Author: Edith Wharton
Editor: David Stuart Davies
Type: Fiction, short stories (anthology)
Published: 1904-1937 (original stories); 2009 (this collection)
I read it: September 2017
In the story “Kerfol,” which happens to be about a pack of ghost dogs, one character remarks that “you know every Breton house has its ghost-story.” This certainly seems to be Edith Wharton’s working thesis, as she explores the nooks and crannies of strange estates and the lost souls who wander them. She seems obsessed with the peculiarities of British hauntings, noting the relatively small size of the national island and marvelling that you can still get lost and lonely within its borders, “that so few miles made a distance, and so short a distance a difference.”
Wharton, who lived in the upper class herself, is thoroughly familiar with settings that include masters and servants, drafty halls, and meals set before guests at the appropriate time. Her ghost stories seem classical, yet not necessarily stiff and dusty. Her literary skills are on display when she describes an unsettling encounter as “her face was just one dumb prayer to me” or the psychology in how extreme moments are eventually dulled, “slowly but inevitably crowded out of the foreground of consciousness by the new problems perpetually bubbling up from the vaporous cauldron of human existence.” Some stories are left tantalizingly open to interpretation, such as opener “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell.” Others suggest a more concrete ending, such as an illicit lover left to suffer under concrete in “The Duchess at Prayer,” which calls to mind Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.”
Wharton uses the spooky settings to make many-angled commentary on marriage and womanhood, from musings on unfaithfulness (the aforementioned “Kerfol” and “the Duchess at Prayer”) to reckoning with the deceased former partner of a current husband in “Pomegranate Seed.” Though this story is overly drawn out and telegraphs its reveal from its earliest pages, there are human moments as illustrated by the current wife pronouncing the first wife’s name: “She flung it out now as if she were flinging some dangerous explosive into the open space between them, and drew back a step, waiting to hear the mine go off.” Another strange entry is “The Fulness of Life,” a sort of exploration of the afterlife in which a woman wrestles with the concept of being with a partner for eternity (though not a favorite story in this collection, it did connect with my recent viewing of the show The Good Place).
A few stories that struck a creative chord include “Bewitched,” about a dead girl coming back to life and haunting a lowly farmer and his wife and how a few local men (including the girl’s father) wrestle with the issue. “All Souls’” is an effective atmospheric story that once again uses the old lonely mansion to heighten the paranoia and mystery surrounding its infirm occupant. It’s a story where Wharton’s over-explaining at the end is a bit unnecessary, but it’s still one of the best. The final piece, “A Bottle of Perrier,” takes place in an altogether foreign setting, and instead of a supernatural tale is another more Poe-ish psychological exploration with a memorable servant character.
An appealing feature of the stories is the way that they feel relatively modern, in that the characters are often aware of the idea of ghosts and discuss the issue plainly. We reason along with them:
They were an hallucination, then: that was plain. But the fact that they were not due to any external dupery didn’t make them a bit pleasanter to see. For if they were a projection of my inner consciousness, what the deuce was the matter with that organ?
This was a time when visions and apparitions were amusingly attributed to bad digestion, and as this character points out, even if there isn’t a ghost at all and a psychologist could explain away the matter, that doesn’t make the subjective experience any less frightening (and the fact of a broken brain might make it even more so). The progression of a character justifying a strange occurrence is made even more fascinating by Wharton’s own views. According to the introduction by editor David Stuart Davies (in another case of writing that should follow the stories at the end instead of precede them), Wharton was both fascinated and horrified by ghost stories as a young girl. They shocked and stressed her to a disturbing degree, and the emotional effect lingered into adulthood. She went on record stating that she did not actually believe in ghosts, but that “to ‘believe’ in that sense, is a conscious act of the intellect, and it is in the warm darkness of the prenatal fluid that the faculty dwells with which we apprehend the ghosts we may not be endowed with the gifts of seeing.” Davies claims that “the fact that Wharton admitted that she was ‘afraid’ of ghosts, even though she did not believe in them, is the key to her brilliance as a writer.” Wharton mentions that “the teller of supernatural tales should be well frightened in the telling.”
This awkward contradiction is what I’ve long tried to articulate about my own experience with supernatural stories. My intellect refuses the possibility of the plot and in daylight I am a plain skeptic. But when lost in the already false framework of storytelling, my animal nature can believe anything, at least momentarily. Add darkness and the very real fact that minds can construct terrors out of nothing, and I feel like I’ve lost little capacity to be scared of ghosts. If I was a character in a story like one of Wharton’s, I may very quickly lose my scientific bearing and run to lock the many doors in the mansion. When alone, when uncertain, there’s always the possibility I may experience my own strange encounter. And then at first morning light, “ought I not to bury it in those deepest depths where the inexplicable and the unforgettable sleep together?”