It's perhaps a little sweeping, that rubbish, but anyone who reads a large number of ghost stories will be hard put to disagree with Dahl entirely. When it comes to ghost stories it's a sub-genre tend whose most well-known examples tend to come from a rarified group of tales, their presence in anthologies ubiquitous, their mien steadfastly traditional. There are of course stories which have been very unfairly consigned to history, and those readers willing to venture into the territory of the lesser known ghost story will find rich rewards, but to do so one is first required to first sift their way through countless tales which were perhaps best left forgotten. There is, in short, no greater test for a lover of ghost stories than to read widely in the field.
The ghost story’s golden age ran from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth, a period defined by revolutionary scientific progress, but also by the conservative reaction against it. Whereas the concurrent rise of detective fiction was borne out of the era’s principle of methodical rationalism, the heyday of the ghost story reflected the reverse: beware inquiry is invariably the message of the Victorian-Edwardian spectre. The protagonists in both Dickens’ ‘The Signal-Man’ and M.R. James’ ‘Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad' (to pick two stories from the grand canon at random) encounter spirits powered by a forbidding, inscrutable knowledge and are sent away humbled and cowed, life lessons learnt.
The interwar period effectively saw off the genre as we know it. As well as the advent of electricity illuminating hitherto darkened corners, the First World War had brought home the very real suffering and slaughter humans can endure. In the face of industrial carnage, tales of titillating terror began to seem inconsequential, even tasteless.
Or so it would seem. In fact, one could argue, not only has the ghost story survived but also – with an aptly invisible stealth – it has triumphed.
Firstly, writers continue to be drawn to the form. No bad thing that, but also not without its problems. The popular view of the ghost story as intrinsically Victorian has compelled many to recreate the starchy bygone tone and revisit extinct concerns. Understandably, this yields mixed results, something embodied by the supernatural novellas of Susan Hill.
But can one fault Hill? As Roald Dahl discovered, on the whole ghost stories simply aren’t any very good, and it often feels unfair to hold their authors responsible. A brief summary of what goes on in even the most successful examples – possessed paintings, sentient trees, magical monkey paws – makes clear what a tenuous, risky job it is to write seriously about the unbelievable. The reality is they either end up working or they don’t: I can think of very few okay ghost stories, which inclines me to conclude that success is as much down to serendipity as it is to craft. As a handful otherwise eminently capable authors have testified in their recent collections – Hill’s The Woman in Black and Other Ghost Stories (2015), Kate Mosse’s The Mistletoe Bride and Other Haunting Tales (2013), Sophie Hannah’s The Visitor’s Book and Other Ghost Stories (2015), John Connolly’s loopy Night Music: Nocturnes Volume Two (2015) – finding one has written a decent ghost story does not necessarily mean another will follow.
While successful single-author collections remain relatively scarce, the popularity of the ghost story anthology endures. It’s rare, at least in the UK, to encounter a bookshop which doesn’t stock at least one olde-worlde hardback. In part this is because many of the most loved tales, now long out of copyright, make for a cost-effective publishing venture when gathered together. But also the simple truth is that, for all its seeming antiquated obscurity, this is a form of fiction which continues to exert a surprising hold on the reading public. Not everyone is drawn to horror, to short stories or to nineteenth-century fiction, but few can resist the rich promise of a good ghost story.
The inclusion of Mishima in Ghost, as well as Ben Okri and Haruki Murakami, is particularly welcome. Although the canon has, rather surprisingly, been hospitable to stories written by women – Elizabeth Gaskell’s 'The Old Nurse’s Story’, Edith Wharton’s ‘Afterward’ and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s ‘Three Miles Up’ all sit among the elect – there remains a deep Anglo-Saxon conservatism to the ghost story which, for those who read a large number of these sorts of books, can be very claustrophobic. It’s almost a cliché to say so but all cultures have their own ghoulish modes of storytelling: Japanese kwaidan stories remain hugely popular; China owes its existence to the Ming dynasty, the supernatural looming large in both the period’s classical novels and its folklore; Bengali literature has as rich a tradition of ghostly fiction as one could hope to encounter. On the whole, however, tales of djinn, kunti, bhoots and the like remain absent from the great ghost story songbook, viewed as anthropological curios rather than quality fiction worthy of addition to the grand canon.
And yet triumphed was the word I ventured earlier to describe the ghost story. A baffling claim perhaps, certainly a grand one, but one which I promise makes sense to anyone making their way through Ghost in the chronological order in which the stories are presented. In doing so, one begins to suspect that the ghost story, as we have come to know it, is simply the most easily categorisable iteration of a seam of writing which probes the stratum of the dark, murky unknown which generations of men and women have always suspected operates beneath their lives. The most successful modern ghost stories are rarely those which replicate the formal gothic quality of the golden age but those which retain its fascination with the inexplicable and the unreliable, which are at ease with the aberrant and the unheimlich, and which accommodate ellipses and are alert to the power of apparent non-sequiturs. All of which, it could be said, are intrinsic components on which the craft of many of our most celebrated modern authors who write non-ghostly short stories – Raymond Carver, Mary Gaitskill, Kevin Williams, Deborah Levy, to name a semi-random transatlantic few – have come to rely.