Ghosts: Edith Wharton

As the evenings lengthen, it’s the perfect time for ghost stories. Edith Wharton is not a name I typically associate with spooky tales, but here’s a collection of ghost stories from New York Review Classics. Some are ghost stories certainly, perhaps the most famous being The Lady Maid’s Bell, but others focus on the psychological. Many of the stories bring up the question as to whether ghosts are real or if events, as related, can be believed. I tend to think of ghosts being specific to certain locations; restless spirits who haunt houses or castles, perhaps reliving tragic events that are permanently imprinted in the fabric of the universe. Most, but not all, of the stories here follow the ‘residual haunting’ model, and when it comes to resident ghosts, it seems that people either love to discuss them, or clam up when the subject comes up for discussion. The contents:

All Souls’
The Eyes
Afterward
The Lady’s Maid’s Bell

Kerfol
The Triumph of Night
Miss Mary Pask
Bewitched
Mr Jones
Pomegranate Seed
The Looking Glass

The narrator in All Souls’ tells a story about her cousin, Sara Clayburn. Sara, now a widow, lives in a large, isolated 18th century house called Whitegates. The house “seemed remote and lonely to modern servants,” but Sara “inherited,” from her mother-in-law, a couple of long-employed servants. It was thought, once Sara became a widow, that she would move from Whitegates, but the house had been in her husband’s family for years, and so she remained. One October, while out walking at dusk, Sara passed a woman who said she was on her way to the house to see “one of the girls.” Harmless enough… but on the way back to the house, Sara fell and injured her ankle. The doctor makes a visit and cautions bed rest, planning to return in 2 days time. Then a curious thing happens–a servant brings food and a thermos of tea. Sara orders it to be removed but the maid leaves the food and exits the room.

The next day, when the servants don’t appear, Sara finds herself in a completely deserted house. All the servants have disappeared. … I really liked this story but found the ending unsatisfying.

The Eyes is rather intriguing. In this tale, 8 men gather and exchange ghost stories. The curmudgeonly Andrew Culwin, who believes that “all men were superfluous and women necessary because someone had to do the cooking,” surprises the rest of the company when he claims to have seen two ghosts.

Afterward is the story of a married couple, Mary and Edward Boyne, who on the hunt for an ancient British mansion, buy a place in Dorsetshire called Lyng. There’s talk bandied about concerning the resident ghost but the Boynes think this is all part of the fun. The Boynes move into Lyng and Mary notices that Edward begins to change. Mary becomes convinced that the house is indeed haunted.

The Lady’s Maids’ Bell is a classic ghost story, and rather a good one, for if we ask if ghosts exist, and answer in the affirmative (or unsure) then the next question, surely, would be: under what circumstances do they appear? Back to the resident ghost, and ghosts that are locked to location, have some unfinished business, or cannot rest. The Lady’s Maid’s Bell fits all those categories.

Kerfol also fits into those categories, but the setting is different and the ghosts are dogs. Here the ghosts are also locked to location, and it’s a location where terrible events are permanently imprinted on the area. This is a tale of a brutish 17th century man who ruled over his home, Kerfol, in Brittany. Kerfol is now for sale (imagine why?), and the narrator goes to take a look at it:

Certainly no house had ever more completely and finally broken with the present. As it stood there, lifting its proud roof and gables to the sky, it might have been its own funeral monument.

Mr. Jones is the story of Lady Jane, a woman who unexpectedly inherits Bells, a house that has been in the family for centuries. Lady Jane has spent her life travelling, but when she sees Bells, she falls in love with the place.

A silence distilled from years of solitude lay on lawns and gardens. No one had lived at Bells since the last Lord Thudeney, then a penniless younger son, had forsaken it sixty years before to seek his fortune in Canada.

Although the house has not been occupied by an owner for years, servants continue to live there. Right away there are two mysteries. The first mystery concerns the identity of a family retainer known as Mr. Jones who rules the house and the servants with an iron rod. The second mystery concerns a long-dead Viscountess. Lady Jane visits the on-grounds chapel with its monuments of long dead ancestors, and here she sees a sarcophagus of a Viscount:

“Born on May 1st, 1790, perished of the plague at Aleppo in 1828” and underneath in small cramped characters as if crowded as an afterthought into an insufficient space: “Also his Wife.” That was all, no name, dates, honours, epithets, for the Viscountess Thudeney. Did she, too, die of the plague at Aleppo? Or did the ‘also’ imply her actual presence in the sarcophagus?

I shan’t discuss all the stories, but will say that the collection offers a range of well-worth reading variations on the ghost story.
review copy

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Filed under Fiction, posts, Wharton, Edith

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