The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton – subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined.

I have long been a fan of Edith Wharton, a fascination that started with Ethan Frome, Wharton’s brilliant yet brutal novella of the fallout from an intense love triangle. The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth are favourites too, along with the New York Stories which I wrote about in 2019.

Wharton’s Ghost Stories – collected together in this beautifully-produced book from Virago’s Designer Collection – are probably closest in style to some of the more unsettling pieces in the New York book, characterised by the tensions between restraint and passion, respectability and impropriety. Here we have narratives rooted in reality, with the ghostly chills mostly stemming from psychological factors – the fear of the unknown, the power of the imagination and the judicious use of supernatural imagery to unnerve the soul. As one might expect with Wharton, the writing is first class and the characters brilliantly drawn – with sufficient depth and subtlety to appear fully convincing.

The book opens with The Lady’s Maid’s Bell, one of the most unnerving tales in this excellent collection. Narrated by the maid herself, it is a classic ghost story in which the protagonist is haunted by the appearance of a spectre, the identity of which becomes clear as the story unfolds. There are several familiar elements here: a dark gloomy house; a feverish young lady of the manor; servants who refuse to speak of the maid’s predecessor; and a ghostly image that only the protagonist herself is able to detect. However, perhaps the most frightening element of the story is Wharton’s use of sound – the terrifying ring of the maid’s bell after hours, piercing the intense silence of the house as it rests at night.

Silence also plays a key role in All Souls, another highlight and possibly the most terrifying story in the collection. It tells the tale of a widow, Sara Clayborn, who believes she has spent a horrific weekend at her home, Whitegates, a lonely, remote house in the wilds of Connecticut. Having spotted an unknown woman heading towards her house, Sara breaks her ankle and is confined to bed for the night. On waking she discovers that the servants are nowhere to be found. The house appears to be deserted; an eerie silence having replaced the normal bustle of activity during the day. In this story, it is not the unexplained creaks and groans that strikes terror into the heart of the protagonist; rather, it is the ominous lack of any sound at all, especially as the house appears to be completely deserted.

More than once she had explored the ground floor alone in the small hours, in search of unwonted midnight noises; but now it was not the idea of noises that frightened her, but that inexorable and hostile silence, the sense that the house had retained in full daylight its nocturnal mystery, and was watching her as she was watching it; that in entering those empty orderly rooms she might be disturbing some unseen confabulation on which beings of flesh-and-blood had better not intrude. (p. 348)

It’s a tale in which Sara begins to doubt her own sanity and perception of reality, with time appearing to expand and contract before the servants finally reappear.

Afterward is another highlight, a vividly-imagined story that feels all too believable and real. The Boynes, and American couple living in England take a country house in Dorset as their home – a property already known to their friend, Alida Stair. When the Boynes enquire about the possible presence of a ghost, they are told by Alida that there is a ghost, although its appearance does not become clear to the house’s inhabitant until ‘afterward’, whatever that may mean. At first, the Boynes take this conjecture in their stride, laughing it off in a light-hearted manner. It is only once a mysterious figure is seen approaching the house that the supernatural happenings swing into action…

Then of a sudden she was seized by a vague dread of the unknown. She had closed the door behind her on entering, and as she stood alone in the long silent room, her dread seemed to take shape and sound, to be there breathing and lurking among the shadows. Her shortsighted eyes strained through them, half-discerning an actual presence, something aloof, that watched and knew; and in the recoil from that intangible presence she threw herself on the bell rope and gave it a sharp pull. (p. 91)

Once again, the fear of the unknown is crucial here, the abject terror that stems from the zealous nature of our own imaginations. Overall, this is a very nuanced story, one that alludes to a sense of retribution – a kind of reckoning for past misdemeanours and nefarious deeds.

Also very impressive is Pomegranate Seed in which Charlotte Ashby, a newly-married young woman, is haunted by the spectre of her predecessor – her husband having previously been widowed following the death of his first wife. In this piece, the haunting comes as a series of mysterious letters, always enclosed in grey envelopes and addressed in the faintest of hands. As a consequence, Charlotte is left shaken; it would appear that the first Mrs Ashby retains an unhealthy hold over her husband, something that Charlotte is determined to break. There are shades of du Maurier’s Rebecca here, albeit with a more supernatural element. (Interestingly, Wharton’s story actually predated the du Maurier, first appearing in 1931, a good seven years before the publication of Rebecca.)

Finally, a mention for The Triumph of Night, which shares something with the opening story, The Lady’s Maid’s Bell. This is another story in which a spectral presence makes itself known to one individual in particular – in this instance, Faxon, a man who is offered shelter by a fellow traveller when his carriage fails to show. Over dinner with his benefactor’s family, Faxon realises that the ghostly figure is fixated on the young man, the very one who invited him to stay. As a consequence, Faxon’s hold on reality begins to slip, a development that is brilliantly conveyed in the following passage.

The glass was so full that it required an extraordinary effort to hold it there, brimming and suspended, during the awful interval before he [Faxon] could trust his hand to lower it again, untouched, to the table. It was this merciful preoccupation which saved him, kept him from crying out, from losing his hold, from slipping down into the bottomless blackness that gaped for him. As long as the problem of the glass engaged him he felt able to keep his seat, manage his muscles, fit unnoticeably into the group; but as the glass touched the table his last link with safety snapped. He stood up and dashed out of the room. (p. 162)

This is a very unnerving story, one that explores themes of guilt, manipulation and the preying on others’ weaknesses – a sobering tale with a tragic twist.

Other pieces in the collection feature mysterious individuals who are not quite what they seem; the dead seemingly brought back to life; and an eerie pack of dogs who reputedly appear on a certain day of the year.

These wonderfully chilling stories are subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined, tapping into the darker side of American history and human relationships. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

40 thoughts on “The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton – subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined.

  1. MarinaSofia

    I’m not a fan of ghost stories (or rather, no longer, I loved them in my childhood) but these do sound rather enticing! Wharton is such a subtle writer.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      She is! And it’s so interesting to see how she turns her skills and psychological insight to these very unnerving scenarios. In some respects, they feel quite different to her ‘society’ stories (e.g. in terms of atmosphere, tone and mood); and yet, in other respects they are entirely consistent…

      Reply
  2. Claire 'Word by Word'

    It’s great to see Edith Wharton’s stories bring revived, she’s certainly an author I intend to read more of. The quotes you share brilliantly portray that unsettled feeling evoked by an apparition.

    It’s interesting the reference to these types of stories as ‘ghost stories’ in adult literature of the time, similarly The Woman in Black by Susan Hill is often described this way and feels of this era. Are they a genre of a particular era I wonder, or just a description that is no longer or rarely used?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a really interesting point, and tbh I’m not sure that I’m able to give an informed opinion on it! My sense is that there are some very good contemporary ghost stories out there, but because my reading leans towards the 20th century, I’m probably not going to be familiar with them. (Or certainly not as familiar as other readers might be.) Funnily enough, we had a very similar conversation about gothic fiction in my book group recently. i.e. Would it be possible to write a contemporary gothic novel with a 21st century setting when so many of the tropes seem rooted in ways of the past (e.g. a crumbling old mansion, creepy servants, longstanding family secrets etc. etc.)? We didn’t come to any firm conclusions, but it’s an interesting question nonetheless…

      Reply
      1. Claire 'Word by Word'

        Yes, like you, mine is an uninformed perception, more of a feeling, but it does feel like something particular.

        Sometimes we stumble into something and learn/question along the way. I had that experience with The Confessions of Frannie Langton, not really comprehending what gothic fiction was, until I’d waded too deep to pull back – another example of what Margaret refers to as the “effective and unsettling” vision the reader’s imagination contributes to certain reads. I’m much more aware of that now!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah, yes. I know what you mean…it’s a powerful thing, this internal vision. The Haunting of Hill House is a great example of a book that draws on the reader’s imagination in a very powerful way. I can recall being absolutely spooked by it, largely because of Jackson’s skills in tapping into the fear of the unknown.

          Reply
      1. Brian Joseph

        I love Edith Wharton. I have not read these stories. Based upon your commentary it sounds they embodied the qualities of other Wharton writing.

        I agree, that look like a really nice book.

        Reply
  3. jenniferbeworr

    These all sound scrumptious, and I can’t stand being such a slow reader! I won’t be able to get to them all, but I so appreciated thinking about the resonance of manipulation and nefarious deeds. Also sounds and silences containing fears. Brava. xx

    Reply
  4. heavenali

    Such a brilliant collection, some real spine tingling tales. The Lady’s Maid is particularly unnerving. I loved the story Afterward, I have read it twice as it appeared elsewhere, maybe in the Roman Fever collection, I can’t remember. But it’s a story that shows all of Wharton’s storytelling prowess.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, Afterward is one of the standouts, for sure. Funnily enough, I actually read this collection back in November, but it was such a busy time at work with lockdown and pre-Christmas prep that I’ve only just been able to get around to posting about it this week. Naturally, some of the details have faded since then, but I can still recall Afterward pretty clearly – one of the signs of a great story, I think!

      Reply
  5. Jane

    I’m just reading my first Wharton and she’s definitely someone I’ll be exploring. I do find these kind of ghost stories particularly scary – The Victorian Chaise-Longue, I found very chilling and these seem similar?!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, what treats you have in store with Wharton! She’s such an astute writer – scalpel-like in her dissection of the hypocrisies and cruelties of New York society back then. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on the Wharton you’re currently reading, whenever you get a chance to write about it. And yes, there are some similarities between these ghost stories and the Laski, certainly in the psychological sense. The way that novella draws on our fears of entrapment is very cleverly done.

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Wharton is such a marvellous author, isn’t she? And this sounds such a wonderful collection, although I’ve never been able to get past the first story ‘The Lady’s Maid’s Bell’, as it unnerved me so much I put the book straight back onto the shelf!! Probably best not read at night, at least for my sensitive sensibilities! Maybe I’ll get it out again and read it a story at a time, but during daylight hours!!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Has, yes, I recall you mentioning this before. May I suggest that you try The Pomegranate Seed next, just to see how you get on? It’s probably less explicitly scary than some of the other stories in this collection, but very effective nonetheless!

      Reply
  7. Julé Cunningham

    Wharton had such perception as a writer which makes her ghost stories especially effective. These are truly unnerving and I love them though not much of a fan of books that get classified as horror these days.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, you’re right. It’s her psychological acuity that makes these tales so unsettling. I’m not a big reader of ghost stories either, but for Wharton I’m more than happy to make an exception!

      Reply
  8. literarygitane

    Thank you for this wonderful review! Edith Wharton is my favorite writer and I have read almost everything penned by her. I haven’t read this collection of stories and I am looking forward to it now.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Wonderful stuff! I do hope you enjoy her ghost stories. In some respects, they feel quite different to her ‘society’ stories; and yet, psychologically speaking, they are entirely consistent…

      Reply
  9. Mary Daniels Brown

    This collection has been on my TBR shelf seemingly forever. Every October I tell myself I’m going to read it in honor of Halloween but never get around to it. I’m now determined that I WILL get to it this year. Thanks for your interesting review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! You are very welcome. Funnily enough, I had been intending to do just that for at least two years, only to fail miserably due to other bookish distractions. Anyway, I finally got my act together last November – not quite in time for Halloween, but near enough to savour the chilly atmosphere!

      Reply
  10. buriedinprint

    I’ve read these and I think of them fondly, but I don’t remember them very well. I know that I read them mostly on a series of subway commutes, likely in combination with a novel, as I tend to read only one story in a sitting and then turn to longer works. But I just don’t think that public trains were the right environment for these stories; I think they’d have landed better (and maybe stuck in my mind more) in a comfy chair, even with a candle on the table nearby. It’s like my memory of reading Thomas Hardy in an epub, on my phone, some years ago while taking a much longer bus trip…I know it works for other readers, but certain books require certain settings (and proper pages rather than a screen) for me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think you’re bang on about the need to read these stories in the *right* setting, particularly as so much of their magic stems from a combination of atmosphere and mood. It’s very much a book to read in winter – either at night, or as the dusky light begins to fade at the end of the afternoon. I really ought to have posted about them last November, but time got the better of me in the run-up to Christmas — hence their rather unseasonal appearance at the beginning of spring!

      Reply
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