As a child, I remember begging my father to tell me the scariest ghost story he knew, and I also remember my mother promptly vetoing the request for the sake of everyone’s sleep that night. She well knew in whose bed I would be spending my restless nocturnal hours if I were granted my wish. Telling ghost stories is a cultural tradition that permeates every tribe, nation and language under the sun, suggesting that delight in macabre is somehow intrinsic to humanity. In contrast to my own mother, there nonetheless exists across cultures the tradition of mothers frightening children into obedience with vague threats of the boogeyman, to more specific cultural horrors.
It was after John Polidori and Mary and Percy Shelley had been sitting around the blazing fire reading German ghost stories at Lord Byron’s Villa Diodati in the Swiss Alps in 1816 that Lord Byron laid down the famous challenge of who could tell the best ghost story. Mary Shelley then wrote Frankenstein.
In The Folio Book of Ghost Stories, compiled by The Folio Society, chilling literary narratives by classic raconteurs of the preternatural, such as Charles Dickens and M.R. James, are assembled with fey tales by modern authors in chronological order of publication. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, surprisingly, also appears on the author list, proving that when absent from his myth-debunking detective, he too could spin tales of the paranormal with the best. Gratifyingly, each tale diligently encompasses the perennially favorite and defining motifs of the traditional ghost story genre: crumbling mansions with creaking floorboards and sinisterly laconic servants; tension between the narrator’s sanity and the existence of the supernatural; bloodcurdling appearances of mysterious figures who are, by turns, benevolent, vengeful, or so peregrine as to surpass understanding.
In “The Signalman” (1866), Dickens plays upon the contemporary fear of train accidents, following not only his own personal survival of a train wreck in 1865, but also that of the 1861 Clayton Tunnel crash where 23 people were killed and another 176 were injured. In her introduction examining the Victorian sensational tradition (and its modern descendants), Kathryn Hughes writes, “Britain wasn’t simply still in mourning, it was consumed by the possibility that the cost of being the world’s leading industrial nation had simply become too high.” Just as the best humor is said to be anchored in grains of truth, Dickens demonstrates through “The Signalman” that the most terrifying in supernatural horror also is rooted in basic, natural fears.
In “August Heat” (1910), W.F. Harvey deviates from the typical backdrop of a cold and stormy winter’s night and weaves a bewitching narrative through the sultry humidity and radiating heat of an August day. The narrator claims reliability by virtue of the fact of his health, “having never known a day’s illness,” yet the denouement is ambiguous, and it is left to the reader to decide as to whether James Clarence Withencroft is the victim of both the supernatural forces of fate and of human villainy, or whether he is merely delusional from the oppressive heat and extreme dehydration. Thus, again, the reader is left with heightened fears of both the supernatural and the mundane inextricably intertwined.
This collection of ghost story classics, both new and old, is further aggrandized through the hauntingly beautiful illustrations by artist David McConochie. Like the stories themselves, the illustration style strikes the delightful balance of both blurred and distinct subjects in each image, while the subjects themselves waver between alluring and unsettling. It comes as no surprise that the illustrations of this volume won the 2015 Book Illustration Competition.