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Ghost Stories: Classic Tales of Horror and Suspense (Book Review)

There are few things as comfortably rewarding as settling into a collection of ghost stories. Esteemed editors-annotators Lisa Morton and Leslie Klinger, in their anthology Ghost Stories: Classic Tales of Horror and Suspense, amplify the rewards through their notations and explications. The tales in the collection are, as the title of the volume indicates, classics. Most of the yarns have indeed been reprinted many times given their quality and literary longevity. What elevates this compilation are the details provided by Morton and Klinger which add edifying and entertaining elements. Providing historical perspective along with explanations of allusions and deciphering of antiquated speech/language, they enhance the appreciation of the fine authors whose works are included in the book.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia” is, excuse the pun, brought back to life through the extensive notes about the story. And “The Bowmen” by Arthur Machen is rendered more accessible and comprehensible by expounding upon the military battles that are alluded to in the narrative. It is fascinating to discover that Johann August Apel’s tale, “The Family Portraits” (1813) had a profound impact on Mary Shelley. In her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein she references the story, waxing about its powerful imagery. Apel displays his potent prose in this description of a face in a painting: “It was a frightful mixture of the stillness of death, with the remains of a violent and baneful passion, which not even death itself was able to overcome.”

One of the most compelling inclusions in the anthology is “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” (1904) by Edith Wharton. Wharton was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in any category. She garnered the prestigious American award for her 1920 novel The Age of Innocence, which is laced with social commentary. In her abundant ghost stories, Wharton didn’t shirk from addressing societal disparities between classes and sexes.  “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” touches upon women bonding and female solidarity. The apparition in the narrative frightens the narrator, who is of the same gender and station: “Then she struck across the open fields to the village. By this time the ground was white, and as she climbed the slope of a bare hill ahead of me, I noticed that she left no foot-prints behind her. At the sight of that, my heart shriveled up within me, and my knees were water. Somehow, it was worse here than indoors. She made the whole countryside seem lonely as the grave, with none but us two in it, and no help in the whole world.” Despite the narrator’s fear, there’s a recognition of mutual urgency and compulsion.

On a much less intense note, “A Ghost Story” (1875) by Mark Twain pokes fun at those inclined to accept the supernatural. “Mrs. Zant and the Ghost” (1885) by Wilkie Collins isn’t at all packed with levity, but the inclusion of a character who is an absurdly quirky podiatrist/chiropodist makes it difficult not to remark that there’s something afoot.

While retribution is a commonplace theme in the anthology, there are also some tales about redemption. The 17 stories run the gamut. As a prelude, there’s the bonus of the famous old English ballad “Sweet William’s Ghost,” an apt extra since ballads can be considered precursors to short stories. Ghost Stories: Classic Tales of Horror and Suspense (published by Pegasus Books) has a bit of something for everyone. On a personal level, a footnote about revered ghost hunter Peter Underwood (1923-2014) struck home. Peter was a dear friend of mine. What an appropriate way to be haunted by him.

About Sheila M. Merritt

Sheila Merritt wrote book reviews for Mystery Scene Magazine. For several years, she had contributed reviews, articles and conducted interviews for the Hellnotes.com newsletter. She was friends with a British ghost hunter who happened to be the author of a biography of Boris Karloff. She’s had a brief and embarrassing conversation with Christopher Lee in a department store, but also had a much more relaxing exchange with director-writer Frank Darabont at a horror convention. She became enamored of horror films and dark fiction as a child. Mother didn't approve of them. The rest, as they say, is history.

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