The Greatest Ghost Story Ever and Why We Care

Image from the cover of <a href=The Big Book of Ghost Stories by Otto Penzler" />
Image from the cover of The Big Book of Ghost Stories by Otto Penzler

Editor's Note: Otto Penzler is the proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City. He was publisher of The Armchair Detective, the founder of the Mysterious Press and the Armchair Detective Library, and created the publishing firm Otto Penzler Books. He has twice received the Edgar Award as well as the Ellery Queen Award from the Mystery Writers of America for his many contributions to the field. He is the editor of The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, which was a New York Times bestseller, and several more Black Lizard anthologies, most recently The Big Book of Ghost Stories. Here, he stops by Signature to talk about what makes a good ghost story great and, of course, his favorite ghost story of all time.

One of the many things I learned (or, at least, came into sharper focus) while reading hundreds and hundreds of ghost stories in order to find the best for my new anthology, The Big Book of Ghost Stories, is that they come in a wider range than I had contemplated.

Like most readers, I suspect, I'd loved all kinds of horror stories and supernatural tales, especially ghost stories, when I was quite young. I never outgrew them, if that's the right way of stating it, in my later years. Simple, straightforward narratives of dead people coming back to haunt the living is really scary for kids, who appear to love being frightened by stories, roller coasters, monster movies, and so much more. Yet, ghosts also appear in far more sophisticated literature, thereby providing adults with that frisson of spine-tingling that gives lifelong pleasure. Shakespeare dropped ghosts into some of his great plays, including Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth. Henry James understood this when he wrote The Turn of the Screw, and Charles Dickens wrote the greatest ghost story of all time, A Christmas Carol. Listing all the outstanding books and stories that employ, to a greater or lesser degree, the spirits of the dead, would fill a substantial tome.

Having read literally dozens of anthologies purporting to be collections of ghost stories, it soon became evident that defining the genre was an inexact exercise, as almost all the compilations featured stories of various types of monsters, from trolls to man-eating fungi to fierce beasts apparently possessed by some demonic forces aimed at ripping apart perfectly innocent people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Although it is a somewhat broad definition, I regard ghosts as the spirits of people who are now dead but remain earthbound and who may be seen, heard, felt, or sensed by the living.

While there are many truly brilliant ghost stories, there is no one type of such tale that is inherently superior to any other. When a distinguished novelist or short story writer is at the top of his or her form, the work will be compelling and memorable.

This remains equally true of such subtle tales of psychological suspense as The Turn of the Screw, romantic stories of lovers whose deep commitment to each other cannot be fulfilled because one is dead and the other alive, such The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Portrait of Jennie, humorous escapades of ghosts who didn't choose the (after) life with which they are bound, such as Oscar Wilde's The Canterville Ghost, or violent, terrifying thrillers such as Peter Straub's Ghost Story.

Whichever form it takes (and there are other subgenres of the ghost story, such as those involving children or haunted houses), those that last in the memory fill the requirement that they are credible. It may take a leap of faith for many people to accept the notion of a ghost in the first place, so an author is compelled to create a scenario that the reader can believe enough to let the action continue without dismissing it all with a pish-tosh.

It has struck me that an author of ghost stories (or, indeed, most supernatural fiction) is able to force the reader to suspend disbelief by evoking a feeling, or the hint of an emotion, that he or she has already experienced at another time in a different context. Most of us have had a sense of déjà vu, knowing that we had been in this house before, or remembering that bend in the river, although we are fully aware that we have never been in that place before. We have also shivered just a little when we thought we were being followed, or that someone was watching us -- even though no one else was present.

Good ghost story writers bring back those sensations with the fiction they create, and the better they are at what they do, the more we are captivated in the moment.

The writers who have contributed to The Big Book of Ghost Stories are those who seem to me to have achieved this better than anyone else. Even the stories that I've read more than once still, somehow, raise the goosebumps on my arm and cause a shudder on even the warmest day.

Motion pictures are a different medium than the printed page and I have seldom found them to be as frightening as the well-told tale. The problem rests, I think, in the fact that the unseen is always scarier than the seen. A work of fiction keeps enough distance from the reader so that even the visible ghost remains unseen. On the screen, once a ghost becomes visible he loses some of that ability to terrify.

My favorite ghost movies tend to be either romantic or comic. While they often are sentimental enough to embarrass Hallmark, I'm a sucker for them anyway. "Ghost," "The Bishop's Wife," "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir," "Portrait of Jennie" -- they all can be seen over and over again, preferably with someone you love.

The ultimate ghost story, however, the one so ingrained in our culture that it is watched every year at Christmastime, and always with joy, is "A Christmas Carol." It is such an iconic book and motion picture that it made the name Scrooge shorthand for anyone who was cheap and selfish, or who didn't appreciate the Christmas season. When the book was published, it changed the Christmas tradition of a roast goose for dinner to a roast turkey, because that is what Scrooge had a street urchin fetch for him. There are few literate people in the western world who don't recognize the name Tiny Tim or who don't know the significance of the three ghosts who visit Scrooge.

A Christmas Carol is that rare literary (and cinematic) work that is able to evoke fright, laughter, and even, perhaps, a tear in the eye.

Dickens' classic does not appear in The Big Book of Ghost Stories for two reasons: It is a full-length book in its own right and it has been readily available for a century and a half, so it seemed superfluous to include it. It is just about the only great ghost story that cannot be found between the covers of this tome!