Tales from the Dead of Night – Thirteen Classic Ghost Stories selected by Cecily Gayford
Oooh ghost stories. They’ve been around a long time, which makes you wonder: back in the days without the graphics of games, cinema and TV, how DID people scare others with spooky tales? Of course, we’ve always had the traditional “telling of ghost stories in the dark around the fire (or on sleepovers)”. And of course, books. The art of scaring people with only words on paper has always fascinated me. How do people do it? It’s a world where jump-scares and vivid imagery fail. I mean really, no matter how well you describe something horrifying-looking, it’s going to be far less scary than actually seeing it in reality. And so I picked up this book in order to find out more about the classic written ghost story.
I will say that of the thirteen stories featured in this book, only a few really managed to frighten me but all of them were charming, enjoyable reads that hooked you in from the get-go. The moment you set foot on each first page, you know that something interesting awaits you and you feel compelled to read on. I believe this is because they all used a similar plot technique which goes back to the idea of HOW horror writers scare people with words alone. As it says on the book’s back cover: “thirteen master storytellers pull back the veil of everyday life to reveal the nightmares which lurk just out of sight.” Emphasis on the word everyday. The most effective kinds of horror infect their audience, producing fear long after he or she has left the cinema or turned the page. They do this by planting a bug in the imagination, causing the victim to see phantoms in shadows and monsters lurking behind walls. These bugs are triggered by cues in the environment, so they become more powerful if the book/movie is closely related to everyday, ordinary life. Take Jaws for example. After watching that monstrosity emerge from the murky depths, you probably will become prone to some illogical fear if you wade out into the ocean (within a short period after watching the movie of course). But on the bus? At school? Lying in bed? Nah.
Most of the stories in this book possess a simple plot taking place in a simple location. What’s jarring and interesting about them is that they somehow manage to maintain the atmosphere of the common everyday while exploring unnatural occurrences. This creates a sense of tension, pushing you on to read more. Some of the stories take this a step further by simply using natural occurrences but hinting at the possibility that those simple occurrences had more malevolent origins. In any case, they all skilfully and delicately thread the line between the two worlds of the natural and the supernatural, creating a gateway of sorts within the reader themself such that he may perceive both worlds as he reads. Like the atmospheric writing of The Loney, this creates the illusion that you are not safe no matter where you are – inducing fear. As an aspiring writer, I think this book is an excellent example of how one can balance fantasy and reality in order to improve verisimilitude and further bring out the unique flavours of a story.
If you don’t have the time to finish the entire book, my recommendations would be The Black Veil by A. F. Kidd and The Toll-House by W. W. Jacobs, for they were the two that I found the most powerful in inducing actual fear, as well as The Shadow by E. Nesbit and Pomegranate Seed by Edith Warton for their mastery of blending the supernatural with the everyday.
Verdict: Give it a read! (It’s not that scary!)