Book Review: Edith Wharton’s Ghost Stories

It’s the time to be merry, but also a splendid period for reading ghost stories. At least, if your New Year’s Eve falls close to midwinter. Can’t imagine my Australian and New Zealand friends and relatives enjoying a good ghost story while having a BBQ.

So just before Christmas, I had a quick search through the literary websites of my favourite papers, to see if anybody had recommendations. With a shortlist, I hopped off to several libraries and finally settled upon a small selection of ghost stories written by Pulitzer Prize winner Edith Wharton.

Of course, like me, you will be far more familiar with her novels like “House of Mirth“, “Ethan Frome“, or films based on these like “The Age of Innocence” and perhaps even the tv series based on her last novel “The buccaneers”. Actually, it came as a surprise to me Edith Wharton wrote ghost stories and was interested in the supernatural.

At the back of my small volume, there was an excerpt from her autobiographical notes. She states that while touring Europe with her parents, she caught typhoid in Germany and only barely survived. According to her, her long recovery and an occasional relapse, made her superstitious and fearful.

A few of the characters in the selection of Edith Wharton’s ghost stories I read, share this superstition. There were at least two who fled from houses which may or may not be haunted. All stories are pretty good in implying, suggesting, foreboding, suspicion, suspense – rather than downright haunting.

What I had not realised was, that Edith Wharton was actually the author of one of my favourite ghost stories: “Kerfol”. This takes place in Brittany, when an American visits a manor house to see if he will or will not rent it. It is abandoned and the only company he comes across, is a pack of silent dogs.

Another story I liked very much was “Mr Jones”, which takes place in Great Britain. Here the inheritor of a large manor house is at first barred from visiting it by a Mr Jones. In the end, Mr Jones takes revenge – not upon the new owner or her guests, but upon one of the servants.

“Pomegranate Seed” is another interesting one, but with an open ending. It seems the publication of this one, encouraged Edith Wharton to write more ghost stories. It is one of her ghost stories which take place in America. Similar ones include “Bewitched” and “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell”. Like “The Pomegranate Seed”, the latter one is strong on suspense and a husband who disappears. Personally, I liked “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” better, which may include some remnants of Edith Wharton’s experience with illness and recovery.

Contrary to some readers, I did not find the collection I read very savage. Nor do I think that many of Edith Wharton’s ghost stories are among the best of this genre. “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” and “Kerfol” will remain among my favourites and are good ones. But for really scary and haunting ghost stories, you might prefer authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Le Fanu, or M.R. James.

“The Ghoststories of Edith Wharton”, published by Scribner and illustrated by Laszlo Kubinyi, October 1997
For free downloads of some of Edith Wharton’s books including ghost stories, try the Project Gutenberg.

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