Author’s Note: There are no plot spoilers in the following essay.
The savagery and power of Edith Wharton’s ghost stories surprised me. The common view of Wharton (1862–1937), partly derived from photographs of the author looking stately and imperious in brocade, jewels, and furs, is that her work must be genteel and ladylike, even snooty. Yet such masterpieces as The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920), for all their urbanity and sophistication, brutally strip the gilt from the Gilded Age, revealing the high cost, or even the sad, final impossibility, of flouting the mores and dictates of old New York society. While Wharton’s style always maintains a decorous formality, her books are, beneath their polished surface, suffused with anguish and heartbreak.
So too are her harrowing ghost stories, which are most definitely for grown-ups, not kids. They are also among the best you’ll ever read.
Wharton composed eerie tales throughout the fort years of her writing life, publishing them in magazines between 1893 and 1935, then later collecting them in such books as Tales of Men and Ghosts (1910), Xingu (1916), and Here and Beyond (1926). Just before her death she gathered eleven of the best — including the unpublished “All Souls’ ” — in an omnibus entitled Ghosts (published posthumously in 1937). Since then there have been multiple editions of the supernatural fiction, usually duplicating the contents of Ghosts. But even the fullest (and most attractive) collection, The Triumph of Night and Other Tales (Tartarus Press), only brings the total number of Wharton’s spooky narratives up to fifteen.
That’s not a lot, but then Wharton never repeated herself, something that cannot be said of Sheridan Le Fanu, M. R. James, and other masters of the weird tale. Ghosts includes a psychological horror story told over drinks and cigars (“The Eyes”); one set largely in the past (“Kerfol”); one with a trick ending (“Miss Mary Pask”); a classroom classic (“Afterward,” which I first read in a high school literature anthology); an eerie allegory (“All Souls’ “); and several that are clear enough in their general import but troublingly ambiguous in their particulars. In every case, Wharton begins quietly, even with a bit of humor, before gradually deepening and darkening her narrative, as her protagonists grow increasingly aware of some essential wrongness in their world. Works like “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” advance, inexorably, from the unsettling to the scary to the truly haunting.
That story’s narrator is the newly hired maid of the pretty yet seemingly fragile and sickly Mrs. Brympton, who resides in a country manor up the Hudson. Hartley, as the maid is called, has been hired to fill the position of Emma Saxon, who died six months earlier after many years of devoted service to her mistress. While the big house is obviously full of servants, on her first day Hartley glimpses a woman in the hallway near her own door who doesn’t appear at staff meals. Perhaps she has imagined her? After all, Hartley has been ill recently, which is why she feels grateful for a job away from bustling city life. Still, there’s something disquieting about Brympton Place.
For some unexplained reason, Mrs. Brympton never rings the bell when she requires Hartley’s assistance; instead she sends another servant to fetch her. Also, for some reason, whenever the new maid goes for a walk to the village, her spirits lift, but when returning to the house her heart always drops down “like a stone in a well. It was not a gloomy house exactly,” Hartley tells us, “but I never entered it but a feeling of gloom came over me.”
When Mr. Brympton appears on one of his rare visits, the domestic atmosphere grows even more oppressive. He is “coarse, loud and pleasure-loving,” and, upon first meeting the new maid, studies her face and body with the practiced leer of a confident roué. But, as Hartley says, “I was not the kind of morsel he was after.” Fortunately, when her husband is away on his various trips, Mrs. Brympton can rely on the company of the quiet, book-loving neighbor Mr. Ranford, who often spends hours reading to her.
Late one night Hartley is suddenly awakened from sleep by the ringing of her hitherto silent bell. Taken by surprise, she hurriedly starts to dress when she hears the door of the locked room across from hers open, followed by the sound of steps hurrying down the hallway toward Mrs. Brympton’s bedroom.
Almost any reader will recognize that behind the uncanny events of “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” lies an unhappy marriage. But, even at the end, Wharton never quite spells out precisely what has happened. How did Emma Saxon die? Did Mr. Brympton seduce her? Is Emma’s ghost trying to protect her mistress? Why does Mr. Ranford use a cane? Was Hartley’s aid called upon and did she fail Mrs. Brympton? Or not?
Marriage is, in fact, a frequent theme in these stories. In “Afterward” a happily married couple, who have recently come into some money, are looking to rent a house in rural England, one with a bit of history and — they add with a smile — ideally one with a ghost as well. When the Boynes locate just the right place, they learn that its ghost is only perceived “afterward.” What does that mean? As a hesitating friend tells them, “One just has to wait.”
What is so marvelous in this story is the power that Wharton generates from very simple elements: the devoted wife, an old newspaper clipping, something troubling in the husband’s past, the timing of some odd events. “Afterward” is as neatly constructed as anything by O. Henry or Maupassant. Even when one foresees the overall arc of the story, Wharton adds those tiny details that one only understands “afterward.”
The marriage theme recurs in “Kerfol,” which begins when the unnamed narrator visits a romantic old house of that name in Brittany. Oddly, though, neither the owners nor the servants seem to be around — only a large number of dogs of various breeds and all of them unnaturally skittish. The explanation for these mysteries lies back in the seventeenth century when Yves de Cornault impulsively married Anne de Barrigan. The aging baron doted on his young bride and, though he would seldom allow her to leave the chateau, would always bring her a present when he returned from a trip to Morlaix or Rennes. One of these gifts was a small Pekinese, which she immediately adored. Pleased, her husband pointed out that a dog was the traditional emblem of fidelity. “Kerfol” is not a happy story.
Neither is “Pomegranate Seed,” perhaps the most disturbing of all Wharton’s ghostly tales. Charlotte Ashby discovers that her husband receives, every so often, a square gray envelope, addressed in a wispy hand. The first of these letters — without stamps and apparently hand-delivered to the house — appeared on the day the couple returned from their honeymoon a year previous. Immediately, Kenneth — who had been in high spirits — was plunged into confusion and furtiveness. Could this be a love letter or blackmail from a former mistress? Or a current one? But Kenneth is clearly happy with Charlotte, who had rescued him from the intense grief he felt after the death of his first wife, Elsie.
The title “Pomegranate Seed” almost gives the game away, but even if one guesses the truth Wharton never lets up on the suspense: Is the marriage doomed? Will Charlotte somehow save Kenneth? What, finally, can she do? One reads the last pages of this story with mounting anxiety, as the claims of the past gradually overwhelm the happiness of the present.
In the excellent preface to Ghosts, Wharton — writing at the end of her life — takes a moment to sum up her approach to the supernatural story. Regardless of the moral or ethical issues raised, she sensibly insists, “it must depend for its effect solely on what one might call its thermometrical quality; if it sends a cold shiver down one’s spine, it has done its job and done it well. But there is no fixed rule as to the means of producing this shiver….”
In her own case, Wharton usually prefers to relate her ghostly adventures “in the most unadorned language” and with a leisurely, almost surreptitious build-up. Only after the right atmosphere is established — of after-dinner ease or wintry isolation — should the Thing make its presence known. Wharton’s art especially excels in suggestive description, whether of places, people or events. But first she sets the tone:
We had been put in the mood for ghosts, that evening, after an excellent dinner at our old friend Culvin’s, by a tale of Fred Murchard’s — the narrative of a strange personal visitation.
Seen through the haze of our cigars, and by the drowsy gleam of the coal fire, Culwin’s library, with its oak walls and dark old bindings, made a good setting for such evocations…. ["The Eyes"]
It was clear that the sleigh from Weymore had not come; and the shivering young traveler from Boston, who had counted on jumping into it when he left the train at Northridge Junction, found himself standing alone on the open platform, exposed to the full assault of night-fall and winter. ["The Triumph of Night"]
Queer and inexplicable as the business was, on the surface it appeared fairly simple — at the time, at least…. ["All Souls' "]
I’ve spoken of marriage as one of Wharton’s major themes in these stories (as in her novels). Others include loneliness, possessiveness, regret — and the need for money. Attractive, trusting people are destroyed when they stand between the less scrupulous and a fortune. Sometimes the wronged dead return to seek justice; sometimes, third-party observers recognize, too late, that they might have prevented a tragedy had they been braver, more forceful, more astute. At least twice the ghost or monster may actually be a manifestation of inner corruption.
Wharton’s stories shy away from the gruesome; there may be blood but nothing more anatomically graphic. Instead she zeroes in on the mental suffering, on the tormenting doubts and confusions of her various protagonists. As in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” a person’s home often takes on an allegorical or even anthropomorphic significance. Old Mrs. Clayburn awakes one morning at Whitegates and finds her aging house oddly quiet, in fact empty of servants and quite deserted. As she explores her dwelling place, as though seeing it for the first time, the once-familiar suddenly becomes alien, and a growing sense of estrangement and isolation assails her. Is she hallucinating or feverish? Or is there another explanation?
In “Miss Mary Pask” the male narrator makes his way through a dense fog to the desolate little house in France belonging to the spinster sister of an old friend. Once inside, Miss Mary Pask plaintively tells him that she is so very lonely, that it’s been ages since she saw a living being, that she usually sleeps away from the sun in a shady corner of the garden. Is Miss Mary Pask dead, as she seems to be saying, or is she one of the living dead, not a zombie or a ghost but rather one of those elderly people, forsaken by the world, who drag out solitary days and nights in quiet desperation? Who can say for sure?
The word “Halloween” calls up images of children dressing up in costumes, trick-or-treaters scampering from house to house, teenagers watching kitschy horror movies on TV. Not so the other name for today’s autumnal holiday: All Hallows’ Eve. There’s something darker and more sinister in those three words, something more adult and potentially unnerving or transgressive. Many authors today write ghost stories for Halloween; but Edith Wharton — along with her friends Henry James and Walter de la Mare — wrote them for All Hallows’ Eve. Like ancient tragedies, her greatest stories evoke pity as well as terror.