Edith Wharton: All Souls’

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The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

I finally chose the nine of spades which corresponds to Edith Wharton’s short story “All Souls’ “.  Until now, I’ve never read anything by Wharton; however, I’ve seen the titles of a few of her novels often throughout the years – novels like Ethan Frome, The Age of Innocence, and The House of Mirth.  She gives me the impression of being the Jane Austen of turn of the (twentieth) century New York.  That’s why I was surprised to find out that she wrote a number of ghost stories.  Based on this one story, she doesn’t hold a candle to Edgar Allan Poe on the scary scale, but she’s worth reading.  I would welcome reading more.

The narrator describes her cousin, Sara Clayburn, as a widow living in an old New England home with a handful of servants.  The story is relayed by the narrator based on events told to her by her cousin.  Sara meets a strange woman on her way home one dark evening. The scariness of the story comes from Wharton’s writing as Clayburn wakes up the next morning to find everyone in her home gone.  The majority of the narrative comes from her wanderings and musings and confusion over the empty house.  This doesn’t sound frightening, but as with the best of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, Wharton solidly catches the reader’s imagination and mind as to hold them in suspense not knowing what might be around the next corner or in the next room or looking in from outside through a window.

The only part of the story that seemed unnecessary came at the end when the narrator blames the happenings on Sara’s maid, Agnes – who is mentioned from time to time in the story. Apparently, Agnes came from a background in which her ancestors dabbled in the supernatural.  The narrator makes a giant leap from the strange events to Agnes, the maid. It did nothing for the suspense or scariness that had just been rendered to the reader with such vividness.

“The Haunted Doll’s House” by M. R. James

A Mr. Dillet buys from a Mr. Chittenden a fine-looking doll’s house for what most would consider an expensive price.  The doll’s house is so beautiful and exquisitely designed that Mr. Dillet sets it in his bedroom.  At around 1:00 am, he’s awakened by a clock chime and a disturbance coming from the vicinity of the doll’s house.

The title “The Haunted Doll’s House” and M. R. James’ reputation for intellectually chilling ghost stories gives one enough idea of what might occur during Mr. Dillet’s experience that I’m not going to go into much detail.  As this is the second James story I’ve read, I do find one thing in common with this story and “After Dark In The Playing Fields”:  both of the protagonists, while apparently frightened out of their wits, move on from the story, affected by their experience but not adversely,  or so it at least seems.

According to a small note at the end of this story, James uses the same premise in his story “Mezzotint”.  He makes an apology of sort hoping that there is enough difference to make “the repetition tolerable”.  The repetition of beautiful, detailed, atmospheric and just plain scary writing would be more than tolerable for this reader.

After Dark In The Playing Fields by M. R. James

I had not heard of M. R. (Montague Rhodes) James until earlier this year when I read a review of a collection of his ghost stories.  Other ghost story enthusiasts around the blogoshpere gave him a hearty endorsement so I thought I’d give his work a try during the month of October.

I selected “After Dark In The Playing Fields” as my first story.  Somehow, the title jumped out at me when I scanned the table of contents.  I would not consider this story truly scary, but I’d call it intriguing.  A talking owl confronts the narrator during a midnight stroll in the forest.  The owl seems to be bothered not just by the narrator but by other “beings” in the forest that usually make themselves known around midnight.  Theses “beings” like practical jokes and perhaps take them a little too far.  While the reader gets to experience a  few of these jokes from the owl’s perspective, they do not get to see what happens (if anything) to the narrator.

James’ writing is beautiful and the atmosphere of curiosity and intrigue he creates in just a few pages is remarkable.  I think the talking owl brought the “scary” level down just a notch.  However, the omission of details by the narrator bolster the sinister implications of these creatures roaming the forest at night.  In my mind, the creatures appear to be fairies or imps of some sort and while they may have been described as playful, the owl does not seem to enjoy the playfulness.

Based on the narrator’s mention of certain geographical landmarks, the forest is near Eton College where James was employed.  Walking around an English college campus at nighttime seems both inviting and perilous.  Whatever danger the narrator encounters, he comes out of it alive but with the conclusion that he prefers not to roam around the countryside – at least not after midnight.

Next week, I think I’m going to read “The Haunted Dolls’ House”.