Archive for Ghost Stories

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The White Old Maid”

Posted in Ghost Stories, Nathaniel Hawthorne, story translations, The White Old Maid (1835), Twice-Told Tales with tags , , , , , on February 23, 2017 by Manuel Paul Arenas

While looking up book covers on the Internet Speculative Fiction Database I came across this collection of Hawthorne stories in French. I couldn’t figure out what the title was in English, so I checked the contents which usually has the original titles next to the translations. Once I did I realized it was a title I’d never heard of before called “The White Old Maid” (1835). Apparently it has been included in a few ghost story anthologies, as well as in the expanded edition of Hawthorne’s “Twice-Told Tales”, so I looked it up and found it on the Wikisource page for “Twice-Told Tales”. It actually was rather good, but not on par with his more celebrated tales.

It starts with a sort of MacGuffin: two young women, one haughty and the other gentle, tearfully hovering over the cadaver of a young man in state. There is some transgression which the proud one has made, but it is never divulged. She asks if the other will betray her, but the gentle one, who is named Edith, says,

‘”Till the dead bid me speak I will be silent,” answered Edith. “Leave us alone together. Go and live many years, and then return and tell me of thy life. He too will be here. Then, if thou tellest of sufferings more than death, we will both forgive thee.”

“And what shall be the token?” asked the proud girl, as if her heart acknowledged a meaning in these wild words.

“This lock of hair,” said Edith, lifting one of the dark clustering curls that lay heavily on the dead man’s brow.’ [Nathaniel Hawthorne “The White Old Maid” 1837, retrieved from Wikisource 02/22/17]

The proud woman goes off and lives her entire life wearing the same white dress and trailing behind every local funeral cortege, presumably in penance for her unnamed transgression. She eventually becomes a town fixture and any funeral she doesn’t attend is seen as being ill-favored. Then, one day she is seen walking the main street by herself when there is no funeral. People crowd the street to see what is amiss…but you have to read the story to find out what happens next.

In truth, it isn’t really a ghost story per se, although there is some question at the end as to the status of an old servant of the house of the young man from the beginning of the tale. I’m surprised it has never been filmed. I could picture it as a Val Lewton movie, not too explicit, but with class and atmosphere to spare. The French title, La vieille fille blanche et autres contes fantastiques, which roughly translates to “The White Old Maid and other Fantastic Tales” features a depiction of the maid in question. The only discrepancy is that the woman in the story always wore the same white dress, and the woman in the artwork is wearing black.

A French collection of stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, featuring "The White Old Maid" ((1973, Marabout).

A French collection of stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, featuring “The White Old Maid” ((1973, Marabout).

Gillian Flynn’s “The Grown Up” (2015)

Posted in "The Grown Up" 2015, "The Turn of the Screw" 1898, George R.R. Martin's Rogues Anthology, Ghost Stories, Gillian Flynn, Henry James, M.R. James, Susan Hill with tags , , , , , , , on December 16, 2015 by Manuel Paul Arenas
"The Grown Up", by Gillian Flynn, 2015, Crown Publishers, New York.

“The Grown Up”, by Gillian Flynn, 2015, Crown Publishers, New York.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a cardboard display for a bantam book with an eye-catching dust jacket image. Upon closer inspection, I saw that it was the latest effort by author, Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”, 2012). I read the blurb on the inner flap which read (in all-caps) “GILLIAN FLYNN’S EDGAR AWARD-WINNING HOMAGE TO THE CLASSIC GHOST STORY, PUBLISHED FOR THE FIRST TIME AS A STAND-ALONE”. I was intrigued. I hadn’t read her other books, nor had I seen the film based on “Gone Girl”, although I had heard good things about both, so I figured I’d keep an eye out for it at work and give it a whirl, if I ever saw it used.

"Rogues" 2014 Bantam Books

“Rogues” 2014 Bantam Books

Apparently, this was a re-packaging of an earlier effort, which originally appeared under the title “What Do You Do?”, in George R.R. Martin’s Rogues anthology. I had no idea what to expect, honestly, not being familiar with Ms. Flynn’s output, but I had fantasies of maybe having found someone like Susan Hill (“The Woman in Black”), another modern writer with a love of the traditional English ghost stories of M.R. James, who writes brilliantly crafted tales, which would be right at home alongside the masters of the genre in some obscure Edwardian supernatural collection.

A week ago, my co-worker and good friend Denise R pointed out that a used copy had indeed arrived at our store, so I checked it out to read and see what all the fuss was about. Okay, before I continue, I must say that there may be some SPOILERS in the following review, so YOU  HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Let me begin by saying that I enjoyed the story, for the most part, and found the main character amusing. I can see why the general public likes Ms. Flynn’s writing, her characters are interesting and at least this one was likable, despite her many personal faults. That being said, just because one mentions Wilkie Collins, and Henry James in a tale, does not put it in the same league or even the same genre as their respective works. The only connection this tale had with “The Turn of the Screw” or even “The Haunting of Hill House”, was when she name-dropped them within the text of the story.

Not only did she spend several pages of this slender book talking about the protagonists hand-job skills, which although amusing, did not really come into play later on in the story (M.R. James would turn in his grave for this violation of good taste. He saw the inclusion of sexual themes in literature as “…a fatal mistake; sex is tiresome enough in the novels; in a ghost story, or as the backbone of a ghost story, I have no patience with it.”), there was no build up, no atmosphere, and (here it comes, the big reveal)…NO GHOST! What??? There was just a feeling of unease in the “haunted” house, and a creepy boy who seemed modeled after Miles, from “The Turn of the Screw”. What’s worse, is Ms. Flynn pulled the cheap trick of a double-whammy twist ending, à la M. Night Shyamalan! Just when the story seemed to be getting interesting, she pulled an Anne Radcliffe and explained away the terrors that we never really got to see. Boo!

I believe Gillian Flynn should stick with her thrillers, which seem to do nicely, for she does not seem to have a firm grasp of the “Classic Ghost Story” she is supposed to be celebrating here.

M.R. James’ “Lost Hearts”

Posted in BBC, Douglas Walters, Ghost Stories, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, Lost Hearts, M.R. James, Paul Lowe, Walt Sturrock with tags , , , , , , on December 17, 2014 by Manuel Paul Arenas

I just re-read the M.R. James story “Lost Hearts” about an orphaned boy named Stephen who is sent to live with his uncle, Mr. Abney, who has ulterior motives. Apparently, he is an alchemist and intends to use Stephen for a ritual sacrifice, but the ghosts of his uncle’s previous young tenants intervene to spare the lad from their gruesome fates. A very dark tale, but one with a happy (?) ending.

Mr Abney gets his comeuppance in an illustration by Douglas Walters; note the spirit in the brazier.

Mr Abney gets his comeuppance in an illustration by Douglas Walters; note the spirit in the brazier.

I first read this back in the 90’s in a collection of ghost stories illustrated by Walt Sturrock, which my cousin Jason used to own. It made an impression on me then, but for some reason I didn’t really pursue James’ work like I should have, maybe because I was just starting to collect Lovecraft and was singularly focused at the time.

“Ghosts: A Classic Collection” illustrated by Walt Sturrock.

However, reading it again, some twenty plus years later, I am impressed with it’s power and subtlety. It is a little gory in spots and it is also one of the few stories where James goes against his famous maxim that “…amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story.” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M._R._James#Ghost_stories, retrieved 12/16/2014]

The ghosts as they appear in the 1973 BBC adaptation; note the log fingernails, which they later put to good use.

The ghosts as they appear in the 1973 BBC adaptation; note the long fingernails, which they later put to good use.

There have been two adaptations of the story to date, one which appeared in the TV series “Mystery and Imagination” in March of 1966, of which no archival print is known to have survived, then again for the BBC series “A Ghost Story for Christmas”, in 1973. This version is notable for the emphasis on the music of the hurdy gurdy which the the Italian boy, one of the spirits looking out for young Stephen, used to to play before he “disappeared”. Both his ghost as well as the young gypsy girl, are sad and frightening figures in the story, with gaunt features, long pointy fingernails and cavernous holes in their chests, where their hearts had once been.

An illustration featuring the ghosts of the alchemist's previous victims for the Ghosts & Scholars publication by Paul Lowe.

An illustration featuring the ghosts of the alchemist’s previous victims for the Ghosts & Scholars publication by Paul Lowe.

“Whilst the girl stood still, half smiling, with her hands clasped over her heart, the boy, a thin shape, with black hair and ragged clothing, raised his arms in the air with an appearance of menace and of unappeasable  hunger and longing. The moon shone upon his almost transparent hands, and Stephen saw that the nails were fearfully long and that the light shone through them. As he stood with his arms thus raised, he disclosed a terrifying spectacle. On the left side of his chest there opened a black and gaping rent; and there fell upon Stephen’s brain, rather than upon his ear, the impression of one of those hungry and desolate cries that he had heard resounding over the woods of Aswarby all that evening. In another moment this dreadful pair had moved swiftly and noiselessly over the dry gravel, and he saw them no more.” [James, M.R. 2008. Lost Hearts. The Haunted Dolls’ House. pg 82. London: Penguin Books]

“Ghost Stories of an Antiquary” (1953, Pan Books).

The tale was originally collected in James’ “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary”, but has been anthologized many times since and reprinted in various modern collections of James’ stories including “Lost Hearts and Other Chilling Tales” [2009, Penguin].

“Lost Hearts and Other Chilling Tales” (2009, Penguin Books).