Readers’ Favorite Phantoms, Specters and Chain-Dragging Ghosts

Readers’ Favorite Phantoms, Specters and Chain-Dragging Ghosts

In March 1904, the Book Review ran a short appreciation of Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw,” calling it “one of the best ghost stories ever written” and lamenting that it had been “generally neglected by the public.” Perhaps, the Book Review speculated, it was because “there are periods when tales of the imagination burdened with supernatural horror are more popular than cheerful tales of love and adventure” and times when such stories do not sell at all.

Several days later, “Librarian” wrote a letter concurring with the Book Review’s assessment of the James novella: “It is the best ghost story I have ever read, and the only one that ever made me afraid of the dark.” “Librarian” then requested more recommendations, preferably ones featuring “some old-time ghost dragging chains through corridors or showing his cut throat.”

For months, fellow readers obliged, flooding the Book Review letters page with their favorite tales of terror — “The Severed Hand,” “What Did Mrs. Harrington See?,” “The Watcher,” “The Middle Toe of the Right Foot,” “Witch of Prague,” “The Damned Thing” and “The Monkey’s Paw,” to name just a few.

Some didn’t offer any recommendations but instead prescribed where one should consume scary books. “The true place to read a ghost story is in a lonely country house on a stormy winter night, when the wind is wailing and shrieking outside; and the wood fire on the hearth burns fitfully; now blazing, now dying down to a faint glow,” M.L. Johnson wrote. A reader identified only as H.F.L. added: “To read a ghost story aloud on a bright day to a party of cheerful people is to eat an egg without salt.” And Eugenia Elise Blain recounted her own experiences reading Bulwer Lytton’s “A Strange Story” in a remote seaside cottage: “The sky was overcast, and there were no stars visible. Only the red gleam of a lighthouse illumined the darkness and threw a lurid reflection on the water. The moaning of the wind and the surge and splash of the waves proved a fitting accompaniment.”

Other readers wrote in not to recommend but to admonish. “A straight-out greed for horror is not a thing to be fostered,” W.H. Babcock complained (he suggested drawing the line at “cannibal vampires and adorers of the devil”). He added, somewhat piously, “Good people have eaten clay and taken to snuff-dipping, but we do not recommend snuff and clay as a regular diet, much less toads and rattlesnakes.” N.A. Parker concurred: “A diseased imagination, like a diseased body, is a source of infection to others.”

But almost everyone else echoed Roy M. Grover, who wrote, “If only this ghost bibliography will go on … how happy we all — lovers of pallid, malignant phantoms and vindictive specters — shall be.”

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Last Update: Fri, 22 Jul 22 15:17:05