The very first literary ghost story that I ever read was “The Turn of the Screw.” I had loads of books about hauntings, phantom hitchhikers, cryptozoology, and supernatural folklore, but Henry James was the first writer who engaged my intellect as well as my imagination. His most famous spook story followed a naïve (and possibly insane) young woman who was the governess to two children who were probably molested by their previous servants, and who may or may not be haunted by the ghosts of those libidinous menials. Deeply infatuated with their uncle, the governess hopes to save their souls, but each effort seems to drive them further away into the waiting arms of evil. And this is as far as most people go with James. His ghost stories – like “The Shining” or “The Witch” or “The Bobadook” are today – receive a great deal of shade from the mainstream horror community for being too intellectual, too abstract, and too psychological. He was not one for terror, or even horror. His fiction is impressionistic, psychological, and "courtly," but it has one pervasive emotion to it: unease -- discomfort, awkwardness, and a lurking shame buried in intentional secrecy. The fear of truth. The terror of exposure, of reality and confrontation.
Henry James has long been heralded as a master of transatlantic realism, a cosmopolitan observer of human nature, and a bone-dry contributor to the novel of manners – a blue-blooded chronicler of polite society’s stifled human dramas. And yet, for all his love of manners, whit, upper middle class malaise, and psychological realism, James returned time and time again throughout his career to a genre which seemed so at odds with his oeuvre: the Gothic ghost story. “The Turn of the Screw” is considered by many – including Stephen King – to be the exemplar of the ghost story: a tale of haunted children, demonic possession, sexual frustration, and psychological terror. But this was not a one hit wonder: James wrote eighteen weird tales – most of which were ambiguously supernatural, and the best of this output is included in this volume – phantom women in black veils, haunted clothes guarded by a jealous ghost, evil doppelgangers with mutilated fingers, murderous portraits which ensure the family honor, sexually-charged liaisons between the living and the dead, a spectral stalker haunting the woman who drove him to suicide, and more.
The following list details seven of the most atmospheric, psychologically complex, and emotionally powerful of Henry James’ supernatural tales…
7. The Real Right Thing
One of James’ shortest stories – supernatural or otherwise – this economical ghost tale is quintessentially Jamesian, so if you’d like to dip a toe into James’ courtly, psychological tales of unease, I’d suggest starting here. The story is semi-autobiographical, and involves the attempts of a widow and her husband’s best friend (and possible homosexual lover) to write a biography for the recently deceased man. They have suspicious motives, however – the wife seems to want to clear her name, create a defense against scandal, or otherwise publicize a very public-friendly version of their private life for the sake of posterity. Both seem to feel the spirit of the great man (a famous writer) hovering over them as they work on his “Life,” and the feeling seems to be blessing and sanctifying their efforts, although James suggests that this may be all in their minds, because the presence suddenly grows stronger, and its mood changes from supportive to powerfully disapproving, menacing even. Like all James ghosts, this one has virtually nothing horrific about him, but is steeped in a disturbingly potent dose of psychological ambiguity. A warning to those who would violate the privacy of others for their own personal gain.
6. The Way it Came (Or, the Friend of the Friends)
This ghost story is wrapped around in a love story, albeit a sinister and selfish one. James was inspired by a common occurance that happens to people in cosmopolitan society: trying to set two people up – who would be fantastic together and have loads in common – but whose busy social calendars are never free at the same time. A typical yuppie annoyance, but with a twist: the chief commonality that they share, is that each had seen a parent appear to them at the moment of death. The eponymous character (the friend of the “friends”) eventually gives up on getting them to date each other and begins dating the male party herself. When the two become engaged, the female party suddenly sickens and dies, making it impossible for the two to ever meet. The “friend of the friends” brings the sad news to her fiancé, who is shocked, claiming that the female party had silently come into his study, and that the two stared silently at one another for a long interval, before she turned and left. He seems very taken by the ghost, and seems to almost worship her, holding the memory of her visitation in a very personal spot in his heart – leading the “friend of the friends” to doubt that all the did was look, and to suspect that her departed friend is still appearing to her fiancé. At night. Alone. In his bedroom.
5. Sir Edmund Orme
Sir Edmund Orme is a typical Jamesian tale: a group of blue-bloods enjoys the summer months hobnobbing at a country resort, mingling politely, flirting shamelessly, and fending off their darker fears and desires. The narrator is in love with a beautiful coquette, but seems to find a closer friend in her sad but beautiful mother. The mother is even more drawn to him when she realizes that he can see a phantom that has been haunting her since her youth: the ghost of a former suitor who committed suicide when she toyed with his emotions before jilting him for the man she preferred all along – Sir Edmund Orme, a Quint-esque figure who isn’t ghastly or horrific, but features a pale, sad face, funeral clothes, and a silent, piercing stare. Eventually the narrator realizes that Orme is a very unusual ghost: he is not there to correct the past, to reenact a bygone injustice, or to avenge his previous mistreatment; a farsighted specter, he is not there to correct a past sin, but to prevent a future sin – to remind the mother to prevent the daughter from sending the narrator to his death in the same way that she herself had done to Sir Edmund Orme.
4. The Ghostly Rental
One of my absolute favorites. This atmospheric piece is directly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, not to mention Nathaniel Hawthorne and the specifically referenced E. T. A. Hoffmann (“The Nutcracker,” “The Sandman”), and is one of the best haunted house stories I know of. Gloomy, broody, and terribly dramatic, it is by far one of the most engaging of James’ horror stories – trust me, once you get into it, you will not be bored. It tells the tale of a grad student who becomes fascinated with an old soldier who goes to his abandoned mansion four times a year to collect rent from its tenant – the ghost of his daughter, whom he drove to her death when she tried to elope with a cad. Having fallen into poverty, he is visited by the specter of his wronged offspring, who gives him the opportunity to make penance: by humbling himself into accepting her charity. The story is one of James’ most fascinating, layered, and spooky. In fact, other than “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes,” there is none which lends itself quite so well to chills and creepy visuals. Not as brilliant or original as “The Jolly Corner” or “Owen Wingrave,” but this is far easier to read, far moodier, and far more fun.
3. Owen Wingrave
One of James’ most popular stories, period, this is also one of his most Gothic (“Ghostly Rental” and “Romance of Certain Old Clothes” also share its spooky mood. The story follows a romantic youth from a military family, the charming Owen Wingrave (his first name means “young soldier,” and his surname hints at how his family views death in battle – as an achievement). His military tutor is tasked with informing his family that Owen no longer wants to be a soldier, sending his elderly relatives and Spartan fiancée into an uproar. The tutor – hinted at being infatuated with his pupil – is at first aghast (the lad has taken to reading poetry and spurning military obedience for intellectual reasoning), but becomes increasingly sympathetic to the sensitive boy’s fate: to either die in battle or be rejected by his family. The whole group spend a weekend at his ancestral estate to ponder his future. The place is said to be haunted by his soldierly ancestors, especially one rogue who killed his wife and son in a rage, and this fellow’s portrait has a particularly powerful effect on Owen. Between his sadistic fiancée and his merciless relatives, it seems he has no resort other than to retreat. But the irony is that he has the most soldiery character of any of his ancestors – he goes forward. He reject his family’s expectations and sleeps in the haunted room where he plans to do battle with his family ghosts and meet his fate like a soldier. A tragic parable of callous militarism that has often been said to predict the thoughtless loss of an entire generation in World War One.
2. The Romance of Certain Old Clothes
A deliciously Hawthornesque moral fable, this ghost story was the first that James ever penned, and the most horrifying that he ever imagined – it is unabashedly Gothic, and the ending is gruesome in a way that effortlessly resembles a good campfire story. James calls it a “romance,” a word he borrowed from Hawthorne to mean a story where fantasy and realism overlap. As so, it is not a fairy tale set in a kingdom far, far away, but one placed in pre-Revolutionary War New England, and concerns middle classed worries (business trips, inherited clothes, fashionable jewelry, sibling rivalry, social standing, etc.) rather than dragons, quests, or princesses, but its conceit is no less fantastic than those of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen. The plot is another one of those typical of Henry James: two sisters are in love with the same man, one wins him over, and the other broods with jealousy and resentment until her sister dies. On her deathbed, the victorious sister seems to know that her sibling will swoop in, so she has her husband promise to save her wedding trousseau – jewels, dresses, and clothing that her sister had coveted on her wedding morning – for her infant daughter, and never to let her sibling to touch them. Indeed, after her death, her husband married her sister, but he was true to his word – until the day that her curiosity got the better of her and she pleaded with him to let her unlock the hope chest they were stored in upstairs. She goes to the attic alone, unlocks the chest, and then… Well, the story isn’t going to surprise you (especially with that spoiler-laden illustration of mine), but it is a fascinating fable of sibling rivalry, resentment, and jealousy.
The Jolly Corner
Likely James’ most artful (read: literary) ghost story, “The Jolly Corner” is also the hardest to comprehend. It is the last ghost story he wrote, and was penned at the height of his impressionism phase during the last decade of his life – a style marked by abstractions, free associations, and Faulkner-esque ramblings that stitched together mood and psychology far more than plot and action. As such, the core of this story is sometimes hard to trace, but it is thoroughly brilliant. An unapologetically semi-autobiographical take on his bitter-sweet return to America after decades spent in Europe, it follows a literati/playboy who comes back to New York to look after his boyhood home now that all of his family have died. He finds that he has a native talent for real estate, and begins to wonder who he would have been if he had stayed in America. Almost as if in a fugue state, he spends his nights walking around the house with a candle, hunting for his doppelganger – a part of his soul whom he believes to be living in the house. An old flame of his has seen the doppelganger in dreams, and does not seem to like what she sees, but the protagonists continues to break into the house after dark to play hide and seek with his alter-ego. The forays devolve into boyish illusions of grandeur (he imagines himself a scientist breaking into a pyramid, a game hunter stalking prey in the jungles, a panther with night vision, and so on), and ultimately we are led through a proto-Jungian psychoanalysis that resembles Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson” (another story were a man seeks his doppelganger – or rather seeks to hide from him – in a labyrinthine mansion). Ultimately the self-administered psychoanalysis reaches its dark point when he DOES meet his alter-ego, or “black stranger,” a specter with a hideous expression and two missing fingers. A vision of confrontational evil. But who is he? Is he who our protagonist WOULD have become in America? Or who he HAS become in Europe? Or who he WILL become now that his playboy days are over? James’ most complex ghost story other than “Turn of the Screw” will leave you wondering.
Read the stories in the links on the first lines, or read them HERE in our annotated and illustrated collection of James' best ghost stories!