TOP TEN MOST TERRIFYING GHOSTLY TALES TO READ THIS AUTUMN
“To have ghosts, one must have a past for ghosts to emerge from; and one must believe in a spiritual world to recognize spirits. Otherwise, the skeleton in the closet becomes an old coat that someone knocked down. Alas for raw head and bloody bones.”
–Russell Kirk, October 30, 1948
Autumn begins the traditional season of ghost-storytelling, a season that runs through the gray winter months when daylight is scarce and the sun is often hidden. As the skies darken earlier and earlier each night running up to Halloween, my mind is pulled back to warm memories of childhood autumns spent assembling costumes, making caramel apples over a hot stove, and carving pumpkins with my family. My parents delighted in helping us haunt our house for tricks and treats, complete with creepy sound effects orchestrated by my mother, and my father appearing at the door dressed as Frankenstein’s Monster to frighten local youngsters.
I still love the quintessential small-town American Halloween, including the swapping of scary tales, most often urban legends, or local yarns about ghostly appearances. As an adult, one of the things I treasure most about Anglo-American culture is its rich and varied literary tradition of dark, subtle ghostly narratives. I am happy to share ten terrifying story recommendations with you that will bring what M.R. James called “a pleasing terror” to your darkest nights. Perhaps you will gather around the fireplace with family and friends to read some of these stories aloud, which is great fun, and, in our age of staring at electronic devices, is a reactionary act.
“Watchers at the Strait Gate,” by American man of letters Russell Kirk is the sequel to his World Fantasy Award-winning tale “There’s A Long, Long Trail A-Winding.” Our hero, Frank Sarsfield, goes to visit his old friend, Father Justin O’Malley, on a dark and stormy night so that Father O’Malley can hear his confession. Father O’Malley quickly realizes that Frank is somehow changed since their last meeting, and, alone with him in a frigid church in the woodlands of Michigan, the old priest grows increasingly uneasy.
In “Sorworth Place,” another stellar Kirk narrative, former soldier Captain Ralph Bain is living the rootless life of a drifter, carefully minding his disability pension. He befriends a young widow, Ann Lurlin, who lives in an ancient, crumbling house, and he soon learns there is more to the beautiful woman’s life than he ever imagined. Cash-poor, with all of her husband’s land sold, she clings unwillingly to the house because she has nowhere else to go. She is constantly on edge, and finally explains to Bain:
“‘Don’t you understand? I thought you’d guessed.’ She came a trifle closer to Bain; and she said, in her low sweet voice, ‘I’m afraid of my husband.’ Bain stared at her. ‘Your husband? I understood—I thought that he’s dead.’ ‘Quite,’ said Ann Lurlin. Somewhere in that Minoan maze of a house, a board or a table creaked; the wind rattled a sash; and this little room at the stairfoot was musty. ‘You know, don’t you?’ Mrs. Lurlin whispered. ‘You know something’s near.’” (Ancestral Shadows 185).
Something is, indeed, near. “Sorworth Place” is a tale best read when you are not alone.
On a rainy night in the country, Marvin Phelps finds his car stalled after taking a detour due to a washed-out bridge. “The Considerate Hosts” by Thorp McClusky relates Phelps’s attempts to get a married couple in a nearby house to help him. They have other plans, plans that include revenge, and, though Phelps does not believe them at first, he soon comes to understand that they do not usually inhabit the same dimension as he does. McClusky presents us with a seemingly light-hearted tale that is, at its core, melancholy and redemptive.
Edith Wharton’s ghost stories are very subtle. There are some of her tales that I have never figured out. Others are so terrifying that when you do figure them out, you cannot stop thinking about them. “Afterward” is one of these tales. Published in 1910 at the end of the Edwardian era, it tells the story of a couple who move into a house in Dorsetshire that has a reputation for being haunted. They learn that the past residents of the house only realized they had seen its ghost long after they had seen it, and they don’t understand how this is possible. As the story unfolds, they do come to understand, and so does the reader, in this clever, atmospheric, tragic narrative.