Wanted: Things that go bump in the night

October 31, 2007

Seasonal Round-up: Ghost Stories
Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural
Various authors (Random House, 1944)
94 of 1080 p. First reading.

Every year around the end of October I throw a spanner in the works of my reading plan by devoting some time to the guilty pleasure genre of ghost stories. Last year I finished the stories in The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories, so this year I cast about for another collection and settled upon this weighty volume which, if this year’s pace is any indication, will serve me well for the next decade or more of ghostly adventuring. The stories in this volume are of high literary quality, and are on a larger scale than I was expecting. I managed to read just three tales this year.

The first was Balzac’s short story “La Grande Bretêche”, which tells a tale of marital infidelity and chillingly calculated revenge. It’s a good story, but not a good ghost story, because not a ghost story at all. It turns out that the first stories in this volume are tales of “terror”, and only after several hundred pages does one find tales of “the supernatural”. I therefore paged ahead with anticipation (though not without appreciating the very considerable art of Balzac’s story-telling).

But even here, in the midst of the tales of “the supernatural”, my quest for a satisfying ghost story was thwarted, for neither of the two stories I read truly qualify. This seems an ill omen for the years ahead. For instance, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s mid-nineteenth century story “The Haunters and the Haunted” has all the makings of a grand ghost story: a house in which a stream of potential residents refuse to lodge more than one night, rumours of strange and terrifying goings-on beneath its roof, a courageous and enterprising skeptic determined to put the rumours to rest, apparitions, disembodied hands, secret rooms, whimpering dogs, and so forth. But then the story takes a peculiar turn: put all that ghostly superstition out of your mind, dear reader, for everything can be explained scientifically! Don’t you know about mesmerism and ESP and the powers of the mind over matter? Don’t you know that diligent study and commitment and powers of concentration can grant the mind physical control of objects and cast visions into the minds of others and stop the aging process? Well, they can! It’s a very strange mixture of hard-headed debunking married to pseudoscientific gullibility.

The final story I read was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter”, written in 1844. Set in medieval Padua, it tells of a young man who falls for the daughter of a local botanist. It turns out that said scientist has an unhealthy lust for experimentation, and has been exposing his dear daughter to a variety of poisons since infancy, so much so that her touch — indeed, her very breath — is death to living things. She is a femme fatale if ever there was one. Our poor suitor doesn’t know what he’s in for, and even burn marks on his skin where she touches him are not enough to deflect his enthusiasm. A tad imprudent, that. When he discovers her predicament, he tries to offer her a potent remedy, but it doesn’t turn out well. It’s a very finely written story, and encourages me to read more of this American author whom I’ve not encountered since reading “Young Goodman Brown” many years ago in school. Note, however, that it’s not a ghost story! There’s no supernatural element at all. I’m still glad I read it — it was written thirty years after Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and touches on similar themes of scientific hubris and the perils of securing power over nature — but I do wish this collection of ghost stories had yielded at least one specimen to satisfy my seasonal appetite. Maybe next year.

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