I was surprised to come to the end of the book I was reading on my Kindle today. It’s a Project Gutenberg file of She and I always forget that those often end somewhere around the 95% to 98% mark. So when I finished I had a little panic because I hadn’t downloaded the gothic novels I had planned to read for RIP yet. I started paging through to see what I did have and discovered Famous Modern Ghost Stories.
Published in 1921, this collection of ghost stories features the likes of Anatole France, Ambrose Bierce, Guy de Maupassant, and Edgar Allan Poe. The collection is assembled by Dorothy Scarborough, Ph.D., lecturer in English at Columbia University. This book has a companion volume she also compiled, Humorous Ghost Stories.
I am in the midst of the first story, “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood. Blackwood is so far not impressing me. The narrator of the story is canoeing down the Danube with a friend. They have reached a swampy area and found a dry island to camp on for the night. Problem is, he has gone on at great length for pages about the history of the Danube and the sites he and his friend have seen so far on their trip. I so wanted to shout numerous times, Get on with it! But since I was in public I kept my mouth closed and firmly projected my impatience at the story. Which makes me wonder now if somehow my firm mental projections at books I have read on my now dead Kindle had anything to do with its demise? Hmmm.
The Blackwood story is not what I was keen to tell you about. It’s the introduction to the book by Dorothy Scarborough, Ph.D. (that’s how she has her name on the book!). She is a hoot! Her introduction had me laughing throughout, not sure whether she was serious or pulling my leg. First she mentions how there has been a huge increase in the population of the spirit world and then she says:
Life is so inconveniently complex nowadays, what with income taxes and other visitations of government, that it is hard for us to have the added risk of wraiths, but there’s no escaping.
Then she goes on to try to explain why there might be more ghosts now than formerly and why they might be so much more vigorous than they used to be:
Perhaps the war, or possibly an increase in class consciousness, or unionization of spirits, or whatever, has greatly energized the ghost in our day and given him both ambition and strength to do more things than ever. Maybe ‘pep tablets’ have been discovered on the other side as well!
Next, she explains how modern ghosts are different from those old-timey ghosts:
Modern ghosts are less simple and primitive than their ancestors, and are developing complexes of various kinds. They are more democratic than of old, and have more of a diversity of interests, so that mortals have scarcely the ghost of a chance with them. They employ all the agencies and mechanisms known to mortals, and have in addition their own methods of transit and communication. Whereas in the past a ghost had to stalk or glide to his haunts, now he limousines or airplanes, so that naturally he can get in more work than before. He uses the wireless to send his messages, and is expert in all manner of scientific lines.
And ends up sounding like a motivational speaker for ghosts:
Whatever a modern ghost wishes to do or to be, he is or does, with confidence and success.
Finally she gets around to talking a bit about the stories in the collection. One of the stories has a man being haunted by a severed arm. Scarborough writes:
Fiction shows us various ghosts with half faces, and at least one notable spook that comes in half. Such ability, it will be granted, must necessarily increase the haunting power, for if a ghost may send a foot or an arm or a leg to harry one person, he can dispatch his back-bone or his liver or his heart to upset other human beings simultaneously in a sectional haunting at once economically efficient and terrifying.
Are you laughing? I hope you are laughing.
The story I am most interested in reading falls second in the collection, “The Shadows on the Wall” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. Scarborough says that “one prominent librarian considers [it] the best ghost story ever written.” I shall soon find out and let you know!