I have always enjoyed Brad Leithauser’s poetry. He is one of the “New Formalists,” who have advocated for the use of metrical form and structure in modern poetry, as opposed to those who favor free verse. So I thought it was interesting to come across an anthology of ghost stories edited by Leithauser.
One thing that makes this collection a bit different from the others I have written about this week is that Leithauser does not limit himself to the old masters of the genre. While Henry and M.R. James are both included, as is the delightfully named Oliver Onions, Leithauser also includes pieces from later 20th century writers, including V.S. Pritchett, A.S. Byatt, John Cheever, and Penelope Fitzgerald. In his introduction, Leithauser notes that there are two branches to the ghost story genre, and the two Jameses, conveniently, delineate each branch. M.R is a master of what Leithauser calls the “plot ghost story” and Henry of the “psychological ghost story.” While I favor the former, Leithauser is more interested in the latter, and the collected stories here reflect that interest.
There are some deeply chilling tales here. Marghanita Laski’s “The Tower” finds a woman seeking to impress her somewhat distant husband by exploring an isolated tower in the Italian countryside, with ambiguous results. “The Axe,” by Penelope Fitzgerald starts off as a memo of a rather routine, if callous, office firing, and devolves into something much darker. Cheever’s “The Music Teacher” explores many of the same themes of Cheever’s novels, infidelity, lost love, and suburban life, but with a darkly supernatural twist.
As Leithauser says about fans of ghost stories at the end of his introduction, “In their bones they know that the universe is unsettling whether it is inhabited by spirits or whether we—lone walkers on a bitter night—are alone in the windy darkness.” These collected stories all capture that sense of unease, and keep you looking over your shoulder.
Check the WRL catalog for The Norton Book of Ghost Stories