Basically, this is a collection of the ghost stories that Audrey Niffenegger thinks you ought to read. With a few exceptions, I agreed with her. I’d read the bulk of the selections included, but welcomed the chance to re-read, as there are quite a few excellent stories featured. Each also has a charming black-and-white illustration by Niffenegger.
**** The Black Cat – Edgar Allen Poe
I think I might have to give this one the Most Unpleasant Narrator of All Time award.
It’s true, animal abusers tend to be psychopaths.
Here, Poe gives us a disturbing glimpse into the mind of a man who shows no remorse for his deeds and is eager to blame outside factors for his own decisions. The story, published in 1843, still has the ability to shock, even today.
**** Secret Life, With Cats – Audrey Niffenegger
Unsatisfied housewife decides to volunteer at the local no-kill shelter, to bring some meaning to her life. While there, she also makes a friend with a fellow volunteer, who ends up leaving her a modest property in her will. And then, things get weird. This is one that I suspect will stick with me.
**** Pomegranate Seed – Edith Wharton
A woman is very much in love with her new husband, a widower. But as time goes on, it seems that another woman may have become a factor in their relationship. Who are the mysterious letters that arrive in the house at odd intervals from? And why does her husband find them so upsetting?
***** The Beckoning Fair One – Oliver Onions
What really makes this story is how what’s terrifying about the ghost is how its influence affects the mind and moods of the characters… Over and above shadows and bumps in the night, it’s the depression and despair that accompany its presence.
A writer rents out a suite in a decrepit and long-empty home. Sinking his savings into renovations, he’s eager to show the apartment off to his lady-friend, whom he anticipates will be delighted by what he’s done with the old place. However, her reaction is quite the opposite. Even though everything is freshly painted and lovely, she hates it. Moreover, she seems terribly prone to accidents whenever she comes to visit. Meanwhile, the tenant can’t seem to get a lick of work accomplished there, and the more he tries to buckle down and get his latest novel written, the more he seems convinced that it’s no good, and that he’s a failure.
And that’s just the beginning of the horror…
(Just as a note, I think what really brought this up to 5 stars for me is the character of Elsie [the friend of the narrator]. She’s just so bold and real – ‘substantial’ in more ways than one. She’s one that’s going to stick with me.)
***** The Mezzotint – M.R. James
A print curator comes across an ‘interesting’ picture on offer. At first it seems to be an unremarkable, amateur work – but something about it is strange: it seems to be slightly different each time it’s viewed. The image may hold the clue to a terrible crime…
Classically old-fashioned – and wonderfully spooky!
**** Honeysuckle cottage – P.G. Wodehouse
OK, the whole love-and-marriage as the dreaded ball’n’chain for bachelors is a bit passe, as a joke. However, this is still wonderfully written, and yeah, quite funny.
A successful romance novelist passes away – and her will requires that her nephew move into her charming cottage. The nephew is also a writer – but one who churns out ultra-masculine mystery-thrillers, and has nothing but disdain for his aunt’s body of work. However, her house may have an insidious effect on his perspective – and his writing.
***** Click-clack the Rattlebag / Neil Gaiman
“Super-creepy short tale, with the feel of the stories kids tell each other at sleepover parties… Reminded me just a little bit of Kelly Link’s ‘The Specialist’s Hat.’ (Another super-creepy tale.)”
**** They – Rudyard Kipling
“It unfolds as a man, driving aimlessly in his motorcar, comes across an estate tenanted by a lonely blind woman… and, it seems, several children, who are strangely elusive. The setting is vivid and lush, the language evocative – it’s more of a musing of life and loss than the ghost story it might seem to be. However, the ending is peculiar and rather unsatisfying – I’m not sure what to make of it.” Of course I had ‘The Jungle Book’ and ‘Rikki Tikki Tavi’ as a child, but I’d never read this Kipling tale before. It unfolds as a man, driving aimlessly in his motorcar, comes across an estate tenanted by a lonely blind woman… and, it seems, several children, who are strangely elusive. The setting is vivid and lush, the language evocative – it’s more of a musing of life and loss than the ghost story it might seem to be. However, the ending is peculiar and rather unsatisfying – I’m not sure what to make of it.
**** Playmates – A.M. Burrage
Adopted by a man with no understanding of children’s emotional needs, a lonely girl in a big old house finds some very unconventional playmates. Are they imaginary friends, created to stave off her isolation – or something else? Although technically a ghost story, this piece is more wistful than scary.
*** The July Ghost – A.S. Byatt
It’s very… A.S. Byatt-y. An academic type discovers that he (and only he) can see the ghost of his landlady’s deceased son, and is drawn into an awkward relationship predicated on grief and loss.
**** Laura – Saki
Technically, this isn’t a ghost story, but a tale of reincarnation. On her deathbed, a woman muses lightheartedly about how she maybe hasn’t been the most angelic sort (considering her enjoyment of plaguing her insufferable husband), and will probably come back as a ‘lower’ type of creature. The way things play out is quite amusing.
***** The Open Window – Saki
Another hilarious piece from the master humorist.
Due to a ‘blind’ introduction proffered by his sister, a man goes calling on a total stranger. A niece tells a tale of family tragedy – and the fact that the reader can predict what’s coming doesn’t make it any less funny.
*****The Specialist’s Hat – Kelly Link
available free on Link’s site: http://www.kellylink.net/fiction/link…
“Creepy! Creepy, creepy, creeeeeepy! If you buy, and move into a haunted house, you PROBABLY should check the babysitter’s references, and maybe her ID, too, before you leave your young children with her. Better yet, just get the hell out of that house before it’s too late.”
(Already read this one a few times… it’s been well-anthologised.)
*** Tiny Ghosts – Amy Giacalone
An unassuming-but-content older couple find themselves no-longer-so-content when their home is invaded by a horde of ‘tiny ghosts’ who plague them by acting like they own the place. In addition, they’re quite free with their criticism. The story calls them ‘ghosts’ but they’re more like Mary Norton’s ‘Borrowers’ – if the Borrowers didn’t bother hiding, and were obnoxious, to boot.
** The Pink House – Rebecca Curtis
At a writers’ retreat, one woman tells her dinner guests a ghost story involving her ex-boyfriend. The listeners are less than impressed, and quite openly insulting. This is a very strange piece – I felt like it might possibly work if it was only one segment of a ‘Canterbury-Tales-like’ cycle, but on its own it was inconclusive and a bit pointless-feeling.
***** August 2026 : There Will Come Soft Rains – Ray Bradbury
One of the finest stories ever written. 🙂
Many thanks to Knopf and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.