Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Wharton’s Night Frights

With Halloween fast approaching, The New Yorker’s Anna Russell takes the measure of Ghosts, a collection of Edith Wharton’s spookier short stories, newly re-released by NYRB Classics:
For a writer known mostly for incisive social novels about the old New York of her childhood, Wharton’s ghost stories make up a significant chunk of her œuvre. In addition to longer works, including “The House of Mirth” and “Ethan Frome,” she published some eighty-five short stories, many of them spectral. Wharton’s ghost tales have been anthologized alongside other American masters of unease—Edgar Allan Poe, whom she admired, and her good friend Henry James—but her 1937 collection, which was published shortly after her death, has long been out of print. This October, it will be revived by NYRB Classics, with the same preface it was initially published with, and the same title, “Ghosts.” Spanning the length of Wharton’s career—the earliest story, “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” is from 1902—the tales appear in their original, somewhat perplexing order. Wharton seems to not have arranged them chronologically or thematically, but according to her own mysterious preferences. “I liked the idea of, ‘This is exactly what she put out,’ ” Sara Kramer, the executive editor of NYRB Classics, told me.

What Wharton put out is a bewitching, and frequently terrifying, collection of tales which more often than not fulfill her criterion for a successful ghost story: “If it sends a cold shiver down one’s spine, it has done its job and done it well.” In her preface, Wharton frets about the public’s ability to appreciate a good ghost story, an instinct she sees “being gradually atrophied by those two world-wide enemies of the imagination, the wireless and the cinema.” Modern life in 1937 was too noisy, too diffuse and distracted, for a ghost to make much headway. “Ghosts, to make themselves manifest, require two conditions abhorrent to the modern mind: silence and continuity,” she wrote. “For where a ghost has once appeared it seems to hanker to appear again; and it obviously prefers the silent hours, when at last the wireless has ceased to jazz.”
Click here to find Russell’s full piece.

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