23 June 2012

Famous Modern Ghost Stories

Famous Modern Ghost Stories, edited by Dorothy Scarborough and published in 1921, is a diverse collection of tales that could, very loosely, be called “ghost stories”. The fact is, a good number of the stories are not about ghosts at all. Nonetheless, this foray into the supernatural offers some fun times for those who, like me, enjoy a good scare. Since the stories are so varied and different, I’m going to briefly review each one and give ratings for each story rather than for the book as a whole.

“The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood
This story was terrifying. Two friends trekking down the Danube River together end up camping one night on a tiny lonely island populated only by a grove of willow trees. As they witness bizarre visions and sink deeper into denial, it becomes clear that some force is keeping them on the island. A force beyond their human reckoning. This story rivaled anything ever written by H.P. Lovecraft, and it is easy to see why Lovecraft named Blackwood as one of his influences. 5/5 stars

“The Shadows on the Wall” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
While a woman with her sister mourns her dead husband, the two ladies begin to wonder if their abusive brother of had something to do with the death. When the shadow of the dead man begins appearing on the wall it’s only a matter of time until the truth comes out. 3/5 stars

“The Messenger” by Robert W. Chambers
In France, some working men uncover a pile of 38 skulls buried with a list of names. The skulls are those of English soldiers who were killed invading France in 1760. Interestingly the list mentions 39 skulls, and even more interestingly, the list is written in Breton, a language that has not been used for hundreds of years with the exception of one man. The Black Priest, an unorthodox holy man, betrayed his countrymen and was branded on the forehead and put to death, supposedly buried along with the English soldiers. Now Dick, an American and husband of a French noblewoman, is faced with unraveling an old family curse before it is too late. This was a very scary and extremely well-written story that should be made into a movie. 5/5 stars

“Lazarus” by Leonid Andreyev
Wait; wait. A Russian author writing a depressing story? Who would have guessed? This is one of the weaker stories in the collection. It’s not particularly a ghost story at all. It’s about Lazarus, the same one Jesus raised from the dead. Apparently after his resuscitation, he became a morose and creepy man, plagued by the curse of death. People who met him became depressed for the rest of their lives because life is depressing and death is worse. Suffer, suffer, suffer. Pain, pain, pain. Am I being deep and meaningful yet? Okay, so I should probably appreciate Russian literature more. However, since this wasn’t a particularly engaging or interesting story, I’m giving it 2/5 stars

“The Beast with Five Fingers” by W. F. Harvey
This was probably really fresh when it was written, but since then it has been driven into the ground by Hollywood B-Movies. A young man visiting his ailing grandfather finds out that granddad has a bad case of alien hand syndrome. His hand writes notes to the young man while the old man is asleep. Soon after the old man dies, a package arrives at the young man’s house. Apparently a note was found by the dead man’s bedside in his own handwriting requesting that upon his death, his hand be cut off and mailed to his grandson. What happens next is not for those with weak stomachs. 3/5 stars

"The Mass of Shadows" by Anatole France
A lady goes to Mass in her local church with a bunch of dead people! This is a light story, not scary but strangely beautiful and like a real folk tale. It reminds me of stories my granddad tells. 4/5 stars

"What Was It?" by Fitz-James O'Brien
This was an interesting idea. A ghost that is totally corporeal but completely invisible haunts a group of supernatural enthusiasts in an old ramshackle apartment building. The idea seems interesting, but the ending is weak. 3/5 stars

"The Middle Toe of the Right Foot" by Ambrose Bierce
This story is wonderful. It’s not really scary, but it’s very fun and clever. I can’t say too much about the plot without giving the whole thing away; the plot is rather short. However, this seems like a real folk ghost tale that may spring up in a small town, and sounds like some of the old folk tales that did exist in the town where I grew up. 4/5 stars

"The Shell of Sense" by Olivia Howard Dunbar
This was good but not great. The entire story is told from the perspective of a ghost who has left behind a grieving husband. Unfortunately the grieving husband finds comfort in his dead wife’s best friend. And, of course, his dead wife is not very happy about this turn of events. It’s not often that the story of a haunting is told from a ghost’s perspective and the author does a good job of making the reader identify with the ghost. ? 4/5 stars

"The Woman at Seven Brothers" by Wilbur Daniel Steele
The claustrophobic atmosphere in this story was absolutely oppressive. The author is an expert at building a certain mood and straining it to the breaking point. A youngish man comes to work as an assistant to a lighthouse operator. The lighthouse is in the middle of a bay, and due to the location, the residents rarely leave the lighthouse to go to the mainland. The younger wife of the lighthouse operator takes a fancy to our protagonist, a fancy which he does not return. However, there is something distinctly odd about the woman. 5/5 stars

"At the Gate" by Myla Jo Closser
This was a sweet story about dead dogs going to heaven. That’s really it. It sounds like a silly premise for a story, but is turns out to be really good. It reminds me a bit of the film Dean Spanley, which you should definitely see if you haven’t. 5/5 stars


"Ligeia" by Edgar Allan Poe
What can I say about this absolute masterpiece of gothic fiction? It’s Poe, so you know it’s good, and if you haven’t read it then go do so right now! This instant; you hear me?! 5/5 stars

"The Haunted Orchard" by Richard Le Gallienne
This story had so much promise. A man from the city in New England finds a charming abandoned house and manages to convince the reluctant owners to rent it to him for the summer. However, there is a reason the owners were reluctant to rent the house, and ghostly things ensue. There was little character development in the story and I couldn’t muster enough feeling to care for the protagonist or the unfortunate ghost. 2/5 stars

"The Bowmen" by Arthur Machen
Medieval English bowmen show up in World War I to help their descendants fight the Germans. This was an okay story. It was still pretty ho-hum. If I knew this were based on a real legend and not one invented just for this story it would be be more interesting. 3/5 stars

"A Ghost" by Guy de Maupassant
Such a simple little story. A man meets a friend he hasn’t seen in years and finds his health ruined his wife dead. He agrees to return to the man’s manor house to retrieve some personal papers, as the man says the place holds too many sad memories for him to return himself. Guess who our protagonist meets in the man’s bedroom? You guessed it. This story is subdued and quiet in its telling. But it is also creepy as all get-out because it seems so real. No explanation is ever given. Nothing is neatly tied up. It just happens in a very naturalistic setting and leaves your skin crawling. This was a great story to end the collection. And it reminds me of this. 5/5 stars

No comments: