Reading The Mammoth Book of Haunted House Stories and Shadows in the Attic

An elderly review, from Vector sometime in 2001.


Peter Haining, ed. – The Mammoth Book of Haunted House Stories
Robinson, 2000

Neil Wilson – Shadows in the Attic: A Guide to British Supernatural Fiction 1820-1950
The British Library, 2000

Over the years, all manner of fictional places and objects, from canals to Buick cars, have been portrayed as haunted, and yet the most powerful, the most resonant image in supernatural writing is still that of the haunted house, As Peter Haining shows in this anthology (bafflingly hailed as ‘the first major anthology of the best tales about haunted houses,’ as though the world is flooded with minor ones) the haunted house comes in all shapes and sizes, from the classic ivy-clad country seat to dingy town apartments, from opulent stately homes to the meanest of tumble-down cottages, with perhaps a village pub or two thrown in for good measure.

And here I encounter a difficulty with this anthology. Some haunted house stories are more haunted than others, if you follow my meaning. Every ghost story has to be set somewhere, but the very fact of it being set in a house, as opposed to a railway carriage or on board shop, doesn’t necessarily make it a story about a haunted house. It is, I admit, a very fine distinction, but in a number of stories in this collection, the setting is almost incidental, and I would include here examples such as M. R. James’ much-anthologised ‘Lost Hearts’, a fine story but it could be set practically anywhere … the focus of the action is the ghosts, not their setting. Much the same might be said of Hugh Walpole’s otherwise delightful ‘A Little Ghost’ in its generic country house, or Penelope Lively’s ‘Uninvited Ghosts’ and several other stories in this anthology.

You’ll see what I mean if you contrast them with stories such as Sheridan Le Fanu’s magnificent ‘Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House’, Charlotte Riddell’s ‘The Old House in Vauxhall Walk’ or, to take a more recent example, Ramsey Campbell’s atmospheric ‘Napier Court’. In stories like these, the house is a character, is often the character, setting the tone and pace of the story. Even Bulwer-Lytton’s relentlessly turgid ‘The Haunted and the Haunters’, when stripped of its overwhelming desire to examine the philosophical mechanics of a haunting, is dominated by the menace of the otherwise highly desirable residence at 50 Berkeley Square.

There is also a faint air of desperation about Haining’s categorisation of the stories in this book, neatly divided up as they are into unnecessary sections such as ‘Shadowy Corners: Accounts of Restless Spirits’ or ‘Psychic Phenomena: Signs from the Other Side’ (as though the earlier ghost stories weren’t?). Ignore this and concentrate on the stories themselves. Even constrained by a dubious theme, as he clearly was, and also missing out a number of perhaps more appropriate stories Haining has nevertheless assembled a collection which includes some of the finest writers the genre ever saw (L.P. Hartley, W.F. Harvey, Mary Eleanor Freeman) as well as some unusual modern examples from the likes of Ian Watson and William F. Nolan, and provides some genuinely thrilling and spooky moments.

The ghost story was a distinct genre phenomenon, probably reaching its peak during the early part of the twentieth century. Nowadays, we most often remember M.R. James’ stories but he was a prodigious talent among many gifted writers. Neil Wilson’s Shadows in the Attic attempts to catalogue these authors and their output in what turns out to be a monumental (and extremely expensive) work but one that’s informative rather than useful. The bibliographical nature of this work means that while it is an excellent tool for establishing an author’s output, it’s much less helpful if you want to discover what may be currently available. Clues exist in the notes, pointing the reader towards the output of, in particular, the Ash-Tree Press, Sarob Press and Tartarus Press, all of which are republishing many hard-to-find volumes or else producing collected editions of popular authors, but these references are incidental and not always thorough. (This uncertainty extends to the addresses included in Sources Consulted, at least one of which is now defunct.) Having said that, for the devoted scholar of ghost stories, this is surely an essential volume. Each entry includes a brief biography and a listing of the first publication of all known stories by each author, with full bibliographical references and their British Library call number, and an indication of their contents. The bibliography also provides a useful introduction to the subject.

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