Keeping company with ghosts

Today is Christmas Eve: the perfect time for pulling our chairs closer to the fire, virtually speaking, and telling stories about ghosts.

Ghosts have fascinated me ever since I was a child and was on the lookout for beautiful churels (female ghosts or demons) who lure away wandering children. (You could tell them by their feet—they were the wrong way around.) As a nine-year-old in Chile, travelling with my parents on a boat from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas, I used to scan the moonlit sea for a glimpse of a phantom ship that was said to spirit away fishermen sleeping in their boats.

Then there were my mother’s close encounters with ghosts—my mother, who was one of the most unsuperstitious people I’ve known. As a young couple, my parents lived briefly with my grandfather in an old house that belonged to the Indian Railways in Hyderabad. My mother said she had a constant feeling of being watched. She heard inexplicable sounds like a drunken Englishman singing or even, once, maniacal laughter. Four decades later, my parents were in the area on their way to dinner with some friends and drove past the old house. It had been abandoned—the garden was overgrown, the paint was peeling and the windows shattered. They mentioned it to their host, who said “Oh, the haunted house? No one wants to live in it. An English officer committed suicide there, and they say his spirit haunts the house.” The officer had killed himself in the room my parents were staying in.

My fascination with the spectral didn’t disappear as I grew up—quite the opposite. So when I found Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories, I couldn’t resist it. Apart from writing for children, Dahl has written several very disturbing stories for adults. I was curious to see which stories he would pick.

In his introduction, Dahl says that he read hundreds of ghost stories but dismissed most of them as badly written and not spooky enough. According to him, the 14 stories collected here were the best he found. This is just the kind of statement that sets an editor up for a fall—saying these are his favourites is one thing, but saying they are the only good ones is, in my opinion, rubbish. I can’t believe he dismissed the master of ghost stories, MR James, Dicken’s The Signalman and so many more (for example, Susan Hill, whose novella The Woman in Black is terrifying).

What I enjoyed about this collection was that I hadn’t read most of these stories. And that’s saying something! As in any collection, the quality varies. There are some excellent ones: W.S. by LP Hartley, about why writers should think very carefully about what they write; Harry by Rosemary Timperley, about a child and her brother; Edith Wharton’s Afterward about a man whose sins catch up with him; and The Ghost of a Hand by Sheridan Le Fanu, which is downright creepy. But equally, there are a few that aren’t very spooky and quite ordinary, which is why I took issue with Dahl’s sweeping statement.

But Dahl’s persnicketiness has resulted in exposing readers to tales that don’t often make it to standard collections of ghost stories, and for that alone, this book is worth a read.

Buy from UK / USA

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