Season of mists and yellow fruitfulness…and, of course, of ghosts and stories for long cold evenings. We asked some Hedgehog Review editors, contributors, and friends to send in their recommendations for their favorite Halloween stories for this weekend. Enjoy!
Ghosts, Edith Wharton
According to Edith Wharton, we don’t so much believe in ghosts as feel them, “in the warm darkness of the pre-natal fluid far below our conscious reason” where “the faculty dwells with which we apprehend the ghosts we may not be endowed with the gift of seeing.” Not long before her death in 1937, she worried that this “ghost-instinct” might be gradually atrophying. Ghosts, she wrote, don’t need “echoing passages and hidden doors behind tapestry” to “make themselves manifest,” but two conditions diminishing in a noisy and fast-paced world. Silence, of course, for a ghost “obviously prefers the silent hours,” and also continuity: “For where a ghost has once appeared it seems to hanker to appear again.”
Happily, Wharton’s Ghosts, an omnibus of her own ghost stories, ably stimulates that faculty required for their enjoyment. Her tales are exquisitely sensitive, with subtle premonitions and invariably tragic endings. They induce chills that run down the spine. From “The Triumph of Night,” one of her lesser known:
Faxon’s first impulse was to look away, to look anywhere else, to resort again to the champagne glass the watchful butler had already brimmed; but some fatal attraction, at war in him with an overwhelmingly physical resistance, held his eyes upon the spot they feared.
The figure was still standing, more distinctly, and therefore more resemblingly, at Mr. Lavington’s back; and while the latter continued to gaze affectionately at his nephew, his counterpart, as before, fixed young Rainer with eyes of deadly menace.
—Joseph E. Davis is publisher of The Hedgehog Review.
“If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?” asks the protagonist of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935). Although not a horror tale in the traditional sense, this 1892 short story of a woman tormented by tasteless décor is nevertheless deeply disturbing.
Based on Gilman’s own experience of postpartum depression, the story takes place in one room of a rented mansion where the physician husband has brought his wife to recuperate after losing a child. Hemmed in on all sides by meddlesome caregivers who insist that she not write, the wife spends most of her time in the former nursery, where the windows are barred, the bed is nailed to the floor, and a gate blocks the top of the stairs. It is thin consolation, she says, that her baby never had to occupy a nursery with such “horrid wallpaper.”
The narrative is a familiar literary exercise, setting up a deliberately constrained outer world in order to explore a state of mind. The wife is a victim of what was then known as “an overactive imagination”; contemporary psychiatry now designates it as fantasy-prone personality disorder. Whatever its label, the wife’s condition as Gilman depicts it has the unmistakable authenticity of how it feels to go mad.
The story’s strength lies in the persistent undercurrent of anxiety and the unflinching manner in which the author confronts psychosis, giving us a bird’s-eye view of the unraveling of a creative mind. Kafka’s similar experiment in beauty and pity, The Metamorphosis, would go much further, but it is remarkable that two such different authors should each pen a story of madness brought on by overwork.
—Leann Davis Alspaugh is managing editor of The Hedgehog Review.
This story from 1904 opens on two men discussing the nature of evil. One of the men has a surprising thesis: The deepest, truest evil is not to be found in action—in anything obvious that people do—but rather hidden in the will, in desire, in certain perversions of intention. To support his point, the man reads aloud from a young woman’s diary that has come into his possession. This story within a story details what the young woman learned from her nanny, what desires it awoke in her, what worlds it opened to her, and what it finally enabled her to create. After reading the girl’s story, the man provides a few details of her fate, leaving us with a puzzling clue that holds within it the resolution of the dark narrative.
Some miscellaneous notes of interest: This story would be a powerful influence on a young H.P. Lovecraft. The passage from the young girl’s diary is one of the earliest instances of stream-of-consciousness narrative technique. And while the time has perhaps never been riper to discuss a horror story called “The White People,” Machen isn’t talking about Caucasians—the emphasis is on the “people” rather than on the “white”—but instead is describing in philosophical terms certain sentient beings not properly classified as human.
—Paul Nedelisky is a THR contributor.
I’ve watched the 2008 Australian film Lake Mungo a handful of times. The best horror is like that for me. Although nothing can top a first encounter—particularly when it’s something you just stumbled upon—some works invite several returns; because truly, not very many works of horror are well made. But Lake Mungo sticks out as being an especially difficult rewatch.
The film is very simple on the surface: a documentary about a family who are experiencing what they believe to be hauntings from their recently deceased teenage daughter. But when evidence points to the contrary, we’ve only made it halfway into the film, and every mystery that is solved leads into another. Whereas we tend to prefer our ghost stories rife with vengeance and rage, director Joel Anderson (who has not made a feature-length film since) does the cruel work of infusing his story instead with grief, love, and regret. It is at once a sensitive character study of (hidden) personal suffering and a meditation on the effects of death that are concretely mundane rather than abstractly gothic. The scares are far and few between, but methodically doled out, visually effective, and steeped in emotional impact rather than bursting out with shock.
Possibly for all of these reasons, Lake Mungo did not find a very wide audience. That should change.
—Chris R. Morgan is a writer and critic.