The Ghost Story Critical Essays

Introduction

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.