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13 Oct 2014

John Harwood, The Asylum: Ten of the Best Ghost Stories



John Harwood, author of The Asylum shares his top ten ghost stories. 

To me the quality that most distinguishes the ghost story from its gorier cousin, the horror story, is restraint. In horror fiction the source of the terror, once revealed, tends to be physically explicit: pools of blood, decaying body parts, monsters evoked in graphic detail. Whereas the classic ghost story works principally through atmosphere and suggestion, leaving as much as possible to the reader’s imagination: a gradual, insidious build-up leading to a brief, terrifying glimpse.

The best ghost stories, in my view, are those that leave you with the uneasy feeling that this really could have happened, often by posing the question: is this a supernatural story, or a psychological study – or both? As any scientific rationalist will assure you, ghosts are ‘only in your head’. But to the solitary beholder, face to face with an apparition, the ‘only’ no longer applies. A being that’s escaped from your head and materialised before your eyes is as formidable as a visitant from beyond the grave. And how, in that extremity, could you tell the difference?

That, indeed, is precisely the situation of the governess – and the reader – in the first of the ten stories I’ve chosen...


Henry James, ‘The Turn of the Screw


Are the ghosts real, or is the governess hallucinating? The question – as witness a century of strenuous critical debate – is unanswerable: the tale itself, along with everything James ever said about it, reads as if designed to frustrate all such attempts. It never quite breaks the realist frame – the governess might be mad – but won’t sit comfortably within it. And this, as Brad Leithauser observes in a most illuminating essay (New Yorker blog, 30 Oct 2012), is where its power ultimately resides:

You can snap shut the cover of the book, much as you would close up a crypt, on the tale of the unhinged governess and her ill-fated charges. But the crypt creaks open again if she is not mad. When the completed book is once more on the shelf, the more frightening interpretation is the one wherein some actual supernatural agent is loose and walks among us.

Walter de la Mare, ‘All Hallows’


A weary traveller takes refuge in a cathedral on a remote part of the Welsh coast. It seems, at first, a place of archetypal beauty and tranquillity. But according to the old verger – a superb creation – who conducts him on a tour of the darkening building, it is possessed by demonic powers who are refurbishing it according to their own sinister plan. Wonderfully atmospheric.

M. R. James, ‘Count Magnus’


M. R. James is the finest exponent of the classic English ghost story, and the Count and his baleful familiar are amongst his darkest inventions. As in several of MRJ’s tales, an imprudent antiquarian is condemned to a ghastly fate by his own curiosity.

Susan Hill, The Woman in Black


Eel Marsh House, marooned in isolated wetlands and accessible only at low tide, is one of the most compelling and vividly-realised settings in supernatural fiction. Susan Hill’s masterpiece should not be read after dark if you, like her hapless narrator, are alone in the house. Arthur Kipps’ night of terror (especially the scene in the nursery) is unforgettable.

Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger


A chillingly plausible ghost story (or is it?) set in a crumbling Warwickshire mansion just after the Second World War, and narrated by a rural doctor who seems, at first, a model of sanity and restraint. The return of the repressed with a vengeance, you might say. The final page is sheer narrative magic.

W.W. Jacobs, ‘The Monkey’s Paw’


A small masterpiece in which everything is left to the reader’s imagination; yet we see, all too vividly, what is happening off-stage. The quiet domestic setting compounds the horror.

Daphne du Maurier, ‘Don’t Look Now’


I find it impossible now to disentangle the original story from Nicholas Roeg’s superb adaptation. Dark (pitch-black, indeed) and deeply disturbing; even after several readings/viewings, the final twist still comes as a shock.

Henry James, ‘The Friends of the Friends’


Far gentler than ‘The Turn of the Screw’, but just as inscrutably poised between the supernatural and the psychological. This beautifully understated tale of two people fated to meet only in death has haunted me since I first read it decades ago.

Alison Lurie, ‘The Highboy’


My favourite from her darkly comic collection, Women and Ghosts. Lurie is particularly good on the dangers of accepting gifts from (seeming) friends or lovers who may not have your best interests at heart. Be careful what you say in front of your furniture; it may be listening…

M. R. James, ‘Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance’


All the hallmarks of MRJ at his best: the tranquil country-house setting; the circuitous approach to the haunted maze; the advance of evil heralded only by a small black shrub which seems to be moving closer to the house. The sinister pamphlet discovered by Mr Humphreys in the library is a masterpiece of seventeenth century pastiche.