The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton. Highly recommended.
I was unaware that Edith Wharton, known for such insightful novels as The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, and Ethan Frome (as well as the popular movies these novels inspired), had indulged in writing ghost stories other than “Afterward” until I found this collection. In Ghost Stories, Wharton reveals her mastery of the psychology of horror — where ghosts terrify through their oblique influence on the human mind and emotion — and where these human foibles create their own horrors.
Wharton’s ghosts take many forms — from the loyal retainer in “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” to the loyal retainers of a different sort in “Kerfol”; from the guilt behind “The Eyes” to the guilt recognised “Afterward”; from the mysterious “Mr. Jones” to the ghostly and ghastly “Miss Mary Pask.” Some of these visitations are not seen, or, in the case of “Kerfol,” even heard. They fulfill various functions: To protect the secrets of the past, to bring the secrets of the past to light, to warn the present about the future, and to remind the living of the dead.
Like the best ghost story writers, Wharton begins each tale with a scenario that seems ordinary enough. Early on, she drops subtle clues that build from a feeling that something is somewhat amiss up to a sense of fractured reality that shatters one’s assumptions. Wharton masterfully creates ironic twists (“Miss Mary Pask”), innocent victims (the wife in “Afterward”), and nontraditional ghosts (“The Eyes,” “Kerfol”). In many cases, the reader is one step ahead of the narrator or protagonist (Hitchcock’s definition of suspense), creating a delicious sense of inevitable, unavoidable doom.
If you are looking for the gore and thrills of today’s tale of horror, you will not find them in Wharton’s work. If, on the other hand, you appreciate the subtle, growing sense of terror that M. R. James insinuates into The Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, you’ll discover the same feeling of the fine line between this world and another that can manifest itself at any time and in any way when the need arises. These are stories to be read, savored, and read again — alone, of course.
28 December 2003
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf