Wandering Ghosts contains what is now Crawford’s best-known work. His once-popular novels and romances are rarely read except by specialists in American literature. These are sharply criticized for being too commercial. Crawford was drawn to the fantastic and horrible, and several of his novels have fantastic themes or elements, notably Mr. Isaacs: A Tale of Modern India (1882), With the Immortals (1888), Khaled: A Tale of Arabia (1891), and particularly The Witch of Prague (1891).
Summarization does injustice to the tales in Wandering Ghosts, which, if examined together, reveal their author as a genuinely gifted craftsman who was took his subjects seriously and experimented with story forms. Most stories employ a narrator accounting for events he witnessed. “The Screaming Skull” takes this narration a step further, and the end of the story directly involves the reader, for the narrator is describing events as they happen.
Several stories involve the sea. Crawford, himself a master seaman, writes with considerable authority. None of the stories is conventional, and if “The Upper Berth” seems so, it is because it established the conventions for this type of tale. “Man Overboard!” is overly long, and “By the Waters of Paradise” promises much with all of its talk of the Woman of the Water, only to end happily and frustrate any clear supernatural element. The awful secret of “The Dead Smile” is apparent to the reader almost from the opening of the story, with its repeated references to the strange likeness of the lovers. “The Doll’s Ghost” commits the grave errors of being rather sweet and ending happily; however, Puckler’s panic when his daughter does not return home is uncomfortably real.
Certainly, not all the stories collected here reach the same heights, and the last two may frustrate some readers. “The Screaming Skull” and “The Upper Berth,” however, are unforgettable classics. “For the Blood Is the Life” is certainly one of the finest American vampire tales; “The Dead Smile” is chillingly atmospheric, despite the obviousness of the awful secret; and “Man Overboard!” unfolds convincingly, if somewhat too gradually. The collection is uneven, but the presence of the three or four genuine classics makes Wandering Ghosts a satisfying collection, perhaps one of the most satisfying ever published.