Top critical review
19 people found this helpful
Classics, the Tame, and Others
on 21 April 2009
This book was published in 1986 and contained 42 short stories by as many writers. There were 35 writers from Great Britain, 4 from the U.S. and 3 from Ireland.
The works ranged from the 1820s (Walter Scott) to the 1960s (Aickman, Simon Raven). All but seven of the works were from the period between 1890 and 1960. Nine of the writers in the collection were women.
The editors tried to select stories that (1) featured -- naturally -- a ghost, (2) described dramatic interaction between the living and the dead, (3) had literary quality, (4) contained definite English settings such as characters, institutions, styles and themes representative of the English ghost story, and (5) weren't overlong. They tried to strike a balance between classics and lesser-known tales and show the development of stories particularly from 1890 to 1940, when they said the genre was at its peak. The pieces from writers outside Great Britain were included because they were deemed to show clearly their English roots.
An introduction briefly surveyed the English ghost story. The editors saw it as beginning to develop into a distinct form in the 1820s with Sir Walter Scott, with maturity furthered by LeFanu and Dickens and the greatest creativity achieved between 1890 and 1940. The contribution of many female authors was noted. The editors stated that at the time of the anthology's publication in the 1980s the literary ghost story still appealed, though it had been overtaken in popularity by science fiction and "crude horror."
Before 1890 or so, stories often went like this: a strange or tragic event occurred, it turned out to be caused by a ghost, especially a bad one, the end. Or someone saw a ghost repeating a tragic event. Later authors offered a much greater variety of tales. Classic works in the collection included an earlier one like "Squire Toby's Will" by LeFanu and later ones like "The Monkey's Paw" by Jacobs, "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" by M. R. James, "The Empty House" by Blackwood -- a fantastic, atmospheric description of an expedition into a haunted house -- and "Smee" by A. M. Burrage. Judging from all the stories included, most variations of the literary ghost story were played out by the 1930s, and the most original writer from postwar times was Robert Aickman.
A number of the non-classic works in the collection seemed comparatively tame; authors who were academics and vicars were well represented. Other pieces, like those of Vernon Lee, Henry James, H. Russell Wakefield, were virtually unreadable. Welcome variety was provided by a lush, darkly ironic work by Elizabeth Bowen and one by Robert Aickman, which featured a powerful atmosphere of menace without a clear resolution, unlike most earlier tales. Also, stories from the 1920s by John Buchan and May Sinclair in which ghosts/haunted places had positive effects. The one by Buchan contained a nice description of English virtues, and Sinclair's story reworked ironically the conventional relations between murderer and victim, ghost and human. Another one from the 1920s, by Maugham, foretold death in a striking way.
It would've been enjoyable to read more examples in the collection of horror focused on the mind, probing more deeply things psychological, along the lines of something like LeFanu's "Green Tea." Other authors who might've been included in this collection: Kipling, Robert Hichens and Elizabeth Howard.
Readers who enjoyed the stories in this anthology might enjoy collections like The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories and The Penguin Book of Horror Stories, many of whose pieces were written in a similar traditional vein. Readers looking for a more exciting variety of pieces, both older and newer, might enjoy a collection like The Dark Descent. (Falling somewhere between these two poles, in my opinion, is Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, published in the U.S. in 1944.) Those interested most in the fairly recent and "crude," or in horror mixed with science fiction, fantasy and mystery, might enjoy The Arbor House Treasury of Horror and the Supernatural and The Mammoth Book of Terror.