The Evolution of the Ghost Story
Other Early Twentieth-Century Masters
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
The ghost story continued to find adherents, although in the course of the decades the form evolved significantly, so that by the end of this period any naive or straightforward presentation of ghostly phenomena was by common consent regarded as beneath consideration. Very little need be said of the work of the various conscious imitators of M. R. James—E. G. Swain (The Stoneground Ghost Tales, 1912), R. H. Malden (Nine Ghosts, 1943), A. N. L. Munby (The Alabaster Hand, 1949), and several even lesser lights. If James’s own work occasionally descends to tameness, the work of his imitators is by and large so feeble and uninspired as to make his own work shine the more conspicuously by comparison. Only the most fanatical devotees of the English ghost story need trouble themselves with the likes of these.
Bernard Capes (1854—1918) wrote a number of ghost stories even before M. R. James, although there is no compelling evidence that any of them influenced James—or anyone else, for that matter; for Capes’s work was rapidly forgotten after his death, and only in recent years has it been resurrected. It is far from contemptible and shows greater imaginative range than that of many others who worked in the ghost story tradition at this juncture.
Capes’s weird work may have failed to gain traction because it was never concentrated in discrete volumes but scattered among several collections of his tales, including At a Winter’s Fire (1899), From Door to Door (1900), Plots (1902), Loaves and Fishes (1906), Bag and Baggage (1913), and The Fabulists (1915). I do not pretend to have read the full range of Capes’s supernatural work, but two stories strike me as particularly notable. “An Eddy on the Floor” (in At a Winter’s Fire) presents one of the most distinctive ghosts of the period. This richly textured story of ghostly revenge tells of Major James Shrike, who runs a prison. For some reason, room 47 of the prison is off limits, and the narrator at length ascertains why: it had been occupied by a man (not named in the story, oddly enough) whom the major had for various reasons considered his enemy and who had been allowed to starve and die in that grim cell. The manner in which the prisoner subsequently manifests himself is highly unusual, as the narrator (an acquaintance of the major) relates:
I looked, and saw twirling on the floor, in the patch of radiance cast by the lamp, a little eddy of dust, it seemed. This eddy was never still, but went circling in that stagnant place without apparent cause or influence; and, as it circled, it moved slowly on by wall and corner, so that presently in its progress it must reach us where we stood. (176)
The symbolism of the eddy of dust is never explicitly stated: can it suggest the parched throat of the hapless inmate as he is left to die both of starvation and of thirst?
The other especially noteworthy tale by Capes is “The Green Bottle” (in Plots). Once again, the moral premise is routine supernatural revenge—a glassblower, Ephraim Ellis, kills a coworker, Riddick, whereupon the latter haunts him—but in a clever twist, the souls of both individuals are trapped in a bottle that Ellis was blowing at the very moment of his death:
It was an ordinary claret bottle, but distorted at the neck. The light struck into and through it. And I looked, and saw that its milky-greenness was in never-ceasing motion… .
A little palpitating, shuddering blot of terror, human and inhuman, now distended, as if gasping in a momentary respite; now crouching and hugging itself into a shapeless ball, and always steadily, untiringly followed and sprung upon by the thing that had the appearance, through the semi-opaque glass, of a shambling, fat-lidded … (122)
The narrator trails off, unable to face the truth that two human souls have been caught in this hideous fashion. But Capes mars several of his tales by rambling and unfocused narration. Capes died in the influenza epidemic of 1918—19 and probably could have produced good work had he lived.
Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863—1944) also wrote some creditable ghost stories before M. R. James, although these too were scattered among many of his volumes and have been collected only recently. By and large, they are distinguished by their variety of tone and motif, their elegance of diction, their vivid evocation both of the English landscape—especially of the Cornwall that was their author’s native region—and of a variety of historical epochs, and perhaps most impressively of all, their quiet professionalism. As we read these stories we are fully aware that they are the product of a noted short story writer, novelist, critic, and scholar—in short, an author thoroughly the master of his trade.
Quiller-Couch was chiefly known as a literary scholar—he was also chosen to edit The Oxford Book of English Verse (1900), an enormously influential volume that achieved nearly canonical status in the first several decades of the new century, and in 1912 he was appointed the first King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge—but today little but his weird work is read. That work is scattered among no fewer than ten of his short story collections, from his first, Noughts and Crosses (1891) to one of his last, News from the Duchy (1913). Wandering Heath (1895) and Old Fires and Profitable Ghosts (1900) perhaps contain the greatest proportion of weird work, but even these volumes are filled with stories of other types.
In reading his stories we are struck by the fact that Quiller-Couch has utilised a great many of the tropes and elements known to weird fiction: the standard ghost of course appears frequently, but so does the witch (“The Lady of the Ship”), reincarnation (“A Blue Pantomime”), metempsychosis (“Psyche,” “The Mystery of Joseph Laquedem”), the “familiar” or “brownie” (“The Laird’s Luck”), and personality exchange (“Mutual Exchange, Limited”). This last story is of particular interest, in that it points to a recurring motif in Quiller-Couch’s work. The anomalous melding of two personalities is also the subject of a story in Old Fires and Profitable Ghosts, “The Room of Mirrors”: this account of two men who hate each other precisely because they are so much alike in temperament is a gripping suspense tale with only the faintest hint of the supernatural (one man, who has just seen his nemesis kill himself, seems to see his own face on the corpse). However, this topos becomes frankly supernatural not only in “Mutual Exchange, Limited” but in Quiller-Couch’s last completed novel, Foe-Farrell (1918), where two implacable enemies do in fact exchange personalities.
Quiller-Couch is also a master of tonal variation. Such a tale of brooding horror as “Old Æson”—inspired by the birth of his son Bevil—can be placed next to the grotesquerie of “Widdershins,” the macabre humour of “My Grandfather, Hendry Watty,” the self-parodic humour of “John and the Ghosts,” and the delicate wistfulness of “The Talking Ships.” Understandably, Quiller-Couch frequently melded the supernatural into the other modes of fiction in which he habitually worked—the adventure story in “The Haunted Dragoon,” “The Seventh Man,” and “The Haunted Yacht,” the historical tale in “The Horror on the Stair” and “The Lady of the Ship,” and the military narrative in what is perhaps his most famous and perhaps finest weird tale, “The Roll-Call of the Reef.”
Throughout all his fiction Quiller-Couch eschewed the idea of a “message.” His tales and novels were meant to provide entertainment, nothing more. As a result, his weird tales rarely have any overarching philosophy; but now and again some deeper concerns appear. “Oceanus” is, plainly, a religious allegory, attempting to answer the question that has perplexed countless generations of Christians: Why is there death and suffering in the world, if God is both omnipotent and benevolent? Whether the answer Quiller-Couch provides here is acceptable to all readers is beside the point; what is relevant is the author’s intent to probe the question, and to do so by means of the supernatural. Such a story as “The Magic Shadow”—in which a boy’s shadow, in the shape of a girl, is in the end seen to be a metaphor for the poet, with his androgynous soul—seems to me distinctly in advance of its time. Tales of this kind may represent a minority in Quiller-Couch’s output, but their mere existence demonstrates that the author saw weird fiction as a viable vehicle for metaphorically treating profound questions of morality and existence.
Very little attention need be paid to the ghost stories of Kate (1851—1935) and Hesketh Pearson (1876—1922), a mother-son literary team who, in Ghosts: Being the Adventures of Flaxman Low (1899), had the dubious distinction of creating the first “psychic” detective. In twelve stories, first published in Pearson’s Magazine in 1898—99, the Pearsons devised Low, an irritatingly pompous and know-it-all detective who mechanically arrives at some haunted British manor house, sniffs out the ghost, and comes up with the (usually predictable) story of how and why the ghost is plaguing the place. The stories are written in a flat, prosaic manner entirely lacking in tensity of atmosphere, and their almost uniformly identical size suggests that they were written to fill a given space in a magazine rather than to express any kind of aesthetic impulse. Mercifully, such later writers as Algernon Blackwood and William Hope Hodgson managed to infuse some literary merit in this unwieldy fusion of the detective story and the horror tale, but not many others in the decades since then have done so.
Probably the greatest writer of pure ghost stories during this period, next to James, was E. F. Benson (1867—1940). His four collections of weird tales—The Room in the Tower (1912), Visible and Invisible (1923), Spook Stories (1928), and More Spook Stories (1934)—contain much good work, and other horror tales are scattered among his other collections. Benson, of course, has gained a surprising celebrity on the basis of his pungent society novels of the “Mapp and Lucia” series, which feature a kind of proto—Evelyn Waugh satirical bite that is augmented by a soupçon of perfectly delightful misanthropy. But it is probably his ghost stories on which his fame as a writer will reside.
The range of his ghostly writing—covering more than two decades in a literary career that spanned almost five—must testify to the persistence of a sense of the weird in Benson. And yet, he does not appear to have had a very exalted or carefully worked-out view of the writing of ghost stories. In his autobiography, Final Edition (1940), he writes offhandedly, “Now ghost stories … are a branch of literature at which I have often tried my hand”; going on merely to speak of certain fairly obvious points of technique (“The narrator, I think, must succeed in frightening himself before he can hope to frighten his readers” [258—59]). Benson was, at least in his own mind, pretty much of a traditionalist in the ghost story tradition—a fact emphasised by his presence at a celebrated meeting of the Chitchat Society in 1893 at which M. R. James read some of his earliest ghost stories. It would be nearly twenty years before Benson’s own first weird volume would appear, by which time James had already published the first two of his collections; and yet, I do not believe that Benson can be passed off merely as an imitator of James, or even one who followed very closely in his footsteps.
The curious thing about Benson is that, almost in spite of himself, he modernised or updated the Jamesian ghost story in several ways. James’s tales always hark backward, sometimes to the very distant past, as is perhaps fitting for an authority on mediaeval manuscripts; Benson’s tales rarely do so, and are sometimes aggressively set in the present. One of his earliest stories, “The Dust-Cloud,” involves the ghost of a motor-car (“Seems almost too up-to-date, doesn’t it?” one character remarks ). In “The Confession of Charles Linkworth,” the ghost of a man who has been executed for murder communicates by telephone to a chaplain, pleading for absolution; “In the Tube” takes place in the London underground. Other stories, in order to introduce the weird subtly and covertly, are written in that archly sophisticated manner found in his society novels, but in so doing they create a “modern” atmosphere precisely analogous to contemporary writers’ setting weird tales at rock concerts or nightclubs. The opening pages of “The Shootings of Achnaleish” involve a comic banter and emphasis on the mundane (“Rent only £350!” ) that suggest anything but the weird, so that the supernatural phenomenon is the more striking and powerful when it finally does emerge.
But there is more to this than merely using the observable tokens of the present in a tale. It must be declared that Benson was a confirmed spiritualist—his brief discussion of ghost stories in Final Edition is prefaced by a perfectly serious account of an apparition he and a friend claim to have seen—and many of his tales present elaborate pseudo-scientific justifications of ghosts and other weird phenomena on spiritualistic grounds. This also serves to “modernise” his tales, and in two ways: first, Benson is riding a wave of spiritualism that gathered strength after the first world war; and second, Benson’s very need to account for his apparitions by means of philosophy or science (or what for him passes for such) betrays his unconscious absorption of the positivism of his day, whereby spiritualistic phenomena could not be accepted on their own but required a (usually specious) “proof” to overcome the scepticism that had already become ingrained in the majority of intelligent people.
It should be pointed out that Benson is not exactly an occultist, in spite of his passing mention in “The Dust-Cloud” of “occult senses” by which the supernatural can be perceived. But his tales (as well as some of his otherwise mainstream novels) are full of ouija boards, séances, and other paraphernalia of the spiritualism popular in his day, and there is no question—in spite of the flippancy of some of his treatments of these matters—that he took the whole subject quite seriously. The canonical spiritualistic/philosophical “defence” for the weird occurs in “The Other Bed”:
“Everything that happens,” he said, “whether it is a step we take, or a thought that crosses our mind, makes some change in its immediate material world. Now the most violent and concentrated emotion we can imagine is the emotion that leads a man to take so extreme a step as killing himself or somebody else. I can easily imagine such a deed so eating into the material scene, the room or the haunted heath, where it happens, that its mark lasts an enormous time. The air rings with the cry of the slain and still drips with his blood. It is not everybody who will perceive it, but sensitives will.” (147—48)
This is all very elegant, even though upon analysis it devolves into mere poetic metaphor instead of science or philosophy. But it neatly accounts for the “haunting” of a given spot (which in nearly all Benson’s stories is the product of a crime—usually murder or suicide—committed there) and for why only “sensitives” can perceive it rather than most of us hard-headed materialists. In effect, what Benson is arguing for is (as he says in an another story, “Outside the Door”) “how inextricable is the interweaving between mind, soul, life … and the purely material part of the created world” (134)—an utterance, incidentally, that betrays the flaw in Benson’s thinking at this point in its invalid distinction between “mind, soul, life” and what he fallaciously takes to be “dead” matter. But let that pass; the mere fact that Benson felt the need for such justifications—rather laboured on occasion—is telling. No longer could the weird be presented merely as such, without at least the gesture of rationalisation.
The truth of the matter is that some of Benson’s most successful tales are not ghost stories at all (note that he never used that phrase in the titles of any of his collections, as James did for his first two) but pure “weird tales” where the phenomena are of a much more unclassifiable sort. Already in “Between the Lights,” an early tale, Benson is declaring, “The paraphernalia of ghosts has become somehow rather hackneyed” (123). His best tale may be “The Man Who Went Too Far,” in which a young man, Darcy, seems to have developed some unnatural sense of communion with the natural world. And yet, phrased this way, it becomes clear that what Darcy has actually done (whether from psychic possession by Pan or not) is to have sloughed off the “unnatural” encumbrances of civilisation and returned to the purity of Nature. But because Darcy has adopted a perhaps one-sided view of Nature as pure benevolence and joy, he is overwhelmed by the revelation of the violent side of creation. “The Man Who Went Too Far” is a tale that wondrously combines ecstasy, awe, and horror into an inextricable union.
Other non-ghost stories are nearly as effective. “Mrs. Amworth” is a classic vampire tale; “Caterpillars” introduces us to an image—huge writhing slugs—that Benson uses frequently in his tales; “’And the Dead Spake’” chillingly tells of a scientist who has found some way to “tap” into the brains of the dead; in “The Horror-Horn” we find a hideous race of dwarfish quasi-human beings said to live in caves in the Alps; elementals are put on stage in “’And No Bird Sings’”; and so on. Later tales utilise seemingly conventional ghost-story scenarios to convey moral or social messages, usually the anguish of marital discord, a theme to which the lifelong bachelor Benson recurs with anomalous frequency. Then there is the delicate “Pirates,” a poignant story of a lonely elderly man recovering his childhood. An autobiographical reading can scarcely be avoided here. One of Benson’s most celebrated tales is “Negotium Perambulans …,” but it is not one of his stellar works. The surprisingly explicit religious premise of the story—a house has been built on the ruins of a church and occupied by a succession of degenerate and impious individuals, whose blasphemies induce a hideous sluglike creature to attack and kill them—is weak and implausible, and the story’s development is rushed and predictable.
The ghost stories of Oliver Onions (1873—1961) would deserve to be ranked with Benson’s and James’s if only he had been able to focus his undoubted talents to the actual matter of working out the supernatural manifestations in a meticulous and compelling way. But, in spite of a luminous prose style, a penetrating insight into character far beyond what James or even Benson could have imagined, and an uncanny ability to develop cumulative fear and suspense in his best work, Onions’s work must take a back seat to that of several figures far less literarily gifted than he. Nevertheless, two or three of his tales are of transcendent brilliance rivalled only by the best work of Walter de la Mare.
Onions’s weird work is contained in the collections Widdershins (1911), Ghosts in Daylight (1924), The Painted Face (1929), and The Collected Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions (1935), a volume that gathers up nearly all the tales in his earlier volumes and adds several more. The fact that Onions himself compiled this book suggests that he felt his work in this vein was done, even though he lived an additional two and a half decades and continued writing into the 1950s.
But if Onions had written nothing but “The Beckoning Fair One,” he would deserve to be remembered. This exquisitely modulated novella tells a story that melds poignancy and terror in an inextricable fusion. The supernatural premise is very simple: a female ghost, never named, becomes jealous of the female friend, Elsie Bengough, of a writer, Paul Oberon, who occupies an ordinary-seeming flat in London. This skeletal outline cannot begin to convey the extraordinary subtlety with which Onions portrays not only the two (living) protagonists of the tale but the gradual revelation of the supernatural—manifested unequivocally, after a number of ambiguous hints, by “a sort of soft sweeping rustle” (32)—which Oberon comes to realise is “the sound of a woman brushing her hair” (33). And yet, the ghost’s jealousy extends in another direction, for she causes Oberon to lose interest in the female protagonist of his novel-in-progress (who may or may not have been intended as a stand-in for Elsie), to the point that, as Oberon gradually degenerates both physically and mentally, he burns the manuscript.
It is likely that “The Beckoning Fair One” was inspired in part by Robert Hichens’s “How Love Came to Professor Guildea” (for which see the next section), for that tale was revolutionary in its depiction of a ghost who is motivated by emotions quite apart from conventional revenge. But Onions’s tale is equally remarkable in its nearly total absence of physical violence: Elsie initially suffers minor mishaps in the apartment, as she comes to realise that her presence is not welcome there; and at the end she is found dead there. The question as to whether the ghost herself killed Elsie or incited Oberon to do so is unanswerable; and as a result, the story becomes authentically ambiguous. But it is a literary triumph in every way.
Had Onions written more stories of the calibre of “The Beckoning Fair One,” his stature as a supernatural writer would be much higher. But although this story and “Phantas”—a haunting tale in which Abel Keeling, the captain of a derelict ship, encounters another ship that proves to be from the future (i.e., our present), leading one to query who is ghostly and who is real—are the jewels of Onions’s first collection, his subsequent work by and large fails to measure up. “The Rosewood Door” is of some interest in its suggestion that a door taken from an old Tudor house and installed in a modern dwelling incites an occupant (a soldier) to access the lives of past soldiers reaching back to Roman times; but the story is unsatisfactorily long-winded and provides no adequate account of how the doorway acquired this supernatural property. “The Painted Face,” a virtual short novel, is a tender story of the emotional maturation of a young Italian woman, but the supernatural element in the story (a vague suggestion that the woman is the reincarnated soul of an ancient goddess) seems adventitious.
More can be said about the powerful tale “Master of the House.” Here we come upon an old man, Ambrose Laban, who rents out much of his manor house while living in a separate wing with his servant, Binian, and a dog, Jacomb. Gradually we are led to believe that both lycanthropy and tantric magic (manipulated by the servant, who comes from India) are involved: sometimes Binian’s soul occupies the body of the dog, sometimes that of Laban himself. This raises the question: Who, really, is the “master of the house”? “’John Gladwin Says …’” is a delicate story of a man who, finding himself in a deserted village, goes into a derelict church and has visions of his past life, including his marriage, the birth of two boys, their death in the war, and so on. It is a fine example of the supernatural serving fundamentally mainstream literary purposes.
But if any other tale by Onions than “The Beckoning Fair One” deserves high marks, it is “Hic Jacet.” Whether or not Onions deliberately intended this as a Henry James pastiche, it has a remarkably Jamesian texture, with an emotive power that James himself did not always achieve in his ghostly tales. Here again the basic plot can be stated simply: Harrison, a popular detective writer, is tasked with writing the biography of a deceased painter, Michael Andriaovsky, whom he had once known well but had fallen out with when Harrison had gained success while Andriaovsky had languished in obscurity. This scenario somewhat echoes that of another and less effective Onions tale, “The Accident,” and makes one wonder whether Onions is expressing regret that he himself was forced to write popular fiction to make a living. In any event, the finely modulated pace of the tale—where Harrison gradually senses the presence of his dead friend as he experiences increasing difficulties in writing the book—makes this tale a magnificent triumph of character portrayal, one in which the supernatural is reduced to the barest minimum.
It is clear that Onions himself was inclined to use the supernatural quite sparingly. The brief “Credo” he affixes to the Collected Ghost Stories makes little secret of his disdain for conventional ghostly fare—“the class of story so plainly labelled ’ghost’ that it cannot be mistaken for anything else.” In such a tale, “the spectre is apt to be swamped by the traditional apparatus that makes the stock illustration for the Christmas Number, and there is little to be said about this region except that here the ghostly texture is found at its coarsest” (ix). “Coarse” is the very last descriptive that could be applied to Onions’s tales, and we should be grateful that in at least a few instances he raised the ghost story to aesthetic levels reached perhaps only by Hichens and Walter de la Mare.
Other British ghost story writers of the period can be dispensed with quickly. The Death Mask and Other Ghosts (1920) by Mrs. H. D. Everett (1851—1923) has apparently gained a certain cachet because of its rarity (although it has now been reprinted in an inexpensive paperback), but the tales themselves are lifeless and uninspired, with the tamest of supernatural manifestations and quite unremarkable character portrayal. The best that can be said of them is that they are written in grammatical English. Some of Everett’s novels, generally written under the pseudonym “Theo Douglas,” have weird elements.
More—but not much more—can be said of the ghost stories of A. M. Burrage (1889—1956), who wrote thousands of tales of all different sorts and whose chief collections of ghost stories, Some Ghost Stories (1927) and Someone in the Room (1931), are only the tip of the iceberg of his weird work, which now fills four or five volumes in modern editions. But most of his tales amount to very little. The appropriately bland title of his first book contains very few notable specimens, and the inexplicably celebrated “Nobody’s House” is not one of them. This entirely predictable story of a man who returns to a deserted house twenty years after apparently shooting his friend, intent on ascertaining whether he actually did the deed, can perhaps be classified as ambiguous, in that the ghostly traces evidently left by the murdered man may be the result of hallucinations on the part of both the protagonist and the caretaker, Mrs. Parks, who tells the story.
The really distinctive tales in Some Ghost Stories are “The Yellow Curtains”—an unwontedly grim account of both the pathos and the horrors of war—and “Between the Minute and the Hour,” which proves to be a striking fantasy in which, as a result of a curse, a man experiences several instances of time-dislocation as he steps out of his shop in the minute before midnight. The story may have been inspired by Lord Dunsany’s “The Shop in Go-by Street,” but is an able venture nonetheless—not least because it eschews the conventional ghost in a manner that Burrage rarely achieved elsewhere.
Someone in the Room contains little of note, as the presence of a relatively conventional ghost in nearly every story becomes mechanical; the tales are also virtually uniform in size, as if Burrage knew that the magazines in which he published had a fixed amount of space allotted to him, and he was anxious not to exceed it. The result is that, even when Burrage comes up with a potentially interesting conception, he fails to develop it adequately. “The Case of Mr. Ryalstone” contains a highly ingenious premise: in conscious contrast to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (cited by name in the story), where one man has two separate personalities, we are here dealing with two clearly distinct individuals with a single personality. But this conception—which might well have been the subject of a fine novel by someone like Ramsey Campbell—instead merely peters out: one of the individuals dies, prompting the other to die as well.
H. R. Wakefield (1888—1964) also lived a long life and wrote a prodigious sheaf of ghost stories, one volume of which appeared as late as 1999 after having been lost for decades. His chief work appeared in They Return at Evening (1928), Old Man’s Beard (1929; U.S. title Others Who Returned), Imagine a Man in a Box (1931), The Clock Strikes Twelve (1939), and Strayers from Sheol (1961). Lovecraft enjoyed several stories from his first two collections, but many of them are undistinguished, such as “The Red Lodge,” a routine story of a house haunted as a result of murders committed in the past; “’He Cometh and He Passeth By,’” a shameless rip-off of M. R. James’s “Casting the Runes” and clearly meant to portray the moral evil of Aleister Crowley; and “The Seventeenth Hole at Duncaster,” in which a wood near a golf course apparently has evil properties, for no ascertainable reason.
Some later tales reveal moments of interest. “A Black Solitude” presents the fascinating conception of the spirits of two evil dead people who have fused into one entity. The protagonist of the story, Apuleius Charlton, appears to be a kind of melding of Crowley and Oscar Wilde. In “The Triumph of Death” we find an effective portrayal of a vicious sadist, one Miss Pendleham, who has driven several companions to death by forcing them to experience hauntings in her house. “A Kink in Space-Time” involves a man who sees his own ghost, but it is somewhat clumsy in execution. “’Immortal Bird’” is a rather grisly tale of a man who appears to be able to command birds to do his bidding. Some of Wakefield’s later work does exhibit an engaging misanthropy (and, perhaps less appealingly, also misogyny), but overall his work is not nearly as meritorious as his small legion of ardent followers appear to believe.