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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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20 Romantic Ghost Stories of Desire, Jealousy, Love, & Loss to Read this 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.

As a result, for some people there is nothing quite so romantic as a darkened castle or a windy moor: the idea of guttering candles, the flash of a white negligee slipping down a dark hallway, the distant peal of subterranean organ music. If this is how you'd like to spend your Valentine's Day, then eschew the chocolates and roses and sit down with these classic stories of desire, jealousy, love, and loss from the masters of classic horror.


One of the most sensual ghost stories ever written, this tale features a spirited, female ghost hunter who stuns an audience of men with her account of being trapped in a room with a tormented male ghost. Although her experience is initially terrifying, it eventually becomes transcendental and spiritually purifying, as she frees them both from fear.


A classic vampire story, “Olalla” is set in the dusty plains of 19th century Spain, where a wounded soldier falls in love with an aristocratic girl in spite of her demented, inbred family. They make plans to flee her Gothic manor together, but when he accidentally cuts his hand in front of her mother, a dormant family curse comes to life.


Doesn’t everyone know two friends who would be a great couple if they ever met? In this Henry James story, the planned setup by the mutual friends of a man and woman are delayed over several years (both are interested, but the timing is never right), but when the young woman dies unexpectedly, her spirit decides to heed their meddling friends, and she appears to the still-living man, leading to the strangest, shortest blind date.


Like “The Way it Came,” “The Spectre Bridegroom” is a study in matchmaking gone wrong. A German noblewoman is awaiting the arrival of her bridegroom on the night before their arranged marriage, but when he bursts in the castle, his face is pale and serious, and they latter learn of his murder in the woods. She is stunned by the loss, and when her servants catch her talking in the garden with the spirit, they are terrified that she has fallen in love with a dangerous ghost.


Falling in love with dead people is especially dangerous in Washington Irving’s universe: in this classic campfire story (it has since become a classic urban legend) set during the French Revolution, a radical intellectual is smitten with a mournful woman he meets at the foot of the guillotine during a thunderstorm. Learning that her entire family was executed, he takes her home as his lover, eagerly beds her, and in the morning learns the dreadful secret of the black velvet choker she refuses to remove


Another classic story, this tale of love’s power beyond the grave is not charming or sweet, but terrifying. John Charrington was obsessed with May Foster and vowed to marry her. When she finally agrees after years of teasing, she is shocked when he shows up late to their wedding (covered in dust and uncharacteristically gloomy). When they finally drive off together, she will learn just how deeply John Charrington desired to possess her -- body and soul.


Despite his doctor’s warnings that he should avoid strenuous activity, the protagonist of this mystical story would not say no to the local dance: his job is thankless, his life is dull, but dances are his passion. There he becomes entranced with a strange woman named Ivy, dressed in a beautiful dress of living green. Although he never learns her identity, we have a good idea by the time their dance is done.


A man returns to the town where he first met the lover he abandoned. Weary with guilt and eager to reconcile, he walks the streets thinking about her. When he climbs the hills and finds the pine trees where they had first pledged their love, he is surprised to find her waiting for him there, and they reminisce about the sunny days of their romance long into the night. In the morning the villagers discover the ending of their love story.


Jealousy is powerful and can drive the best of us to desperate, foolish acts. In this seafaring tale, two brothers fall in love with the same pretty girl, and stew over their attachments as they sail on the same merchant ship. When one is mysteriously lost overboard, the other returns to shore in search of his beloved. He wins and woos her, but feels, all the time, as though they are not ever really, truly alone.


Another nautical story, this Arthur Conan Doyle story combines “Moby Dick,” “Frankenstein,” and “Wuthering Heights”: an obsessed polar explorer pushes his crew to unreasonable lengths while the ship’s doctor suspects that he is running away from something in his past. When the old seafarer disappears one night, seen chasing a female-shaped swirl of frost, the doctor is forced to make some informed guesses about his disastrous love life.


Another tale of a wronged lover returning from the grave follows an arrogant, cold-hearted artist who seduces and then abandons a girl who loves him with her whole soul. He is shamelessly unmoved when she drowns herself in sorrow, but he does begin to grow concerned when his dog starts bristling at unseen figures, the air grows unexpectedly cool, and he feels the pressure of two wet arms ringing around his neck.


A literary powerhouse, "Man-Size in Marble" is one of the most famous ghost stories ever written. It follows two honeymooners as they create a life together in a rural cottage down the road from an ancient, Norman church. Locals say that on Halloween the two sinister funerary statues of Norman knights (men renowned for their violence and lust) sit up and walk out of the church. The husband laughs this off, but it terrifies the wife, and on Halloween night a series of strange happenings -- and a brutal discovery -- change their lives forever.


An old maidservant spends a stormy night with a bevy of bubbly young girls, who goad her into reluctantly telling them the story of her only romance: with her best friend's husband. She had lived with the two, nursing her friend during a troubled pregnancy, but began to be haunted by an amorphous, towering Shadow that seemed to represent something unspoken and terrible. The husband is also troubled by visions of this Shadow, and he wastes away and dies shortly after her friend dies in childbirth... The story has an unexpected sequel when we realize the twist-identity of one of the girls, and the servant is horrified by the sight of the looming Shadow -- coming for her one last time.


Roaming the moors of Brittany, an American tourist becomes lost, and is grateful when a strange woman appears and leads him to her home -- a 16th century castle. The readers will gradually become increasingly concerned by her out-of-touch lifestyle, but the tourist doesn't seem even to notice the Medieval tenor of her clothes, hobbies, and behavior. It is only after they fall in love and he is bitten by a snake that he wakes up to find himself alone in a ruin. The ending is one of the earliest examples of the "Phantom Hitchhiker" trope.


Artists have a reputation about being obsessive in their love and art, and the villain of this very, very short story is guilty of both. According to the legend of a local chateau, he brought his new bride there and forced her to sit for him for weeks as he tried to paint her portrait -- a portrait so lifelike that it would possess her very spirit. When he finishes the final stroke he is shocked at the results and the change -- to both the painting and the sitter.


A rich and elaborate fantasy story, "The Maker of Moons" is part spy thriller, weird tale, science fiction, and romance. Its protagonist is part of an investigation into counterfeiters' alchemical experiments in the New York hill country where he meets an otherworldly woman who claims to come from another dimension. At first he thinks she is a hallucination, but several encounters prove her reality, and when he learns of her connection to the counterfeiters, he is exposed to a villainous plot of cosmic dimensions.


The narrator of this trippy story about willpower and desire remembers his first wife with a mixture of awe and terror. He doesn't remember anything about her past but was impressed with her spiritual depth, intelligence, and brutal will. When death beckoned her away from him, she swore that even death could be dominated by will. After her death, he remarried her polar opposite: a wilting blonde so different from the authoritative brunette. But when his new wife becomes deathly ill, he wonders if Ligeia's curse is coming true.


One night a young student accidentally falls asleep studying in the British Museum and stumbles through the dark towards the door. On his way he sees a light and finds a wrinkled old man (a museum guide whom he had noticed earlier) bowing over a female mummy in the Egyptian room, chanting determinedly. Annoyed at the interruption, the ancient guide proceeds to tell the man his story: how he learned the secret of immortality in Thebes 4,000 years earlier, but was unable to save his lover from dying. Tonight, he vows, he is determined to either bring her into immortality with him, or join her in death.


Borrowing from Conan Doyle, Chambers' "Tomb of Samaris" is a rarely anthologized excerpt from his novel, The Tracer of Lost Persons. A young man is on expedition in Egypt when he stumbles on an unopened tomb. Worming his way into its heart, he discovers a beautiful woman suspended in time, and a dissolving skeleton at her feet, clutching a scroll. Entranced by her beauty, he goes to the Tracer of Lost Persons -- a mystical detective -- who helps interpret the scroll and its invocation which will bring the Egyptian slave girl Samaris into the 20th century.


One of the sweetest and saddest ghost stories ever written concerns the childhood romance between the now-old, crippled Uncle Abraham and the youthful ghost who took pity on him as a young man. Although he never married, Uncle Abraham assures his nieces that he has known love: lonely and isolated because of his crutches, the teenaged Abraham tarried in the cemetery where he would meet a sweet-faced girl. They pledged their love to one another -- both stricken with loneliness -- and although Abraham had to leave town on a trip he swore to return to her, but they never met again, and what he found in the graveyard where they met has haunted him to this day.

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