I’ve always loved reading ghost stories at this time of year. Nothing else seems to hit quite the same spot the wind is roaring like a lost soul outside and the rain is battering against the windows in truly biblical fashion. As the nights draw in there’s always that primeval part of us that draws closer to the fire but is mindful of the fury outside. This is something that writers have always understood and those writing before homes were lit with the flick of a switch understood it by far the best. My favourite ghost stories always seem to date from the mid-19th to early 20th century, when the gothic imagination was at its height. I grew up reading M.R. James and E.F. Benson, first discovered in the volumes that made up part of my dad’s Everyman Library – hundreds of uniform cloth covered books with matching paper jackets that lived in special glass fronted bookcases in the dining room.
It was in those bookcases I discovered the Brontes and Dickens, Tacitus and Gidden’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The Everyman mission was always to provide a world class library of classics accessible to the ordinary men and women. The Everyman collection taught me about the gothic imagination and it was from there I first discovered the pleasure of reading to be scared. There were other horror compendiums around the house, one Welsh Tales of Terror compiled by the great Chetwynd Hayes left a particular impression with a story of man eating rats, but there was something about the heft of the Everyman books that was special.
Back then, happy in my reading nook, I never really noticed that all the stories I read were written by men. When I started to collect my own horror compilations I found a few female writers – Edith Nesbitt and Edith Wharton for example – but I suppose I just assumed it was a genre that women didn’t write – even though, as a little girl who would grow up into a writer, I devoured horror stories and tales with a twist in the tale more voraciously than almost any other genre. As I grew up I kept an eye out for female writers in this area, and particularly in my favourite period. It was only last year when I really started to make headway, largely thanks to my husband’s discovery that Wordsworth Editions’ Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural, included several volumes of stories by female writers. Some are well known names, others should be and I’m going to run through some of them, in case you have been on a similar quest.
For me, the stand out discovery. I’m only sorry that it’s taken me so long to discover her. I’d heard her name before as a novelist but had no idea about her ghost stories. She’s a fascinating character. A writer from necessity, she supported her family, including her absolute liability of a mother who was an aspiring writer herself. Bowen received no formal education but taught herself French, Italian and a little Latin. She wrote under a variety of pseudonyms – in fact Marjorie Bowen was one of them, her real name was Gabrielle Campbell – many of them male. Her writing style is fluid and lyrical and her stories should be among the best known in the genre. My favourite of her stories is the extraordinary Florence Flannery, a wonderfully dark Wandering Jew type story. The collection I have is The Bishop of Hell & Other Stories and Florence is in that in all her glory.
I grew up reading E. Nesbit’s children’s stories but it was only as an adult I discovered her ghost stories, again in the Wordsworth edition. It’s well worth reading the introduction to that edition actually. It gives a great insight into Edith’s unconventional life, her unusual home life and founding membership of the Fabian Society. The story that really stayed with me was From the Dead , a tragic story of love, betrayal and forgiveness, but I don’t want to say any more, I don’t want to spoil the story. Nesbit’s stories are good, old fashioned shockers. She uses physical horror particularly effectively, her stories are told more bluntly than Bowen’s, though that doesn’t limit their effectiveness. Track them down – the collection is called The Power of Darkness.
Another formidable woman as well as an excellent writer. May Sinclair, or Mary Amelia St Clair, was an active member of the Women Writers’ Suffrage League (now there’s an organisation to resurrect). She also wrote a fine line in chillers with a distinctively Freudian edge. The Flaw in the Crystal is more of a novella than a short story, telling the story of a female telepath who must live with the consequences of her benevolently meant actions, while Where Their Fire is not Quenched is a deceptively simple tale of lovers locked in an endlessly repeating, ever unfulfilling affair. Sinclair is writing a bit later than Nesbit and Bowen so her stories inhabit a less obviously gothic world. She is firmly 20th Century in her writing and her subject matter. The collection I have is Uncanny Stories and you will find both stories I’ve mentioned in there.
Dorothy Broster was a best-selling historical novelist, like Marjorie Bowen. She was a nurse during the First World War and afterwards worked as secretary for the Regius Professor of History at Oxford, where she had studied herself. Her stories are also somewhat later than the first two examples but Couching at the Door which gives the collection I have it’s name, is as good a creeping menace story as any devised by M.R. James. I can’t help but note that it says a lot that Broster, despite her literary success, was a mere secretary, while James was famously a career academic. Would more doors be open to her these days? It’s hard to know if she would have ventured through though, since she was a very private individual and little is known about her – although I’d be happy to be corrected on that, if you know of anything, let me know in the comments.
Another favourite author from childhood, I only discovered that Lucy M. Boston wrote ghost stories in the last couple of years. I loved the Green Knowe books, and you can see a lot of the same author in her stories Curfew and The Tiger Skinned Rug, possibly because both these stories feature young protagonists and indeed, both appeared in children’s anthologies. While I’ll let you track down copies of the other collections yourself, Wordsworth editions are relatively easy to track down in bricks and mortar bookshops as well as online, I’ll link to the stunning edition of Curfew and Other Eerie Stories from Dublin based Swan River Press, as it might be more difficult to track down. Boston is the latest of the writers I’m writing about today, and one of the things I love about her story is that she was a late starter. Her first book was published in her 60s which gives hope to anyone out there still trying to make it as a writer. She wrote ghost stories throughout her life and it’s obvious from reading those published that like me, she was someone who had always loved the genre and had grown up reading M.R. James and the rest. You can see echoes of these in her stories but they more than stand up on their own.
One thing that’s struck me, reading all these female writers take on the ghost story is that there is a difference from the stories I read growing up. I hesitate to say there’s a male type of writer and a female type as we all know where that kind of thinking can lead (pink covers anyone) but on a very personal level I’ve noticed that these writers tend to give their characters more depth. Maybe it’s because I’m reading them as an adult, and as a writer myself, whereas I would have read all the others from childhood but I don’t remember feeling that before. The stories I remember tend to have very few female characters. Protagonists are invariably male and women only appear as wives, sisters or mothers. Now a lot of that could be because I’m thinking particularly of M.R. James who wrote the world he knew and consequently writes a lot about solitary, male academics. In the stories written by women the protagonists are often female, or children, but even when the story revolves around a man they tend to be less secure, more aware of the world and the relationships around them.
Most of male protagonists I remember reading about growing up were academics, or ex army or naval men. They work in the city or meet someone on a journey. I suppose that’s because that is the male experience. Just as female writers are sometimes criticised for focusing too much on the domestic, so male writers take their protagonists out into the impersonal world. Since so many of these uncanny stories focus on something that disrupts the ordinary, that disruption is going to occur in vary different places depending on the life experience of the writer. Personally I can’t help feeling that the stereotypical male life in this context, with it’s day to day work in an office of some kind, the home, a distant beacon rather than a natural focus, can put the horror at a remove. It doesn’t make me love these stories any less but when you read stories that bring that horror right into the home, into the safest of safe harbours, then that gives the story a totally different impact. I wonder if the female experience actually opens up the world more. Maybe we should be looking at all those male writers as the limited ones…
But that’s just an idea I’ve been playing with, not one I’ve any major thesis about. I hope these suggestions give you some ideas if you’re on the lookout for something spooky this Halloween. I’m planning another round coming up to Christmas, because that to my mind is an even better time for ghost stories. Do let me know what you think in the comments.