Review: “Ghostly: A Collection of Ghost Stories” (ed. Audrey Niffenegger)

Ghost stories are back!

Of course they’ve never been away, but the interest in Folk Horror since the turn of the decade has helped their profile to slowly rise. In addition, each Christmas the BBC now either produces a new adaptation of a classic ghost story; an original (viz. Mark Gatiss’s highly enjoyable The Dead Room with Simon Callow); or re-screens the 1970s Lawrence Gordon Clark dramas. Consequently, M.R. James is probably read more now than he has been in 40 years.

This anthology (published in 2015, but I only stumbled across it this week) therefore catches the zeitgeist, if you’ll pardon the pun. It promises the “safe scare” of a ghost story as opposed to what’s offered by more visceral – more troubling – horror. But, given the visceral nature of much of the news, are these not old-fashioned? Would it not make sense for our anxieties to be worked out via an analogous representation? Something whose immediacy and whose violence reflected what’s happening in the world? So why ghosts, and why now?

Partly, the aforementioned Folk Horror connection is at work: things from the past have returned to haunt our culture and our politics over the last few years, and what better analogue for this than the classic ghost story? But that only takes us so far. The world has always been dangerous and scary: we’re fooling ourselves if we think otherwise. The difference between now and the cold war (for example) is the unpredictability of the terror we feel; the arbitrariness of violence; the instability of the threats.

But, before regular readers think I’m about to go off on one about Brexit again, there need not be a political dimension to their re-appearance on the cultural radar, bubbling up from our collective subconscious. They always speak to the present moment, because the absence they speak of is always in our lives, in some way. This may mean death, and grief; it may be the passing of childhood; or a change in circumstance which takes our former life away from us. We are always haunted; but we don’t always notice.

Audrey Niffenegger admits that this anthology is not representative, that it contains “stories I have chosen because I like them”. This makes it more interesting – and diverse – than a more even-handed or authoritative collection may have been. She also, rightly, acknowledges the problematic attitudes towards race and sex in the older tales but advises us, also rightly, that the stories’ concerns are still “relevant and powerful”. She prefaces each with an introductory paragraph and her own illustration.

So what do we get? Well, we get M.R. James of course: ‘The Mezzotint’, which has one of the best conceits of any ghost story ever (copied to greater or lesser effect by other writers ever since). Edgar Allan Poe, of course we get too: he’s so highly-strung I can only stomach him in small doses but ‘The Black Cat’ is short, and Poe (not always the case with M.R. James) knows exactly when to end a story.

Niffenegger (editor’s prerogative) includes one of her own tales, which I enjoyed until the final few pages. A surprise to me was Edith Wharton (none of whose work I have ever read): her ‘Pomegranate Seed’ is – though in some ways hardly a ghost story at all – one of the highlights. Similarly, P.G. Wodehouse I’ve never read and was surprised to see in a collection of ghost stories: ‘Honeysuckle Cottage’ is a send-up of the ghost story and funny with it (though the opening paragraph is the best).

Neil Gaiman’s ‘Click-Clack The Rattle Bag’ is short and sharp and superb, where the story-within-the-story looms out to become the story. There is great poignancy in both A.S. Byatt’s ‘The July Ghost’ (presumably a response to the accidental death of her own young son) and ‘Playmates’ by A.M. Burrage. Ray Bradbury’s ‘August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains’ is haunting in a different way from the others, taking a SF writer’s eye to briefly spin the genre on it’s axis, and is a perfect coda.

As with most anthologies, not every story will be to the reader’s taste. Is this a collection to scare you on a winter’s evening? Not necessarily; some of the stories, especially the modern ones, while undoubtedly ghost stories, aren’t always interested in scaring you. But for a collection that shows the breadth of possibilities of the genre, it’s an interesting, idiosyncratic book.

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