The Classics Circuit: The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

I have a confession to make, I haven’t completed The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton.  I’ve a little less than 100 pages to complete the book, but let me assure you that it isn’t poor Edith Wharton’s fault.  I was distracted the week of and part of the week after the wedding.  I kept intending to read — I even brought Wharton on the honeymoon — but the mood and inclination never arose.  Yesterday I woke up, looked at the calender, and freaked out.  HOLY JEEBUS I’VE A POST TO DO!  To get the book completed, I parked myself on the couch with the cat and a large cup of coffee and thought I’d force my way through the book. 

Of course, I didn’t need to “make” myself read.  My focus was hooked and my imagination ignited the minute I began reading.  Hope was at grandma’s house and Sam was at work — I had a perfectly still house to read the afternoon away.  As rain slid down the windows and plopped into over full puddles I read.  Everyone in a while I would pop my head up to refill the coffee or converse with the cat.  In fact, Beau Kitty has heard all my thoughts on Wharton today and meows his assent.  He agrees with me, Wharton is one of the finest crafters of the short story.

When I sat down to read, part of my panic was over what I was going to say about Wharton’s Ghost Stories.  Ghost stories tend hinge on visceral details, the mysterious, and the unexpected and these three essential aspects of the ghost story must be present in order for the prize-winning element to be achieved:  Tension.  The reader is afraid because of a tautness in the mind. Reading the visceral details and questioning the mystery leaves the reader expecting something to happen, but logic is suspended and the reader’s mind waits for the spring — the uncanny — to startle.  The problem with reviewing specific ghost stories is that the reviewer inadvertently clues the reader into what to expect.  Even if I were to describe the stories specifically, and not even hint at the denouement, the stories would be less exciting to you, the reader.  So what to discuss in a review?

Luckily, there are two reoccurring elements in Wharton’s ghost stories that add complexity to the collection.  First of all, haunted houses are — duh — a given in a good ghost story, but Wharton not only has haunted houses, she has houses that haunt.  Repeatedly in the text, narrators refer to houses remembering, emoting, and participating in the hauntings.  Much like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, at times the actual house is the ghost.  At other times the home mocks the protagonist: walls seem to hold secrets and refuse to divulge, the library presses in around a heroine, the quiet statuary questions the motives of the people in the home.  All of this builds Place as a most formible ghost.  For prime examples of some of the elements, check out “Afterward”, “The Eyes”, and “Kerfol.”

The second element that is sure to hook the reader is that Wharton’s ghost aren’t always traditional.  The traditional ghost is the spirt of a person who is dead and the ghost can be evil or merely confused and lonely.  Wharton does have some traditional ghosts in her tales, but what is most refreshing is that she has all manner of over ghosts:  a haunting of the future self, a half-dead man, a doppelganger, animals, or a living person believed dead.  This variety of ghosts unsettles the reader.  Anything could haunt a protagonist, the reader is aware of this allowing every shadowy corner and unexplained noise to increase that tension so important to the reader of the short story. Some of the best stories to illustrate a variety of ghosts include “The Eyes”, “Afterward”, “Kerfol”, “The Triumph of Night”, and “Miss Mary Pask.”

Edith Wharton’s Ghost Stories are sure to keep you awake at night.  The precision with which the stories are crafted and the uncanny invoked at every twist and turn will keep you hanging on each word.  For classic lovers and connoisseurs of everything scary, this collection is sure to achieve its goal of scaring the beejebus out of you!



  1. I have read lots and lots of Wharton but never any of her ghost stories. In fact until I read your blog, I didn't know she wrote any.

    Is Beau Kitty named after the stuffed animal on Laverne and Shirely? Are you even old enough to know Laverne and Shirley?

  2. LOL! I do know Laverne and Shirley. My mom watched that show. Beau Kitty is short for Beauregard Fitzgerald Capote. He has a genteel Southern Dandy kinda name, if Beau were human he would be wearing a linen suit and drinking a mimosa.

  3. I've read several Wharton stories so far, but only one ghost story, Afterward, which is great. Must add this to my to-read list. If you haven't, you should try her other short stories — my top picks are “Xingu” and “Roman Fever.” And if you're a fan of short stories, you should read Saki — great plot twist, and some of them are laugh-out-loud funny.

  4. Did you get to read “The Lady's Maid's Bell”? I found that one genuinely scary! I read that years ago as part of a general Edith Wharton short story collection. I have a ghost story collection of hers that I haven't gotten to yet.

  5. “houses that haunt” ooo sounds delicious. Maybe I'll save this for Halloween season!

    Sorry it was a stressful “oh no I have read it to write it” moment, but it sounds like you are enjoying the stories in their own right. Thanks for joining the Circuit!

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