Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Ghost Stories for Children

Stories written deliberately to frighten Children, as distinct from instructing them (as was common in Fairytales), were frowned on in Victorian society. Thus children's Ghost Stories are predominantly a 20th-century phenomenon, although there are antecedents. Hans Christian Andersen, for instance, wrote a very effective ghost story in "Auntie Toothache" (1872). Mary Molesworth (1839-1921) was a prolific and popular writer for children, and though her ghost stories were intended for adults it is quite likely that some were shared with children, such as "The Shadow in the Moonlight" (1896 Uncanny Tales), where children are the main protagonists. The same was probably true of E Nesbit's ghost stories, especially those in Grim Tales (coll 1893), many of which are today frequently reprinted in children's ghost-story Anthologies, and possibly of Francis Hodgson Burnett, whose ghost novella The White People (1917) would have been acceptable to children.

It was at this same time that M R James began to tell his ghost stories to his students (firstly at Cambridge and later at Eton). His The Five Jars (1922) is a Children's Fantasy, but James never produced a genuine children's ghost story, although "An Evening's Entertainment" (1926) and Wailing Well (1928) – written for the Eton College Boy Scouts – come close.

The first author seriously to produce GSFC was Walter de La Mare, starting with Broomsticks and Other Tales (coll 1925) and The Lord Fish (coll 1933). These and later revised compilations – The Old Lion and Other Stories (coll 1942), The Magic Jacket and Other Stories (coll 1943), The Scarecrow and Other Stories (coll 1945) and The Dutch Cheese and Other Stories (coll 1946), plus the omnibus Collected Stories for Children (coll 1947) – contain a mixture of fairytales and ghost stories. The growth in children's fiction generally during the 1920s meant that many writers produced some Supernatural Fiction for children.

It was not until the 1950s that the children's ghost story emerged as a distinct genre. The earliest recognized collection was A Pad in the Straw (coll 1952) by Christopher Woodforde (1907-1962), the Chaplain of New College Oxford (and a member of the James Gang), who would tell ghost stories to the children in the Choir School – the "eight boys" of his dedication. The next example was the first of the Green Knowe series by Lucy M Boston, The Children of Green Knowe (1954). A boy's great-grandmother tells him stories of their ancestors and soon he becomes aware of these ghostly children. The Green Knowe stories have a similar atmosphere to certain Timeslip stories, and bear comparison with, for example, A Traveller in Time (1939) by Alison Uttley, The Sherwood Ring (1958) by Elizabeth Marie Pope, and The Ghosts (1969; vt The Amazing Mr Blunden 1972) by Antonia Barber (real name Barbara Anthony; 1932-    ). In a similar vein is The Spring Rider (1968) by the US regionalist writer John Lawson, about the ghosts of Civil War soldiers whose memories become intermeshed with those of a present-day child living near the site of a battlefield, and The House on Parchment Street (1973) by Patricia McKillip, also featuring ghosts from the Civil War. In all of these stories the ghosts are friendly. Other such cosy ghost stories include The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (1973) by Penelope Lively and The Court of the Stone Children (1973) by Eleanor Cameron.

Leon Garfield preferred the evil ghost. Mr Corbett's Ghost (1968 chap US; exp as Mr Corbett's Ghost and Other Stories coll 1969) is a Dickensian story about a wicked employer who is killed and seeks his revenge on his apprentice. Garfield's work opened up the field to a wider range of ghost stories. Among the more effective sinister GSFCs since then have been: The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy (1971; vt The Wild Hunt of the Ghost Hounds 1972 US) by Penelope Lively, where a young boy and girl find themselves the victims of ghostly hounds summoned up by a local vicar; Castaways on Long Ago (1973) by Edward Ormondroyd (1925-    ), in which children become involved with the menacing spirit of a drowned girl; The Shadow Guests (1980) by Joan Aiken, where a boy must come to terms with death in the family; The Haunting of Cassie Palmer (1980) by Vivien Alcock (1924-2003), where a girl inadvertently summons up the spirit of an evil man; The Clock-Tower Ghost (1981) by Gene Kemp (1926-2015); the highly atmospheric The Haunting (1982) by Margaret Mahy; Emer's Ghost (1981) by Catherine Sefton (real name Martin Waddell; 1941-    ), where the ghost takes the form of a Doll, and the same author's The Ghost Girl (1985), where a young girl pieces together the story of a dead girl; and The Ghost Messengers (1985) by Robert Swindells (1939-    ), where a girl's dead grandfather tries to communicate with her through her sleep.

Like Garfield, Robert Westall brings an immediacy to his children's stories that is at once both surprising and effective. His first full-length GSFC was The Watch House (1977), and he piles effect upon effect in The Scarecrows (1981), Ghost Abbey (1988) and The Promise (1990), as well as many excellent short stories. Westall is arguably the best modern writer of supernatural fiction for children. Not as powerful, but equally imaginative, are the ghostly novels of John Gordon, especially The House on the Brink (1970), The Ghost on the Hill (1976) and Gilray's Ghost (1995).

As for shorter ghost stories, memorable assemblies include: A Whisper in the Night (coll 1982), Past Eight O'clock: Goodnight Stories (coll 1986), A Fit of Shivers (coll 1990) and others by Joan Aiken; Ghostly Companions (coll 1984) by Vivien Alcock (1924-2003); Ghost Carnival (coll 1977) and others by Aidan Chambers; The Spitfire Grave and Other Stories (coll 1979), Catch Your Death and Other Ghost Stories (coll 1984) and The Burning Baby and Other Ghosts (coll 1992) by John Gordon; Seven Strange and Ghostly Tales (coll 1991) by Brian Jacques; The Shadow-Cage (coll 1977) and Who's Afraid? (coll 1986) by Philippa Pearce; A Nasty Piece of Work (coll 1983), The Darkness Under the Stairs (coll 1988) and Beware, This House Is Haunted! (coll 1989) by Lance Salway (1940-    ); and Break of Dark (coll 1982), The Haunting of Chas McGill (coll 1983), Ghosts and Journeys (coll 1988), The Call, and Other Stories (coll 1989), A Walk on the Wildside (coll 1989) and The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral (coll 1991) by Robert Westall.

Acceptance of ghost and horror stories for children changed radically in the 1980s, spurred particularly by the Point Horror and Archway Books series. The premier contributor to these was Christopher Pike (real name Kevin McFadden). R L Stine's (1943-    ) Fear Street and Goosebumps sequences made him one of the biggest-selling authors in the world. The success of these books, and of movies like the Ghostbusters series, has caused other publishers to develop more horror and supernatural books for children, such as the Hippo Ghost series.

There have been many ghost-story Anthologies for children, but as yet only one has sought to trace the development of the children's ghost story: Dread & Delight: A Century of Children's Ghost Stories (anth 1995) ed Philippa Pearce. [MA]

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.