Saturday, February 05, 2005

Classic Horror Stories: Entry No. 1

This weekend I read a volume of short stories called Classic Ghost Stories published by Dover. It was interesting how diverse this particular genre could be. There were stories that were sad, funny, literary, and downright chilling. Probably the most terrifying story was “The Judge House” written by Bram Stoker, best known for the story Dracula, which spawned a whole genre by itself.
There were actually moments in the same story where I laughed almost in the same breath as shuddering from the chill running down my spine. This is likely due to my joy at being scared by a good story. It is a sort of masochistic impulse, that desire to see how badly a story can scare me. I like stories that genuinely inspire fear in me. But it is equally entertaining to take the journey with the writer and to see exactly how they plot and plan their frights. Like “The Judge House”, Jerome K. Jerome definitely achieved that purpose with “A Ghost Story”. “Dickon The Devil” by the writer of the seminal tale “Camilla”, Sheridan LeFanu, inspires a chill touched by a sense of the strange and arcane. Along with the protagonist, we exit the tale feeling a sense of relief that we barely missed being a victim of the evil, ghostly presence haunting that small English village. “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs is more than just a ghost story. It is a tale of horror where the reader is spared full knowledge of that fearful yet unknown threat. And perhaps the “what ifs” are even more terrifying.
I found “The Moonlit Road” by Ambrose Bierce, a literary offering that is sad as opposed to frightening. Although it is a ghost story, it is first and foremost in my opinion a story about regret and loneliness. It is about the limitless repercussions of a thoughtless act of violence and it is particularly effective at showing the soul-deep despair that the survivors of that act feel. The ghostly victim is no less spared this desolation. The last story, “The Confession of Charles Linkworth” was both vividly disarming and poignant. This story deals with a lost soul who missed out on an opportunity in life to confess and find absolution before he is executed for murder. He is bound to this earthly realm until he is able to do so. Driven to complete this act, he reaches out to a doctor who volunteers in the prison and who is ‘sensitive’ to paranormal phenomena. This story illustrates the ability of a genre story to drive home the universal emotional core of humanity and the needs inherent as a human being. Charles Dickens’ “To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt” also touches on an intrinsic human need, justice. In this case, the ghost is the one in search of justice. And this ghost, the murder victim, is committed to haunting the jury foreman, the prosecutor, the judge, and various people in the courtroom until he achieves his goal. This work was interesting and subtle, but the end message struck me deeply. As far as humor, probably E.G. Swain’s “Bone to His Bone” tickled me the most, proving that even the heavy subject of a haunting can cause the reader to laugh. Perhaps it was the perplexity of the protagonist in dealing with this spectral presence who shares his house and love of books that provided the most comic relief. Yet along with that laugh came the unsettling knowledge that a force beyond the grave was at work.
While rather short, this collection of ghost stories definitely encompassed a variety of unique approaches to the delicate art of the scare. And they left me with a chill, a smile, and some thoughts to ponder.

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