GHOST: 100 Stories to Read With the Lights On, edited by Louise Welsh
Head of Zeus, p/b, £18.00
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
Most people would regard the term Ghost as referring to some kind of supernatural creature, usually associated with hauntings. These might be malevolent or benign, spirits or tricks of the light and may or may not have a rational explanation. The important factor is the way they are told. This volume should perhaps be more realistically titled ‘Supernatural’ as Louise Welsh has been very liberal with the term ‘ghost’. She has considered any kind of supernatural happening for this book. The premise has been to find 100 stories from 100 different writers. They are arranged in order of publication date. Unfortunately, in most cases, there isn’t one given, though, for each author, there is a brief biography which includes years of birth and (where appropriate) death.
The first and earliest story is a traditional ghost story from Pliny the Younger. Written in the first century AD, it concerns a spectre with clanking chains preventing inhabitants from sleeping. The ghost is laid by buying his bones in the right place. There is then a leap, via a probable folk tale to the eighteenth century with Robert Burns’s poem Tam O’Shanter.
Louise Welsh is a mainstream author, with her books being nominated for literary awards. As she is not regarded as a genre writer, this may explain why most of the stories chosen for this volume have been written by mainstream writers. Those who regularly read ghost and horror stories will recognise a few of the names from their preferred genre, mainly from those authors whose reputations have transcended genre labelling. ‘Captain Walton’s Final Letter’ is from a later and often unremembered part of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s renowned novel Frankenstein. The creature is usually regarded as the opposite of a ghost as it is more of a body without a spirit rather than a spirit without a body. Similarly, ‘Dracula’s Guest’ is thought to have been the original first chapter of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula and deleted before publication. It deals with vampires rather than traditional ghosts.
Included are some very well-known stories, such as ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ by W. W. Jacobs and ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ by M.R. James. The former is a thoughtful horror story with the potential of being a zombie manifestation, and the latter concerns an object which appears to be able to summon a demon. ‘The Mangler’ by Stephen King is accidental witchcraft.
Most of the stories, especially in the latter half of the book where the authors are either still alive or have only recently died, are well known in mainstream fiction, such as Fay Weldon, Kasuo Ishiguro, Ali Smith, Haruki Murakami, Kate Atkinson and Hilary Mantel who are not known for their supernatural stories.
There are stories of vengeful spirits, ghosts keeping promises, ghosts that do not know they have died or possess people or objects or a benevolent presence. In others, the haunting may be a memory or manifest as an obsession. Occasionally, there is room for doubt as the manifestation can have a possible alternative explanation.
The stories vary greatly in length, from several pages to pages to less than one, making this a book that is good to dip into and read items at random rather than in one go.
It is worth saying that this is a handsome book, with a well-designed cover and illustrated endpapers. It may be classed as a paperback, but it is stitched rather than glued. I have one quibble – the subtitle is 100 stories to Read With the Lights On. Personally, I find it very difficult to read anything at night with the lights off.