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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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Henry James' Deceptively Elegant, Unnerving Ghost Stories

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 in the tradition of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert, Balzac, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Kipling, and de Maupassant – a thoroughly European pedigree befitting a man who left the United States in his youth and returned only twice before his death. 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.


It was not an isolated impulse in writers of realism: Austen wrote a Gothic satire, de Maupassant pioneered the “Weird Tale,” Balzac, Turgenev, and Tolstoy all penned supernatural fiction bordering on Borges-esque magic realism, and both Kipling and Dickens wrote some of the most powerful English ghost stories. But the locus of James’ taste for the ghostly doesn’t appear to have met him on the other side of the Atlantic, but to have journeyed with him throughout his life. In spite of Europe’s steadfast tradition of Gothic novels, ghost lore, and ghoulish legends, it appears to be the American in him, not the European he developed into, which lead him to turn, time and again, to the supernatural tale which so shockingly rebels against his continental pragmatism: the influence of Poe, Hawthorne, Irving, Cooper, and Brockden Brown thunder softly, but undeniably in the eighteen tales that have been classed as the supernatural stories of Henry James.

In the canon of literary horror – a genre whose boundaries themselves are tremendously controversial – there are a number of sub-genres which have avoided the frequently dramatic debates that have surrounded the works and styles of writers such as Lovecraft, Hodgson, Machen, Ashton Smith, and Blackwood. While fans of the genre resent the way in which their favorite writers are belittled, there is a consensus notwithstanding as to which writers have epitomized the basic building blocks of the horror genre. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King’s 1981 critical assessment of filmic and literary horror, he summarizes the five essential horror story types: stories about vampires, about werewolves, about nameless things, about bad places (hauntings), and about ghosts. Until the epoch of Freudian literary criticism, only three of these genres received any academic respect – the vampire, werewolf, and thing – and these genres were epitomized by the three S’s – Stoker, Stevenson, and Shelley, respectively, for their novels Dracula, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Frankenstein.

During the Edwardian Era the ghost story began to attract some mainstream attention, and by the Postwar Period, the haunted place became a matter of critical interest. The latter genre was exemplified by Shirley Jackson’s The House on Haunted Hill, a masterpiece of the haunted house story. The former – ghost stories – has had a unique history. It has frequently been employed by highbrow, well-esteemed literary grandees, beginning with Washington Irving and Charles Dickens, who were followed by Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, de Maupassant, Thomas Hardy, Saki, Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Elizabeth Gaskell, Margaret Oliphant, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Ambrose Bierce, and Edgar Allan Poe among others. The ghost story, notwithstanding, was seen as a cheap, vulgar, anti-intellectual genre that encouraged superstition, used cheap gimmicks, and was smothered in sentimentality, romance, and Gothic clichés. It was not until Henry James published The Turn of the Screw in 1898 that this changed.

King lists James as the exemplar of the literary ghost story, and considers The Turn of the Screw to be one of the very finest in the genre. Aficionados of horror will likely hold J. Sheridan Le Fanu, M. R. James, Oliver Onions, Algernon Blackwood, and Walter de la Mare in higher regard – and if they do, I do not blame them. James was the darling of realism, and as such, his ghost stories never flirt with terror as much as they do with unease. Le Fanu confronts us with the phantoms of suicides whose throats open up “like another mouth,” M. R. James thrusts us into the arms of mummified corpses whose faces are “perfectly dry, and the eyes were very deep-sunk; and over them, from the eyebrows to the cheek-bone, there were cobwebs—thick,” and Onions lures us into a house where a man is bewitched to murder his best friend, whose body putrefies into “something that resembled a large lumpy pudding, done up in a pudding-bag of faded browny, red frieze.”


Henry James offers us none of the sensationalism of his peers. His ghosts are polite to a torturous degree, frequently indistinguishable from living beings (although often a tad pale), and almost always vague enough to explain away rationally. Some are mental impressions, some are dreams, some are hallucinations, and some are outright hoaxes. Only on four occasions are there any strong proofs of the existence of supernatural beings in the form of multiple witnesses or physical evidence. Indeed, James’ ghosts are almost never terrifying, but they are always unsettling, challenging, or disturbing. On a few occasions, they genuinely elicit terror (“The Jolly Corner,” Turn, and “Romance of Certain Old Clothes” come to mind), but these are the exceptions. James’ ghosts have a much more nuanced mission than frightening: making their victims uncomfortable. In fact, all of James’ ghosts do this to a degree: even in the one instance where the spirit is a comfort to its hauntee, it is a tremendous distress to that man’s jealous fiancée. We are therefore forced to wonder why it is that James’ ghost stories have gained so much respect in the horror genre when there is almost never anything horrifying about them. Virginia Woolf was a voracious reader of James’ supernatural tales, and had the following commentary on the effect that his tales rendered:

“Henry James has only to take the smallest of steps and he is over the border. His characters with their extreme fineness of perception are already half-way out of the body. There is nothing violent in their release. They seem rather to have achieved at last what they have long been attempting--communication without obstacle. But Henry James, after all, kept his ghosts for his ghost stories. Obstacles are essential to The Wings of the Dove. When he removed them by supernatural means as he did in The Friends of the Friends he did so in order to produce a particular effect. The story is very short; there is no time to elaborate the relationship; but the point can be pressed home by a shock. The supernatural is brought in to provide that shock.

“[His] ghosts have nothing in common with the violent old ghosts--the blood-stained sea captains, the white horses, the headless ladies of dark lanes and windy commons. They have their origin within us. They are present whenever the significant overflows our powers of expressing it; whenever the ordinary appears ringed by the strange. The baffling things that are left over, the frightening ones that persist--these are the emotions that he takes, embodies, makes consoling and companionable.

“[The Gothic novels of Radcliffe frightened our ancestors] because they lived with very few books, an occasional post, a newspaper superannuated before it reached them, in the depths of the country or in a town which resembled the more modest of our villages, with long hours to spend sitting over the fire drinking wine by the light of half a dozen candles.

“[In the modern era, however] we are tired of violence; we suspect mystery. Surely, we might say to a writer set upon the supernatural, there are facts enough in the world to go round. . . . Moreover, we are impervious to fear. Your ghosts will only make us laugh, and if you try to express some tender and intimate vision of a world stripped of its hide we shall be forced (and there is nothing more uncomfortable) to look the other way. But writers, if they are worth their salt, never take advice. They always run risks. To admit that the supernatural was used for the last time by Mrs. Radcliffe and that modern nerves are immune from the wonder and terror which ghosts have always inspired would be to throw up the sponge too easily. If the old methods are obsolete, it is the business of a writer to discover new ones. The public can feel again what it has once felt--there can be no doubt about that; only from time to time the point of attack must be changed.

“What does it matter, then, if we do pick up The Turn of the Screw an hour or so before bedtime? After an exquisite entertainment, we shall, if the other stories are to be trusted, end with this fine music in our ears, and sleep the sounder. We are afraid of something, perhaps, in ourselves. In short, we turn on the light. [James] has conquered. That courtly, worldly, sentimental old gentleman can still make us afraid of the dark.”

Wolfe testifies beautifully to the modern elegance of James’ supernaturalism – it’s ability to transcend convention, to subvert expectations, to foil tropes, and to reject formulae. His ghost stories do not try to terrify, and it is in that surrender (for any reader of “Romance of Certain Old Clothes” knows that he has the capacity to wield the Gothic, but keeps it tactfully sheathed) that he claims power. His “courtly, worldly, sentimental” approach to terror is not what King calls the “gross-out,” but a deftly, almost archetypally executed stab at the subconscious. Abandoning basic horror as obvious and over used, he lunges for the dream-realm of childhood, but without abandoning the adult world of realism: it is a fantasy in the clothes of reality, a daydream that feels like filling out our taxes and checking the weather report. His writing has often been called impressionistic – it evokes mood, feeling, and psychology in a flood of tumbling, free associations, a style marked by abstractions, mental impressions, and Faulkner-esque ramblings that stitched together mood and psychology far more than plot and action. But behind the sheer screen, lights dimly flicker and point to a hideous truth hidden in the vapor.

James’ ghost stories share a consistent idée fixe: they concern the quiet drama of middle class persons – almost always parties or pairs of the opposite sex – whose unspoken appetites are manifested in supernatural wish fulfilment: a man who spurns his daughter to her death is relieved to be haunted by her ghost as a means of making penance; a woman whose spurned lover committed suicide is content to suffer the sight of his spirit as an albatross reminding her to keep her coquettish daughter from repeating her sin; a man who never had the chance to meet the woman whom his friends considered his ideal mate before her death relishes her spectral appearance to him with the sensual delight of an illicit affair; an expatriate maniacally obsesses over the person he might have become had he never left his home country until the spirit of his alter-ego materializes before him in a vision of evil, terrifying away his curiosity; a man who reluctantly accepts the job of writing his best friend’s posthumous biography is finally relieved of the sacrilegious task when the other’s ghost manifestly disapproves; a woman in unrequited love with her tomcatting employer yearns for a chance to prove her moral fiber and feminine worth to him and is finally offered a chance when evil ghosts begin threatening his niece and nephew.

None of these episodes are unequivocally proven to feature genuine spirits. Some are outright hoaxes, some could be explained as hallucinations, even the most believable (“Sir Edmund Orme,” “Romance of Certain Old Clothes,” and “Owen Wingrave”) could be argued to be mass hysteria or masochistic wish fulfilment. Ultimately, they all have a supernatural explanation (even “The Ghostly Rental”), a psychological explanation (usually of a Freudian or Jungian or Lacanian variety), and a symbolic explanation – one that is purely literary and semiotic. “The Jolly Corner,” for instance, may be a straightforward doppelgänger story in the vein of Poe’s “William Wilson” or Lovecraft’s “Charles Dexter Ward,” or it could be a psychological episode of denial confronted by reality – of Id cornering Ego, of Shadow seeking Self, explained by hallucination, wish-fulfilment, obsessive-compulsion, mania, and mental breakdown, or it can be viewed as a metaphor for coming to terms with loss – a symbolic work of fiction meant to replicate the experience of passing through the stages of grief – primarily the deep regression of denial – and coming to terms (or failing to, as the case may be) with accepting a difficult truth.



Most of James’ stories fall into three distinct categories: ethical romances, cynical farces, and supernatural allegories. The ethical romances are neither ethical nor romantic – they are romances which ponder ethical scenarios. “Romance” is a term James borrowed from Hawthorne, meaning the shadowy meeting ground between fantasy and reality – a story written realistically but beset by weird, uncanny events, neither a fairy tale, nor a work of straight realism. Hawthorne’s own most famous romance was The Scarlet Letter: it was set in a historical period and written realistically without fairies or obvious ghosts, but it was haunted by strange events which could be explained away if one so wished, or accepted as spectral if one so desired.

Stories like “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes,” “The Way it Came,” “Sir Edmund Orme,” and “The Real Right Thing” ponder the choices of their characters by setting them up in moral dilemmas and haunting them with supernatural manifestations of guilt, desire, and envy. These stories are easy to take at face value as supernatural: there is never a strong incentive or purpose to doubt the haunting, and in all four, the haunting is substantiated either by physical evidence (slap marks on a face), or corroborating eyewitnesses. But there are inescapable psychological gains to be had for each hauntee – masochistic penance, the satisfaction of lust, the avoidance of guilt, and so on – which cause us to wonder – even if the ghost is real – what part of the story is supernatural observation, and what part is psychological wish-fulfilment.

The cynical farces pursue human folly as well, but are played more straight: either the ghost is a pure ghost, or the ghost is a proven hoax. These stories play well alongside Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and Guy de Maupassant – all of whom dabbled in supernatural fiction, often employing it for farcical or satirical reasons. “The Ghostly Rental” is a nearly perfect example, although it ends on a romantic note, and “The Third Person,” an example of black humor that eagerly presages Arsenic and Old Lace with its morbid treatment of two old maids and Halloweenish goings-on at their ancestral home, hits the notes perfectly.

Lastly there is the supernatural allegory which conveys a psychological journey – from loss to acceptance, from hopelessness to false hope, from submissive slavery to assertive resistance – through a supernatural plotline. These tales are the most complex, and merit the most critical attention due to their intensity, breadth of interpretations, and disturbing conclusions. Such are The Turn of the Screw, “Owen Wingrave,” (both of which were adapted to operettas by Benjamin Britten), and “The Jolly Corner.” These stories – unlike the fairly satirical farces and the earnest romances – are open to wild debate. While we may sense emotion and subjectivity behind the romances, we typically have no reason to doubt their supernatural nature outside of inane suggestions of the stigmata, mass hysteria, and hallucinations, which are largely unimportant to the plot. The allegories, however, thrive on their vagueness.

They feature ghosts with singular witnesses, or none at all (“Owen Wingrave” never features a visual manifestation, for instance), offer dozens of interpretations, and feast primarily on their psychological merits. Turn has been handled as a case of madness, wish-fulfilment, hysteria, genuine visitation, and even as a fictional fable written as a confession of love from the governess to a fully grown Miles. “Wingrave” can be seen as an allegory for Britain’s jingoistic desensitization to war and its morbid obsession with martial culture – or as a story of suicide, or of hysteria, or of ghostly murder. “The Jolly Corner,” as I have already illustrated, alone welcomes a myriad of psychological, supernatural, and symbolic interpretations.

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