The Best Ghost Stories Ever Written?

Reading & Writing

Wordsworth Books have been republishing masters of the traditional ghost story in very nice editions, and I’m currently on a hunt to find the best ghost stories ever written. I’ve got EF Benson and MR James there on my list, along with Sheridan Le Fanu, Marjorie Bowen, Dickens, DK Broster, Gertrude Atherton, WH Hodgson, Alice & Claude Askew, Lofcadio Hearn, Edith Nesbit and many more, but the problem is an embarrassment of riches – there are simply too many to try and read.

What I’m looking for is a short story with some real depth and resonance, the kind of tale that lingers in your memory and deepens after you’ve finished it. Among my favourites are ‘Three Miles Up’ by Elizabeth Jane Howard and ‘Casting The Runes’ by MR James, but I’d like to try and find something with the sad subtlety of Sarah Waters’ ‘The Little Stranger’ (a good idea dragged out to inordinate length) or ‘The Others’.

All suggestions gratefully received!

24 comments on “The Best Ghost Stories Ever Written?”

  1. Bob Low says:

    Just about everything Robert Aickman wrote lingers in the mind-but I appreciate that he specialised in ”strange” stories rather than traditional ghost stories. Here are some personal favoutites that might meet your requirements-

    All Hallows-Walter De La Mare
    The Seventh Man-Sir Arthur Quiller Couch
    Tarnhelm, or the Death of My Uncle Robert-Hugh Walpole
    A Little Place off the Edgeware Road-Graham Greene
    The Listener-Algernon Blackwood

    Happy Shuddering!

  2. A Davies says:

    Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

  3. Paul says:

    Not sure it fits the “sad subtlety” requirement but one of my all time favourites has been “The Monkey’s Paw” by WW Jacobs, about whom I know absolutely nothing except that it terrified many of my past pupils!

  4. Sam Tomaino says:

    I’m guessing that the E.F. Benson one is “How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery” which would be my best. I don’t know a specific one, but Joyce Carol Oates has some really unsettling stories.

  5. Dan Terrell says:

    There are so many good ones.
    To the above, I’d include The Yellow Wallpaper by C. P. Gilman.
    I reread Lofcadio Hearn’s Japanese ghost and non-ghost stories and M. R. James is a companion. I well remember his Casting of the Runes and “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” He wrote many of his stories for Christmas Eve readings and publication.
    A great old book, my copy is now worn at the seams, is Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, translated and annotated by Herbert A. Giles, some time H.B.M Consul at Ningpo (London, T. Werner Laurie Ltd, Strand, 1916.) It has 150 – 200 semi-short tales.
    One story begins: “Now a young lady named Yen-erh, belonging to the wealthy Chang family, and about fifteen years of age, had died suddenly, without any apparent cause, and had come to life again in the night, when she got up and wished to go out. They barred the door and would not hear of her doing so; upon which she said,…..”
    In the first part of the last century, the U.S. organization of professional writers of ghost and horror stories had to swear in their induction ceremony to never write a story that used a common household pet as the source of fear. This would be just too frightening, as readers might have a pet on their lap as they read, or on the floor beside their chair. Stephen King obviously didn’t listen, did he.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Our favourite is “The Shepherd” by Frederick Forsyth, written as a gift for his wife in 1976. We hear it read every year on Christmas Eve on the CBC. When I looked it up just now I find that it is over 100 pages so we must be hearing an edited version. I suppose it would be a novella?

  7. Mantichore says:

    Of course, there’s always “The Beckoning fair one” by Oliver Onions…

  8. Mantichore says:

    …and I’ve a fond spot for “How love came to Professor Guildea” by Robert Hichens, too.

  9. Gretta says:

    A bit on the light side, but two of my faves are Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Canterville Ghost’ and Terry Pratchett’s ‘Johnny and the Dead’.

  10. chris matheson says:

    How about Michael Marshall Smith’s “Hell Hath Enlarged Herself”?

  11. admin says:

    Thanks for all of these – I’ve just finished Hearn’s ghost stories and am checking to see if there are others I’ve missed.

  12. keith page says:

    Not a short story, but I thought ‘The Green Man’ by Kingsley Amis was pretty good.

  13. Philip Jackson says:

    It’s already been mentioned by Bob, but I found A Little Place Off the Edgeware Road to be one of the most haunting and disturbing things I’ve ever read. So much so, that I can’t bring myself to read it a second time! A re-read may actually demonstrate that it isn’t as chilling as I remember it, but I’m not brave enough to take the chance!

  14. Jez Winship says:

    Robert Aickman, in the introduction to The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories, writes ‘there are only about thirty or forty first-class ghost stories in the whole of western literature’. Frustratingly, he doesn’t choose to go into any further detail after this bold assertion, although presumably some of the stories he includes in his anthology are amongst their number: Le Fanu’s Squire Toby’s Will, LP Hartley’s The Travelling Grave (‘one of the greatest stories in its field’, he thinks, although it seems rather archaic now), DH Lawrence’s The Rocking Horse Winner and Marjorie Bowen’s The Crown Derby Plate. He also includes his own story The Trains, and his inclusion in many other anthologies suggests that he can properly be admitted as a writer of ghost stories. The atmospheres of No Time Is Passing, The Hospice, The Swords and The Real Road to the Church remain in my mind many years after having read them. Aickman’s friend and co-founder of the Inland Waterways Association LTC Rolt also wrote eerie tales with an evocatively sinister sense of place – lonely mountain villages, the dark mouths of railway and canal tunnels, and old abandoned mineshafts. The Mine, Bosworth Summit Pound and Cwm Garon are all splendid .
    Admittedly they’re novels rather than short stories, but James Blaylock’s small town North Californian-set supernatural tales Night Relics, Winter Tides and the Rainy Season are all highly atmospheric and well-characterised modern ghost stories. His friend Tim Powers also wrote a baroque fantasy centring around pseudo-scientifically rationalised ghosts, Expiration Date, which is prodigiously inventive and, again, full of well-rounded characters, whose fates you become intimately engaged with. Perhaps it requires a novelistic length to fully bring emotional depth and character to the ghost story.
    Bram Stoker’s The Judge’s House is pretty demented, and features an MR Jamesian revenant which doesn’t just want to scare you or direct you to some unresolved misdeed – it wants to destroy your soul. Again, it’s a novel, and perhaps an obvious choice, but Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is unsurpassed as a ghost story whose spectres are at least partly projected, or at least feeding from the psyches of the protagonists. It was children’s writers who seemed to be the ones continuing the tradition in the 60s and 70s. Robert Westall wrote many fine examples. Leon Garfield wrote some good ones, too, set in his usual late 18th / early 19th century milieu.

  15. Bob Low says:

    I can assure you , Philip, that Greene’s story is every bit as unsettling on re-reading. When I first read it , I remember thinking it was a pity he didn’t write more stories like this-maybe, on reflection, it’s a good thing for his readers’ sanity that he didn’t! I think that the effect of the story was also heightened by the context in which I discovered it- a collection of Greene’s short stories, where you wouldn’t be expecting to find something to scare you out of your wits. When reading anthologies of ghost stories, I often find myself playing ”spot the ghost”, and this can lessen the effect of the individual stories. Maybe the most memorable ghost stories are the ones you find in unexpected places.

  16. Dan Terrell says:

    I don’t know what book of Hearn’s you’ve just read, Admin, but I have six published in the ’60s-’70s by a great press in Tokto and Rutland, Vermont, Charles E. Tuttle. Handsome well-produced paperbacks that last, so they may be available in used-book shops, on-line or still for sale.
    These are some of the titles on my shelf, but the backs of the books list more: In Ghostly Japan, Kwaidan, Kotto & Shadowings. While a couple of these books contain only ghost stories, many of the other books have a ghost story, or two, mixed in among his reportorial pieces on the old ways of Japan. Since he was a newspaper writer of Poe’s time and style, his non-ghostly pieces are generally most intriguing.(His biography Wandering Ghost – The Odyssey of Lafcadio Hearn – by Jonathan Colt, Knopf, 1919 describes an odd, but facinating man. He, too, liked to ramble, but at night.)
    Have you now read his story “The Corpse-Rider”? Here is a tempting line: “Hour after hour the man sat upon the corpse in black fear; – and the hush of the night deepened and deepened about him till he screamed to break it. Instantly, the body sprang beneath him…” (A tad like the ankle-bitter in the rotting screening room in Soho Black.)

  17. Rich says:

    Bram Stoker – The Judge’s House

    Lindsay Stewart – Strictly For The Birds

    E.F. Benson – The Room in the Tower

    Nothing particularly deep about any of them but they are three that have stick in my mind, and frightened me when I read them. There’s another I remember being scared by. A woman living in the middle of nowhere and being terrorised by the sound of an old woman’s laughter. Have no idea of the title but I think it was probably in one of the Pan Book of Horror Stories series.

  18. Tracy says:

    My favourite has to be Marjorie Bowen’s “The Crown Derby Plate” – it shouldn’t scare me but it leaves me shaking every time I read it. Also “Man Size in Marble” by E Nesbit.

    Would definitely recommend Chris Priestley’s short story collections – they’re for young adults but they are very good!

  19. RobA says:

    Absolutely agree on MR James – but controversiallly I must admit I’ve never thought of “Casting The Runes” as a ghost story – as there isn’t really a ghost in it! My vote has got to be either ” A Warning To The Curious” or “A View From A Hill”. Both of which have been dramatised by the BBC and the former is still to my mind one of the scariest pieces of TV drama ever made. Also ” A School Story” short but great storytelling and imagery.

    Aside from that many of the short stories of Ramsey Campbell – particularly the short short stories like “Out Of Copyright”.

  20. RobA says:

    Absolutely agree on MR James – but controversiallly I must admit I’ve never thought of “Casting The Runes” as a ghost story – as there isn’t really a ghost in it! My vote has got to be either ” A Warning To The Curious” or “A View From A Hill”. Both of which have been dramatised by the BBC and the former is still to my mind one of the scariest pieces of TV drama ever made. Also ” A School Story” short but great storytelling and imagery.

    Aside from that many of the short stories of Ramsey Campbell – particularly the short short stories like “Out Of Copyright”.

  21. Paul Hasbrouck says:

    I am fan of Robert Westall and his story “The Last Day of Miss Dorinda Molyneqx” is a favorite. It comes from his collection of connected ghost stories, “Antique Dust”.

  22. Helen Martin says:

    The Monkey’s Paw is always the E.A. Poe story for me, which reminds me of The Hand of Glory, but that’s not a ghost story either. What a lot of great titles and I loved The Canterville Ghost, too.

  23. Antony Clayton says:

    Bram Stoker ‘The Judge’s House’
    E. Nesbit ‘Man-Size in Marble
    Algernon Blackwood ‘A Haunted Island’
    H.G. Wells ‘The Red Room’
    E.F. Benson ‘The Room in the Tower’
    M .R. James ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’
    L.T.C. Rolt ‘Bosworth Summit Pound’

  24. Deena says:

    Naomi’s Room by Jonathan Aycliffe .It isn’t a short story – but it is a short novel . Its one of the best things I’ve ever read , all his stuff is fantastic .

Comments are closed.