Horror stories, ghost stories, gothic literature — they tend to be a bit looked down on in the general book-going community. “Yes, it’s fine, but it’s not really ‘literature’ is it?” Well, actually yes, it is. And as it goes, some of the most influential writers in history have dabbled in the dark arts. Literary arts, of course.
The authors on this list wrote world-changing books that are still considered essential reading today.
There are seven nights until Halloween and below I have included links to seven short stories — one story each night to prepare you for fright.
The Age of Innocence; Ethan Frome; The House of Mirth. All three of these incredibly famous books are wonderful and regularly studied at universities around the world. Edith Wharton is one of the most prolific female writers in history. In addition to 16 novels and 7 novellas, she also wrote non-fiction, poetry and many short stories. A good portion of those short stories were ghost stories!
Wharton reportedly loved ghost stories as a child. When she was not travelling the world, organising wartime relief, travelling to the front line as a war correspondent, or explaining to the public the proper way to decorate and garden, this incomparable lady was penning short stories.
Like her novels, the ghost story titled The Lady’s Maid’s Bell takes a look at her society and in particular women’s relationships, options, limitations, and condemnations.
North and South is one of my all-time favourite novels. It shone a harsh light on the horrific conditions of the working class in England that was often ignored by the upper classes until her ground-breaking novel. As an aside, this is the novel that Charles Dickens reportedly held back from publication and plagiarised to create Hard Times. Gaskell’s is clearly the superior novel but that is a discussion for another day.
Gaskell’s other most famous works include Mary Barton and Cranford which show us two very different worlds in Northern England, both beautifully realised. She had a way of summing a person up completely in one delicate sentence and her social commentary was subtle yet fierce. She is an absolute delight.
Of course, she also wrote ghost stories. One of her most popular is The Old Nurse’s Story and that is for good reason. Gaskell was a writer with a strongly feminist drive and those themes are apparent beneath the surface of this unsettling ghost story.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Okay, it may not come as a huge surprise that the author of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde also wrote short horror stories. It is definitely worth celebrating the range of a man who also penned Treasure Island and Kidnapped among several other novels.
Stevenson came from a long line of lighthouse architects and he was expected to carry on the family tradition. As a child he was taken on his father’s work expeditions around the coast of Scotland, inspecting lighthouses. The beauty of this rugged coastline inspired many works and it also influenced his horror story, The Merry Men. Stevenson’s style is always inviting and engaging and this tale is no exception.
James wrote one of the most famous horror stories of all time: The Turn of the Screw, so it will come as no surprise he was also a master of the short ghost story.
That said, he wrote a lot of novels and short stories that are nowadays lauded as some of the greatest literary works in history. These include The Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians and The Ambassadors. These works are “high literature”, not the sort of thing associated in the public consciousness with stories for Halloween. If we look a little deeper though, we can see that tales such as The Real Right Thing dissect the very way we engage with the literature we are reading. It’s high time to get meta with Henry James.
When he wasn’t writing books involving the sexualisation of children or inviting readers to attend beheadings, Nabakov sometimes took to spooky stories.
Nabokov studied zoology and Slavic and Romance languages at Cambridge University and it was during his time there that he became aware of and enamoured with the ghost stories of that famous Cambridge alumni, MR James.
Nabakov’s short story, The Visit to the Museum is very “Jamesian” and an original and delightful Halloween read.
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Stowe wrote one of the most famous American novels of all time, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This was one of 12 novels she wrote, in addition to a play, several non-fiction works and dozens of short stories.
Stowe also wrote several ghost stories and The Ghost in the Cap’n Brown House is a particularly fascinating one. What at first appears to be a basic apparition story is actually asking us to look deeper into the way we view respectability and decency and the way we judge people based on their sex, class and background.
The creator of bestselling works including Of Human Bondage and The Moon and Sixpence was another incredibly prolific writer. He was reportedly the most well-paid writer during the 1930s and in addition to his many novels, his short stories are seemingly endless.
Just a quick note that I could not find a print version of this story to read free online so below I have linked to an audiobook.
Colonialism is a recurring theme in Maugham’s writing and the supernatural short story The Taipan is no exception. Take a closer look at the unrelenting, misplaced pride of the men who carelessly sliced off as much of the world for themselves as they could.
The genre of short horror stories is often overlooked so I hope this list of influential and important writers who enjoyed the tradition will inspire some to explore this world a little further.
If nothing else, may these Halloween tales carry you through to a fantastic evening on the 31st of October!
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