I’ve never read Edith Wharton before now. She’s been on my to-read list for decades, ever since she appeared in an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. I suppose that’s an unorthodox way to discover an author, but that’s pretty much the story of my life. And the more I learned about her over the years, the more intrigued I’ve become by her versatility. She’s poked fun at high society, written ghost stories as she as here, and even had quite the interest in Lizzie Borden. But for whatever reason, her works sort of floated at varying positions on the list, and even though I do own a copy of The Age of Innocence, I just never got around to it. Today, I was in the mood for some old fashioned ghost stories, and this particular title was in my wish list. Why not, right?
This collection was published at the end of Ms. Wharton’s life in 1937, which is a bit ominous, given the subject matter. Nice touch. That said, they were all written earlier, and I’ve noted the years for each story later on. My understanding is that the original paper version has eleven tales. My Audible version has five, but it was marked “unabridged.” I suppose that’s technically true: the stories themselves are unabridged, but not the collection as a whole. I don’t feel cheated though. Quite the reverse, it gives me an excuse to hunt to down the full version for my personal library (as if I ever need an excuse).
The reason I don’t feel cheated is because (in addition to being dirt cheap) these stories are really well written. There are tales of ghosts that go back as far as recorded history, but the ghost story as we know it today didn’t really get refined until the Victorian era. Wharton’s stories are cut from that cloth, and in my humble opinion, are some of the very best I’ve read. Let me toss out the caveat to that statement. If you’re looking for blood, guts, and supernatural horror, this isn’t for you. You could almost list Wharton and her delivery as the complete polar opposite of H. P. Lovecraft. In some ways, what’s here has more in common with Poe, only less grisly or foreboding. It’s the kind of everyday psychological horror that lives on beyond the confines of this mortal coil. These are character studies with the nostalgia of history and the weight of conscience behind them. It’s the difference between merely scary and truly haunting, if you take my meaning. And as with the Victorian counterparts, Wharton’s tales are beautifully executed. Her writing style is nothing short of excellent. Of course, to fully enjoy such a style, one needs to be predisposed to enjoy the kind of Romantic and/or Victorian era fiction that lends itself to a more flowery and descriptive form of prose. The nature of the beast is that the stories burn slow, but they burn brightly by the time you finish them.
The tales in this collection are:
“Mr. Jones” (1928): Downton Abbey with a ghost is the easiest way to describe this one.
“Kerfol” (1916): An old house for sale and a pack of dogs lead the narrator to uncover the story of a murder.
“The Looking Glass” (1935): A love story about a woman recounting a time in her past to a friend about how she contacted the spirit of a man who died on the Titanic.
“The Eyes” (1910): A writer tells a group about a haunting he endured involving a pair of eyes that manifests at the foot of his bed.
“The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” (1904): A lady’s maid is hired to replace one who had died, but it seems the previous one isn’t quite ready to give up her station.
One of the things I truly appreciate about these stories is that they’re not repetitive. There are a great many ghost stories out there that feel cookie cutter. These aren’t. Each one has a different theme, a different approach, and, best of all, characters that become fully-formed in the telling as opposed to cardboard cutout stock characters.
In the end, these won’t be for everyone, but I think the better you can appreciate this style of literature, the more you’ll like these tales. For myself, I’m extremely pleased to finally encounter Edith Wharton’s work. I’m definitely more inclined to read more, even if it’s not a ghost story, though you can bet I’ll be tracking down such tales she’s written just on account.