The Ghost Story Essay - Critical Essays

The Ghost Story


The Ghost Story

A popular form of literature in which supernatural elements are central to plot, theme, and character development.

The following entry presents criticism on the representation of the ghost story in world literature.

Ghost stories attained the height of their popularity in England during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although use of ghosts and apparitions in literature can be traced to Greek and Roman times, it was not until the nineteenth century that the use of supernatural elements became a common literary device in English literature. Even then, the use of the supernatural in Gothic and Romantic novels was confined to episodic appearances, mostly intended to create momentary distractions in the larger narrative thread. As reader belief in the supernatural diminished, aided in part by a rationalist mode of thinking, writers and intellectuals found themselves protesting a world full of technical and rational reality. One of the ways in which this protest found an outlet was in the evolution of the ghost short story, a genre that used the supernatural almost to the exclusion of other melodramatic effects.

According to scholar Peter Penzoldt, both the notions of terror and horror are fundamental elements of short stories dealing with the supernatural—the writers of truly powerful stories about the supernatural usually do not need devices of material or physical terror. As noted above, tales of the paranormal became extremely popular with English writers during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Most major writers during this time, including Henry James, Thomas Hardy, and even E. M. Forster, wrote ghost stories of one sort or another. However, according to critic Jack Sullivan, it was the period between the late nineteenth century and the end of World War I that produced some of the best work in the genre. Sullivan lists authors such as Sheridan Le Fanu, M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Bram Stoker among those who helped develop the intricacies of the genre. Discussing the reasons for the rise of the ghost story, Sullivan proposes that the trend was part of a larger Edwardian fascination with the extraordinary as well as a reflection of the restlessness that infused the society and culture of the time. Other critics have proposed that the growth in popularity of the ghost story at this time was a direct response to the cultural crisis that confronted intellectuals of the era, a reaction to the realism that permeated the writing of such authors as Dickens and Thackeray.

While most ghost stories focus on the supernatural, many of them have their origins in oral literature or folklore. This is especially true of Japanese kaidan tales and various European ghost stories as well. In Japan, the kaidan tales were part of an oral tradition that derived many of its stories from various parts of the country, including classical Chinese texts. They were used to entertain provincial lords and the general public during various village gatherings and other religious events, often helping keep the listeners awake by their narratives of the strange, bizarre, or frightening. Kaidan tales continue to be popular in contemporary Japanese society, and have now expanded to include tales not just of the supernatural, but also the surreal and other horrors.

While nineteenth-century English authors are most often credited with the proliferation of the ghost story phenomenon, other European countries also have a strong tradition of stories dealing with the supernatural. In Danish literature, for example, ghost stories form a large part of folklore and legend. In contrast to the horror and suspense produced by their English counterparts, Danish ghost stories of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century tend to focus on how a character deals with the appearance of the ghost.

American ghost stories, on the other hand, are grounded in a different kind of supernatural phenomenon, rarely dealing directly with ghostly figures or apparitions. Instead, noted critic G. R. Thompson, American ghost story writers tend to convey a misperception of the world around the characters that inhabit their stories, usually connecting the past with the present in ways that create a different kind of horror than the traditional ghost story. Citing stories such as Nathaniel Hawthorne's “Wives of the Dead” and “Young Goodman Brown,” Thompson notes that American authors often use the blending of the world of dreams with the world of reality as an effective device in creating tales of horror and suspense. In her essay discussing American ghost stories, Kathleen Brogan makes a similar point, when she proposes that twentieth-century ghost stories written by American authors, such as Toni Morrison, often are stories of cultural haunting. For example, in Beloved, Morrison uses a ghost to tell readers about life on slave ships—in this regard, says Brogan, these stories explore the inner workings of not only individuals but also a social and historical consciousness.

Representative Works

Algernon Blackwood
“John Silence, Physician Extraordinary” (short story) 1908
The Listener and Other Stories (short stories) 1916
“Shocks” (short story) 1936

Elizabeth Bowen
“The Shadowy Third” (short story) 1923
“The Apple Tree” (short story) 1934
“The Demon Lover” (short story) 1941

Charles Brockden Brown
Carwin, the Biloquist, and Other American Tales and Pieces (short stories) 1822

Charles Dickens
The Christmas Books (short stories) 1923

Nathaniel Hawthorne
“Alice Doane's Appeal” (short story) 1835
The Legends of the Province House (short stories) 1838-42

Lafcadio Hearn
“Yuki-Onna” (short story) 1904; collected in Hearns's Kwaidan
Chinese Ghosts (short stories) 1925

Susan Hill
The Albatross (short stories) 1971
A Bit of Singing and Dancing and Other Stories (short stories) 1973

Washington Irving
The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (short stories) 1819-1820

Henry James
“De Grey: A Romance” (short story) 1868
“The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” (short story) 1868
“The Ghostly Rental” (short story) 1876
“Sir Edmund Orme” (short story) 1891
The Two Magics: The Turn of the Screw, Covering End (novellas) 1898
The Ghostly Tales of Henry James (short stories) 1948

M. R. James
“The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” (short story) 1904
“Casting the Runes” (short story) 1911
The Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James (short stories) 1931

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
“Green Tea” (short story) 1869

Penelope Lively
Fanny and the Monsters and Other Stories (short stories) 1982
Uninvited Ghosts and Other Stories (short stories) 1984

H. P. Lovecraft
The Weird Shadow over Innsmouth and Other Stories of the Supernatural (short stories) 1944

Edgar Allan Poe
“The Fall of the House of Usher” (short story) 1839
“The Pit and the Pendulum” (short story) 1842
The Complete Poems and Stories of Edgar Allan Poe (short stories and poems) 1946

Robert Louis Stevenson
“The Body Snatcher” (short story) 1885
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables (short stories) 1887
“The Bottle Imp” (short story) 1889

Edith Wharton
“The Pomegranate Seed” (short story) 1931
“All Souls'” (short story) 1937

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Peter Penzoldt (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: Penzoldt, Peter. Introduction to The Supernatural in Fiction, pp. 3-12. London: Peter Nevill, 1952.

[In the following essay, Penzoldt presents a brief analysis of the rise and development of the ghost story in literature.]

Although the short ghost story became a popular form in English literature during the nineteenth century, it only attained its present degree of perfection in the past fifty years.

The course of the development that the tale of the supernatural has followed is somewhat surprising. In Anglo-Saxon letters, weird fiction belonged first to the drama and then to the novel; but the earliest examples of the supernatural in the...

(The entire section is 4516 words.)

Jack Sullivan (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Sullivan, Jack. Introduction to Elegant Nightmares: The English Short Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood, pp. 1-10. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1978.

[In the following essay, Sullivan examines the reasons for the proliferation of ghost stories in late-nineteenth century England.]

In the past ghosts had certain traditional activities; they could speak and gibber, for instance; they could clank chains. They were generally local, confined to one spot. Now their liberties have been greatly extended; they can go anywhere, they can manifest themselves in scores of ways. Like women and other depressed classes, they have emancipated themselves from...

(The entire section is 6202 words.)

Brad Leithauser (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Leithauser, Brad. “Dead Forms: The Ghost Story Today.” In Penchants and Places: Essays and Criticism, pp. 123-35. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1987, Leithauser delineates the major characteristics of the English ghost story.]

Whether there is any necessary link between a devotion to afternoon sweets, queuing, and windowbox gardening on the one hand, and a passion for the ghost story on the other, would be hard to say. But one can assert without question about that puzzling thing, the English national temper, that it shows a deep affinity for the tale sprung from a restless grave.


(The entire section is 5042 words.)