Edith Wharton: horror writer | Book Riot
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Edith Wharton was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 for her novel Age of innocence. She is also known for her other novels, such as Ethan Frome and The house of joy. I love his short stories, especially the classic “Roman Fever”. She’s a highly acclaimed writer, although many readers might not realize that Wharton also wrote ghost stories, and some really good stories.
Wharton herself was terrified of ghost stories, having admitted to burning books on the subject for fear of having them in the house. Still, she slowly started reading ghost stories and then she started writing ghost stories. Stories where you can feel strong winter storms and dense fog imprison you in a frigid, dark house. Stories where we question our sanity and our senses. And these haunting, ghostly stories are what I love most about Wharton’s work.
The ghost stories of Edith Wharton
Some of her most famous ghost stories include “Lady Maid’s Bell” and “Pomegranate Seed”. For those familiar with Shirley Jacksons’ many public comments on the famous story “The Lottery”, published in 1948 by The New Yorker; Wharton experienced a similar episode of commentary for his “Pomegranate Seed” story much earlier, when the story appeared in Diary of the house for ladies in 1931.
In the preface to his collection of stories, aptly titled Ghosts, first published in 1937 and recently republished in its original format by NYRB, Wharton wrote:
… I was bombarded by a crowd of investigators anxious, in the first place, to know the meaning of the title of the story (in the dark ages of my childhood, knowledge of classical fairyland was so much part of our stock of knowledge that Grimm and Andersen), and second, to be told how a ghost could write a letter or put it in a mailbox.
“Preface” by Ghosts by Edith Wharton
Shirley Jackson and Edith Wharton both have a knack for arousing discomfort and awe deep in our souls, and it seems they both have a knack for stirring it enough that people feel the need for them. write anxious, even angry letters. What I deeply admire about Wharton’s ghost stories, just like Jackson’s work, is how she portrays the spookiness of mundane activities and shows just how distorted the servant can be. Wharton takes many houses (with wonderful names I might add: Kerfol, Lyng, Bells, etc.) and makes them sad and cold places, despite their size and opulence. She takes what many would consider “normal” people, farmers, quiet widows and widowers, secretaries and so on. and makes them suspicious, haunted and even bewitched.
Productive ambiguity in the horror of Edith Wharton
Wharton is brilliant in that she inherently trusts the stranger to her readers, which depending on the reader’s acceptance of the strangeness often makes the stories more terrifying. She writes in her preface:
When I first started reading, and then writing, ghost stories, I was aware of a common medium between me and my readers, of meeting them midway among the primal shadows, and of filling in the gaps of my story with sensations and divinations close to mine.
“Preface” by Ghosts by Edith Wharton
Not everything is explained in the Wharton stories. Some readers may not appreciate the ambiguity of its purposes. Not all sounds and sensations are analyzed down to the smallest crumbs. Some stories end with terrible revelations and assumptions, while others exhale in a soft and eerie whisper. These are not slasher or cosmic horror stories; There is a lot of banality in Wharton’s settings, and her characters often pride themselves on their normalcy, routines, and not having adventurous lives or horrific affairs.
Yet in the dark corners and lonely hallways of these places, something just isn’t right. Wharton takes a look at and focuses on some of the simpler fears: abandonment, loneliness, or being responsible – even inadvertently – for a small event or event that then costs someone their life or his livelihood.
While I could easily be tempted to write a thesis essay on the whole of Edith Wharton’s ghost story work, many have already done so. His most famous stories, such as “Afterward”, “Grenade Seed” and “The Lady Maid’s Bell”, have been anthologized and analyzed repeatedly (and rightly so). Instead, I’ll just touch on my favorite ghost story in the collection, and how this one in particular disturbed me.
The fear of abandonment is so well developed in the first story of the Wharton collection. Being confined or trapped at home is a common theme among Wharton stories. It is a common and primordial fear. In “All Souls”, the main character Sara Clayburn returns home, Whitegates, when she meets a woman on the way. What’s special is that Sara doesn’t recognize this woman, and she knows more about the area, and when asked where the woman was going, she replies, “Only to see one of the girls. After the meeting, Sara falls and injures her ankle. She is told not to step on it and confined to bed. Her maid, Agnes, leaves her a tray of food, which Sara also finds unusual, knowing that she could call him if necessary.
It’s a perfect storm for a horror story, as there is also a real snowstorm, and Sara is not used to being inactive. The night after her injury, she counts the hours until morning, the deafening silence, and what was mundane before suddenly becomes strange and suspicious. Sara’s imagination runs wild:
“Who who has lived in an old house would believe that the furniture sits there all night? Mrs. Clayburn almost felt as if she had seen a small table with slender legs quickly come back to its place.
Morning finally arrives, but silence remains. Sara rings for Agnès but she does not come. The snow outside is blinding. The food tray offered by Agnes but which Sara laughed at is now out of reach. The day continues.
The story turns into a sort of quest: Sara searches the house for her servants – Agnes is not there, the cook has not come, the maid’s room is empty – and answers, wondering if she was abandoned, shaking with fear and pain on her ankle. Has she been forgotten? Was it all planned? The emptiness of the house is the worst. His own home is becoming a stranger to him, and ain’t it scary like hell, to see our own house as the bad guy?
And like other horror stories and movies that disturb me, somehow the day goes by, and the next day Agnes and the others come along, and act like nothing unusual has happened. . The Void Day and a very strange event (which I don’t want to spoil) Sara endured is seen as a side effect of her painful injury. The doctor who comes to check her ankle is different from the one who originally treated her. It’s that horrible feeling that everyone is involved in the joke except you.
The story comes full circle. A year passes. Sara Clayburn tells the narrator this story of what happened. Then, a year to the day, on the eve of All Souls, Sara meets the same woman on her way back to Whitegates. The woman is walking home, as she was a year ago. And she answers Sara’s question with the same answer. It’s refreshing because Sara absolutely makes the connection and gets away with it, and there’s a clue that Agnes do know something else. Sara said to the narrator:
“And as I looked at her, I could see a secret little spark of relief in her eyes, even though she was so on guard. And she just said, ‘Alright ma’am,’ and asked me what I wanted to take with me. Just like I used to rush to New York at nightfall on a fall evening to meet on a business date! No she made a mistake in showing no surprises …
However, with Wharton’s expertly productive ambiguity, there is no confirmation. There is guesswork, even a mention of witches at the end of the story. But nothing is confirmed in absolute terms. Sara is not going back to Whitegates.
Wharton gloriously plays with the fear of being trapped in our own home. She uses secondary character gas lighting, deep pain from injury, and a blizzard to set the scene for perfect unease. I always think of that story, especially the line about furniture that moves at night, and calm snow-covered nights will never be the same again.
Among the primordial shadows
For the stories in the collection that made my hair stand on end in the same way, “Le triomphe de la nuit” and “Bewitched” (the dialogue in this story, sacred cow) also possessed my thoughts like little shards. There’s just something about a good horror story that haunts me in the best possible way. I like as much to separate the lines and the choices of Edith Wharton as to revel in the discomfort she made me feel. That’s why I also wrote about literary horror magazines and their amazing short fiction that still resonates in my head. You can also find great collections of horror news to help you get through the winter months.
Edith Wharton lamented in her preface that the ghost story could very well be in decline. She believed that ghosts counted on silence, and modernity was putting an end to it. But I think she would take courage in the ghostly stories published today by Antananarivo Due, Mariana Enríquez and many others. After all, as Edith Wharton said of ghost stories, “if this shivers down your spine, it’s because he did his job and did it well.”
The Wharton stories continue to thrill me, as do most contemporary horror shorts. That is, the horror stories – the ghost stories – have done and will continue to do a very good job.