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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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E. Nesbit's 12 Best Horror Stories (Not Including "Man-Size in Marble")

Most famous as a children's book writer who influenced J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, and P.L. Travers, Edith Nesbit has a second, darker reputation as the writer of some of the English language's most powerful supernatural horror. Nesbit’s writing is absolutely crisp, evocative, and touching, and her legacy as both a children’s writer and a master of horror is well deserved, if not far overdue. Her stories can best be described as raw – emotionally wringing, cruel, and richly ironic – but they are at times very tender, even in the harshest of her stories. A socialist and feminist, Nesbit was sadly married to a bullying philanderer and her stories often deal with broken hearts, raw aggression, infidelity, and the battle of the sexes.While her worldview is largely cynical – at times even Lovecraftian – there is no doubt that at the core of her horror beats a heart – tremendously bruised, horribly misused, and shamefully denied a voice. Her most famous horror story -- "Man-Size in Marble" -- tells of a devoted couple who move to the country for a fresh start. When they learn that the local church is supposed to be haunted by the ghosts of two sadistic Norman barons whose marble statues come to life on Hallowe'en, the husband laughs it off... until he finds their cottage door open one night with his dead, ravished wife desperately clutching a marble finger. Such are the emotionally charged tableaux of Nesbit's grim universe.

But Nesbit’s tales give voice to that heart, and its fleshy beat can be detected in an intensely intimate manner. Her stories are rife with predatory statues, demon lovers, ghostly sex, supernatural tragedies, unstoppable premonitions, haunted cars, weird tales, dark science fiction, haunted paintings, blood-sucking plants, maddening wax museum sleep overs, gothic farces, mad scientists, and brilliant, literary ghost stories that rival Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Charles Dickens. So as you turn this page and step into Nesbit’s universe, anticipate a world of painful loss, anticipate a world of emotional vulnerability, and anticipate a world of hate, jealousy, love, affection, anxiety, guilt, and fragile hope – anticipate a world of terror and dread, of sex, violence, anticipate a world of supernatural aggression, predatory spirits, and intimate horror – anticipate the world of Edith Nesbit.


Nesbit’s stories often have a very heavy tension between genders, and this one is perhaps the most distressing. In it, a woman exposes her sister’s affair to the brother in law whom she secretly loves, destroying their marriage and paving the way for a romance between the two. The husband is unaware of her machinations until their honeymoon when she confesses her role in the divorce. Shocked at her lack of servile innocence (he seems most offended that she is smart enough to have orchestrated the exposure), he evicts her from their house and storms off in a fit. He cools off, but she doesn’t return. Not that night or the next, or the next week, or month, or quarter. Nine months later he learns that she is dying after delivering their child, and finds his way to her bedside – only to find it her bier. Exhausted he falls asleep in the next room – until the door opens and a tottering figure approaches him. What she wants disgusts him utterly, but readers will probably be more conflicted as to how they interpret her grisly request.


A fascinating little science fiction story, this entry follows the perils of a suicidal man who is attacked by robbers and rescued by a little old man who turns out to be an evil scientist working on a series of three drugs which – when taken in order -- unleash the soul, permitting the superman to telepathically travel through space and time. Our once suicidal hero now awakens to find himself tethered to a gurney and struggling to free himself while the drugs take effect. Things only worsen when he has a vision of the old man’s basement: a chamber lined with the draped corpses of his previous victims (for, up to now, the third drug has always proven fatal).


Uncle Abraham is an old man with a lame leg that he has had since childhood. His nieces are fascinated to hear that he is said to have had a romance in his childhood, and he relates it to them with a sad, wistful voice. A precursor to the Vanishing Hitchhiker ghost story, Uncle Abraham’s tale is set in his early teens when – crippled and rejected – he spends his time hobbling through a local graveyard, taking comfort from the displays of misery and death. There he meets a girl his age who seems to understand him. They begin to fall in love, and things are looking up for Abraham, but when his girlfriend asks him to meet her in the cemetery on a particular date, he learns a disquieting fact about her when he misses the rendezvous, and loses her forever.


One of Nesbit’s most disturbing and opaque stories, “The House of Silence” is a real skin crawler that follows a brawny burglar as he breaks into a mansion while the owner is out of town. It calls to mind the plot of several stories and movies wherein the hunter finds himself over his head, in particular Lovecraft’s “The Terrible Old Man” and the recent Stephen Lang movie, “Don’t Breath” (although, without revealing too much, this plot is very different from both). Going from room to room, he seems to plunge into the mind of a decadent libertine – he even finds a warm bed that smells of a woman’s perfume. But it isn’t until he reaches the courtyard in the center of the mansion that he notices the thing on the ground… Oh, and the flies feeding on it…


A role for Vincent Price if ever there was one! A lovelorn hermit still hold a grudge against the man who led to his wife’s death in a house fire. He is so obsessed with the loss, that he has recreated a model of the city block that the incident took place in, including the burning house, the woman in distress, and the careless arsonist. The difference: in his model the hermit has replicated himself with a ladder, standing over the bleeding corpse of his enemy. When a drunken aristocrat takes shelter with the old man during a storm, he sees dollar signs and realizes that such a macabre talent could make money. He has the hermit return to London with him to recreate his tableau vivant in life-size scale, and the money rolls in – until the still-living enemy decides to check it out, and sees his wax effigy, and until the hermit notices his reaction, and begins to covet the look on his face…


A haunted car might seem a rather corny antagonist (or, if you’ve experienced “Christine” or “Duel,” the very term might give you a shiver), but in Nesbit’s turn of the century story about an isolated elderly couple haunted by the vehicle that killed their only daughter, it is an object of deep and twisted terror. Evoking the simmering horror of “The Turn of the Screw” and “Jane Eyre,” this story follows a nurse who is brought in to care for an ailing man. Both he and his wife try to convince her that the other is crazy, but it is the man – who is haunted by the driverless car that was destroyed when its drunken driver ran over his daughter and careened off the road – who attracts the nurse’s sympathy. The car seems to prod at the latent hatred, guilt, and misery stewing in his soul, and when the nurse finally witnesses the phantom jalopy, it is in the form of a spectre of Death.


Like “Uncle Abraham’s Romance,” this story features a supernatural love affair with a dark ending. Prefiguring another Vincent Price movie (this time “The Haunted Palace,” wherein a painting of a warlock who was burnt at the stake possesses his descendent), this tale features a young man who discovers a painting in an ebony frame that strangely arouses him. After having the soot cleared away, it reveals a beautiful woman surrounded by artifacts of knowledge. Ever brimming with feminist subtext, Nesbit doesn’t fail to deliver in this mournful story of a scientific-minded woman who was burned as a witch in the English Civil War. The haunted painting eventually comes to life and the sitter reveals the man to be the reincarnation of her heartbroken husband. Deeply in love, our Victorian gentleman rushes to find the spell which will free his lover, but when the mansion catches on fire, history repeats itself in a memorably cruel way.


This story is one of the shortest literary horror tales I have ever read (at about two pages long, it is a riff on Rhoda Broughton’s marvelously gory “Behold it was a Dream!”) but it has long haunted me. A man lurks secretively outside of his lover’s apartment (a “semi-detached”) where he is planning to rendezvous. The story steams with latent sexual innuendo and suggestion: their attachment has be scandalous and attracted the disapproval of their family, and it seems that they might be conducting a deeply carnal love affair in spite of Victorian sexual mores. Impatient, the man walks into the apartment and (against polite protocol) cheekily enters his lover’s bedroom without calling. There, on the bed, he sees the figure of a woman in a sexually receptive pose with his throat gashed from ear to ear. He runs out in terror, bringing a policeman upstairs, where they find… nothing. This shocks him into a quick marriage on the condition that his lover abandon her apartment. All seems well until it is rented by a wealthy man – with a beautiful daughter who sleeps in the prophetic room.


Yet again Nesbit presaged the advent of Mr. Vincent Price in a story about a man who takes a bet that he can spend the night in a wax museum and maintain his sanity. The tension comes from the fact that the man who took the bet is in love with the same girl as the man who made the bet, and both have a vested interest in persevering. The man who takes the bet had earlier exposed his rivals’ crippling fear of the dark, and humiliated him publically. So when he steals into the wax museum at night – surrounded by effigies of tortured prisoners, guillotines, and sheeted corpses – he is at first determined to prove his rival’s cowardice, but when something in the darkness stirs, his hubris begins to melt like wax before a fire.


Nesbit can be easily compared to the most powerful masters of the ambiguous, psychologically driven ghost story: Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edith Wharton. Like these three Americans, Nesbit saw great value in emphasizing opacity in the supernatural – writing stories where the haunting could be read as literal, allegorical, imagined, or a combination thereof. Specifically “In the Dark” carries tones of James: it is the story of a man who is driven to murder an odious acquaintance (and the murder – though not justified – is understandable) but finds himself running into the stiffened corpse whenever he is alone in the dark. Like “The Power of Darkness,” this story emphasizes the genuine emotional core of scotophobia (fear of the dark) in a truly chilling manner. Inexplicably – or so he tells his confidant – he encounters the cold cadaver on the floor of his apartment during the night, in the seat across from him when his train enters a tunnel, and in his own bed when he flees to a hotel. The ending is one of significant power and skill, and “In the Dark” ranks among Nesbit’s most literary efforts – a haunting story of the power of guilt, the power of fear, and the power of darkness.


None of Nesbit’s stories – other than “Man-Size” – have merited the same degree of popularity as this. It is a rendering of an age-old theme: the demon lover. In mythology, the demon lover is a supernatural entity – usually male, violent, and deeply sexual – which abducts a living woman and spirits her away to his Plutonic world. Buerger famously depicted this in “Lenore” – a poem wherein a coquettish bride is spirited away when her lover is killed in a hunting accident – as did Goethe in “The Erlking” – about a pedophilic spirit which chases after a father and his son, killing the son before they can reach home – as did J. Sheridan Le Fanu multiple times (“Schalken the Painter,” “Laura Silver Bell,” “The Child that Went with the Fairies,” “Ultor de Lacy,” etc.) and Washington Irving in “The Spectre Bridegroom” (albeit as a satire). In Nesbit’s version, a taunting coquette is lusted after by the hopeless John Charrington. The belle of the village, no one expects his success until one day she suddenly changes her mind (a pregnancy is potentially the cause). The marriage is to be the rage of the town, and everyone is excited, but when John arrives, he is disheveled, dusty, and pale with an odd welt over his forehead. While the ending is not a surprise, the rise in tension and the increasing power of the irony of a funereal wedding all make this tragic story an unforgettable meditation on the selfishness and possessiveness of idolizing love.


One of the finest ghost stories in the English language, E. Nesbit's "The Shadow" is told in the tradition of Margaret Oliphant, but has a far darker and far -- far, far -- more complicated plot. An old maid is accidentally made the companion of a party of rich girls who have bunkered in front of a fire during a Christmas blizzard. They are sharing cliched ghost stories when one of them demands one from their shy elder. Coerced, she tells the tale of how she was in love with her best friend's husband, and how when her friend was bedridden during a troubled pregnancy, she and the husband grew closer. One night she finds herself followed by an opaque shadow -- one which then returns to haunt the husband, and which becomes their constant tormenter. When the friend dies soon after childbirth, she sees it at her funeral, then later when he dies, but most terrible of all, she has seen it tonight, and one of the girls has a secret connection to the story.

You can find our annotated and illustrated collection of E. Nesbit's best ghost stories here:

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