Every year for eighteen years, Canadian author and critic Robertson Davies read a ghost story aloud at the then newly-founded Massey College’s Christmas party. His stories were, as he said, “light-hearted.” They were not intended to frighten but rather to parody with gentleness both the ghost story form and Massey College itself. The role of the ghost, Davies suggested, was more important than one might suspect:
Let no one suppose that I was the first to think that a few hauntings might be acceptable in the new college. Very early in its first autumn I was told that a figure had taken to appearing on the stairs, and in dark corners, who frightened some people, and disappeared when bolder people pursued it. I have never thought of myself as a ghost-catcher, but my work at the college demanded some unusual tasks, and I accepted this one as part of the job. I captured the ghost at last—sneaked up on him from behind—and he proved to be one of the students who, with a sheet and an ugly rubber mask, was trying to cheer the place up. That was his explanation, but there was a gleam in his eye that suggested to me that the ghost game fulfilled some need in his own character. That was not hard to understand, for he was engaged in a particularly rational and hard-headed form of study, and too much rationality, as I have suggested, calls for a balancing element.
Davies’s ghosts were cheerful creatures; they did not harm anyone or drive anyone else to madness. But his ghost stories weren’t pointless, either; they were meant to reveal something about life at his college. In one story, a devil visits, and reveals that Hell has become a giant university bureaucracy; in another, Davies is cornered by a ghost who has written hundreds of dissertations, and demands to be examined on each one. In yet another, nostalgic academics pining for the past are turned into their ancestors (and don’t much care for it). In my personal favorite, "Dickens Digested," a young scholar is eaten alive by his area of study.
These stories were also all social stories, as Davies believed horror stories properly were: He points out that the story of The Turn of the Screw is framed by a Christmas party and Frankenstein had its genesis at another party. The ghost story provided an outlet for mischief and self-reflection, but also functioned as a way of bringing people together, building a community with a shared sense of history and myth. Since Massey College was a new institution, this sort of communal myth-making was particularly important. Ghosts, in which many people half-believe, are just uncanny enough to hold one's attention without being frightening enough to represent a true threat.
In the spirit of Davies, most of the stories listed below aren’t really frightening. They’re also more solitary affairs; most are not designed to read out loud. But as Davies reminds us, Halloween is really just the beginning of spooky story season, and there are many cold months ahead and stories to share.
High Spirits, Davies’s Massey College ghost stories, is a good collection for those who enjoy the ghosts but not being scared. Davies was no stranger to spooky stories—Murther and Walking Spirits, one of his novels, is narrated by a ghost—but these are, for the most part, harmless fun.
James’s most famous supernatural story is The Turn of the Screw. But “The Friends of the Friends” has staying power, even though nothing that creepy ever happens. A woman who has two remarkably similar friends keeps on trying to introduce them to one another, but to no avail. Eventually, she tricks them into meeting each other—it doesn’t end well.
Not exactly a ghost story or a horror story, Gogol’s tale of a minor bureaucrat slowly overshadowed by his more successful nose has just enough plausibility to be genuinely frightening to those of us who spend a lot of time sitting at a desk.
Shirley Jackson is, to me, the creepiest of writers (I've written about her before). This story, about two vacationers who decide to extend their summer vacation by just one day, is the only story on this list that’s genuinely frightening. Mr. and Mrs. Allison love their summer cottage, and since they are retired, what could be more natural than staying on past Labor Day? “Nobody ever stayed past Labor Day before,” they’re told by the local townspeople, but they write this off as mere custom. The first day, nothing seems to work. Things get progressively more dysfunctional. And then, their car stops running.…
Satan visits 1930s Moscow in this very funny, very dark novel. Margarita pines for The Master, her lover who wrote a novel that ran afoul of the Soviet censors and who now languishes in a psychiatric facility. Satan offers her a deal: He needs a host for his ball. If she helps him, he’ll help her. Such a summary leaves out much of the book—there’s a black magic show, a talking cat, and a parallel story about the crucifixion of Christ that is told by separate people through out the novel—but if you read only one suggestion from this list, it should be this one. Grab a copy, gather up your friends, and get ready for a good time.
B. D. McClay is the associate editor at The Hedgehog Review.