A-Z Challenge – ‘G’
If there was a list of ‘best’ ghost stories what would the list include? How far back would it go and what writers would appear? Is it the story or the writer that makes it the best?
Aeschylus’s 5th century BC trilogy of plays includes one of the first ghosts to appear in fiction. Orestes is haunted by the Furies, called up by the ghost of his mother Clytaemestra whom Orestes had killed. Ghosts appear in Homer’s Odyssey and the Iliad, and haunted houses were described by Pliny and Lucian among others. But would these ancient writers and their stories appear among the ‘best?’
Famous ghosts from Shakespeare are the ghosts of Banquo in Macbeth and of Hamlet’s father, King Claudius. Now we’re faced with a dilemma. Is Shakespeare the ghost writer or is it the ghosts who are the best? Are the plays disqualified from our list because they are not ghost stories at all?
Hamlet and his father's ghost
A search of the internet reveals a list of fifteen famous ghost stories. However you may find that your favourite is not included; not surprising as this list was compiled in 1921. Blackwood, Andreyev, France, Poe, Machen and Maupassant are there but no Dickens or M R James.
Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Ligeia’ is regarded by some as the best story in any language where the dead wife comes triumphantly back to life though the body of Lady Rowena, the narrator’s second wife. However perhaps you prefer the words of dread and doom in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ and the blood stained, enshrouded figure of Lady Madeline bringing about the death of her brother before the house is split asunder.
It is interesting to see Arthur Machen’s story, ‘The Bowmen,’ in the list. His WWI description of the British trenches under attack by an overwhelming German army is believed to have led to the legend of the Angels of Mons saving the day. In Machen’s story the ghostly saviours were bowmen from Agincourt. Despite Machen protests that his was a work of fiction, the legend of the appearance of angels at Mons has persisted in accounts of the war to end all wars.
Wilfred Owen is one of the poets renowned for WWI poetry. If we are to include poets in our list of the best we must include Owen and ‘I am the ghost of Shadwell Stair.’ There is no doubt that this poem has an eerie quality about it and it makes an ideal ghost story.
Paranormal accounts of ghostly armies seen on old battle fields are quite common. Walter de la Mare’s poem ‘The Song of Soldiers’ reflects this with the words, ‘Rank on rank of ghostly soldiers marching o'er the fen…’. However if haunted houses are your thing you need look no further than Longfellow’s ‘Haunted Houses’ beginning:
‘All houses wherein men have lived and died
Are haunted houses…’
Or is it Burns who takes the poetry medal for his Nannie in her cutty sark, securing as her prize the tail of Meg, Tam O’Shanter’s mare?
Not all writers, as we know full well, are successful at their art. Gaston Leroux’s work of fiction published in 1910 was a bit of a flop. Once the ‘Phantom of the Opera’ appeared as a film in 1925, Leroux’s story became a big hit and Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s more recent musical version is nothing less than a global phenomenon.
A story that has stood the test of time is that of Ichabod Crane being chased by the headless horseman in Washington Irving’s ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’ However it is M R James who is regarded as the father of modern ghost stories. He has written some of the greatest and most influential ghost stories in the English language. Two of his most famous are ‘Casting the Runes’ and ‘Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You My Lad,’ both of which are included in his ‘Ghost Stories of An Antiquary.’
Stephen King’s writings have been influenced by M R James so it is only right that we include ‘The Shining’ in our list of the best. Young Danny Torrance’s sensitivity to supernatural forces and the sinister nature of the events in the Overlook Hotel make this one a must.
However we must include the story that is told and told again. Dicken’s ‘Christmas Carol’ has been said to teach us to be benevolent to our fellow men and that leading an immoral life can imprison you in a self-created hell in the afterlife.
The Ghost of Christmas Present by John Leach, 1843
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“From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggerty beasties
And things that go bump in the night
Good Lord, deliver us!”