Gothic, weird, psychological, sentimental, Christmassy, humorous — ghost stories come in many flavours, but they need not freeze our blood or make our hair stand on end for us to enjoy them.
Sometimes ghosts are simply a source of supernatural fun, and we like them that way. Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost and Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow spring to mind as masterpieces of haunting humour. But there are plenty more vintage gems out there.
More rib-tickling than spine-tingling, these funny ghost stories pose no problem to the faint-hearted. But purists be warned: not all feature actual ghosts.
5. Mr Tallent’s Ghost by Mary Webb
Little read today, Webb was best-known for her gloomy and doomy novels. Stella Gibbons satirised them to great effect in her popular novel Cold Comfort Farm. But, as this story shows, Webb too possessed a funny bone. Her ghost is an incompetent writer who inflicts his works on all within reach, even from beyond the grave. Or so it seems.
The story may help English teachers and aspiring writers develop empathy for their victims.
On a rainy day in a lonely inn, Mr Tallent subjects the barrister narrator to hours of excruciating boredom. He relentlessly reads from his dull, uninspired manuscript in a monotonous, oppressive voice. The listener can only bear it by imagining ways of killing the author.
To prevent further reading, the legal man agrees to draw up a will in which Mr Tallent leaves all his money, a goodish amount, for the publication of his work.
Some years later, the news of Mr Tallent’s death sparks trouble. A horde of poor and angry relatives descend on the barrister. Beset by various misfortunes and afflicted with memories of Tallent’s readings, they genuinely need the money. The barrister wavers between sympathy for their plight and loyalty to the writer’s pitiful wishes.
The thought of Mr Tallent begins to haunt his dreams. Then the man himself begins to haunt him. It seems that a minor obstacle like death can’t keep Tallent from his calling. He visits several of the relatives and, in his inimitable style, reads them from his works. This naturally drives them to prolonged stays in asylums. Soon the ghostly, ghastly readings begin to plague the narrator.
But advice from a clever lady makes one haunting episode end in an astonishing discovery. It turns out that Mr Tallent’s talents reside in quite another quarter than supposed so far.
4. The Open Window by Saki
It’s a short and witty tale of the kind Saki excelled at.
Framton Nuttel is undergoing a ‘nerve cure’ in a certain rural retreat.He hopes to enjoy the complete mental and physical rest his doctors have recommended. When, armed with a letter of introduction, he pays a visit to the unknown Mrs Sappleton, his hopes are dashed to pieces.
The lady’s self-confident teenage niece receives him and, to pass the time, shares a tragic little story. She points to a French window, wide open on a late October afternoon, and explains that through there the aunt’s husband and two brothers left for a day’s hunting never to return. It was exactly three years before, the now doleful young lady reveals, that they lost their lives in a bog. Their bodies have never been found. The bereaved widow keeps the window open every evening in case the missing party, complete with little brown spaniel, should return.
The aunt now shows up and merrily informs the guest that her menfolk will be home soon. Framton grows more uneasy by the moment, and the visit turns sinister. Trying to catch the niece’s eye, he encounters a look of horror. A glance from the window makes the reason all too plain. Three armed figures, a tired spaniel at their heels, steadily advance through the twilight.
Forgetting medical advice, Framton snatches hat and stick and shoots off like a rabbit. A cyclist unlucky enough to cross his path ends up in a hedge.
But the new arrivals are not quite what they seem, and neither is the young lady.
3. The Ghost-Ship by Richard Middleton
This playful yarn features quite a few ghosts. The little village of Fairfield is chock-full of them. The living let them go about their business without any fuss. Living and dead don’t mix much but coexist in peace and understanding. The war-slain lads court ghostly maidens on the village green, and a headless man hangs about in broad daylight with living children playing at his feet. Or so the storyteller, a proud native of this ‘ghostiest place in England’, likes to boast.
A great storm brings something out of the ordinary even for Fairfield. A ghost ship in a turnip field. Fifty miles inland, too. Not that the locals are much bothered at first. The owner of the field worries about the damage to his turnips, but the dashing ghost captain pacifies him with a golden brooch.
The real trouble begins when the jolly newcomers corrupt the ghostly youth of the village. They introduce them to drink and carousing. Hitherto upright ghosts fall prey to vice and the quality rum of which the ghost ship seems to have infinite reserves. The partying ghosts make enough noise to wake the living from their night’s rest and, what’s more, they give the village a bad name.
A righteous intervention from the local vicar solves the problem. But, as the ship flies away in a second great storm, it takes away more than bargained for.
2. Selecting a Ghost by Arthur Conan Doyle
Conan Doyle betrays solid knowledge of literary ghosts in this tasty tale, made even more appetising by a dollop of social satire.
A self-proclaimed gentleman of refined habits, in possession of wealth acquired as a grocer, Mr D’Odd prides himself on a soul which ‘spurns the vulgar herd’. His family roots surely lie in a prehistoric age, which explains their complete absence from any historic account. Faithful to this noble nature, he acquires Goresthorpe Grange, a feudal mansion rich in all things medieval but with one glaring fault. It lacks a ghost.
Some may have thought little of this deficiency or even rejoiced, but not Mr D’Odd, a man well-versed in supernatural lore and ghostly literature. That his commoner neighbour is the ungrateful owner of one gibbering spectre comes as a severe blow. But since money can buy anything, a ghost must be obtained.
A ghost-dealer enters the stage at this point, promising a wide selection. After being taken all over the house, for which he shows considerable interest, he picks a ghost-friendly chamber. There, at the chosen hour(ten to one instead of midnight, to avoid crowds), he hands Mr D’Odd a mysterious potion meant to remove the scales from mortal eyes. It works like a charm.
As the the chamber reels,the ghostly procession begins. In a profusion of special effects, eager spectres turn up to apply for the job.They include the ‘great ethereal sigh-heaver’, the ‘leaver of footsteps and spiller of gouts of blood’, the ‘original manor-house apparition’, the ‘American blood-curdler’, and several others straight from the pages of ghost literature. But it’s the ‘plaintive and sentimental’ damsel that makes the biggest impression.
Needless to say, the morning after brings unwelcome revelations. Mr D’Odd will never be the same again.
1. Honeysuckle Cottage by P. G. Wodehouse
Wodehouse himself thought well of this one, having chosen it for an anthology entitled My Funniest Story.
Honeysuckle Cottage, a sweet little place in the unspoilt countryside,is haunted.It exudes a ‘miasma of sentimentalism’ that turns everyone who passes its threshold into mush. The late novelist Leila J. Pinckney, celebrated author of soppy romantic fiction, penned no less than 40 novels and 140 short stories under its roof.
A strong believer in the power of environment, she bequeaths the idyllic cottage and a cosy sum to her unromantic nephew James Rodman on condition that he lives there six months of every year. Author of detective thrillers and one of Nature’s bachelors, Rodman overcomes his deep-rooted disapproval of his aunt’s syrup-dripping bilge and happily takes residence.
Hard at work on his latest masterpiece of crime, he suffers the shock of a lifetime. A love interest inserts herself in his thrilling, rugged pages. To make things worse, an actual girl appears on his doorstep. Not any girl but the ‘soppy, soupy, treacly, drooping’ kind. With the right setting and heroine, he soon finds himself trapped in a plot straight from his aunt’s novels.
Pushed by a force he can’t resist, Rodman finds himself playing the romantic hero to a girl he detests. Matrimony looms large on the horizon. But fate, in the shape of a madcap canine, will intervene.