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Posts Tagged ‘ghost stories’

Gothic Tale

January 27, 2016 | by

I don’t believe in evil, I believe only in horror. In nature there is no evil, only an abundance of horror: the plagues and the blights and the ants and the maggots. —Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen)

This is my second post about Karen Blixen this week, and you’d be forgiven, when you see that I’m about to share a Karen Blixen documentary, for thinking I’ve really fallen down a rabbit hole. You’d also be correct. I’ve long been an admirer of her work, and I find her personal history fascinating, but this film is something different entirely; I had to direct your attention to it. Read More »

Spirited Ghosts

January 15, 2016 | by

Elizabeth “Mrs.” Gaskell.

The other evening, my friend Patrick was telling me about his recent visit to Plymouth Grove, the Manchester home of the Victorian writer Mrs. Gaskell. The house was restored and reopened to the public in 2011; it contains many of the author’s personal effects, as well as period interiors. It’s now, he says, evocative and interesting and, appropriately, haunted. Or so the docents say.

In addition to her novels—socially conscious books like Ruth and North and South, or the beloved Cranford—Mrs. Gaskell wrote ghost stories. And she liked to tell them, too: an article written later in Putnam’s Monthly describes tales of “Scotch ghosts, historical ghosts, spirited ghosts with faded uniforms and nice old powdered queues.” Her Gothic Tales is a must for any aficionado of intricate Victorian ghost stories. Read More »

Ringing the Changes

October 30, 2015 | by

There’s always the temptation, when recommending anything, to go only for the deep cuts. It’s true that Robert Aickman wrote several volumes’ worth of “strange stories,” many of them very good. It’s also true that “Ringing the Changes,” from 1964’s Dark Entries: Curious and Macabre Ghost Stories, is probably the best known, or the “most anthologized,” or however people like to subtly dismiss anything with a certain profile. Read More »

Casting the Runes

October 9, 2015 | by

From Night of the Demon, a 1957 film loosely based on M. R. James’s “Casting the Runes.”

I love being read to. I could pretend it’s because it takes my mind away when I have a migraine or because it allows one to appreciate the aural poetry of writing—and that would be partially true. But the appeal is more elemental, more regressive. When you’re being read to, you’re being taken care of.

Perhaps by the same token, something scary can be magnified in the hearing. Ghost stories are meant to be told orally, after all, and when you are listening to something recorded, you have the option of doing so in the dark. When October comes, no matter if it’s more Indian summer than crisp fall, I want nothing so much as the occult and creepy. And so I walk through the city or work in the kitchen or stand on line at the bank, with M. R. James playing in my ears. Read More »

Ghosts on the Nog

December 19, 2014 | by

The great English tradition of Christmas ghost stories.

One of John Leech’s illustrations for A Christmas Carol, 1842.

I’ve long thought of Christmastime as a season of mostly pleasant intrusions: thirty or so days of remembering to tend, checklist style, to the latest pressing bit of Yuletide business that comes racing back to you. The well wishes. The trip to the Home Depot. The seasonal ales.

This is the Fezziwig side of Christmas, that portion that makes you look up the word wassail when you encounter it and think, Ah, that would be fun. But what of the darker elements of Christmas—and what of Christmas for those people who enjoy making merry most years but may have hit upon a bit of a tricky patch? What succor of the season might they find at the proverbial inn?

Having experienced both sides of Christmas, there is but one constant I am aware of that serves you well both in the merriest of times and in the darkest: the classic English Christmas ghost story. You’d think Halloween would be the holiday that elicits the best macabre stories, but you’re going to want to check that opinion and get more on the Snow Miser side of the equation. Time was the English loved to scare you out of your mind come December, but in a fun way that resulted in stories well afield of your typical ghost story outing. Read More »

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Marvels and Mysteries

December 3, 2014 | by

Conrad_Low_1923

A caricature of Conrad by David Low, 1928.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define fantastic, then?

BORGES

I wonder if you can define it. I think it’s rather an intention in a writer. I remember a very deep remark of Joseph Conrad—he is one of my favorite authors—I think it is in the foreword to something like The Dark Line, but it’s not that …

INTERVIEWER

The Shadow Line?

BORGES

The Shadow Line. In that foreword he said that some people have thought that the story was a fantastic story because of the captain’s ghost stopping the ship. He wrote—and that struck me because I write fantastic stories myself—that to deliberately write a fantastic story was not to feel that the whole universe is fantastic and mysterious; nor that it meant a lack of sensibility for a person to sit down and write something deliberately fantastic. Conrad thought that when one wrote, even in a realistic way, about the world, one was writing a fantastic story because the world itself is fantastic and unfathomable and mysterious.

INTERVIEWER

You share this belief?

BORGES

Yes. I found that he was right. I talked to Bioy Casares, who also writes fantastic stories—very, very fine stories—and he said, “I think Conrad is right. Really, nobody knows whether the world is realistic or fantastic, that is to say, whether the world is a natural process or whether it is a kind of dream, a dream that we may or may not share with others.”

—Jorge Luis Borges, The Art of Fiction No. 39, 1967

Since it’s Joseph Conrad’s birthday, I went in search of his foreword to The Shadow Line—it was an author’s note, actually, appended to the novel’s second edition in 1920. And Borges’s memories of it are largely accurate: Conrad uses it to mount a defense of “the world of the living,” which “contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is … I am too firm in my consciousness of the marvellous to be ever fascinated by the mere supernatural.”

The Shadow Line, which is now in the public domain, was first published in 1916, when it appeared over the course of two months in Metropolitan Magazine. It tells the story of a young man who assumes the captaincy of a ship in “the Orient.” The ghost of the ship’s previous captain, Mr. Burns, lurks: “His face in the full light of day appeared very pale, meagre, even haggard. Somehow I had a delicacy as to looking too often at him; his eyes, on the contrary, remained fairly glued on my face. They were greenish and had an expectant expression.”

Here’s the author’s note Borges mentions: Read More »

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