet year for you two. That would be lovely, wouldn't it?

Emily Barton said...

Grace, yes it IS creepy.

Jenn, sorry it's taken me so long to tell you you've won. The quote is, indeed, M. R. James. Email me with your mailing address, and I'll send you a copy of the book.

Litlove, well you got the last name right, but it's M. R., not Henry.

Susan, yes, you must get this collection. You couldn't find my latest post, because this was it, but I'm hoping to remedy my lack of blog posts going forward (see my latest). Happy 2012 to you, too! Yes, a quiet year would be quite lovely.