TOP TEN MOST TERRIFYING GHOSTLY TALES TO READ THIS AUTUMN (Part II)
Some people think of Ray Bradbury as a science fiction author, others as a writer of weird tales, and still others as a writer of nostalgia. None of these labels adequately categorizes a man whose work defies genre labels. It is far better to say that Bradbury was interested in what and why people think and do, and that he explored these things through the use of his moral imagination applied to all sorts of plots, settings, characters, and themes. While I love most of Bradbury’s stories, I love his ghost stories best of all.
The Bradbury tale “On the Orient, North” concerns a nurse, Minerva Halliday, who is traveling on the Orient Express. On the train, she encounters an unnaturally thin, white man in need of her care. He is a rare patient in need of special treatment. To keep him from declining, indeed, to revive him, she must draw on her English heritage and read him lengthy passages of ghostly literature. What is the patient suffering from? Will he survive?
“Banshee,” one of Bradbury’s Irish stories, is based on his time spent in Ireland working with John Huston on the script for Moby Dick. Douglas Rogers, a writer, visits his director at a remote Irish estate for a script review. Both men hear soft moans and sobs coming from the woods. Rogers is sure the sadistic director is playing games with him, but later, when he heads outside after growing tired of the man’s cruel treatment, he discovers to his amazement what is really going on.
“From the Dust Returned” is not a short story, but I include it here because it is a collection of superb ghostly stories written across decades that Bradbury put together to make a fix-up novel. The stories concern the Elliotts, not your normal rural Illinois family, but a clan of mummies, vampires, ghosts, and other assorted creatures (including Cecy, an astral-projecting witch, and Uncle Einar, who has green wings) that usually spend their days in cellars and closets. Bradbury imbues his nonhuman characters with a beautiful, nostalgic humanity that draws me back to these stories again and again.
“Jimmy Takes Vanishing Lessons” is a Walter R. Brooks tale that I first read when I was a little boy. It is still one of my favorite short stories. Jimmy lives with his aunt. They don’t have very much money. His aunt owns a second house, but she cannot rent it out because people believe that it is haunted, so Jimmy sets out to prove them wrong so his aunt can rent out the house. The warmth of this tale is its attraction. It will not scare you, but it is perfect to read to little children as a means of introducing them to ghostly fiction. The Don Bolognese illustrations in the original book are wonderful.
M.R. James had a wildly successful academic career at King’s College, Cambridge, and Eton College, and was an expert on medieval manuscripts and New Testament Apocryphal books. One of his greatest achievements was cataloging old English manuscript collections. He also wrote chilling, elaborate, and detailed ghost stories as a hobby. He is considered the finest English writer of ghost stories. Many of his tales have been adapted for television and radio.
It is hard to pick just one James ghost story to recommend because I have read thirty of them and could endorse them all. However, “A Warning to the Curious” is a good place to start for people new to James’s fiction. It combines archaeological discovery and one of James’s signature tropes, that of the impulsive character whose eager, careless decision leads to tragedy. You would think it would be a most fortunate thing for a man to dig up an ancient English crown in a barrow, but it turns out that it is not so fortunate for him, after all.
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving is the oldest story on my list. It was written in 1820 and is set in 1790. I read it every autumn. Irving was a great tale-teller with a gifted imagination and a talent for vivid, drawn-out descriptions. The Headless Horseman actually appears in the story only briefly. The rest of the time, Irving carefully develops a strong sense of place, mood, and character, three elements necessary for a successful ghostly tale. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is the archetypal American ghost story and will fast become one of your favorites.
So there, dear reader, are my top ten most terrifying ghostly tales for you to read for Autumn 2017. It is my sincere hope that you will make some good memories of your own with your family and friends during this spooky season, and that you will all delight in the reading and telling of fine ghost stories.
Jeffrey Dennis Pearce is a history teacher and a writer. He is the creator and editor of Ghostly Kirk, a web page dedicated to the ghostly fiction of American man of letters Russell Kirk. He and his wife, Linda, were privileged to visit The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in Mecosta, Michigan, in April, where he delivered a talk on Kirk’s ghostly tales. Pearce lives among his ancestors, contemporaries, and descendants in Washington State.