Book Review: The OXFORD BOOK OF TWENTIETH CENTURY GHOST STORIESMichael Cox (editor)
Oxford University Press
1996

“The ghosts of fiction were not killed off by the advent of the electric light, the invention of the telephone, the coming of the motor car, or even by the once unthinkable horrors of technological warfare. Instead they took over the trappings, landscapes, and cultural assumptions of the twentieth century for their ancient purposes.” Thus Michael Cox introduces The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century Ghost Stories, a unique collection of 33 of the best and most chilling ghost stories of our era. The first anthology to trace the evolution of the ghost story over the last one hundred years, this book demonstrates the variety and versatility of the genre and the different ways in which stories of the supernatural have adapted to twentieth-century venues and concerns. In these tales we encounter not only the returning dead, but also distinctly modern phantoms: a haunted typewriter, a ghost that travels by train, and an urban specter made of smoke and soot. There are child ghosts and haunted houses, playful spooks and deadly apparitions. The authors of these uncanny tales are as diverse as the kinds of stories they tell; there are ghost stories by such specialists as M.R. James and Algernon Blackwood and many by authors not commonly associated with the genre: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Graham Greene, A.S. Byatt, and Angela Carter are only a few of the literary celebrities included in this collection. At a time when our era seems to grow increasingly rational and predictable, The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Ghost Stories reminds us of the joys of uncertainty and wonder. Distinctive and gripping, these stories will linger long in the memory.

I came across this copy of The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Ghost Stories at one of the local libraries in Omaha, back in 1999. This was back when I was actively embracing the Gothic subculture, and was searching for adequate literature to help develop my burgeoning pretentiousness. Also, I wanted something beyond just the usual staple of Anne Rice and…well, strictly vampire fiction in general. So, I picked up this collection, because it had the pedigree of being an official Oxford collection, and also ghost stories. I loves me some ghost stories. Ever since I was but a grade schooler, and found myself listening to them being told by a bonfire at a friend’s sleepover one October night. But, I digress.

Of the authors that populate this collection, the ones that I recognized right off the bat whilst scanning the Contents section were M. R. James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Algernon Blackwood, Graham Greene, and Robert Bloch. Of those five that I recognized, there were two that surprised me by being included, being Fitzgerald and Greene. But, hey, I guess that everyone has a ghost story or two in them. Otherwise, James, Blackwood and Bloch (which, when said that way, sounds like a law firm of some sort) are mainstays in the genre of supernatural fiction, and some of my favorites.

As far as how the other authors featured in this collection go, well…let’s go through them a bit, shall we?

“In The Dark” (E. Nesbit)
A young man suspects that his college chum might be losing his marbles after allegedly murdering a rather annoying schoolmate over holiday…

“Rooum” (Oliver Onions)
A railroad labor worker seems a bit extra jumpy, and fears some seemingly non-existent whispers and echoes…also, he seems a bit preoccupied with molecules and osmosis…

“The Shadowy Third” (Ellen Glasgow)
A nurse discovers she can see the ghost of the daughter of the sick lady she’s taking care of, and the reason behind all this might have something to do with the patient’s doctor husband…

“The Diary Of Mr. Poynter” (M. R. James)
An antique book collector finds an interesting pattern bit inside an old diary and uses that for the pattern of new curtains…turns out to be a bad idea, that…

“Mrs Porter and Miss Allen” (Hugh Walpole)
A recently widowed woman seems rather anxious about something…or someone…much to her young companion’s consternation…

“The Nature of the Evidence” (May Sinclair)
A widower decides to remarry, but his dead wife doesn’t approve of his choice…

“Night-Fears” (L. P. Hartley)
A long-time night watchman encounters a mysterious stranger who strikes up a conversation about the watchman’s profession…it doesn’t end well…

“Bewitched” (Edith Wharton)
A reclusive farmer has been visiting his old (and very dead) flame, and his wife is a bit perturbed about it…

“A Short Trip Home” (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
A young man’s childhood friend (and major crush) comes back from college with a bit of a sinister hanger-on…

“Blind Man’s Bluff” (H. Russell Wakefield)
A night shift security guard isn’t going home tonight…or any other night, it seems…

“The Blackmailers” (Algernon Blackwood)
An insurance agent finds himself being blackmailed by someone who…well, just doesn’t seem all that enthusiastic about it…

“Yesterday Street” (Thomas Burke)
In a bit of a nostalgic mood, a man decides to visit the street in which he grew up, and finds himself engaged in a game of marbles with his childhood pals…

“Smoke Ghost” (Fritz Leiber Jun.)
An office manager has visions of a ghostly thing forming out of the smoke and soot of the industrialized city he dwells in…

“The Cheery Soul” (Elizabeth Bowen)
Having been invited to a large estate for Christmas, a young lady finds the sole inhabitant a bit off-putting…as well as those cryptic messages found in the kitchen…

“All But Empty” (Graham Greene)
A regular patron of a silent movie theater has an encounter with a rather peculiar attendee…

“Three Miles Up” (Elizabeth Jane Howard)
Two gents are taking a holiday on a boat, and happen upon a young lady who joins in their expedition…and then they get a bit lost…

“Close Behind Him” (John Wyndham)
After a robbery gone bad, a thief is pursued back to his home by the ghost of the guy he robbed…

“The Quincunx” (Walter de al Mare)
The nephew of a stingy (and recently declared living impaired) aunt inherits her house…and unwittingly becomes the new abode for her restless spirit…

“The Tower” (Marghanita Laski)
A lady goes sight-seeing alone at an ancient Italian tower, climbing steps in the dark…

“Poor Girl” (Elizabeth Taylor)
A governess has as a charge a young lad with a very old soul…

“I Kiss Your Shadow—” (Robert Bloch)
Shortly after an accident killed his fiance, the survivor soon learns that true love never really dies…like it or not…

“A Woman Seldom Found” (William Sansom)
A lonely man visiting Rome happens across an equally lonely woman while walking at night…wasn’t expecting that ending, there…

“The Portobello Road” (Muriel Spark)
A writer regales us with the details of her life, leading up to her murder five years prior…

“Ringing the Changes” (Robert Aickman)
A newly married couple arrive at their honeymoon destination, and learn the hard way to not go someplace on the off-season…

“On Terms” (Christine Brooke-Rose)
As far as I can tell, a ghost is having a fever dream-like breakdown in the process of his essence breaking down into nothing…surreal and seemingly constructed from run-on sentences and stream-of-consciousness…

“The Only Story” (William Trevor)
A man writes down the only story he’ll ever write, about the final moments of his life…

“The Loves of Lady Purple” (Angela Carter)
The centerpiece of an old man’s traveling marionette show has a sordid back-story…and a bit of a Pinocchio complex…

“Revenant as Typewriter” (Penelope Lively)
A college professor discovers to her annoyance that she’s not acting like herself…

“The Little Dirty Girl” (Joanna Russ)
A middle-aged woman inadvertently befriends a waifish 8-year-old girl, and discovers the power of existential projection…booga booga booga…

“Watching Me, Watching You” (Fay Weldon)
A ghost watches idly the passing of time between a divorced couple…also, the story’s title automatically makes the chorus of “Sweet Caroline” start playing in my head…

“The July Ghost” (A. S. Byatt)
A summer tenement befriends a young boy in the garden, a boy who’s quiet, not unpleasant, and also the spitting image of the flat owner’s dead son…

“The Highboy” (Alison Lurie)
Antique chest of drawers…not as innocent and unassuming as one would think they are…

“The Meeting House” (Jane Gardam)
A bunch of old-timey Quakers meet their new homeless neighbors, and wackiness ensues…

Overall, I found the entire collection to be a good selection. They didn’t all go for the same formula, as many tend to do. I think that, like with other collections I’ve read, the majority of authors I didn’t recognize helped to give me an idea of what kind of talent lies out there for me to check out some time in the future. So many stories, so little time. Otherwise, this was a good sampling of the kind of ghost stories that could be found within the various decade of the 20th Century, from a time when “fantastic fiction” was regulated to pulp publications, to when the style was beginning to gain some bit of legitimacy in literary circles. Also, they fire up the imagination, which is really the measure of a good ghost story. Definitely worth checking out.

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