Kate Mosse's top 10 ghost stories
From Henry James to Susan Hill, the author of Labyrinth selects tales that deliver 'the fun of the shudder'
Kate Mosse is the bestselling author of five novels, two books of non-fiction, short stories and a play, Syrinx, which won a Broadcasting Press Guild award in 2009. The first novel in her Languedoc Trilogy, Labyrinth, won Richard & Judy's Best Read award in 2006 and topped the bestseller lists for six months; the second, Sepulchre, was also an international bestseller; and the third, Citadel, will be published in 2011. Her current novel, The Winter Ghosts, is published in paperback this week.
"Spirits and apparitions, headless monks and white ladies, the traditional ghost story still exerts a hold on our imaginations. Their habitat is ancient woods, ruined abbeys, isolated old houses and crumbling monasteries. But what makes a ghost story? Though purists might quibble, I'd say there are three distinct types of ghost story – as opposed to tales of horror, which have a different dynamic and purpose, or novels that have ghosts in them, such as Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude or Ben Okri's The Famished Road.
"The traditional ghost story is often inspired by folklore and a sense of decaying history, and is similar in tone to the Gothic novels that came before it. In the psychological ghost story, the emphasis is on the mental state of the victim rather than the actions – the existence, even – of the ghost or poltergeist. These stories implicitly, sometimes explicitly, question the reliability and sanity of the heroine or hero, and often reference social or political issues of the day. Finally, there's the antiquarian ghost story which is associated with a certain sort of Edwardian Englishness. Like their traditional counterparts, they draw on old mythologies and folklore, but are rooted in realism and the sense of the ordinary disrupted or made extraordinary. I see the influence of all three traditions in my own books – though The Winter Ghosts is my first pure ghost story – but in the end, as with the choices that follow, what matters is that each has what the great Edith Wharton called 'the fun of the shudder'."
1. "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe (1843)
From the master of the morbid imagination, this gem of a story blurs the edges between horror and ghost fiction. A murderer's guilty conscience gets the better of him, driving him to confess his crime. The unnamed narrator murders an old man with a "vulture eye". He plans carefully and hides the body by dismembering it, but his guilt will not let him rest. Is he imagining the beating of the heart beneath the floorboards or is there something there? Gripping and horrifying, the perfect mix of horror and Gothic, the forerunner of the psychological ghost stories that were to come into vogue.
2. "The Signalman" by Charles Dickens (1866)
This perfectly balanced, beautifully judged story both preys on both the anxiety provoked by the new technology of railways and deeply held beliefs that a ghost can be an alarum for events to follow. Three times, the ringing of a spectral bell is followed by the appearance of a ghost, harbinger of a dreadful accident. Creepy, clever, and has you looking over your own shoulder.
Another classic of ghost-story writing, with a doomed family and a crumbling, historic house at the heart of it. The narrator, Sarah, returns to her childhood home as a guest, having been obliged to work as a governess. There, although the halls are brightly lit and the old servants delighted to see her, a sense of disaster hangs over the festivities and Sarah's glimpse of a ghostly hunt forewarns of tragedy to come.
4. "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book" by MR James (1894)
This is the very first story in the first published MR James collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. A young Englishman and scholar leaves his friends for the day to spend time alone in a claustrophobic, decaying French cathedral city in the Pyrenees. He is encouraged by the sacristan to buy an antique manuscript volume which is possessed of older and evil memories. Wonderfully atmospheric, wonderfully creepy.
5. "The Turn of the Screw" by Henry James (1898)
This is, possibly, the most exquisite and perfect of all psychological ghost stories. Again, an unnamed narrator, another governess, a different manuscript that claims to tell the story of mysterious country house, a widower and his children and two ghosts of former servants of the house. It is never clear if the ghosts are real or the product of the governess's increasingly unstable mind. And here, unlike in many ghost stories, there are several strong and engaging characters, not least of all the strange children, Miles and Flora. Simply, a masterpiece.
6. Ancient Sorceries and Other Weird Stories by Algernon Blackwood (1912)
Blackwood is the neglected master of the Edwardian ghost story renaissance. Gentlemen travellers and scholars fill his pages, but always with a psychological – often animist – slant on things. For Blackwood, Nature always has a capital 'N' and was a living, breathing thing, sometimes benign, but often sinister. This collection is the place to start, even though my favourite story is "The Man Whom the Trees Loved", where a wife finds herself powerless to save her husband from the trees he loves. The forest does seem to be alive, getting closer and closer to the house, until the husband vanishes all together. Atmospheric, beautiful, a very subtle story of a peculiar haunting.
7. "The Listeners" by Walter de la Mare (1912)
De la Mare was a significant writer of ghost stories, publishing some 40 supernatural tales in collections such as Eight Tales and On the Edge, but I'm choosing perhaps his most famous work, this lyrical and haunting poem. It's never clear what bargain the traveller has made, and with whom, only that he has kept his word to come to the deserted house in the wood. The opening line still makes my hair stand on end: "'Is there anybody there?' said the Traveller, knocking on the moonlit door."
8. "Bewitched" by Edith Wharton (1925)
The celebrated author of novels such as The House of Mirth, Wharton was also a terrific writer of ghostly tales. A blend of Poe, Hawthorne and Henry James, she has a lightness of touch that belies the often very grisly tale. This story, first published in the Pictorial Review in 1925, has a fabulous sense of place and is a revenant story with a twist. It leaves the reader doubting their interpretation of events. Clever stuff.
9. "The Ghosts" by Antonia Barber (1969)
This is my favourite children's ghost story, a wonderful time-slip novel set during the first world war. Lucy and Jamie Allen move with their mother and baby brother to the country, where their mother has been engaged by a mysterious gentleman, Mr Blunden, as caretaker of an abandoned house until the rightful owner can be traced. One day, Lucy is walking in the garden to explore and to pick flowers when she meets Sara and Georgie. It becomes clear that the children are ghosts, children of the house who died 100 years ago in the fire that destroyed the estate. It's a gentle, thoughtful ghost story, of parallel time and the chance to make amends for mistakes in an earlier life. The novel won the Carnegie Medal and was filmed in 1972 as The Amazing Mr Blunden.
10. The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (1982)
For my money, the greatest of the contemporary ghost writers. Hill creates believable period characters, she creates a hermetic world that yet speaks of wider superstitions and histories, and creates plots with tension, pace and jeopardy without ever becoming heavy-handed. This is a story of vengeance, of an old curse from an embittered woman, all centred on the brooding Eel Marsh House, gloomy and isolated and cut off from the mainland at high tide. As the tension of premonition and disaster builds and builds, the ghostly screams of an accident long ago will haunt the reader's imagination long after the last page has been turned. Perfect.