Ghost Stories Worthy of The Name

The light in my room is dim … winter light … a day hardly ever gets started this time of year before it rounds the turn and chugs toward the resumption of darkness. I love darkness. In the night, I need my room to be absolutely dark. I draw the darkness over me like a cozy blanket. Science says (and I agree) that even a light the size of a pencil eraser can wriggle its way into your sleeping brain and wreck your REMs. Another thing that can do that is the last thing you read before you fell asleep. I like to be scared, as long as what I’m scared of isn’t real. In the oldest traditions, winter was the time for telling ghost stories, tales like those by M.R. James and other fabulists. If you read Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Boy, you’ll never want to sleep in room with twin beds again! And, as a colleague recently told me, he’ll never sleep with one of his hands casually flung over the side of the bed after reading that scene in Shirley Jackson’s elegant, beautiful and utterly scary novel, The Haunting of Hill House, when all the lights go out and the two women are trapped, rooted to their beds while a relentless entity, part child, part creature, twists the door knob with increasing fury.  (There have been movies made of this novel, several of them. The newest of these is a TV miniseries. It’s quite good, but still doesn’t do that story justice; you have to watch the 60s version with Julie Harris as Eleanor to really get a scare). Speaking of scares, I’ve been searching for decades for a ghost story that will really scare me.  Surprisingly to me, my search has been discouragingly unavailing. Most of the ones promoted as absolutely spine-tingling were anything but. How could a story with spectral entities and manic laughter in the night be boring? Yet they are. Most modern ghost stories are blunt and heavy-handed. For ones that really turn the crank (or the screw), I have to cast my way back in time, back to earliest Stephen King (Different Seasons, Salem’s Lot) or Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. Even farther. The stories that scared me most were Edith Wharton’s. She once said that she couldn’t sleep in a room with a book containing a ghost story, and, indeed, I once had to place her ghost story collection outside my room to sleep. Not many other ones have given me such a delightful thrill. But the one to which I’m including a link did the trick. It’s called Dark Christmas by Jeanette Winterson and it has everything – a house with a history, shorter days, just like the ones we have right now, sensible Brits driven beyond their limits by fear. Have fun, gentle reader.

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