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Spooky Spotlight: Romantic Ghost Stories for Valentine's Day


Romance has always had a dark side: something sinister, possessive, even fatal lurks behind the desire to attract and be attracted. For centuries something spiritual – even supernatural – has been suspected in the ways of lovers in the night. Shakespeare called love-making “the beast with two backs”; in many ages the monomaniacal lust of a man for one woman has been blamed on witchcraft; the French refer to the sleep that follows intercourse as “le petite mort” – the little death. There is a night-side to our amours: a dark, animalistic release that takes place when we are alone with our love, drenched with shadows and candlelight.

Something vestigial and primitive about romance returns us to our less civilized forms, and for some of us, it is one of the few moments that we can genuinely sense our relationship to infinity and the realm of spirits. Consequently, romance has become one of the most prominent themes in Gothic fiction: from “Dracula” to “The Phantom of the Opera,” from “Wuthering Heights” to “The Raven,” nothing bridges the gap between reality and imagination, the physical and the spiritual, quite so nimbly as carnal attraction; and no genre is more capable of deconstructing these emotions quite so nimbly as horror.

In “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” H. P. Lovecraft famously declared fear to be the oldest human emotion. Without contesting that observation, I think love – that messy tangle of desire, admiration, lust, possessiveness, and passion – is almost certainly the second. After our basic needs have been met – we find ourselves warm, dry, sheltered, and feed – our very next need is emotional: the thirst for company, for understanding and belonging. In short, once our survival is no longer in question, the human spirit is most desperate for love. Love has left deep impressions in human culture, in art, literature, philosophy, religion, and government.

Whole genres of films, stories, and songs are devoted to its expression. Some of the most critical human rites of passage – proms, weddings, balls, festivals – revolve around the celebration of Eros. Many of the most passionate and aggressive political battles of the past two centuries have involved debating the appropriateness of marginalized love and its expressions. Nearly every religion on earth exalts love as the most divine of human emotions, and use the wedding ceremony as a spiritual reenactment of their theological values: by being near two lovers, we are permitted to briefly catch a glimpse of eternity. And yet, as even the most romantic among us are wont to recognize, love comes with a darkness as bleak as its light is illuminating. Love can be Heaven, but it can be Hell just as easily, and this is a concept in which many of the best writers of supernatural fiction have found powerful value.

PART ONE: MY FAVORITE VALENTINE'S DAY GHOST STORIES

In our new collection of romantic supernatural tales, I've broken my favorites into six groups of six stories each:

PLAINTIVE POEMS: It just wouldn't be Valentine's Day without poetry. We've already published a collection of Gothic poetry, but these six are among the most romantic and hence the most tragic. Each involves a broken relationship, or a relationship that has devolved into a bad romance of astronomical proportions: ghostly lovers seek each other, heartbroken beaus dabble in necrophilia, and seductive specters lure the living into unholy unions. They include Alfred Noyes' "The Highwayman," Poe's "Annabel Lee," "The Raven," and "A Dream within a Dream," Keats' "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," and G.A. Burger's "Lenore."

HAUNTED HEARTS: Now it's on to the world of high romance and the supernatural power of attraction. These are stories that involve powerful and unstoppable affinities between people on opposite sides of eternity. Most have tragic endings, some are surprisingly pleasant, but all are undeniably strange. A woman finds herself alone with a deadly ghost -- a ghost whose lips she is drawn to; a man falls in love with a girl whose family suffers a vampiric curse; a pair who everyone thinks would hit it off meet and fall in love only after her death; and a bridegroom murdered by bandits returns to seduce his waiting bride ("The Woman's Ghost Story," Algernon Blackwood; "Olalla," R. L. Stevenson; "The Way it Came," Henry James; "The Bridal Pair," Robert W. Chambers; "The Spectre Bridegroom," Washington Irving; "The Haunted Inheritance," E. Nesbit).

COURTING CORPSES: Among the darkest (and most disturbing) tales in our collection, these stories involve abductions, seductions, and unholy alliances between the

living and the dead. Some of these ghostly admirers are well intended -- some may not even be aware that they are dead - but most have come courting with the goal of complete possession: body, soul, and mind. They include a decapitated beauty luring a skeptical materialist to damnation, a girl given in marriage to a possessive ghost for a chest of gold, a wedding where the groom shows up late in dusty clothes with an ugly welt on his head, and a swirling dance with a beautiful girl with insidious intentions ("The Adventure of the German Student," Irving; "Schalken the Painter,""Ultor de Lacy," and "Laura Silver Bell," J. S. Le Fanu; "John Charrington's Wedding," Nesbit; and "The Dance of Death," Blackwood).

VENGEFUL VALENTINES: What would Valentine's Day be without some cathartic tales of wronged lovers wreaking revenge? Not every love story leaves all of its

participants happy: in fact, most joyful unions have a trail of broken hearts in their wake. Exes, disappointed suitors, first wives, unrequited lovers, and third wheels often smart at the happiness of others. Here we have just that: murdered rivals returning from the dead, a first wife gradually possessing and killing her replacement, two victims of suicides (one a man and one a woman) refusing to give up on the lovers who drove them to despair, and more ("Man Overboard!" F. Marion Crawford; "Captain of the Polestar," Conan Doyle; "Sir Edmund Orme," James; "The Cold Embrace," Mary E. Braddon; "Ligeia," Poe; "The Coming of Abel Behenna," Bram Stoker).

HEARTBREAKING HORRORS: Now come the tear jerkers. While the Courting Corpse stories are generally all tragic, these lachrymose episodes have a habit of sticking in the memory for days: tales that underline the ultimate problem of love: the inevitability of separation. These are stories about very human errors leading to permanent conclusions. A newlywed couple's love nest is shattered by a local superstition come to life, an artist's obsession with his wife is her undoing, words spoken in a moment of anger lead to a rash act of hopeless despair, a man lends his psychic wife over to a treasure-hunting hypnotist (only to lose her to his fatal spell), and more ("Man-Size in Marble," "From the Dead," and "The Shadow," Nesbit; "Poor Pretty Bobby," Rhoda Broughton; "The Bohemian," Fitz-James O'Brien; and "The Oval Portrait," Poe).

LIMITLESS LOVERS: Ending things on a wistful note of melancholy romance with some of my favorite tales in the whole collection, are stories of lovers separated by time. Some of these stories end happily, but most leave us with a painful sense of awe -- wondering at the dueling powers of love and death, how the first seems so capable of defeating the second, but how it always seems to have victory snatched from its hands. We will read of men falling in love with women from strange and unexpected places: an alternate dimension accessible through a wormhole in China, a Breton castle made visible by a time slip (or reincarnation?), a mummy locked away in a museum, an Egyptian slave girl suspended in sleep in a sealed tomb, a time-blackened oil painting, and a cemetery where a crippled boy falls in love with a ghost ("The Maker of Moons," "The Demoiselle D'Ys," and "The Tomb of Samaris," Robert W. Chambers; "The Ring of Thoth," Doyle; "The Ebony Frame," and "Uncle Abraham's Romance," Nesbit).

PART TWO: A NERDY BREAKDOWN OF LITERATURE'S DARK ROMANCES

Along with its life-affirming ecstasies, love brings the inevitable agony of separation, rejection, or loneliness. All love – whether romantic, friendly, or familial – must come to a permanent end at some point, and the brutal torture of the fear of these feelings form a yawning black hole in our collective consciousness, threatening our peace of mind with shadows of death. Long before love and fear became crystalized in the Gothic genre (more on that later), this potent mixture made early appearances in world mythology, where the tragedy of desire and the fear of loneliness led to some of the most memorable lovers in global literature.

Greek mythology is primarily just one great list of such relationships (making it impractical to attempt a litany of all the star-crossed lovers that make up its canon), but among their most famous pairings are Orpheus and Eurydice, Pluto and Persephone, Venus and Adonis, Pyramus and Thisbe, Helen of Troy and Paris, and Hero and Leander. The Middle Ages were no less fixated on the theme, introducing us to Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot and Tristan and Isolde, while the Renaissance introduced us to Dante and Beatrice, Petrarch and Laura, Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Desdemona, and the timeless trope of Death and the Maiden.

With the 18th century came the Age of Reason and a strong emphasis on rationality, duty, and self-control, temporarily deadening the lusty emotion of Renaissance literature (although novelists like Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Daniel Defoe, and Tobias Smollett did their damndest to thumb their noses at Enlightenment mores). The counter reaction to the Enlightenment was not long in coming, however: by the 1780s, the Gothic novel was all the rage, and a novel just wasn’t Gothic if it didn’t include tragic lovers, damsels in distress, lusty seducers, salacious immodesty, cosmic attraction between the sexes, or skin-prickling lovers’ trysts. Writers like Walpole, Radcliffe, Lewis, and Reeve borrowed from medieval romances, folkloric love stories, and antiquarian superstitions to stitch together fascinating stories of frustrated love, doomed relationships, and seismic emotions that would feed the imaginations of the next literary generation: the Romantics.

Obsessed with sentiment, strong feeling, and melodrama, few writers of the Romantic tradition could avoid using the star-crossed lovers trope. Byron, Keats, and Shelley, Blake, Coleridge, and Wordsworth used such emotions as the basis of their sentimental poetry. Even Jane Austen – a realist to the core – found herself lampooning the Gothic novel (more for fun than out of criticism) in “Mansfield Park,” while Charles Dickens gushed romantic pathos into “A Tale of Two Cities,” “Great Expectations,” and “David Copperfield.” Germans like Goethe, Schiller, and Burger studied the trope on the other side of the Channel, alongside Frenchmen like Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas and Russians like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

But of all the Romantics to find a sound footing in Gothic romance, the writers of unabashedly supernatural fiction were the most memorable. Mary Shelley did so in “Frankenstein,” Washington Irving followed suit in “The Adventure of the German Student,” and Nathaniel Hawthorne used it in “The Scarlet Letter,” “Rappacini’s Daughter,” “The Birth-Mark,” and many, many other tales. Edgar Allan Poe practicality built his career on mourning the loss of three prominent women in his life (his mother, a close family friend, and his wife, Virginia) who became transfigured in stories like “Ligeia,” “The Oblong Box,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Oval Portrait,” and poems like “The Raven,” “Lenore,” “Ulalume,” and “A Dream within a Dream.” In England, Charlotte Bronte and Emily Bronte had crafted two of the most unforgettable Gothic romances in “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights,” respectively.