The short story is the perfect format for the ghost stories. Today is the perfect day to be reading them. And these are some of the most perfect examples
Supernatural advisory … Rebecca Evans in Benjamin Britten’s opera version of The Turn of the Screw.
The ghost story flourished especially between 1880 and 1930 when the fashion for spiritualism was at its height with its promise of communion with the dead. This was also the period when the short story reached its peak as a literary genre, so although there are fine novels about ghosts, it was in the short story that they came into their own.
Many people think ghost stories are meant to be terrifying and nothing more, but the best are much subtler and more varied, and the best of all are concerned with the predicaments of the living rather than the return of the dead, which is the starting-point of such stories, not their subject.
Haunting is a complex phenomenon which can involve many different causes: not only spirits but also memories, things, ideas and places. The stories in my list all send chills down the spine: at the same time they combine entertainment value with high literary quality.
RL Stevenson The Body-Snatcher
As beautifully written and atmospheric as you would expect from Stevenson, this tale set in mid-19th century Scotland is about the grave robbers who provided the gruesome materials for medical schools. A ferocious study in greed and ambition, it has the most chilling denouement of any ghost story.
WW Jacobs The Monkey’s Paw
If it’s terror you want, this well-known story of a magical talisman is hard to beat – not to be read when alone at night. The moral is: Be careful what you wish for – and don’t open the door at night.
MR James O Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad
MR James – not to be confused with Henry – was the greatest practitioner of traditional ghost stories, spine-chilling tales designed to be read by a dying fire in a darkened room after dinner. Many of his pieces take place in the flatlands of East Anglia and this is a particularly effective example, set on a haunted – and haunting – beach at night. As here, James often draws on the familiar childhood nightmare of pursuit by a faceless creature. You will never look at an unmade bed in the same way again.
Elisabeth Taylor Poor Girl
An exquisite vignette by one of the underrated writers of our time, Poor Girl explores the erotic possibilities of haunting. Disturbing, touching, and hard to forget, it tells the story of a governess – or is that two governesses? Taylor plays with time and character shifts so cleverly that the joins are hard to spot. She also alludes slyly to The Turn of the Screw (see below). A powerful study in female sexual frustration and repression.
Nikolai Gogol The Nose and The Overcoat
These two stories are as far as one could get from the standard ghost story – not at all frightening but very, very disturbing: wild surreal satires of 19th century Russian bureaucracy in which a nose and an overcoat take on lives of their own and wreak havoc. Gogol’s crazy comedy has a logic of its own which has never been bettered.
PG Wodehouse Honeysuckle Cottage
Comedy is more frequent in ghost stories than you might expect. Sometimes it is gruesome; here the touch is light. When James Rodman, thriller writer, goes to live in the house left him by his aunt, a very different sort of novelist, he finds himself haunted, against his will, by the spirit of the place and start turning out romantic slush. Honeysuckle Cottage has one of Wodehouse’s most inspired final plot twists.
Saki The Open Window
Another comedy, a very typical and brilliant vignette by Saki in which the ghosts are imaginary.The shortest ghost story I know: a miniature masterpiece of wit and narrative structure.
Edith Wharton The Looking Glass
A gentle, perceptive story with a hard centre. Moral ambiguity was Wharton’s speciality: here she tells the tale of a woman who tries to please her employer by claiming to be in touch with the old woman’s long-dead lover. But are her motives what they seem to be? Wharton takes the central claim of spiritualism – that we can contact the dead – and uses it to explore the histories of both women
Vladimir Nabokov The Visit to the Museum
This is a piece of autobiography – an extraordinary tale in which the narrator is haunted by the ghost of an entire country. Even admirers of Nabokov may not know this one, which has only rarely been reprinted – surprisingly, given its extraordinary vision of pre-Revolutionary Russia
Henry James The Turn of the Screw
The Turn of the Screw has long been regarded, with justice, as the greatest of all ghost stories. James worked it up from a tale told him by the archbishop of Canterbury. Like The Looking Glass, a masterpiece of ambiguity, it purports to describe the haunting of two children by their old governess and her lover. But does it? The action is narrated at several removes, and many people believe that the focus of the action is really the governess, who has imagined the whole episode. James claimed that he was only writing to entertain, but many readers find in this story a disturbing study of good and evil.
Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/oct/31/best-ghost-stories