A Ghost Story Is Not A Horror Story

Christopher Fowler
Ghost It's that time of the year again when I get invited to read something spooky in a wing-backed armchair beside a crackling fire. Actually, one year I did that in Black's Club, but this year we're in the National Liberal Club, a grander and far chillier environment for the annual Hallowe'en reading, and I'll also be reading at the British Library. I usually select a ghost story with a fantastical edge, and as much as I'd like to read an excerpt from 'Nyctophobia' it wouldn't be fair - it's better to tackle something complete. A ghost story works best when it holds implicit horror that can only be seen to its fullest extent after the story ends. They rarely contain scenes of actual physical horror. As noted in the story course on this site, Henry James's 'The Turn Of The Screw' involves possession and madness, ghosts and suicides, sexual perversion and child cruelty and even, possibly, pedophilia — but you won't find any of this on the surface of the story. It's not until you think about it afterwards that you realise just how depraved the hidden tale might be, and it can also be read as a case of Victorian hysteria over morality. It's probably the reason for 'The Others' being made, with its not-dissimilar set-up, but the effect it produces - one of melancholy calm - is very different. 'Julia's Eyes' and 'The Orphanage' did the same thing, the latter balancing the tragedy of things lost with moments of fear. Awful realisations of what has been done often feature in ghostly tales, and reconciliation is sought, while horror ends badly. Horror are stories often set in motion by revenge while ghosts seek atonement. But although ghost stories lack hard shocks and appear initially milder their outcomes can have more devastating effects. So you could sum up the difference as follows; ghost stories set out with an out-of-balance situation in which something must be put right, and work toward a conclusion of equilibrium which may prove fair or unfair, while horror stories start out in balance and work toward disorder and chaos; one being an inversion of the other. Ghost stories are implicit, horror stories explicit. When writing a ghost story it's worth first reading through some of the old Fontana Books of Ghost Stories, of which there were many volumes. For horror,the Mammoth Books of Horror and of course the classic Pan Books of Horror still provide good templates. Any favourite ghost stories, short or long, from readers?  


Jo W (not verified) Wed, 21/10/2015 - 07:55

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My favourite ghost story is The Signal-Man by Charles Dickens. That -knowing what's going to happen,but can't stop the inevitable-feeling.

Vincent C (not verified) Wed, 21/10/2015 - 10:44

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The Monkey's Paw by W. W. Jacobs is an old chestnut which never fails to impress me.

C Falconer (not verified) Wed, 21/10/2015 - 13:02

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Anything by MR James - maybe Oh Whistle and I'll come to you.
or Mansize in Marble by E Nesbit
or practically any by EF Benson
I'm an old fashioned girl when it comes to ghost stories!

Ken Mann (not verified) Wed, 21/10/2015 - 14:51

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Jerome K Jerome's ghost stories are surprisingly melancholy. More about sadness than shuddering, which seems fair enough where death is concerned.

Roger (not verified) Wed, 21/10/2015 - 19:37

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Robert Aickman, who edited many of the Fontana Books of Ghost Stories, ironically wrote stories somewhere between ghost and horror stories and added further confusion to the categories by calling them strange stories.

Ed (not verified) Wed, 21/10/2015 - 19:56

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I agree about The Turn of the Screw by Henry James - It is my all time favorite. A most excellent film version of the story starred Deborah Kerr.

Martin (not verified) Wed, 21/10/2015 - 22:14

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The Listener by Algernon Blackwood has a creepy grim build up of tension without any explicit horror, Man size in marble and most of MR James, also probably one of the 19th century masterpieces is The Horla by Guy de Maupassant, fantastically scary tale.

snowy (not verified) Wed, 21/10/2015 - 22:50

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I was struggling with what I could throw into the pot, but thankfully Roger has lead us into the realm of the 'Strange Tale'. And Ed has drawn back the curtain on Film, so how about 'The Night My Number Came Up' just as a change from all the usual suspects?

If I was compelled to deliver a story, [a fate that is never likely to occur and my execution of which none of you would ever have to suffer], I might be tempted to have a rummage through the old 'Fear on Four' programmes.

[Link ☝]

There are lots of classics in there, but there are quite a few lesser known and more modern tales that could surprise even an audience of hardened spooky tales aficionados.

[The files are a bit Lo-Fi, in fact they sound like they were recorded down a well. OK if you have to suffer listening to them through earbuds on a tube train. The odd bubbly effect that strikes you at the start wears off in a couple of minutes as the brain filters it out.]

[But the list of authors is quite impressive: J.C.W. Brook, Roald Dahl, W.W. Jacobs, Nick Warburton, W.F. Harvey, Bert Coules, Stephen Gallagher, E.F. Benson, William Ingram, Stephen Dumstone, Arch Oboler, Stanley Elin, Graeme Fife, David Buck, Katherine Nicholas, Robert Westall, Gwen Cherrell, Elizabeth Bowen, Nick Warburton, John Wyndham, Martyn Wade, James Saunders, Bram Stoker, Charlotte Parkins Gilman, Guy Jenkin, Basil Copper, John Pirto, Stuart Kerr, Paul Burns, Ray Bradbury, Denise Sims, John Graham, John Duquemin, Gregor Grice, Paul Sirett, Aubrey Woods, Stephen Wyatt, Colin Hadyn Evans, Nick Fisher, Judy Upton.]

snowy (not verified) Wed, 21/10/2015 - 22:53

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Let's try that again. With a little more concentrating on what one is doing.

[Link ☝]

George Mealor (not verified) Thu, 22/10/2015 - 03:07

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If you would have a ghost poem you might try The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert W. Service

Christopher Fowler Thu, 22/10/2015 - 05:00

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Wow - a good selection to choose from. I'm surprised nobody listed the titled lady who chose ghost stories for Fontana whose name escapes me.Basil Copper's 'Camera Obscura' is one that stuck with me.

Roger (not verified) Thu, 22/10/2015 - 16:16

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" the titled lady who chose ghost stories for Fontana whose name escapes me."
Lady Cynthia Asquith is the most likely candidate. Her fIrst Ghost Book was published well before WWII and it and its sequels were published by Pan, not Fontana.

Another fine ghost/horror writer is Simon Raven, whose ghosts have the virtue of often being not merely wicked but depraved.

Helen Martin (not verified) Thu, 22/10/2015 - 17:26

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Didn't know JK Jerome wrote ghost stories. Must look closer into that gentleman's work. And the list of authors in that program is amazing so I may have to start looking there, especially in the next couple of weeks.

Rh (not verified) Thu, 22/10/2015 - 22:23

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Minuke has always stuck with me from the first teenage read...

Wayne Mook (not verified) Fri, 23/10/2015 - 00:05

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On a horror board I ran a vote on the radio best horror, Fear on Four won but 2nd was a single episode of Fear on Four, Stephen Gallagher's The Horn. It's use of sound was superb, sadly most radio plays are all speech and little sound. Hopefully The Stone Tapes & The Ring to be on Radio 4 Saturday the 31st should have good use of sound.

MR James, Lost Hearts is a ghost story that does have horror in it and explicit. This was one of the stories read on Jackanory, line drawing of the child was chilling, I even have a copy of it in a book.

EF Benson's Caterpillars is a fine tale.

In fact I think I'm of to read some Marion Crawford.


Mim (not verified) Fri, 23/10/2015 - 08:13

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I'm boring enough to go with MR James.

Though they're not ghost stories, a bit of Chetwynd-Hayes never goes amiss at Halloween.

chazza (not verified) Fri, 23/10/2015 - 10:00

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Always liked "The Shadowy Street" by Jean Ray. Strong element of nightmare from which one is unable to awake. And, of course, R.W.Chambers "The Yellow Sign".

Helen Martin (not verified) Mon, 26/10/2015 - 22:50

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My favourite is a ghost story from here in Vancouver and my Mother had an experience with it. I told it to a class of hard core East End kids (our East End is socially like yours) and had them spooked out of their minds - heh, heh, heh!

Keith (not verified) Tue, 27/10/2015 - 22:39

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Whistle and I'll Come to You & Warning to the Curious, always delight. Also many of Jonathan Aycliffe's disturbing titles, the best being Naomi's Room.

Picked up a copy of The Sand Man today Chris. Looks great!

Helen T (not verified) Wed, 28/10/2015 - 19:45

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Bag of Bones br Stephen King