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The Ghosts Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The narrator recalls his experience with ghosts on a winter night in a decaying English mansion that was built in the seventeenth century. He has been arguing with his brother over the existence of such supernatural creatures and defiantly offers to stay up all night to confront the ghosts that his brother claims haunt the house. The narrator drinks several cups of strong tea to stay awake and smokes cigars to stimulate his senses. He fully expects to see ghostly figures but firmly believes they will be figments of his own imagination.

At midnight a group of male and female ghosts appear dressed in the costumes of Jacobean aristocrats. Evidently they are former owners of this mansion and their relatives. The ghosts sit down, ignoring the narrator. Then a pack of “black creatures” bursts into the chamber. Although hideous monsters, they behave like devoted hounds. The narrator realizes that these creatures are “the filthy, immortal sins of those courtly men and women.” Each beast goes up to its master, who is forced to acknowledge the secret sin symbolized by the face-licking animal ghost. Several human ghosts have more than one nightmarish creatures competing for attention.

The narrator suggests that one of the female ghosts is guilty of murder and that two others, a lady and a courtier, may be guilty of adultery. Otherwise he does not name any specific sins but suggests through his descriptions of the monsters that the sins they represent are of the most vile deeds of which human beings can be guilty.

Suddenly one of the creatures scents the narrator’s presence and leads its companions in search of him. A number of the horrible creatures swarm over the narrator and begin clawing him. As their claws touch his body, he is overwhelmed by fiendish desires, such as the idea that he should murder his own brother. He sees how easy this would be. He could pretend that he thought his brother was a ghost and thus fire his revolver in self-defense. Afterward he would dress the body in a sheet and put flour on its face to make it appear his brother had been trying to frighten him.

As the narrator is about to succumb to this temptation, he tries to shut out his wicked thoughts by working out geometry problems in his head. He succeeds in proving the validity of a Euclidian theorem. At this point, logic and reason re-establish themselves and the monsters disappear. It seems inconceivable to the narrator that he has actually contemplated murdering his own brother.