Classic Ghost Stories That Will Send A Shiver Up Your Spine
At the Classic Ghost Stories Podcast, we have celebrated our first anniversary with just short of seventy episodes published! This means I have read a lot of ghost stories; some good, some bad, and some in the middle between good and bad.
I would like to suggest you listen to some now, just to get you into the Halloween mood, or the Christmas mood, because ghost stories are an integral part of the Christmas tradition, or an anytime at all mood, just because: ghost stories.
These are my five suggestions.
The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe
Edgar Allen Poe was an American writer born in 1809 in Boston who died aged only forty in Baltimore in 1849. He is one of the best-known American writers of his generation and famed all over the world for his Gothic and macabre tales.
The Fall of the House of Usher was published in 1839 when grave-robbing was still a thing. The title of this story makes a play on the word ‘house’ which can mean both a lineage and a building. The title is essential to the story, because, as you will hear, the fate of the family and its ancestral home are deeply entwined.
The story is a fine Gothic thing. We have a dismal setting with the rotting trees and the stagnant tarn (which is a small lake), the gloomy castle, the sickly and neurotic hero, the storm and generally dreadful weather, the mysterious and sinister chatelaine, Madeline.
The remoteness of the house, the lack of modern communications (even for the 1830s), the terrible weather and the vague dream-time of no specific location or era suck us into the legend of the House of Usher.
The house haunts the characters as much as their wraith-like dream forms haunt its halls. Roderick of Usher never leaves the house, and I doubt his sister Madeline was much of a party-goer either.
Poe never says anything clearly in a few words when he can draw it out over several obscure sentences with multiple clauses and hints rather than statements. But we love him for it. Indeed that’s why we read him.
When Madeline perishes of a mysterious illness, Roderick decides to entomb her in the deepest dungeon. He doesn’t want to bury her because he worries that the medical men, who failed to cure her, would seek to dig her up and use her for research.
The hint of the blush on dead Madeline’s face is suggestive that she may be a vampire, and Poe, I think, was encouraging this, but as it later transpires in a nice twist (nice?) poor Madeline was not, in fact, dead at all, and she finds inhuman strength to break out of her copper-sheathed tomb.
Poe’s stories are profoundly neurotic and The Fall of the House of Usher is his masterpiece. I love the Gothic prolixity of it, I love the funereal sombreness, and I am struck how much influence Poe had on Lovecraft in his vocabulary.
Now, it may be an American usage, but, outside these two, I’ve never come across the word “litten” for “lit” as in red-litten, for red-lit, and my autocorrect dislikes it also. Also reminiscent of Lovecraft, is the long list of obscure books, mostly not in English; a favourite device of the Cthulhu Mythos.
What Poe does wonderfully in this story is to identify the building with the family of Usher themselves and make the house a living thing. The fortunes of the House of Usher are reflected in both the fabric of the ancient castle and the health of the living line. Ultimately, when the family dies, the house dies also.
I love the image of the blood-red moon rising over the tarn at the end as the house (and its inhabitants) fall into the dark waters. We are reminded that the first image is of the House of Usher reflected upside down in the waters of the tarn, and now at the end, the tarn swallows it up forever.
Listen to The Fall of The House of Usher here
The Hound by H P Lovecraft
Howard Philips Lovecraft was the most influential writer of horror and weird tales of his generation. That may not have been evident during his life or even for a while after his death, but his work continues to be made into movies: The Color Out of Space was recently released, starring Nicholas Cage which is a based on Lovecraft’s weird tale of the same name.
Lovecraft was born in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island and died in the same city in 1937 aged only 46 of untreated stomach cancer.
His family was originally wealthy, but the fortune was tied to his grandfather, and after his death, the money dried up. Lovecraft was almost a pauper at the time of his death. Lovecraft’s father was a travelling salesman, but it appears that his mother’s family had the money.
In 1913 Lovecraft began to get involved in pulp fiction, and most of his stories were published in pulp magazines. He was a mentor to younger writers and perhaps the thing which ensured his later fame was his encouragement of other writers to develop his Mythos.
It appears that Lovecraft had a mental illness during most of his life, most probably depression.
Lovecraft was very conservative and an Anglophile in his writing. He did not like Americanisms, and he uses some deliberately British stylings in his writing.
The Hound is Lovecraft’s most Gothic tale, and that’s saying something. When he talks of his hero’s taste for the macabre, we can’t help but feel that Lovecraft is speaking through him. The Hound is like a story by Edgar Allen Poe channelled through Lovecraft’s pen.
Like Poe, Lovecraft never uses a familiar word when he can use an outlandish one, and where one adjective would do, he piles on three or four and makes sure they are outlandish and obscure. This wordy habit makes his style relatively easy to parody with its “unspeakable cults” and “squamous monstrosities” not to mention countless “eldritch blasphemies” on every page.
The story of The Hound is pretty simple. It concerns two post-Baudelairean decadents going grave robbing for kicks. As often happens in Lovecraft’s tales, the heroes find an ancient arcane item (a McGuffin in screenwriting terms), and, as is often the case, it is made of jade.
Somehow them recovering the amulet from the grave in Holland, gets the hound to haunt them all the way back to their horrible house in England.
When the narrator ventures back to Holland to put the amulet back where it came from (though it is stolen from him before he can do so), there he finds the monstrous hound waiting for him with the addition of a good number of oversized vampire bats for good measure.
In any case, The Hound is a fun gothic romp, overdone and vulgar no doubt, but great fun to read out, and I hope, listen to.
Listen to The Hound here
The Mezzotint by M R James
M R James was an English academic at both Cambridge University then Provost of the famous Eton College, a school that has produced more British Prime Ministers than any other institution. James walked with the elite but had a number of ordinary hobbies, including golf and tennis and riding bicycles around country churches. The heroes of his stories tend to be dusty old academics like himself.
He is considered the most significant English ghost-story writer, probably ever, and credited for moving the genre from the Gothic to more modern themes.
I think what makes James’s stories unnerving is the hint of strangeness he puts in them. The Mezzotint brings this unsettling weirdness to the forefront.
The Mezzotint was published in 1904 as part of James’s collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. The story is a simple one. An academic, Mr Williams, has a job of collecting prints of English country houses for his University college. This is such a narrow and particular job it’s a wonder to think that anyone had some a restricted role. Williams receives a catalogue from his dealer with a suggestion that he might like this particular mezzotint with a price tag of two guineas. Williams doesn’t fancy it much as two guineas seems excessive for such an amateur work.
But as different people look at the mezzotint, the picture improves in quality and seems to be playing out a story.
This weirdness leads to a detective investigation to find out where the house shown in the engraving is and what could be the history of the place portrayed.
There are two streams to the story: the rational detective work and the supernatural events unfolding in the picture which are quite demonic.
James is famous for eschewing the cosy ghost story. He wanted his stories to be nasty. He has a real gift for introducing odd and jarring elements into his tale that are distinctly unnerving.
There is something appalling about the description of the figure that crawls around the picture, whose face is obscured apart from a domed forehead and some straggling hairs. And of course, the story centres on the theft and probable murder of a child. Children coming to harm is always a nasty element in any story.
When the real-world investigation turns up the story of the landowner Francis having the poacher Gawdy hung, and Gawdy promising revenge, it seems that the only explanation is that Gawdy returned after his death to exact his revenge.
The other delightful aspect of the story is the series of in-jokes. James used to read his stories aloud to his colleagues, and so the in-jokes about their obsession with golf and the snobby comments of the Sadducean Professor of Ophiology probably got some laughs.
Some other features may not be familiar to the modern reader who has not been to Oxford or Cambridge, so the references to ‘sporting’ doors and ‘skips’ and ‘hall’ are an insight into a world now gone outside these august establishments.
Listen to The Mezzotint here
Dracula’s Guest by Bram Stoker
Bram Stoker was an Irish author born in 1847 in Dublin. Stoker is probably the best-known horror writer in the world (after Steven King!) and is famous for his fantastically best-selling novel Dracula.
Interestingly, Stoker spent his first years in bed, stricken by an unknown illness, and then he got better, went to school and even become an athlete!
After school, Stoker got his Bachelor of Arts degree at Trinity College, Dublin, and then got a Master of Arts in 1875.
Stoker’s early career was in the Irish Civil Service, but his side-hustle was to be the theatre critic for the Dublin Evening Mail, which was partly owned by Sheridan le Fanu, another Irish author of ghost stories.
Stoker also knew fellow Irish author Oscar Wilde. I guess Dublin was a small town in those days, especially in literary circles.
In 1876, Stoker became acquainted with the forceful English actor, Henry Irving after he wrote a nice review of Irving’s performance (Hint. You never know what good will come from nice reviews!)
Stoker became Irving’s manager and followed him around Britain, which entailed a stay at Whitby (a place I love and was last at just before Christmas) in 1880. Of course, this is where Dracula comes ashore.
Stoker died aged 64 in London.
Though he is most famous for Dracula, Stoker obviously wrote other stories.
This one, Dracula’s Guest, which was later published as a short story was intended as the first chapter of the novel Dracula.
In Dracula’s Guest, we have our nameless hero setting off on a day trip from Munich on Walpurgis Nacht. In the end, we realise that this young man is to be the guest of Dracula who writes from Bistritz in Transylvania.
The hero of this story is obviously Jonathan Harker, but Stoker’s publisher obviously saw no need for the first chapter in Munich, so this first chapter was binned and Dracula begins in Bistritz.
The style is very similar to Dracula. The hero does what all heroes in horror stories do, he goes somewhere he shouldn’t. Stoker paints a picture of Central Europe hooching with vampires.
Young Mr Harker wanders into the tomb of the vampire countess from Styria Syria is where Le Fanu (whom Stoker knew) set his story Carmilla.
The hero gets pulled out of the tomb by a mighty grasp. This is presumably intervention from Dracula. Dracula then blasts the poor vampire countess in her marble tomb with lightning, then sits on him in the form of a wolf, keeping Harker warm in the icy snow.
Dracula wants to keep Harker all for himself. He has important business for Harker as we find out in Dracula itself
If you’re wondering how Dracula managed to intervene just outside Munich, and you know that it’s a long way from Transylvania to Munich, I would just ask you to remember what Stoker reminds us:
The Dead Travel Fast.
Listen to Dracula’s Guest here
The Yellow Sign by Robert W. Chambers
Robert William Chambers was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1865 and died in New York in 1933, aged 68.
He was born to a well-off family; his father was a corporate lawyer with his own firm, which did very well.
Robert’s early love was art, and of course, this is evident in the story, The Yellow Sign. He first studied art in New York, and then aged 21 went to Paris to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
When he returned to New York, he sold his illustrations to well-known magazines such as Vogue, but in 1887, while he was in Munich, Germany, he completed his first novel and then he began writing weird tales. His best-known collection is The King in Yellow, from which this story The Yellow Sign, is drawn.
This idea of a book that sends you mad is found in Lovecraft with his Necronomicon. In Scottish legends, there is the story about Michael Scott the Scottish Wizard from the 12th Century. Scott’s book of magic was kept in Wolsty Castle’s library suspended on an iron spike for fear of the occult knowledge it contained. No one dared even go near it!
Lovecraft admired Chambers, and perhaps because of that, Chambers has not been forgotten like some of his contemporaries.
This story, The Yellow Sign, was one of my favourites.
Reviews of the story say that Tessie was a prostitute. She was not a prostitute: she was a nude model, which is not the same thing! Though it’s true that New York polite society would have looked down their noses at her.
Tessie loves the hero, the painter Mr Scott, they can never marry because of her low social status, but she can be his mistress. I didn’t find Scott an unsympathetic character, even though he won’t marry her. He clearly feels a sense of responsibility for her.
Ultimately, I wasn’t sure how much the story needed the love interest in fact, and it was when Chambers was exploring that theme that my interest flagged a little. However, Chambers is known for adding love interest in his horror stories, and he wrote several pure romances.
I enjoyed doing the American accent for the audio version, and I also enjoyed doing the Cockney accent of the bell boy. Still, the best thing about the story for me was the series of events that signal the approach of The Yellow Sign.
First of all, we have the horrible watcher sitting in the graveyard. He looks terrible enough, but then we get the gruesome details from the bell boy that confirm his unnaturalness. There is a powerful and graphic comparison of the watcher with a soft fat coffin worm, which is quite horrid.
The occult sign that Tessie finds and gives to Scott seems destined for him, and there is a sense on an inexorable destiny that cannot be avoided.
Some evil intelligence has planned all of this — brought the Yellow Sign to Scott and planted the King in Yellow Book in his library.
And then, as the end comes, I think the approach of the King in Yellow — if that is who it is — is done very well: very sensory and paced like a slow drumbeat as the thing comes ever closer.
So, this is a weird tale and a horror story, but I did say that I would be reading weird tales as well as specifically ghost stories.
Listen to The Yellow Sign here
Check Out The Podcast
I hoped you enjoyed this selection of ghost stories. The Classic Ghost Story Podcast has plenty more for you to check out too.