Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Ghost Stories

The most common form of Supernatural Fiction, usually featuring an encounter with a disembodied Spirit or personality. The spirit is most often of someone dead, but can be of someone living (see Doppelgänger) or of someone unborn. The Ghost may take a physical form or be solely in the mind of the protagonist – the latter form of GS is usually called the psychological ghost story; its leading example is "The Turn of the Screw" (1898) by Henry James. Stories involving Haunting by other spirits or supernatural agencies such as Demons and nature spirits may also be composed as GSs.

The literary GS, as either entertainment or warning, had a long gestation. GSs as discrete elements of legends and hero tales are found in all cultures. In the Bible's Samuel I, Saul instructs a medium to raise the spirit of Samuel. In Homer's Odyssey (9th century BC), Odysseus visits the Underworld to consult the dead seer Tiresias. Chinese GSs abound; over 300 were captured by P'u Sung-Ling (1640-1715) in Liao-Chai chih i (coll 1679; selection trans Herbert A Giles as Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio 1908 UK; cut vt Strange Stories from the Lodge of Leisures 1913 UK), while Lafcadio Hearn retold many Oriental GSs.

GSs based on either folklore or apparent true hauntings are not fiction in the strictest sense, though in the rise of the GS it is often difficult to distinguish fiction from apocrypha. One of the earliest GSs purportedly based on fact was related by Pliny the Younger (62-114) in his "Letter to Sura". This ghost, of an emaciated bearded old man, complete with rattling chains and manacles, had all the trappings of the Gothic ghost that would haunt fiction during the 18th and 19th centuries. Likewise, A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs Veal, the Next Day After her Death, to One Mrs Bargrave, at Canterbury, the 8th of September 1705 (1706) by Daniel Defoe was essentially reportage.

During the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, the ghost was seen as a melodramatic warning, a harbinger of doom, or an outward manifestation of an individual's guilt. This was how William Shakespeare depicted the ghosts in Julius Caesar (performed circa 1599; 1623) and Hamlet (performed circa 1601; 1603), Ben Jonson (1572-1637) in Catiline, His Conspiracy (1611), and John Webster (?1580-?1634) in The White Devil (1614), each using the ghost more as a stage device than as a central character.

When Horace Walpole used all the apparatus of Gothic Fantasy in The Castle of Otranto (1765) he created a literary vehicle for ghosts without establishing the GS: the spectres were merely a stage effect. But they now became the stock-in-trade of the Gothic school of writing. In these novels a haunted Edifice was an inevitable centrepiece. In most cases the hauntings were contrived by human agency or the ghost had a walk-on part in order to provoke the action; in much fewer cases were the ghosts genuinely supernatural, with a more significant role. Most of these books were formulaic and repetitive, but a few are worthy of note; these include The Haunted Castle (1794) by George Walker (1772-1847), The Castle of Ollada (1795) by Francis Lathom (1777-1832), The Castle of Hardayne (1795) by John Bird (1768-1829) and The Spirit of the Castle (1800) by W C Proby. Although the better Gothics also utilized ghosts, these were usually rationalized (see Rationalized Fantasy). The use of sheeted spectres, wailing phantoms, rattling chains and gibbering skeletons reduced the supernatural element to burlesque, and the Gothic GS was soon parodied in such works as Nightmare Abbey (1818) by Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866) and Northanger Abbey (1818) by Jane Austen (1775-1817). Rudolph Ackermann (1764-1823) published Ghost Stories Collected with a Particular View to Counteract the Vulgar Belief in Ghosts and Apparitions (anth 1823) in an effort to counter the excesses of the Gothic story.

It required the emergence of the short story to allow a more artistic development of the GS. Initially these works bore all the clutter of the Gothic tale, but some of the more masterful German writers developed stories that were powerful and effective. Paramount among them were J K Musäus, Johann August Apel and E T A Hoffmann, and their works had a considerable influence upon US writers like Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe and, via the anthology Tales of the Dead (anth 1813 UK), drawn from Apel's work, influenced Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and John Polidori. Hoffmann in particular, in such stories as "Das Majorat" (1817) and "Ein Fragment aus dem Leben dreier Freunde" (1819), utilized supernatural retribution to more personal effect, hinting at psychological suggestion.

In the UK the GS was as much influenced by folktales and legend as by the Gothic romance. A number of GSs were collected in the same manner as the Grimm Brothers compiled their Folktales, and presented in narrative form. The main folklorists reporting these tales included James Hogg in Winter Evening Tales (1820) and The Shepherd's Calendar (1828), the brothers John (1798-1842) and Michael Banim (1796-1874) in Revelations of the Dead-Alive (1824) and T Crofton Croker (1798-1854) in Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (1825). Their stories take the form of reportage of folk legends, but became increasingly humanized. The best-remembered collector of GSs was Catherine Crowe (1790-1876), with her highly influential The Night Side of Nature (coll 1848), Light and Darkness (coll 1850) and Ghosts and Family Legends (coll 1858). These set a trend for "real" GSs related in fictional narrative form, an approach that became very popular in the 1890s and was subsequently used extensively by Jessie Adelade Middleton, Elliott O'Donnell (1872-1965), Shane Leslie (1885-1971) and Lord Halifax (1839-1934).

The most important writer to draw upon folktales, and who bridged the gap between Gothic fiction and the modern GS, was J Sheridan Le Fanu. He was not significantly influenced by Gothic fiction, but instead used local legend in a series of GSs for the Dublin University Magazine starting in 1838, later collected as The Purcell Papers (coll 1880). However, in "A Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter" (1839) he began to fuse elements of the Gothic and the folktale to produce a more sinister humanized story of supernatural Vengeance. With "The Watcher" (1851; rev vt "The Familiar") he took the step of describing a purely personal haunting with the ghost audible but not visible (though occasionally felt) to only one man. He perfected this in "Green Tea" (1869), the seminal psychological GS.

The Gothic GS had run its course by the 1820s, though vestiges of it may be seen in Rookwood (1834) by W Harrison Ainsworth, The Phantom Ship (1839) by Frederick Marryat (see also Flying Dutchman), and The Castle of Ehrenstein, Its Lords Spiritual and Temporal, Its Inhabitants Earthly and Unearthly (1847) by G P R James (1799-1860). It was soon to be recycled in more popular format by Charles Dickens. He repackaged the standard techniques in more homely surroundings in a number of his Christmas stories, especially A Christmas Carol (1843). Dickens was adept at using modern, local settings for his hauntings, and produced one of the most popular of all GSs, "The Signalman" (1866), with the setting of a railway tunnel. Such industrial, manmade non-Gothic features were rapidly adopted by Dickens's successors, particularly Amelia B Edwards (1831-1892), although the supreme artist of industrial hauntings was L T C Rolt (1910-1974), with Sleep No More (1948).

The transformation of the haunted Gothic castle into the haunted house was given a significant boost by Bulwer-Lytton in "The Haunted and the Haunters, or The House and the Brain" (1859) – again based on a true haunting – which used occult practices as the premise for the ghost. The acceptance of the occult (especially with the growth in Rosicrucianism) allowed a pseudoscientific rationalization for the GS without removing the supernatural frisson. One can almost see the Gothic past dropping away and the new rationalism emerging as the GS developed during the 1850s-70s. On the one hand there were writers like Wilkie Collins who, in "Mad Monkton" (1855 as "The Monkstons of Wincot Abbey"), "John Jago's Ghost" (1873) and The Haunted Hotel (1878), liked to retain the paraphernalia of the Gothic ghost; on the other was a new wave of writers, epitomized by Mrs J H Riddell in such books as Fairy Water (1873), The Uninhabited House (1875) and Weird Stories (coll 1882), who were able to bring the haunting into the family and allow us to perceive the supernatural as pervading the world about us.

Many of this new wave were women, and the period 1870-1910 marked the first Golden Age of the GS. In addition to Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865), Amelia B Edwards, George Eliot (real name Mary Ann Evans; 1819-1880) and Florence Marryat (1838-1899), all of whom produced the occasional GS, were many women writers now primarily remembered for their GSs. They include: Mrs Henry [Ellen] Wood (1814-1887), whose The Shadow of Ashlydyat (1863) and various Johnny Ludlow stories mark a clear transition from the Gothic to Victorian form; Mary E Braddon, in Ralph the Bailiff (coll 1867); Rhoda Broughton (1840-1920) in Tales for Christmas Eve (coll 1873); Mrs Oliphant in A Beleaguered City (1879) and Stories of the Seen and Unseen (coll 1889); Mary Molesworth (1839-1921) in Four Ghost Stories (coll 1888) and Uncanny Tales (coll 1896); Vernon Lee in A Phantom Lover (1886) and Hauntings (coll 1890); Rosa Mulholland (1841-1921) in The Haunted Organist of Hurly Burly (coll 1891); and E Nesbit in Grim Tales (coll 1893) and Fear (coll 1910). Representative selections of GSs by Victorian women writers include The Gentlewomen of Evil (anth 1967) ed Peter Haining and The Virago Book of Victorian Ghost Stories (anth 1988) ed Richard Dalby.

Many US women, too, became noted for their GSs. Prime was Mary Wilkins Freeman with The Wind in the Rose-Bush (coll 1903), but others of note include Harriet Prescott Spofford (1835-1921) with Sir Rohan's Ghost (1860) and The Amber Gods (coll 1863), Elizabeth Stuart Phelps with Men, Women and Ghosts (coll 1869), Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) with Old Friends and New (coll 1879), Emma Frances Dawson (1851-1926) with An Itinerant House (coll 1896), Elia Wilkinson Peattie (1862-1935) with The Shape of Fear (coll 1898), and Edith Wharton, whose Tales of Men and Ghosts (coll 1910) was the first of several powerful collections to appear. A representative selection of their fiction is Haunted Women (anth 1985) ed Alfred Bendixen (1952-    ).

These writers established a pedigree within the genre that has continued to this day, bringing a more homely, human and often more incisive perspective to the GS. Their ghosts are seldom as malicious as those created by male writers (see Gender) – and can often be, indeed, benevolent, especially where children are involved – but are no less frightening when intended.

By the 1890s male writers, not just in the UK and USA but throughout Europe and Australia, were developing further strands of the GS. UK writers needed to break out of the mould they had created of earthbound spirits of the dead, a form that had not entrapped writers elsewhere. Guy de Maupassant, for instance, succeeded in creating a number of psychological GSs showing a mounting insanity along the lines of Le Fanu, something that would not be picked up in the UK until Henry James and Oliver Onions turned to the field. The UK seemed tired of the GS, as evidenced by H G Wells's lampoon of the genre in "The Red Room" (1896), which is nevertheless genuinely frightening, while Oscar Wilde wrote an affectionate but scolding parody in The Canterville Ghost (1887; 1906 chap). It was at this period that other subgenres of supernatural fiction became more distinct, especially stories of Vampires or of the occult. One subgenre blossoming at this stage concerned the Occult Detective, spawned by the twin interests in the detective story and psychic research, although Arthur Conan Doyle, intimately involved with both, avoided the theme. Doyle did produce some original GSs, like "The Captain of the 'Polestar'" (1883), and depicted the effects of Spiritualism in "Playing with Fire" (1900). The period 1890-1910 can be seen as one of divergence for the GS, with the Decadence of M P Shiel, the psychological GS of Henry James, the mysticism of Arthur Machen and the pantheism of Algernon Blackwood.

The traditional version received a vital boost of energy in the form of the antiquarian GS created by M R James with Ghost-Stories of an Antiquary (coll 1904). Influenced by Le Fanu, James used ancient churches and books to establish a familiar setting in which traditional ghosts might be expected, but James's ghosts are anything but traditional. His technique has been often copied but seldom matched (see James Gang).

Good representative selections of Gothic and Victorian GSs are: The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales (anth 1992) ed Chris Baldick (1954-    ); Five Victorian Ghost Novels (anth 1971) and Three Supernatural Novels of the Victorian Period (anth 1975) both ed E F Bleiler; Victorian Ghost Stories (anth 1991) ed Michael Cox (1948-    ) and R A Gilbert (1942-    ); The Mammoth Book of Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories (anth 1995) ed Richard Dalby; Gothic Tales of Terror (anth 1972; vt in 2 vols as Great British Tales of Terror 1973 and Great Tales of Terror from Europe and America 1973) ed Peter Haining; Tales from a Gas-Lit Graveyard (anth 1979), Victorian Nightmares (anth 1977) and other period anthologies ed Hugh Lamb (1946-2019); and Victorian Ghost Stories (anth 1933) ed Montague Summers (1880-1948).

After WWI the public clamour for a belief in the Afterlife increased interest in Spiritualism, and the GS reflected this – particularly in the USA, where the emergence of specialist fiction magazines saw a number dedicated to spiritualist-based fiction, especially the magazine Ghost Stories. In the UK the GS entered a second Golden Age in the 1920s, partly due to the editorial work of Cynthia Asquith and the emergence of The Ghost Book. Thanks to the writings of L P Hartley, Hugh Walpole (1884-1941), Walter de La Mare, William F Harvey, Oliver Onions, E F Benson, Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973), Marjorie Bowen and Margaret Irwin the GS became established as a literary artform.

The GS has advanced little in the UK since the 1930s. The only significant GS of the 1940s was Uneasy Freehold (1941; vt The Uninvited 1942 US) by Dorothy Macardle (1889-1958), a convincing Haunted-Dwelling novel, filmed as The Uninvited (1943). Interest in supernatural fiction waned after WWII, and the re-establishment of the genre since the 1970s has hinged primarily on Horror. Those modern writers who have sought to avoid the horror angle have tended to model themselves upon M R James. This is especially true of the works of Robert Aickman, regarded by many as the UK's leading writer of GSs in the second half of the 20th century, Ramsey Campbell and Jonathan Aycliffe (1949-    ). Other works of note are Kingsley Amis's The Green Man (1969) and to a lesser extent Norah Lofts's Gad's Hall novels and the later works of James Herbert. Otherwise, with the possible single exception of R Chetwynd-Hayes, almost all other recent UK GS-writers have looked backwards to the two Golden Ages, either portraying traditional ghosts, but in modern (often regionalistic) settings, or emphasizing the psychological aspect. Works include Snowfall (coll 1965) and other volumes by Elizabeth Walter; The Dark Land (coll 1975) and other collections by Mary Williams; Shadow at Midnight (coll 1979) by Michael Sims (1952-    ) and Len Maynard; Stories of the Strange and Sinister (coll 1983) by Frank Baker; Seven Ghosts in Search (coll 1983) by Fred Urquhart (1912-1995); Ghost Train (1985) and Spectre (1986) by Stephen Laws (1952-    ); Shades of Darkness (1986) by Richard Cowper (real name John Middleton Murry; 1926-2002); Winterwood, and Other Hauntings (coll 1989) by Keith Roberts; and Element of Doubt (coll 1992) by A L Barker (1918-2002). Basil Copper (1924-2013) was successful in blending influences from Gothic Fantasy, H P Lovecraft and the thriller genre into effective supernatural fictions, especially those in Not After Nightfall (coll 1967), From Evil's Pillow (coll 1973 US) and And Afterward, the Dark (coll 1977 US), the last two from Arkham House.

Some of the best advances have been made in writing for children (see Ghost Stories for Children), in particular the works of Leon Garfield, Philippa Pearce and Robert Westall.

In the USA the mainstream GS became a vehicle for Humour, as in the Topper series by Thorne Smith. Genre fiction in the 1920s-1940s was dominated by the pulp Magazines. Weird Tales and Unknown featured many traditional GSs; not until the work of Fritz Leiber and to some extent Manly Wade Wellman and August Derleth, in the 1940s, did the GS take any significant step forward. Leiber successfully urbanized the ghost, starting with "Smoke Ghost" (1941), translating the imagery of M R James into inner-city USA. Nevertheless the GS field remained relatively fallow, though ploughed occasionally by Joseph Payne Brennan and Russell Kirk. A lone example of what was to come was The Haunting of Hill House (1959) by Shirley Jackson, a Psychological Thriller which explores the effects of fear on a group of individuals who stay in a Haunted Dwelling; it was filmed with considerable atmosphere as The Haunting (1963). This shock-horror approach emerged in strength in the 1970s with the success of The Exorcist (1973), which saw an explosion of interest in Horror and coincided with the emergence of Stephen King; The Legend of Hell House (1973), echoing the title of Jackson's book and based on a Richard Matheson original, was one offshoot, and there have been countless others. This allowed publishers to consider the GS an acceptable medium, though in the USA it still is more closely linked to terror and violence. The prime example is Ghost Story (1979) by Peter Straub – filmed as Ghost Story (1981) – with others including: Ghost House (1979) and its sequel Ghost House Revenge (1981) by Clare McNally; The Night Boat (1980) by Robert McCammon (1952-    ); Moon Lake (1982) and Midnight Boy (1987) by Stephen Gresham (1947-    ); the Blackwater sequence, being The Flood (1983), The Levee (1983), The House (1983), The War (1983), The Fortune (1983) and Rain (1983), by Michael McDowell (1950-    ); various works by J N Williamson; A Manhattan Ghost Story (1984) and its sequel The Waiting Room (1986) by T M Wright (1947-    ); Soulstorm (1986) by Chet Williamson; House Haunted (1991) by Al Sarrantonio (1952-    ); and Lost Boys (1992) by Orson Scott Card.

Rarer are more subtle GSs. Examples include: Cast a Cold Eye (1984) by Alan Ryan (1943-    ); Time Out of Mind (1986) by John R Maxim (1937-    ), which like many others overlaps with the Timeslip tale; Summer's End (coll 1987) by Ann Lawrence; A Truce With Time (1988) and "The Fire When it Comes" by Parke Godwin; Night Relics (1994) by James P Blaylock; Women and Ghosts (coll 1994) by Alison Lurie (1926-2020); and Expiration Date (1995) by Tim Powers.

Anthologies seeking to explore the contemporary GS, some with new stories, include: The Literary Ghost (anth 1991) ed Larry Dark; Frights (anth 1976; vt in 2 vols Frights 1 1979 UK and Frights 2 1979 UK) ed Kirby McCauley; Post Mortem: New Tales of Ghostly Horror (anth 1989) ed Paul F Olson (1959-    ) and David B Silva (1950-    ); and Triumphs of the Night (anth 1989; vt The Omnibus of 20th Century Ghost Stories 1989 UK) ed Robert S Phillips (1938-    ).

Other anthologies include: The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories; The Penguin Book of Indian Ghost Stories (anth 1993 India) ed Ruskin Bond; The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories (anth 1986) ed Michael Cox and R A Gilbert; The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories (anth 1984) ed J A Cuddon; The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories (anth 1990; cut vt The Anthology of Ghost Stories 1994), The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories 2 (anth 1991), The Virago Book of Ghost Stories (anth 1987), The Virago Book of Ghost Stories: The Twentieth Century, Volume Two (anth 1991), all ed Richard Dalby; Ghosts (anth 1981; cut vt A Classic Collection of Haunting Ghost Stories 1993 UK) ed Marvin Kaye; The Haunted Omnibus (anth 1937; cut vt Great Ghost Stories of the World 1941) ed Alexander Laing (1903-1976); The Oxford Book of Canadian Ghost Stories (anth 1990) ed Alberto Manguel; Great American Ghost Stories (anth 1991) ed Frank D McSherry Jr (1927-1997), Charles G Waugh (1943-    ) and Martin H Greenberg; What Did Miss Darrington See?: An Anthology of Feminist Supernatural Fiction (anth 1989) ed Jessica Amanda Salmonson; Lost Souls (anth 1983) ed Jack Sullivan (1946-    ); The Supernatural Omnibus (anth 1931; 9 stories cut and 6 added 1932 US; cut in 2 vols 1967 UK; cut differently 2 vols 1976 UK) ed Montague Summers; The Fireside Book of Ghost Stories (anth 1947) ed Edward Wagenknecht; and Great Tales of Terror & the Supernatural (anth 1944) ed Herbert A Wise (1890-1961) and Phyllis Fraser (1916-2006).

The GS retains an enduring popularity. Almost anyone who has written a substantial amount of fiction has tackled a GS at some time. While the traditional ghost may be relegated to an artistic backwater, ghosts continue to feature strongly in much modern horror. [MA]

further reading: The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917) by Dorothy Scarborough (1878-1935); The Haunted Castle: A Study of the Elements of English Romanticism (1927) by Eino Railo; The Supernatural in Fiction (1952) by Peter Penzoldt; Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story (1977) by Julia Briggs (1943-    ); Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood (1978) by Jack Sullivan (1946-    ); The Guide to Supernatural Fiction (1983) by E F Bleiler; The Haunted Dusk: American Supernatural Fiction, 1820-1920 (anth 1983) ed Howard Kerr (1931-    ), John W Crowley and Charles W Crow (1940-    ); Specter or Delusion? The Supernatural in Gothic Fiction (1987) by Margaret L Carter (1948-    ); Haunted Presence: The Numinous in Gothic Fiction (1987) by S L Varnado (1929-    ); The Supernatural and English Fiction (1995) by Glen Cavaliero (1927-    ).

see also: Ghost Stories for Children; Horror Movies.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.