When one thinks of the supernatural in literature, one immediately thinks of ghost stories. Yet some non-ghost tales and novels also have moments of a paranormal nature. This post will discuss both kinds of works.
Supernatural fiction is of course appealing for a variety of reasons. It offers vicarious thrills (we’re not experiencing the spookiness in real life), piques our curiosity about how characters will react to the scares, sparks our interest in how inventive authors will be in creating the eeriness, etc.
I got to thinking about all this not by seeing the current Ghostbusters movie but by reading The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton. A really good collection, including “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” tale that memorably chronicles a household with the specter of a dead servant still hanging around.
Then there’s The Turn of the Screw by Wharton’s friend Henry James, whose novel makes readers wonder about the age-old question posed by many ghost stories: Are the apparitions real or are they the products of anxious characters’ imaginations? Heck, the alarming eyes that appear in the dead of night in Wharton’s “The Eyes” are just the protagonist’s conscience, aren’t they? Aren’t they?
Sometimes, phantasms are partly played for laughs, as in Oscar Wilde’s hilarious yet poignant story “The Canterville Ghost” — whose title character can be rather bumbling when it comes to frightening people. Or with the funnier of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter ghosts — including Nearly Headless Nick (named Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington when alive) and poetry-spouting Peeves the Poltergeist (“oh Potter, you rotter…”).
In other recent fiction, Stephen King’s work has periodically been ghostly in addition to being in the genres of horror, etc. One example is his low-key, spine-tingling novel From a Buick 8, in which a supernatural car is a sort of portal to another world.
There are more haunted houses than haunted cars in literature, and one of them is the mansion in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Strange noises and presences seem to dwell in that dwelling — and one character might be getting “possessed” by the house — but the story is told with such skillful understatement that readers are not sure what to think.
Or how about Peter Straub’s aptly named Ghost Story, in which the past psychologically and literally haunts a group of old men who might be getting targeted for something they did wrong in their youth? The grapes of wraith and all that…
A mild-mannered but also-vengeful specter appears in Edith Wharton’s story “Afterward,” a cautionary tale about what happens when a businessman gets a little too greedy. Which reminds me of the spooky visits in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, though Marley’s ghost never sings the reggae tune “No, Scrooge Guy, No Cry.”
Then there are the understandably vengeful, long-dead dogs in Wharton’s chilling tale “Kerfol.” (Yes, animals can be ghosts, too.)
But, as noted before, the supernatural can be just a part of “general interest” works. For instance, think of the magic realism novels — such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits (yes…SPIRITS!) — that have humans occasionally fly and do other strange things.
Think also of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, which is realistic in its way yet has the famous, pivotal scene in which a despairing Edward Rochester calls Jane’s name and she hears him despite being too far away to hear him.
Even “lighter” novels can have seemingly supernatural moments. For instance, Fannie Flagg’s heartwarming A Redbird Christmas has a crucial scene in which a girl’s life is saved because it snows in just one small southern Alabama town as scores of redbirds descend. If that seems confusing, read the delightful novel — it will all make sense.
And I haven’t even discussed the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, H.P. Lovecraft, etc.!
What are your favorite ghost stories? What are your favorite non-ghost works with occasional supernatural moments?
I’ll be skipping a July 31 post (vacation!) but will return Aug. 7.
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I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.