Suzi Feay: Don't be scared, it's only Henry James
Sunday 16 November 2008
Ghost stories are just the thing for curling up with on a winter night, and at first Everyman's
Ghost Stories (£10.99) seems to fit the bill. There are some wonderfully effective tales here: W W Jacobs's "The Monkey's Paw" never loses its creepy appeal, while Alison Lurie's "The Highboy", about a piece of furniture with malevolent intent, is a more recent classic. P G Wodehouse and Elizabeth Taylor and Walter de la Mare all play by the rules. But it left me wondering whether the better the writer, the less effective the ghost story.
The rot sets in with a typically maddening piece by Henry James, "The Friends of the Friends" (awful title). It's a bafflingly oblique story about a man and a woman who manage never to meet in life but who may (or may not, the narrator's so loopy you can't tell) manage a post-mortem tryst. Contrast this exercise in super-subtlety with M R James's efficient shocker "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad" with its "intensely horrible face of crumpled linen" and you know which one, in ghost story terms, was The Master. We're supposed to be chilled by a blast from the other world, not left pondering such truisms as "Other people are ultimately unknowable, aren't they?" or "Isn't it funny the way there's a gap between what we say and what we really mean?" Then there's Elizabeth Bowen's "The Happy Autumn Fields", a tiresome tale with too large a cast of indistinguishable characters for its puzzling pay-off. Katherine Mansfield's "The Daughters of the Late Colonel" is psychologically acute and funny too, but not really a ghost story; Nabokov's "The Visit to the Museum" is a superb tale of the uncanny, but again, not particularly ghostly.
Thank goodness, then, for Haunted London Underground (History Press £9.99), with its crying murdered children, faceless female spectres, amorphous black blobs and ghost trains. I read a lot of it while actually travelling on the Tube, which certainly added a frisson, though commuters can rest assured that most apparitions affect night workers when all the lines have closed. And if there's a trainspottery tone to the proceedings (the Hadley Wood South tunnel is apparently haunted not just by any old train but by a D9020 Nimbus), then that's understandable, even laudable. It's the juxtaposition of the banal with the supernatural that works every time, as M R James well knew.
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