Invisible Ink: No 153 - Ghost stories for Christmas

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The Independent Culture

It's become a tradition to screen a ghost story by M R James or Charles Dickens at Christmas, but there's a wealth of great ghost stories by women writers who never get adapted.

They wrote because it was an acceptable job for a Victorian lady, or because their families needed the money, or simply to amuse themselves. Sometimes they hid their gender behind initials. Some were better known for other writing, such as Edith Nesbitt, whose book The Railway Children, was saved from obscurity by a delightful film version. Nesbitt's life was highly unconventional; she lived with the mistress of her priapic husband and adopted the children he fathered. Her hurt and disappointment surfaced in the creepy tales she wrote, but her publishers had pigeon-holed her as a children's author, and powerful tales like "Man-Size In Marble" were forgotten. In that tale, two marble knights come to life in a country church and abduct the hero's wife, and it's hard not to read it as a roman-à-clef.

Amelia B Edwards is forgotten because her main career eclipsed her writing. She was one of the greatest women travellers of the Victorian age, "the Queen of Egyptologists" who saved countless priceless relics from theft and destruction. Her natural flair for drama made her a superb lecturer, and while her travel books and achievements in Egyptology remain an enduring legacy, she also wrote wonderful murder mysteries and ghost stories. In her story "The Four Fifteen Express", a businessman shares a railway carriage with a ghost seeking to uncover the corporate scandal that led to his death.

Mrs H D Everett defined a true ghost story as one that never has a point, while a faked one dare not leave it out. Her tales are filled with sinister parsons and revenants stalking snowswept woodlands. May Sinclair took the traditional ghost story and gave it a good shake-out, adding psychological underpinnings that suggested threats came from within rather than from some higher power. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's now syllabus-taught tale "The Yellow Wallpaper" exposes the roots of feminism by suggesting that the heroine's psychosis is the result of repression at the hands of the husband who incarcerates her.

Single stories from writers such as Edith Wharton, Margery Bowen and Ann Radcliffe, whose work influenced HP Lovecraft, tended to crop up in ghostly anthologies throughout the 20th century, but gradually fell away. Wordsworth Editions are to be congratulated for republishing these fine authors in cheap editions.