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.
(If you're interested in reading Nesbit's best ghost stories -- including many not on this list -- complete with illustrations and critical commentary, you can collect "Man-Size in Marble and Other Horrors" from us by clicking here!)
12. FROM THE DEAD
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.
11. THE THIRD DRUG
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).
10. UNCLE ABRAHAM’S ROMANCE
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.
9. THE HOUSE OF SILENCE
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…
8. THE HEAD
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…
7. THE VIOLET CAR
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.
6. THE EBONY FRAME