Book Review: Louise Welsh uncovers two thousand years of the ghost story
Award-winning author Louise Welsh (pictured), no slouch when it comes to shredding nerves in her own works, spent 18 months researching and reading ghost stories. The result is this excellent and varied collection of spectral tales and unsettling yarns. The stories, arranged chronologically by date of first publication, feature such luminaries of the genre as Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, M R James and Stephen King.
There is also a strong representation of Scottish writers, from Robert Burns and James Hogg, to Ali Smith and Jackie Kay. It is a large, handsome volume that can be dipped into at any point but reading it chronologically does show how the genre has developed over the years. It also makes it easier to discern recurring themes and motifs from early stories to modern-day tales.
Welsh has taken a relaxed view on what constitutes a ghost story and the collection has benefited from some interesting selections. Truman Capote’s A Beautiful Child features a very much alive Marilyn Monroe but Welsh says that reading it she felt she was “in the company of a dead woman walking; a ghost”.
Comedic stories are also included, such as Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost, a witty tale where a ghost haunting an English stately home has the tables turned on him by a crass American family. These pieces offer light relief among some dark and disturbing tales, giving the collection a satisfyingly varied rhythm.
Welsh asserts that part of the attraction of supernatural stories is their potential to explore so many facets of the human condition, such as love and loss in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Demon Lover.
Whether directly or indirectly, they can also explore societal taboos, such as death, incest, madness in Robert Nye’s Randal, and flesh-eating in Mark Twain’s Cannibalism in the Cars. Women feature prominently in many ghost stories with the White Lady ghost being a common theme around the world. She is often a woman who has been wronged by a man and after dying tragically, appears in rural settings.
Governesses also feature as victims or unreliable narrators. Being neither gentry nor servant, these women were a ghostly presence in many households. Tales of ghost children can be very unsettling but in Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Old Nurse’s Tale, the ghost child isn’t malevolent, merely lonely and seeking a friend. The always-popular vampire stories are represented by Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s Guest, and Jewelle Gomez’s New York set, Off-Broadway: 1971.
Although largely an anthology of European stories, Welsh has included tales by African, Japanese, Scandinavian, American, Native American, and African-American writers. This is important, offering an opportunity to detect the similarities and differences in what frightens or disturbs peoples around the world. Stories set abroad, such as W W Jacob’s horror classic, The Monkey’s Paw, are as much about the fear of other cultures than phantoms.
The collection opens with The Haunted House by Pliny the Younger, written in the first century, and ends with James Robertson’s Ghost, a one-page tale written in 2014. In between, Welsh has assembled an enthralling collection of stories about apparitions, hauntings, evil-doers, madness, and psychological distress. She admits that some of her favourite stories failed to make the cut because of copyright or length but this does not detract from the overall quality of the collection.
Some of the tales could easily be read on a dark, stormy night without raising a shiver but there are some that really do benefit from being read in a brightly lit room. It will delight any lover of the ghost story genre.