Like other tales, ghost stories set a tone that may be terrifying, mournful, moralistic, thought provoking, whimsical, or even humorous. In this anthology, ghosts appear for a variety of reasons. In "Across the Moors" by William Fryer Harvey, the anonymous ghost seems to wish only to tell someone about the experience that "served as the turning point in my life." Predictably, others seek revenge, even against the descendants of those who harmed them. In many stories, the presence returns because it is not at peace in some way or it wishes to warn the living. A handful of ghosts relive their deaths, so to speak. A few ghosts are not even aware that they are dead. Another twist features inexorable, repeating events of a ghastly nature instead of the beings themselves.
Interestingly, ghosts rarely transcend their humanity. Unlike Jacob Marley, whose vision beyond the grave is clearly greater than his living one was and who warns Ebenezer Scrooge against making the same errors he did, these ghosts remain true to their human nature and outlook. The family of "The House of Shadows" by Mary Elizabeth Counselman continues to live as they always have, unchanged. In "How He Left the Hotel" by Louisa Baldwin, a dead man walks whose habits and paths are no different from those he followed when he was alive. Vicious killers become vicious ghosts; malicious people become malicious ghosts, like the engineer of "The Light Was Green" by John Rawson Speer. "A Grammatical Ghost" (Elia W. Peattie) is as fastidious in the afterlife as she was in life. Few if any of these spirits behave any differently than we expect them to, given what we are told and can see of their lives and values. There are few surprises here.
I bought 100 Hair-Raising Little Horror Stories edited by Al Sarrantonio and Martin H. Greenberg and 100 Ghastly Little Ghost Stories at the same time because they seemed to make natural companions for long winter nights. I read the second almost a year after reading the first and found it disappointing in comparison.
Perhaps it is their very nature that makes ghost stories less effective than tales of horror. Ghosts are personal, connected in some way to the specific people and places that they haunt. I have nothing to fear from Jacob Marley or from any of the motley crew that roams the pages of this collection. I have killed no one, cheated on no one, and sent no one to the gallows, nor do my home or work place seem to attract spirits. I do not collect morbid objects like "Mordecai's Pipe" (A. V. Milyer). Some of the ghosts' actions seem horrifying, but I felt detached from them, perhaps because they are fictional ghosts acting out against fictional people in ways that are not entirely unexpected.
In comparison, horror stories, like those of Poe, rely on the darkness of the mind and its imaginative ability--how terrifying can the soul's darkness be? It is difficult to translate that sense to ghost stories, which, ironically, seem more tangible. Horror can extend as far as the mind can, but in the end ghosts are merely dead people--mostly predictable dead people. Without a spectacular ending twist, part of the suspense and the element of the unknown is lost.
Still, although there are more misses and fewer hits here than in the horror anthology, this is an entertaining book, worth curling up with on a dark and stormy night.
Diane L. Schirf
Saturday, 13 January 2007.