The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton: A masterful collection of chillers

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton by Edith Wharton science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton by Edith Wharton

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton by Edith Wharton science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsPerhaps because she is one of the most esteemed writers of the 20th century, Edith Wharton may not be immediately associated with the genre of horror. Today, she is probably best remembered for her novels The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920), which latter book copped her the Pulitzer Prize, as well as for her classic novella from 1911, Ethan Frome, a staple reading assignment for all English majors. In novel after novel, Wharton examined the members of the upper crust in turn-of-the-century NYC, a society and a town that she knew well by experience. But as she would reveal in her autobiography A Backward Glance, the author was a big fan of the ghost story as well, a shivery pot in which she would ultimately dip her quill on any number of occasions. After all, her close personal friend, Henry James, had been hugely successful with his chilling novella of 1898, The Turn of the Screw, so why not herself? Happily, Scribner’s 1973 collection The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton brings together 11 of the author’s efforts in the field of horror to winning effect. Prefaced by an introduction by the author herself, and featuring beautiful illustrations for each story by one Laszlo Kubinyi, the book may prove a real eye-opener for readers who’d thought they knew this author well.

The 11 stories in the collection were released over a 35-year period, from 1902 to 1937, and take place in a wide range of locales; indeed, very few of the stories transpire in the NYC most commonly associated with Wharton’s writing. All, as might be expected from an author of Ms. Wharton’s stature, are meticulously crafted and beautifully written. And while none of the stories is especially gruesome (especially when compared to the shock and gore tactics frequently employed by many horror practitioners today), all of the tales here are highly atmospheric, and many of the pieces do indeed manage to chill. In some of the stories, the reader is required to read between the lines so as to understand what has transpired; others are more explicitly spelled out. But every tale still manages to impress, in one way or another; this is a very pleasing collection, over all.

As to the stories themselves, the collection kicks off with the earliest piece, chronologically: 1902’s “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell.” The tale is narrated to us by young Alice Hartley, a typhoid convalescent who begins a new job as a maid in a “big and gloomy” house on the Hudson, in upstate New York. But Alice’s life is soon beset by the ghost of the former maid, Emma Saxon, who rings her bell in the middle of the night and seems to be endeavoring to communicate some message. In the story’s most chilling scene, Emma leads Alice through a dreary field in the snow, on some mysterious mission. By the tale’s end, the reader may feel that he or she has not been given enough information to solve this puzzle, although a residual chill surely remains.

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton by Edith Wharton science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsIn “The Eyes,” which transpires mainly in England and Rome, an aged man of the world, author Andrew Culwin, tells his cronies of the one ghostly experience that he had witnessed; namely, a pair of eyes that would stare at him, at intervals, in the dark, over a period of some years. During this time, Culwin had treated his fiancée callously and taken up with a young and inexperienced writer whom he was nurturing. (The gay subtext in the story is quite pronounced.) But what is the cause of those damnable, staring orbs? Once again, the reader is required to look between the lines, especially regarding the tale’s final two pages. No wonder one of Culwin’s auditors mentions being “disquieted by a sense of incompleteness”…

In “Afterward,” an American couple, Mary and Ned Boyne, moves to Dorsetshire and takes over a Tudor home that is supposedly haunted by a most unusual ghost: one whose presence is never known till long after its appearance. And once settled into their rustic abode, named Lyng, Ned begins to act nervously, a mysterious and dead-voiced stranger comes calling, and Ned ultimately vanishes, leading to a rather shocking revelation concerning his business dealings, as well as a fulfillment of the ghostly legend. In all, a very satisfying story, expertly paced and handled.

“Kerfol” presents us with a most unique group of ghosts … of the canine variety! Here, a man visits an abandoned castle in Brittany and comes across the spectral mutts, who stand and stare at him dolefully. A little investigation reveals their tragic background, in a tale that stretches all the way back to the early 1600s, involving the cruel Baron de Cornault and his miserably neglected wife. This is a wonderful story, meticulously detailed and pleasingly ghoulish. Wharton makes but a single misstep here — when she refers to the Baron’s “widowhood,” rather than “widowerhood” — but this one boo-boo only seems to set off the perfection of the rest.

In “The Triumph of Night,” a young man is marooned at a train station during the height of a New Hampshire blizzard and accepts an invitation from an even younger man to spend the night at his uncle’s home, that uncle being the renowned writer John Lavington. But after being comfortably ensconced and meeting his famous host, our protagonist begins to see a doppelganger of Lavington, seemingly trying to communicate some message. A bleak, atmospheric and wintry tale, conflating a will and (again) shady business dealings, this story concludes with the forces of benevolence thwarted, and the evils that men do triumphant…

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton by Edith Wharton science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews“Miss Mary Pask” finds Wharton at her most playful, offering up a chilling tale and then pulling the rug out from under the reader’s expectations. This story also takes place in Brittany, and finds our narrator about to visit the sister of a close friend, the Mary Pask of the title, who was “like hundreds of other dowdy old maids, cheerful derelicts content with their innumerable little substitutes for living.” But just after knocking on her door, our narrator recalls that Mary had died the previous year … a circumstance that does not change the fact that the deceased woman shortly descends the stairs and ushers him in, in this very cleverly put-together tale.

In “Bewitched,” which takes place in the Anywheresville of Hemlock County, a snowbound rural area reminiscent of the one in Ethan Frome, a small community is alarmed when one of its prominent citizens is seen trysting with Ora Brand … a young woman who had died over a year before! Wharton perfectly captures the speech patterns and thought processes of the characters in this isolated backwater, and her wintry locale is once again expertly rendered. And then matters grow quite grim indeed, when Ora’s father, Sylvester, grabs his revolver and sets forth to hunt his ghostly daughter down…

Our next tale, “Mr. Jones,” tells of the Lady Jane Lynke, who inherits a mansion in the English countryside, in Kent. She learns from the oddball servants there that the house is overseen and managed by one Mr. Jones, who is very old and frail and thus never ventures from his room. Before long, Lady Jane discerns the ghostly figure of an old man in the mansion’s “blue room,” after which the tragic story of another neglected wife, back in the 1820s, comes to light. As in “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” here, even death is no barrier for the dedicated servant who wants to give eternal assistance to his or her master or mistress….

Next up is the story that turned out to be this reader’s personal favorite of The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton, “Pomegranate Seed.” Here, NYC newlywed Charlotte Ashby grows increasingly alarmed by a series of letters, which always arrive in the same grayish envelopes and addressed to her husband Kenneth. Kenneth had been showing signs of mounting strain after receiving these missives, a fact that becomes understandable when Charlotte finally recognizes the handwriting on the envelopes: that of Kenneth’s first wife, Elsie, who had died some time before! Featuring beautifully written and realistic dialogue, great tension and a heartbreaker of an ending, this really is one very impressive piece of work.

“The Looking Glass” features no actual hauntings or ghosts per se; still, there is a made-up one to be had here. In this story, an old grandmother, living in a NJ suburb, tells her granddaughter of the time when she used to be a professional masseuse, and of a wealthy and vain woman who she used to treat. To make this dowager happy, our narrator had pretended to be able to communicate with the spirit world, and thus contact a romantic interest of the matron’s youth; a young man who had gone down on the Titanic. Despite the lack of chills and overt frights, this remains a touching story, well told, in which Wharton seemingly admonishes those who are overly preoccupied with their fading beauty, while at the same time showing them some sympathy. As the grandmother says,

For you and me, and thousands like us, beginning to grow old is like going from a bright warm room to one a little less warm and bright; but to a beauty like Mrs. Clingsland it’s like being pushed out of an illuminated ballroom, all flowers and chandeliers, into the winter night and the snow…

In the collection’s final offering, “All Souls’,” an elderly widow, Sara Clayburn, encounters a strange woman while taking her afternoon walk by the Connecticut River. Immediately after, she twists her ankle on a frozen puddle and is confined to her bed. But her ordeal grows even greater when she awakens in the middle of the night to find all her servants gone missing, and a preternatural silence covering the entire world. Sara’s experiences during the next 36 hours are quite nerve racking, and could well have served as the basis for a perfectly respectable episode of TV’s The Twilight Zone. They bring this collection to a very satisfactory conclusion, indeed.

So there you have it … 11 finely crafted and wonderfully atmospheric tales of ghosts, hauntings, the deceased, and ancient tragedies from the pen of a true American master. I read this marvelous bunch of stories over the course of a week during mid-October and found them to be a perfect accompaniment to the season. The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton is more than highly recommended.

Published in 1973. Traumatised by ghost stories in her youth, Pulitzer Prize winning author Edith Wharton (1862 -1937) channelled her fear and obsession into creating a series of spine-tingling tales filled with spirits beyond the grave and other supernatural phenomena. While claiming not to believe in ghosts, paradoxically she did confess that she was frightened of them. Wharton imbues this potent irrational and imaginative fear into her ghostly fiction to great effect. In this unique collection of finely wrought tales Wharton demonstrates her mastery of the ghost story genre. Amongst the many supernatural treats within these pages you will encounter a married farmer bewitched by a dead girl; a ghostly bell which saves a woman’s reputation; the weird spectral eyes which terrorise the midnight hours of an elderly aesthete; the haunted man who receives letters from his dead wife; and the frightening power of a doppelganger which foreshadows a terrible tragedy. Compelling, rich and strange, the ghost stories of Edith Wharton, like vintage wine, have matured and grown more potent with the passing years.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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2 comments

  1. Excellent review, Sandy! I’ll have to look up at least some of these stories next October. :)

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