16 thoughts on “The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton


    “It was not a gloomy house, exactly, yet I never entered it but a feeling of gloom came over me.”

    Hartley never questions the ghost nor do we know exactly the circumstances behind the haunting. Despite being a first person narrator, I don’t think we ever reach her inner thoughts. There is a sense of unreliability about the place, including the inner thoughts of the other servants. Inferences. No footprints in the snow. Why is Agnes nearer Mrs Brymptom than Hartley and needs to fetch Hartley? The uneasy relationship between Messrs Brympton and Raford? Why does the latter later lean on a stick? Many other questions. It will stick with me now I’ve thought about matters beyond the text’s ability to help me with. The text itself is the ghost! Never trouble to dread to read it again.

    “…and Mr Wace said the bears would eat us.”


    “There were moments of our pilgrimage when beauty born of murmuring sound seemed actually to pass into his face — but only to issue forth in a shallow flood of the palest ink.”

    This really must be the most oblique but equally most frightening ghost story told by a gentleman to other gentlemen in front of a log fire and through their own self-made, self-maddened smoke-rings.
    “…and his study of the human race seemed to have resulted in the conclusion that all men were superfluous, and women necessary only because someone had to do the cooking.”
    The story of two ghosts: a pair of eyes recurrently turning up in the dark, eyes that grow more and more disturbing to him as well as to us through him, as it were – eyes that seem linked to the narrator’s love-life, perhaps platonic, perhaps not. First with a young lady, whom he feels (as excuse?) he cannot do right by. Then a young man – a would-be novelist, like today, most young men write bad novels — a young man with beautiful eye-lashes and ‘blissful eyes’ and ‘gay’. The venue of the story and the implications of the story grow into the lugubriousness or “Rembrandtish blur” – and those eyes “which had built up their baseness coral-wise” become a life’s eventual dreariness of that previously ‘gay’ young man. Cruel to be kind, “about as pleasant as slitting the throat of some artless animal.”
    Also some very evocative touches regarding the era and its social mores.
    Now in a gentleman’s club of exchanged ghost stories with a new young male disciple … but… “For my part, I haven’t found the link.”
    Meanwhile, the eyes will now ever haunt me.


    “: that so few miles made a distance, and so short a distance a difference.”

    England for visiting Americans as a geographical Zeno’s Paradox?
    This story is so famous, possibly the greatest ever ghost story, that it would be pointless for me to re-rehearse the plot of Ned and Mary Boyne, on the suggestion of Alida Stair, staying, with their new obtained business-wrought fortune, at this remote Dorsetshire house with few “vulgar necessities.” And Alida’s answer to their question about whether there it has a ghost…
    But it seems apt that — for hindsight’s obvious reasons of the future crystallisation of something as embedded in the past via the anxiety of Zeno’s Paradox — I reread this Wharton tale about the “afterward” ghost after having just read Ted Chiang’s novelette ‘Story of Your Life’ for the first time and reviewed it here (a work I subsequently discovered has recently been filmed under the title ARRIVAL.) “– as if this dim questioning of the future, and startled return upon the past — had between them liquidated the arrears…”
    “there were infinite gradations of pleasure in the fixed recurrence of habit.”
    “and a beautiful legend grew up about this imaginary state of waiting.”

    “It leaped out at her suddenly, like a grin out of the dark, that they had often called England so little — ‘such a confoundedly hard place to get lost in.'”
    (Apt, too, perhaps, that I am also currently reviewing here ‘The Searching Dead’ by Ramsey Campbell?)


    “I had an idea that their distance from me was as nothing to my remoteness from them.”

    A lonely house in Brittany, and a visit to see whether he wants to buy it cut price; the protagonist is creepily out-stared by a group of dogs, and no sign of human habitation. Worth reading for this scene alone.
    His reportage of the reportage that he subsequently reads about — involving a court case concerning the house’s history, a happy marriage gradually turned a broken one, plus a gruesome death, with dogs involved — is for me a bit of a kerfuffle, melodramatic with non-human ghosts….
    The last word of this story is “Pascal”, but is that Pascal’s Wager – or Pascal’s Wagger?


    “…unutterably sick of all strange houses, and of the prospect of perpetually treading other people’s stairs.”

    A chance forgetting by someone in his being collected from the station amid the dark snow, Faxon is caught up in an AFTERWARD-like failed-business or other business treachery, met by chance by the attractive young man called Rainer, but a young man with old hands and TB to boot, Faxon invited to stay with Rainer’s well-reputed uncle and other strangers in a nearby house, Faxon later seeing a figure with “unsatisfied hates”, and “thwarted hopes”, a figure nobody else can see, at a ‘will’ gathering and then a dinner party, a house full of flowers, and a room with modern paintings like Monet, Faxon’s sudden bolting into the snow, snow that you breathe like blades, Faxon singled out, Rainer snowed on, but whose hands turn red?
    This is a disciplined prose that flows beautifully, but telling of mad corners of fate that stutter wildly. And a very haunting ghost.
    “: his pinched smile was screwed to his blank face like a gas-light to a white-washed wall.”
    And that’s not the ghost but Rainer’s famous business uncle, a madness-inducing ingredient of an act of gas-lighting itself?


    .”He was the oldest man I had ever seen; so sucked back into the past that he seemed more like a memory than a living being.”

    This story is like interactions between old Italian paintings and statues come to life, then ceasing to be alive, with their facial expressions changed and frozen again. Crypts and relics, and adultery, and a Duke not only jealous about his wife the Duchess canoodling with a young man but also for her being ever prone praying before a saint’s relics (a female saint!), as well as other machinations and characters that are richly presented and then teasingly withheld from the reader to accentuate the bizarre eeriness and the obsessive piety.
    All this told by the grandmother of that ‘oldest man’, a woman (as a young servant) who knew the Duchess in those relatively olden times now gone like all of them, as told to the narrator by that ‘oldest man’ who had once heard her tell it to him.


    “You couldn’t be lonelier if you were dead.”

    If I told you how this narrator’s visit to a lonely house in Brittany is one of the most creepy ghost stories you are ever likely to read without arguably being a ghost story at all, you would look at me askance, and indeed I wonder if someone forgot to tell the narrator something or was mistaken in telling him something that he had now forgotten or another of various different permutations. After all, this story (reputed not to be a ghost story) contains the most ghostly poignant moment in all literature I suggest – a moment of a real person leaving the presence of a ghost or of a ghost’s own leaving the presence of that person .
    “Something white and wraith-like seemed to…” yes, the whole of that sentence, please read it, do.
    DIsbelief is only half of belief, I always say.
    But above all, this ghost story is in an explicit ghost story book.


    “‘I never knew a place,’ Deacon Hibben said, ‘as seemed as far away from humanity. And yet it ain’t so in miles.”

    That earlier AFTERWARD ‘distance’ here betokens some interesting eccentric characterisations (including the “monumental structure” of a funeral hat) of three men arrived in the snow with their cutters and horses at the out of the way Rutledge place, summoned by Mrs R, summoned to give advice about her husband who is recurrently ‘seeing’ (in more sense than one?) the dead daughter of one of the men, meeting at an icy pond…
    The main point of view is not the father of the ‘ghost’ but a man named Orrin (“born under the icy shadow of Lonetop”), the dead daughter’s name being Ora. But I make no significance from that.
    Ora’s sister is still alive.
    If I tell you more, I will spoil something, but unsure what that something is. The canary and the cage, notwithstanding.

    “The snow had ceased, and a green sunset was spreadIng upward into the crystal sky.”

    This story, like many here, will haunt me. The story as a text. “I see ’em.” “She just draws you.”


    “At last even these dim sensations spent themselves in the thickening obscurity which enveloped her; a dusk now filled with pale geometric roses,…”

    (A geometric rose in my earlier photo above?)
    This story is fulsomely worded as a rhapsodic rapture, but only felt to be overdone, if you never each the end of it and learn about the imperfection she decides to await so as to complete eternity. This is a story of the ghost of a woman after her death, speaking about her previous existence to the Spirit of Life (a welcoming angel of some sort) and about her imperfect husband who read railway books, had creaking boots that annoyed her and never was able to reach her inner sanctum. The Spirit awards her with the perfect soulmate as compensation, a man seems in complete tune with her. About to spend eternity with him together. But she feel something is missing…the creaking of boots?
    I have now decided this is the perfect story to read aloud to my wife. Better make sure I do it soon.

    [Cf my synchronous serendipitous comment about ‘Down to the Boots’ here today in connection with EYES LOOKING (see review of ‘The Eyes’ above, too!)
    Regarding regrets as well as eyes and boots!]

  10. MR JONES

    “While Lady Jane was dressing she heard a knock, and saw Mrs Clemm’s round face just inside the door, like a red apple on a garden wall.”

    Mrs Clemm often spoke of the dead with apparent relish, a bit like this whole,book of stories about those who “must hardly have known when they passed from their beds to their graves.” A bit like those bed-blocking hospitals today? I sense Wharton turning in her own grave at my loose talk concerning her story, but there is, in any event, an element of humour in this one, as well as dread, and Lady Jane issues an expletive at one point in it: “Fudge!” Yes, really.
    Meanwhile, this is a tale of a house that was inherited and in those olden days you could hardly reckon all the rooms of such houses and who already lived in them as servants or whatever, even if it was a relatively small house like this one. Here, Lady Jane is prevented by Mrs Clemm and her niece from seeing Mr Jones who seems to have lived there beyond a normal single life span but seems to hold sway over it. But Lady Jane is never inquisitive enough to bother to find his (sick?) room and face him out. This is an incredible story of a presence ruling the roost, glimpsed now and again. And death turns someone into someone else, the text hints at one point. Inscrutable and haunting.


    “; the address was always written as though there were not enough ink in the pen, or the writer’s wrist were too weak to bear upon it.”

    I am finding it hard to restrain my enthusiasm for this story. It even beats anything by my favourite ever writer, Elizabeth Bowen. There, I’ve said it. But I feel I have betrayed something…
    This is a long story slowly built up, relentlessly meticulous, intensely suspenseful without anything much happening, even while all manner of things are happening in it. A perfect story, that all the while I was reading it I forgot I was reading a story. Where has it been all my life? Even the footnote to the title turns out to wield the most significant obliquities of incisive meaning.
    Basically, it tells of a woman whose husband had been a widower, and she is mystified by the letter he receives intermittently since the return from their honeymoon. Presumably something to do with his legal work. The tension this causes, the anxiety, the residual love between them, their two children, his mother, reaches a convergence of something more rarefied than anything in or out of literature. (No wonder I gaze at the last few pages of this work in awe, as I also sometimes shamelessly stare lengthily at the spaces between its words or even, once upon a time, at the pages of what I deem to be citable as darkly tantalising nemonymousness.)


    “Like many humble persons of her kind and creed, she had a vague idea that a sin unrevealed was, as far as the consequences went, a sin uncommitted;”

    But today Cora un-unreveals it to her granddaughter, a story of means against ends, as a masseuse she often tricked her patients into believing she was a medium to their dear dead departed ones. But one patient in particular, a rich lady, desperate about losing her beauty, pays in kind for messages from a young man who she feels loved her before he drowned on the Titanic. Cora uses another young man to help with the messages from the dead young man to make them feel genuine.
    The outcome has probably been mis-interpreted by all readers till today when I read this work. A symbiosis between the dead and the living, like that of a mating (whatever its orientation) where that very act kills one of them. Thinking about the potential permutations makes this a classic ghost story instead of a mediocre one, a story that lost the beauty of its message across the years till I brought it back here.
    Cora, rest easy, I say.
    “‘It’s damn difficult, making love for a dead man to a woman you’ve never seen,’ says, he…”
    Another pomegranate seed syndrome?


    A quote from another work that I happened to read and review earlier today here:
    “He noticed that the two mirrors were improper reflections of one another. The upper mirror faced left, while its lower twin, inverted, faced right. Were one a mirror image of the other, they would face the same direction.”


    “When they married, she had such arrears of living to make up: her days had been as bare as the whitewashed schoolroom where she forced innutritious facts upon reluctant children. His coming had broken in on the slumber of circumstance, widening the present till it became the encloser of remotest chances. But imperceptibly the horizon narrowed. Life had a grudge against her: she was never to be allowed to spread her wings.”

    A touching and haunting ten-pager as a companion to similarly sized ‘The Fulness of Life’ (and I indeed read aloud the latter to my wife, as it happens, yesterday evening.)
    This tale of the wife travelling on a night sleeper train with her sick husband (having fallen sick soon after they got married) as they returned home after unsuccessful convalescence. He is now lying asleep behind the sleeping-booth’s curtains, amid the well-characterised co-passengers, described in the beautiful Whartonian density of prose, and obliquity of outcome. The end echoing the wife’s earlier dream, and what she fears and dreads to be revealed, come to a culmination that makes this another priceless masterpiece. This book continues to be a revelation.

  14. ALL SOULS’

    “– I’ll efface myself, and tell the tale, not in my cousin’s words, for they were too confused and fragmentary, but as I built it up gradually out of her half-avowals and nervous reticences.”

    I don’t really believe this narrator who calls him- or herself ‘me’ and his or her appraisal of his or her oldening female cousin’s words about this intensely haunting tale of herself abandoned with a near-broken ankle in her snow-induced accretiveness of a house, where she sees or imagines furniture moving and hears silence greater beyond any silence subsuming everything, subsuming even the servants who had thus inexplicably been seen to have vanished. Was it the narrator’s ridiculous explanation of All Souls’ Night (but, significantly, according to the title, All Souls’ nothing) and the servants or one in particular servant wanting to be fetched to a coven on that so called All Souls’ Night each year? The onerous struggle through her own house looking for them with her painful ankle is a literary tour de force but also pain for pain’s sake, a sort of ritual about who was that preliminary woman she met outside? That fetcher. But was that herself? Or, more likely, ‘me’?
    Please read the last paragraph.


    “A white-skirted boy with watchful eyes was watering the plants; but at Medford’s approach he vanished like a wisp of vapour.”

    A classic, of which you must already know the plot. A desert domain, a servant called Gosling with a palimpsest of cockney and something else, interface of Muslim and Christian, Arabic and Non-Arabic, a smelly noxious water-well, and a post-malarial Western guest called Medford who wants water not wine, but they have run out of Perrier, and a host who’s neither here nor there. Almodham. An Aickman angst. A nagging hauntedness.
    A proto-Pinteresque masterpiece of dialogue as well as scintillating prose, this book’s best story in many ways, left to last, not experimental so much as a looking-glass reflection of the previous story, with the lame horse (cf the woman’s ankle) that prevents the guest’s departure, but a place that can’t wait for him to leave.
    The style is richer than Graham Greene with a paradoxical panoply of smoothly jagged interactions of meaning.

    This book is its own revelation. It stirs in the hand as if hiding a hidden ghost.


  16. Pingback: THE OTHER TWO: Edith Wharton | Shadows & Elbows

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