If a book could at once be chilling and cosy, that is how I would describe The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton. The settings of these tales will be familiar to Wharton’s readers: old New York, rambling country estates, wintry New England, and the Europe of American expats.
Moody and atmospheric, each story quickly drew me in, and I felt that wonderful, familiar pleasure in reading Wharton. But very soon, things begin to go off.
As I read, I grew tense and unsettled. While these are not horror stories, they leave you feeling creeped out and vulnerable. (I had to switch to lighter fare at bedtime.)
Wharton evokes the mysterious and supernatural. As she does to her characters, Wharton keeps the reader guessing about what is actually going on. These stories reminded me very much of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.
Ironically, this ambiguity gives the stories a realistic, firsthand quality. You get that same tingle that you would when sitting around a campfire in the woods. Except in Wharton’s version, it’s a dwindling fire in the dark library of a “damp Gothic villa.” Wharton sets one of these villas in Irvington, New York—named for Washington Irving (famed for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”). Wharton was also a great fan of Edgar Allen Poe.
In the book’s introduction, British crime writer David Stuart Davies explains that Wharton was at once terrified of and fascinated by ghost stories.
“I could not sleep in a room with a book containing ghost stories and that I have frequently had to burn books of this kind because it frightened me to know they were downstairs in the library.”—Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance
Perhaps this fascination with the paranormal has carried on into Wharton’s own afterlife? Her home The Mount has been the scene of many ghost sightings. They’ve even posted online gallery of spooky images and offer “ghost tours.”
I highly recommend this book. It offers all the joy of reading Edith Wharton, plus some very spooky moments. Said Wharton of a good ghost story:
“If it sends a cold shiver down one’s spine, it has done its job and done it well.”
She has achieved just that!
NOTE: There are several collections of Wharton’s ghost stories. I chose the Wordsworth Edition (paperback; published 2009; ISBN: 9781840221640) as it had the most stories. I also really enjoyed the forward by Davies.