Bill Kerwin's Reviews > Ghost Stories

Ghost Stories by Henry James
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Jul 24, 12

bookshelves: 19th-c-brit, gothic, weird-fiction, ghost-stories, short-stories
Read from May 16 to June 30, 2012


This collection containing all of Henry James' supernatural fiction is not only a book of chilling ghost tales, but also a book of psychologically complex short stories, written by a master stylist. The first two pieces are exceptions, mere apprentice works (after beginning well, “The Romance of Old Clothes” ends melodramatically, and the wordy and unfocused “The Ghostly Rental” lacks both compelling incidents and interesting themes), but seven of the remaining eight stories are excellent, and five of those seven (“Owen Wingrave,” “The Friends of Friends, “The Turn of the Screw,” “The Real Right Thing,” and “The Jolly Corner”) are masterpieces of the form.

I believe James' ghostly fictions improved as his style developed and matured. His later prose--charged with psychological nuance and attenuated suggestion--is so subtle in the way it conjures wraiths of meaning that one is often unsure whether it is the narrator, the author, or indeed the reader himself who has summoned any particular hint of significance; sometimes the meaning itself seems no more than a will o' the wisp, a vaporous adumbration, a mere exhalation of style. Reading his long, often baffling sentences can be especially infuriating for the reader of James' lengthy later novels--particularly for the reader who anticipates something akin to realism and psychological precision--but in a ghostly novella or a long scary short story, this later style may be just the thing. Searching for meaning in the old master's subtle prose can be like searching for ghosts in a fog: when the fog parts suddenly, and the spectre reveals itself, the effect--as in “The Jolly Corner”--can be both chilling and unique.

Enough has been said about the “The Turn of the Screw” and “The Jolly Corner,” so I won't weary you with my commentary, but I would like to say something about three other stories in the collection. “Owen Wingrave,” the most conventional of the five, uses its gothic cliches—including the procession of censorious family portraits lining the walls of the Wingrave's ancestral home--to show what a great burden generations of military tradition must be for the soul of a young man who—despite his personal courage—is a confirmed pacifist. The ending of this memorable work is poignant and tragic. “The Real Right Thing” takes for its theme not only authors and their biographers, but the ethics involved in the biographical process; it may be read as a supernatural corollary to “The Aspern Papers,” one of James' finest novellas. My absolute favorite of James ghost stories, however—and I'm including “The Turn of the Screw” and “The Jolly Corner,” both of which I love—is “The Friends of Friends.” It takes its inspiration from the common experience of having two friends who have so much in common you're certain they would like each other, but who—despite your best efforts—never are able to meet. From this simple idea, James builds an absorbing narrative of friendship, love, betrayal and lost opportunities. If you read nothing else here, read “The Friends of Friends.”
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Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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message 1: by Jon (new)

Jon Well, you haven't steered me wrong yet, so I'm in the process of buying this one.


message 2: by Henry (new)

Henry Avila Smart review from a smart guy.


message 3: by Werner (new) - added it

Werner Bill, good review, as usual! I haven't read all of James' ghost stories; but personally, I liked both of his "apprentice works" in the genre (of course, I don't mind melodrama!). The ending of "The Ghostly Rental," strikes me a nice (and characteristically Jamesian) bit of irony. But that's just me!

How did you like "Sir Edmund Orme"? That strikes me as one of his better-done ghostly tales (though I like The Turn of the Screw the best); but I'm not as well-read in the total corpus of his work as you are.


Bill  Kerwin Maybe I should try "Rental" again. I too liked the ending and agree with you about the irony. I just thought it took an awfully long time to get there; his style here is very wordy but lacking in his later subtlety and elegance.

You know, I felt a little guilty about not singling Orme out for special mention (it is one of the seven I consider to be "excellent"), but I just didn't like it quite as well as the others I listed by name. I think that is because what makes it original and interesting--the fact that the narrator is sort of honored and almost amused by the ghost's appearance--takes away from the final effect (although it does add to its irony).


message 5: by Werner (new) - added it

Werner Good point about the Orme story, Bill; I hadn't ever thought of it that way.


Texbritreader I just finished this, too. I like the point of view James seems to have in regard to his ghostly stories. He doesn't just ladle on a lot of creepy stuff or horror images but works out fairly nuanced psychological frights - good stuff!

I must say I also like Edith Wharton's ghost stories, although they are a bit lighter weight overall I still enjoy them. Have you read them? (I would guess - Yes.)


message 7: by Bill (last edited Aug 15, 2012 07:31AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bill  Kerwin I agree with your observation on James. Funny you should mention Wharton--I'm about three-quarters finished with her volume of ghost stories. "The Eyes" and "Afterward" (which I remembered fondly from years ago) are very fine, and "Kerfol" and "Bewitched" are good too.


message 8: by Hana (new) - added it

Hana Thanks for an excellent overview, Bill.


Bill  Kerwin You're welcome!


message 10: by Hana (new) - added it

Hana And thank you for the friend request--I was just enjoying rummaging through your bookshelves and thinking of sending you the same!


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