Wednesday, October 22, 2014

What Makes a Good Ghost Story?

Who doesn't love a good ghost story? One of my favorite books when I was young was Alfred Hitchcock's Haunted Houseful (Random House, 1961 and subsequent editions), in which the master of creepy supernatural thrillers introduced nine spooky stories by a variety of authors. My beloved copy had belonged to my brothers before me, and at around age 10, I snapped it up. I loved it so much that I recently hunted down a used copy on the Internet and have it before me now.

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," was Mr. Hitchcock's characteristic opening. He went on to say that he'd compiled these particular stories "to provide reading for young people who are at the awkward age. Children who are too lazy to walk but still too young to drive. Here are nine stories carefully compiled to furnish reading material in Life's great waiting room where we while away the hours until our driver's license is issued."

Further on he wrote, "[One] reason I am not addressing this book to adults is (and believe me, this hurts) they insist they don't believe in ghosts. [Emphasis in the original.] It's shocking, really. After all, these are the people who write our country's laws and pay our allowances. I don't know how they could become so confused. Perhaps you are partly to blame. You have not watched them closely enough and they have fallen in with bad company."

I loved these stories, which included selections by such august authors as Mark Twain and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But my favorite of the collection was The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall by John Kendrick Bangs, which contained all the elements that my prepubescent mind thought a good ghost story should have:  a creaky old house, strange midnight appearances, unfinished business,  a clever solution, and a quirk of amusement.

I don't believe in ghosts. But I did write one ghost story back in my student days, which I'm still rather proud of after all these decades. If you care to read it, it's posted here.

What about you? Do you have a favorite ghost story? What, to you, make up the essential elements of a good ghost story?

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