This audiobook anthology “Ghosts: Edith Wharton’s Gothic Tales” contains five stories “Mr Jones”, “Kerfol”, “The Looking Glass”.”The Eyes” and “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell”, each with its own narrator.
In these stories, Edith Wharton reminded me of what horror is. It doesn’t need a Michael in a hockey mask wielding a kitchen knife or a Freddie and his claws or even an evil clown in a storm drain. It just needs to hit the place where your fears live, to make you bristle with dread, to make you KNOW that you must not turn around.
The stories target two sources of horror. The first is a primal fear of the unnatural, where you are flooded with a sense of wrongness and foreboding that freezes you in place, afraid of something you can’t name but can’t ignore. The second is the slowly dawning recognition of being in the presence of human evil.
Some stories are written from a position of power, some from a position of weakness, some from a female and some from a male perspective. What they have in common is a talent for story-telling that makes them accessible and the presence of a subtext that abrades your peace as you read and leaves a sliver of disquiet in your memory.
This is a fine collection to savour to by a fire on a winter’s day and then to engage with family and friends and be glad that none of these stories are yours to tell.
Tells the story of a bright, well-travelled, independent woman, inheriting a small country house from a distant relative. The house has long lain unoccupied except by servants. She sees it first in the sunshine and falls in love with it. Without declaring who she is, she asks to see the house but the servants deny her access, saying Mr Jones wouldn’t like it. When she takes over the house, it is clear that things are not as they should be. It is less clear who Mr Jones is and what his role is in the household. The rest of the story is the gradual discovery of the truth about Mr Jones.
This is a primal fear tale. By modern standards, it’s a gentle tale with a low body-count and no dismemberments or sexual violence. Yet, let yourself believe in Mr Jones, in the reality of who he is and no matter how confident and well-travelled you are, the hairs on your neck would raise and you would want to leave.
This story had all the right elements for a primal horror tale: a gloomy château in Brittany, an ancient wrong and supernatural revenge but it turned out to be a little different than that.
In the beginning, I lost myself in the atmospheric description of a visit by the dilettenté American telling the tale, to the gloomy château that his French aristo friend has suggested the American might wish to buy. The building itself became a character, its unnatural stillness a threat and its occupants, a small pack of silent dogs, a puzzle.
I lost sympathy for the story when it became about the American summarising what he had learned about the significance of the château dogs by reading the transcript of the trail of the mistress of the house sometime in the seventeenth century. While the story was interesting, I found the mode of its telling too passive and grew restless.
Then I started to see that this was a story of human evil. The behaviour of the men in the story is horrifying not just because it is wrong but because it is seen as normal. I had already found myself disliking the American dilettenté but when I saw him justify, apologise for and ultimately dismiss the actions of the men, I knew who I was really horrified by.
“The Looking Glass”
This seemed to me to be the weakest of the tales. It deals with spiritualism and how those who mourn can be exploited by those who claim to speak to the dead.
The looking glass of the title can be interpreted in several ways and there is some good discussion about the reality of the emotional pain of those too rich to have anything other than imagined loss to worry about.
I didn’t find the Irish Catholic masseuse-turned-medium convincing. The language she used didn’t ring true and the Catholic context didn’t seem to be an insiders view.
This is a very original tale, of the human evil variety, disguised initially as a conventional Country House Weekend ghost story.
There is a predator at the heart of the story. There is also a good deal of self-deception, repressed sexuality and an unacknowledged and deeply corrosive decadence.
Yet the whole thing is told in such a low key way that no one could take offence. This is one of those stories where what is not said directly is the meat of the tale.
“The Lady’s Maid’s Bell”
This is classic gothic horror of the primal kind but permeated with the foul smell of human evil or, more specifically, the evil men do to women.
The tension is well managed. The dynamics are subtle and the main character is completely credible. There is a strong subtext here about repression and power and denied sexuality and male rage. All of it in a civilised wrapper that makes it even more chilling.
I read this for the Classic Horror square on my Halloween Bingo card.
My card now has two out of twenty-five squares covered.