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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.