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.


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Criticism: The Ghost Story In American Literature

G. R. Thompson (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Thompson, G. R. “The Apparition of this World: Transcendentalism and the American ‘Ghost’ Story.” In Bridges to Fantasy, edited by George E. Slusser, Eric S. Rabkin, and Robert Scholes, pp. 90-107. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982.

[In the following essay, Thompson contends that Transcendentalism was one of the main reasons why few American authors wrote ghost stories in the nineteenth century.]

Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended;...

(The entire section is 7680 words.)

Kathleen Brogan (essay date February 1995)

SOURCE: Brogan, Kathleen. “American Stories of Cultural Haunting: Tales of Heirs and Ethnographers.” College English 57, no. 2 (February 1995): 149-65.

[In the following essay, Brogan examines the unique characteristics of American ghost stories.]

As I sat in the darkened theater of the Yale Rep, watching the 1987 opening performance of August Wilson's new work, The Piano Lesson, it occurred to me that new spectres were haunting America—specifically, that ghosts were populating African-American literature in growing numbers. The play's action turns on the ghost of a murdered white slave-owner who haunts the descendants of his slaves. The spectre's power...

(The entire section is 7659 words.)

Arthur Redding (essay date December 2001)

SOURCE: Redding, Arthur. “‘Haints’: American Ghosts, Ethnic Memory, and Contemporary Fiction.” Mosaic 34, no. 4 (December 2001): 163-82.

[In the following essay, Redding explores the relevance of history in the creation of American literary traditions.]

What ghosts can say—
Even the ghosts of fathers—comes obscurely.
What if the terror stays without the meaning?

—Adrienne Rich, “What Ghosts Can Say”

No justice […] seems possible or thinkable without the principle of some responsibility, beyond all living present, within that which disjoins the living present, before the ghosts of those...

(The entire section is 8572 words.)

Criticism: The Ghost Story In Asian Literature

SOURCE: Makino, Yoko. “Lafcadio Hearn's ‘Yuki-Onna’ and Baudelaire's ‘Les Bienfaits de la Lune.’” Comparative Literature Studies 28, no. 3 (summer 1991): 234-44.

[In the following essay, Makino presents an analysis of Hearn's “Yuki-Onna,” noting its inspirational debt to one of Baudelaire's poems.]

“Yuki-Onna” (“The Snow-Woman”) is one of the best known and popular stories of Lafcadio Hearn. Although included in Kwaidan (1904), a collection of Japanese weird tales completed in the year of his death, the story of “Yuki-Onna” is not only horrifying but also beautiful and fantastic.

While we have a definite original...

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Criticism: The Ghost Story In European And English Literature

Jack Sullivan (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Sullivan, Jack. “Ghost Stories of Other Antiquaries.” In Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood, pp. 91-111. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1978.

[In the following essay, Sullivan evaluates the influence of M. R. James on several English ghost story writers.]

The publication of M. R. James's Ghost Stories of an Antiquary set in motion a spectral procession of tales about confrontations between antiquaries and beguilingly far-fetched horrors: in E. G. Swain's “The Place of Safety,” the Vicar of Stoneground Parish is visited at night by an order of gigantic monks from the sixteenth century; in R. H. Malden's “The...

(The entire section is 10488 words.)

Timothy R. Tangherlini (essay date spring-summer 1998)

SOURCE: Tangherlini, Timothy R. “‘Who ya gonna call?’: Ministers and the Mediation of Ghostly Threat in Danish Legend Tradition.1Western Folklore 57, no. 2-3 (spring-summer 1998): 153-78.

[In the following essay, Tangherlini surveys the use of ghosts and the supernatural in late nineteenth-century Danish legends.]

Few cultures conceive of ghosts as a predominantly positive force and, quite to the contrary, legends about ghosts usually emphasize the threat that the return of the dead poses to the community (Klintberg 1968; Thomas 1971; Pentikäinen 1968 and 1969). In most communities, while the dead are mourned, there is still an underlying hope...

(The entire section is 11888 words.)

Jürgen Beyer (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Beyer, Jürgen. “On the Transformation of Apparition Stories in Scandinavia and Germany, c. 1350-1700.1Folklore 110 (1999): 39-47.

[In the following essay, Beyer outlines some major changes in the use of apparitions in Scandinavian and German literature, establishing a connection between this transformation and the advent of the Reformation.]

Largely unnoticed by English-speaking folklorists, Central European scholars engaged in historical narrative research have in recent years reached important conclusions about the history of storytelling. Their findings undermine the very foundations on which the study of folklore hitherto has rested. The...

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Criticism: Major Figures

Bruce E. Fleming (essay date spring 1989)

SOURCE: Fleming, Bruce E. “Floundering About in Silence: What the Governess Couldn't Say.” Studies in Short Fiction 26, no. 2 (spring 1989): 135-43.

[In the following essay, Fleming considers the supernatural elements in Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.]

The question of the reliability of the governess in The Turn of the Screw has produced one of the most developed ongoing debates in James criticism. There is on the one hand the Kenton/Wilson/Goddard school that suggests that the ghosts are imagined by the governess and hence not “real”; on the other are the critics who insist that the evidence in favor of their existence is irrefutable because...

(The entire section is 4071 words.)

Willie van Peer and Ewont van der Knaap (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: van Peer, Willie, and Ewont van der Knaap. “(In)compatible Interpretations? Contesting Readings of The Turn of the Screw.Modern Language Notes 110 (1995): 692-710.

[In the following essay, van Peer and van der Knaap recount various critical responses to Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, attempting to resolve the conflict between critics who view the tale as a ghost story and those who interpret it as a Freudian text.]


The small community of listeners gathered around the fire in Henry James's The Turn of the Screw expect to hear a real ghost story,1 and with them we modern readers...

(The entire section is 7856 words.)

Judy Hale Young (essay date winter 1996)

SOURCE: Young, Judy Hale. “The Repudiation of Sisterhood in Edith Wharton's ‘Pomegranate Seed.’” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 1 (winter 1996): 1-11.

[In the following essay, Young addresses the theme of the absence of communication among women in Wharton's “The Pomegranate Seed.”]

“What the ghost really needs is not echoing passages and hidden doors behind tapestry, but only continuity and silence” (Ghost Stories 3). This passage in the author's Preface to The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton refers ostensibly to the physical silence that she found increasingly unavailable in her lifetime, to the “silent hours when at last the wireless...

(The entire section is 5127 words.)

Gianfranca Balestra (essay date winter 1996)

SOURCE: Balestra, Gianfranca. “‘For the Use of the Magazine Morons’: Edith Wharton Rewrites the Tale of the Fantastic.” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 1 (winter 1996): 13-24.

[In the following essay, Balestra compares two versions of Wharton's “Pomegranate Seed” and “All Souls',” using them as a basis to examine Wharton's ideas regarding ghost stories.]

Edith Wharton's relationship with the reading public and the market economy was ambiguously made up of acceptance and resistance, desire and mistrust. She obviously sought success and dealt with her publishers in a very professional and business-like manner, yearned to establish a connection with her...

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Robert Michalski (essay date spring 1996)

SOURCE: Michalski, Robert. “The Malice of Inanimate Objects: Exchange in M. R. James's Ghost Stories.” Extrapolation 37, no. 1 (spring 1996): 46-62.

[In the following essay, Michalski suggests that M. R. James' ghost stories reflect his concerns about contemporary society and politics.]

If an interest in the supernatural or the occult betrays a fundamental nostalgia for times past and for superseded modes of thinking, M. R. James (1862-1936) is an anachronism even among writers interested in the supernatural.1 Unlike other practitioners of the ghost story such as Henry James and Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James had little interest in the contemporary...

(The entire section is 8306 words.)

Jacqueline Simpson (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Simpson, Jacqueline. “‘The Rules of Folklore’ in the Ghost Stories of M. R. James.” Folklore 108 (1997): 9-18.

[In the following essay, Simpson evaluates the impact of English folklore and oral storytelling traditions on M. R. James' ghost stories.]

When Dr Montague Rhodes James of King's College, Cambridge, published in 1904 the first volume of the elegant but alarming tales with which his name is now always associated, he called it Ghost Stories of an Antiquary; in 1911 he followed it with More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. The word “antiquary” already had an old-fashioned charm about it, and was appropriate for a scholar whose work...

(The entire section is 9190 words.)

John Coates (essay date summer 2000)

SOURCE: Coates, John. “The Moral Argument of Elizabeth Bowen's Ghost Stories.” Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 52, no. 4 (summer 2000): 293-309.

[In the following essay, Coates offers an overview of Bowen's moral vision as depicted in her ghost stories.]

By common consent, Elizabeth Bowen was a distinguished writer of ghost stories. While fully capable of giving her readers all the usual and anticipated satisfactions of such tales, she made, and fulfilled, other, larger claims for the form. As she remarked in 1947 in a preface to Le Fanu's Uncle Silas, “Our ancestors may have had an agreeable-dreadful reflex from the idea of the Devil or a...

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Further Reading


Bloom, Harold. Classic Horror Writers. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1994, 180 p.

Collection of biographies on horror writers, including Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and Sheridan LeFanu, as well as brief critical essays.

Manley, Seon and Gogo Lewis. Ghostly Gentlewomen: Two Centuries of Spectral Stories by the Gentle Sex. New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard Co., 1977, 237 p.

Anthology of ghost stories by various female authors, including Norah Lofts, Mary Webb, and Virginia Woolf, with introductory and biographical notes.



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