Tales of mystery and the supernatural hold an almost endless fascination for me, as all regular readers of this blog will be well aware. I remember that the first ‘grown up’ ghost stories that I read were in an anthology named Ghost Breakers that I picked up in the library at my old primary school. This volume had been cunningly packaged to appeal to younger readers and I must admit that, as a child who had grown up in the 1980s, it was mainly my interest in Ghostbusters (and perhaps the hope that the anthology was somehow related) that led me to pick it up. My initial disappointment that the tome had nothing to do with the aforementioned Hollywood blockbuster faded rapidly when I was sucked completely into a world of haunted mansions, ancient curses and restless spectres. I finished the half dozen or so supernatural tales in the Ghost Breakers anthology in the space of a week and immediately afterwards sought out more of the same – a process which has absorbed me ever since and which indeed goes on to this day. Although my initial attraction was to the old-fashioned (that is ‘Victorian’ as opposed to modern) ghost story, it was not long before my interests widened. I looked to the past for the Classical, Medieval and Gothic predecessors to the Victorian ghost story as well as to the present for the modern horror fiction that was inspired by these traditional tales of the supernatural. I grew fascinated by the continuity I saw in hundreds of years of story-telling – the linked themes, the literary techniques and the recurring settings. I also noted the differences, how each generation adapted the ghost story to its tastes, adding something new to continually refresh and expand the genre. I became familiar with the founders and foremost exponents of the ghost story form, from its misty beginnings in antiquity to those pushing its boundaries in the modern age. Most of all I became determined that the short ghostly tale should remain alive and well. I wanted future generations to enjoy the stories that I had grown up with and also, for those (like me) who feel so inspired, to add to the corpus of supernatural fiction. It was this desire that led me to write my own ghost stories and create this website, where I’ve so far talked about ghost stories and their writers in a somewhat haphazard manner. To provide some context, I thought that it might be useful at this stage to say something about the evolution of the ghost story from its very beginnings to the present day.
The first literary ghosts occur in the works of the Classical authors Apuleius, Petronius and the younger Pliny, but they are rare instances. In Medieval and Renaissance Europe ghosts were largely confined to legend and popular tradition: they might be recorded by chroniclers, sung of in ballads, or employed occasionally by dramatists and moralists, but they had no place in overt fiction. Nor did they make much impact before the 18th century. Ghosts did not enter fiction fully until the coming of the Gothic novel, which began its flamboyant career in England, under German influences, with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764). The dawn of the 19th century then saw the publication of the classic Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe, Clara Reeve and Mary Shelley. The trappings of such novels were antique castles, terrified maidens, evil villains and clanking, comic spectres. Indeed, the ghost tended to play a secondary role in the Gothic novel, serving a moral purpose by bringing retribution upon the villain when not fulfilling the more basic function of scaring the ladies. It was not until the 1850s that the ghost story as we now know it began to mature into a distinct form. Although there were earlier examples of the form (notably the tales of J S Le Fanu), it was in the 1850s that the distinct, anti-Gothic character of the Victorian ghost story began to emerge. Where the Gothic tale of terror had been indulgently heroic and ostentatiously fictitious, the Victorian ghost story was typically domestic in tone and inclined to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction. Ghost stories were something at which the Victorians excelled. They were as typically part of the cultural and literary fabric of the age as imperial confidence or the novel of social realism. The Victorians effectively defined the possibilities of the short ghost story, to the extent that all subsequent practitioners have been indebted to the Victorian achievement in some degree or other.
The art of the literary ghost story was perfected in the middle decades of the 19th century through the medium of magazines. Fiction was the primary reason for the popularity of the best-selling periodicals of the day, reflecting the fact that they catered for a burgeoning middle-class readership that was educated but relatively unsophisticated in its literary tastes. The high point of the periodical trade were the special Christmas Numbers, in which ghost stories came into their own. Christmas, which had always had an association with the marvellous and the supernatural, now became indelibly identified with the reading of ghost stories. The key figure here was Charles Dickens. Though his own forays into the supernatural were comparatively few, Dickens fostered the ghost story’s seasonal association through the Christmas Numbers of the magazines he edited. The explosion of periodical publishing from 1860 meant that the rise of the short ghost story was a rapid one and by the 1890s they had become a national institution.
As the 19th century drew to a close the ghost story proved to be remarkably resistant to mainstream literary influences. The finest exponent of the form was M R James, whose antiquarian stories set in train a vigorous sub-category of English ghost stories that still continues. In the wider sphere of supernatural fantasy, Arthur Machen produced a strain of lyrical, atavistic horror which belonged to a different, though related, field from the ghost story proper. Supernatural fiction was being written by mainstream literary figures like Wilkie Collins; by specialists like Algernon Blackwood and, notably, by large numbers of women. Amelia Edwards, Mary Braddon, Charlotte Riddell and Rhoda Broughton were the most prominent female ghost story writers of the 1860s and 1870s, but there were many others. Nor was the taste for spooky tales confined to Britain. A literary tradition independent of, but clearly part of, the British root-stock flourished in New England, USA. In the 19th century the chief figures in American supernatural fiction were Henry James and Washington Irving and they were followed in the 20th century by the equally influential Edgar Allan Poe and H P Lovecraft.
The outbreak of the First World War signalled the end of the Victorian ghost story tradition. After the upheaval of the years 1914-18 and their aftermath, the ghost story withered for a time in the face of greater nightmares; but it was quickly to revive, and indeed to achieve a second great flowering, with new themes, new modes of expression and new images of supernatural violation. Readers of supernatural fiction soon found the short story form attracting some of the most popular writers of the first half of the 20th century – notably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, John Buchan, Somerset Maugham, D H Lawrence and Vladimir Nabokov – who created what amounted to a ‘Golden Era’ of ghost stories, much broader in theme (and perhaps also appeal) than their 19th century predecessors. The occurrence of two world wars in the first half of the 20th century saw the emergence of a group of writers exploring the idea of life after death as personified by ghosts, which offered an antidote to the appalling slaughter and suffering caused by the conflicts. The Gothic tale also returned revitalized to address new generations, thanks to the work of an excellent school of female writers, at the forefront of which was the American Edith Wharton. Wharton and others went on to create the genre of ‘new gothic’, the hallmarks of which were claustrophobia, disintegration and terror of the soul. The humorous ghost story, which Dickens had first created to entertain the readers of The Pickwick Papers in the previous century, also got a life of its own thanks to the likes of Kingsley Amis and Ray Bradbury.
The 21st century has seen the ghost story come of age. It has now completed its evolution from the Medieval Tradition through the Gothic Drama and the Victorian Parlour Tale. Ghosts are no longer confined in any way but instead exist in the most everyday situations of modern living: inhabiting flats and houses, using the transport system, the telephone and even the latest information technology, for self-expression. It is as if ghosts have been emancipated in a way no one could have imagined possible a century ago. Perhaps this explains the continuing appeal of the literary ghost story today, a fact that I find reassuring in an era of cheaper but more immediate thrills. Long may it continue.