Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton" by Edith Wharton

I don't know that I've ever read a ghost story before--watching Are You Afraid of the Dark? on Nickelodeon during my childhood was probably as close as I got--so reading a collection of ghost stories by Wharton is rather out of my normal tastes.  I feared they would be so terribly old-fashioned that I wouldn't be able to enjoy them. After all, even Wharton herself notes in the preface, "But since I first dabbled in the creating of ghost stories, I have made the depressing discovery that the faculty required for their enjoyment has become almost atrophied in modern man" (1). There's a sense that the modern era, with its electricity and phones and television, is not a place that ghosts can haunt. I was surprised, then, to still find the stories delightfully creepy and ominous. They're not "jump in your seat" scary, but Wharton does an excellent job of creating just the right atmosphere ideal for enjoying these tales.

Wharton was writing in a semi-modern area (e.g. the characters use electricity and drive cars), as the stories were originally published between 1910 and 1937, but she does have use of an important requirement for most ghost stories: the creepy, slightly decrepit, house. Unlike most homes today, houses in that era--especially the grand homes of Wharton's pieces--have history and personality, which are essential to creating the ghostly atmosphere. When this setting is combined with unusual servants, as it is in "Mr. Jones," the effect is perfect. In that story, a woman comes to inhabit an old home in the family, but is confronted with constant demands from the aged caretaker, Mr. Jones, who never appears.

Another of Wharton's skills is her ability to take the reader inside the mind of each protagonist as he or she slowly must come to terms with the unearthliness around him or her, as Charlotte must when her husband continues to receive troubling letters addressed to him in "Pomegranate Seed." In fact, women living alone or losing their husbands was a common theme, as it appears also in "Afterward" and "All Souls'."

Many of the stories were enjoyable. The poor Anne and her dead dogs in "Kerfol" were quite ghastly. I also quite liked the only one that didn't really involve the supernatural in any way, 'The Looking Glass," which depicts a middle-aged woman struggling to accept her loss of beauty.

I went in to the collection quite skeptical, planning to read only a few stories, but I picked up steam as I went along and finished the second half of the book rather quickly. I'm a fan of scary movies (but not the trash torture porn of Saw and the like), and I think Wharton's atmosphere and characterization is enough to appeal to any fan willing to savor the build up and leave tantalized with an unfinished ending.

No comments:

Post a Comment