When Edith Wharton was nine years old she contracted typhoid fever and fell gravely ill. Confined to her bed, week after week, she wished most fervently not for recovery but for books. “During my convalescence, my one prayer was to be allowed to read,” she wrote in “Life & I,” an autobiography that was published posthumously. Her mother was particular about reading material—Wharton had to ask for permission to read novels until her marriage, in 1885—but on this occasion she got the goods. The book she acquired was a “robber-story,” and it sent Wharton into an unexpected panic. “To an unimaginative child the tale would no doubt have been harmless,” she wrote. But “with my intense Celtic sense of the super-natural, tales of robbers & ghosts were perilous reading.” She relapsed, and when she woke, “it was to enter a world haunted by formless horrors.”
The “perilous” story, and perhaps its link to her illness, stayed with Wharton for years. “I had been a naturally fearless child; now I lived in a state of chronic fear,” she wrote in “Life & I.” “Fear of what? I cannot say—& even at the time, I was never able to formulate my terror. It was like some dark undefinable menace, forever dogging my steps, lurking, & threatening.” She was afraid of the dark and of being alone. She hated to be left waiting outside. Only when she was nearing thirty—long after she became a “ ‘young lady’ with long skirts and my hair up,” as she wrote—and on her way to winning the Pulitzer Prize for her novel “The Age of Innocence,” could she sleep in a house that contained a book of ghost stories. “I have frequently had to burn books of this kind,” she wrote, “because it frightened me to know that they were downstairs in the library!”
Wharton was a practical woman, as savvy about business affairs as social conventions, and she eventually overcame her fear of ghost stories enough to become a master of the form. Near the end of her life, in her mid-seventies, she spent time putting together a selection of her best ghost stories for publication. It was one of her final literary acts; she died in August, 1937, at her lavish home in the north of France. A New Yorker by birth, she had been an expat for two decades by then. She had grown increasingly preoccupied with the past, having lost many friends to war or illness, and her own health was failing. In “All Souls’,” one of Wharton’s last stories, a rich old woman wakes to a mysteriously empty house, surrounded by deep snow. She is injured—a fractured ankle—and cut off from the outside world, and she drags herself through the rooms looking for help. The silence is oppressive. (“It was not the idea of noises that frightened her, but that inexorable and hostile silence,” she wrote.) One of Wharton’s biographers, Hermione Lee, in her doorstopper on the author’s life, described “All Souls’ ” as “a story about the terror of death.”
For a writer known mostly for incisive social novels about the old New York of her childhood, Wharton’s ghost stories make up a significant chunk of her œuvre. In addition to longer works, including “The House of Mirth” and “Ethan Frome,” she published some eighty-five short stories, many of them spectral. Wharton’s ghost tales have been anthologized alongside other American masters of unease—Edgar Allan Poe, whom she admired, and her good friend Henry James—but her 1937 collection, which was published shortly after her death, has long been out of print. This October, it will be revived by NYRB Classics, with the same preface it was initially published with, and the same title, “Ghosts.” Spanning the length of Wharton’s career—the earliest story, “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” is from 1902—the tales appear in their original, somewhat perplexing order. Wharton seems to not have arranged them chronologically or thematically, but according to her own mysterious preferences. “I liked the idea of, ‘This is exactly what she put out,’ ” Sara Kramer, the executive editor of NYRB Classics, told me.
What Wharton put out is a bewitching, and frequently terrifying, collection of tales which more often than not fulfill her criterion for a successful ghost story: “If it sends a cold shiver down one’s spine, it has done its job and done it well.” In her preface, Wharton frets about the public’s ability to appreciate a good ghost story, an instinct she sees “being gradually atrophied by those two world-wide enemies of the imagination, the wireless and the cinema.” Modern life in 1937 was too noisy, too diffuse and distracted, for a ghost to make much headway. “Ghosts, to make themselves manifest, require two conditions abhorrent to the modern mind: silence and continuity,” she wrote. “For where a ghost has once appeared it seems to hanker to appear again; and it obviously prefers the silent hours, when at last the wireless has ceased to jazz.”
When “Pomegranate Seed,” one of the collection’s best stories, was first published in a magazine, Wharton received a flood of angry letters from readers. The story follows Charlotte Ashby, the pragmatic second wife of a man named Kenneth Ashby. When the couple return home from their honeymoon, Charlotte notices the arrival of a series of letters, nine in total, addressed to her husband in a handwriting she recognizes but can’t quite place. She becomes fixated on the mysterious notes (Kenneth will tell her nothing), even enlisting her mother-in-law’s help. I won’t spoil the story, but there’s a suggestion that the sender, who writes in a hand too faint to read, is not of our world. After the story’s publication, Wharton was “bombarded by a host of enquirers.” They wanted “to be told how a ghost could write a letter, or put it into a letter-box.” One reader, demanding an explanation, included a self-addressed stamped envelope. “These problems caused sleepless nights to many correspondents,” Wharton wrote, dryly.
Many of the ghost stories are set in grand old houses, dusty and full of secrets. “Being confined in the home—that’s a theme she returns to often,” Meg Toth, a professor of literature at Manhattan College, who is writing a book on Wharton’s late work, told me. Wharton was likely drawing from experience; in 1901, she purchased a hundred and thirteen acres in Lenox, Massachusetts, and built a new home, the Mount, modelled on a magnificent seventeenth-century English country home. She designed formal gardens, sprawling grounds, and a beautiful library. (Wharton first found success in publishing with an interior-design book, “The Decoration of Houses,” in 1897). Wharton and her husband, Teddy, lived part-time at the Mount for just ten years, many of them unhappy. Teddy suffered from fits of mental instability; they divorced in 1913.
Toth believes that Wharton “was attracted to the genre because she could work through different fears she had in her life.” In the early stories, “there’s a lot about her failing marriage, about isolation, and feeling trapped,” she said. Reading the stories, I sometimes felt like I had discovered a hidden room in an impeccable house, and turned to find that the door had shut behind me. In “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” a young woman named Hartley finds employment in a vast Hudson estate caring for its mistress, Mrs. Brympton. On her first day, she is led down a long passageway to her room, which faces an open door across the hall. She wonders whose room it is. “That’s nobody’s room,” the maid tells her, quickly, and shuts the door. “It’s empty, I mean, and the door hadn’t ought to be open. Mrs. Brympton wants it kept locked.” Red alert!
In one of Wharton’s most famous ghost stories, “Afterward,” from 1910, a “romantic” American couple, Mary and Ned Boyne, are bent on purchasing an old English house with its own ghost. (“I don’t want to have to drive ten miles to see somebody else’s ghost. I want one of my own on the premises,” Ned says.) A friend half jokingly recommends a house called Lyng, in Dorsetshire, but warns them that the situation isn’t straightforward. “Oh, there is one, of course, but you’ll never know it,” she says of the ghost at Lyng, “not till long long afterward.” Once the Boynes move in, they nervously make light of the ghost—Have you seen him? How about you?—until one day Ned disappears. Alone, Mary begins to feel that the house is watching her. “No, she would never know what had become of him—no one would ever know,” she thinks of Ned. “But the house knew; the library in which she spent her long lonely evenings knew.” At times, Mary wonders if the “old dusky walls” will “break out into some audible revelation of their secret.” But the house proves “incorruptible,” a “mute accomplice,” and keeps silent.
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