The haunting and lost ghost stories of Edith Wharton

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When Edith Wharton was nine, she contracted typhoid fever and became seriously ill. Confined to her bed, week after week, she longed not for recovery but for books. “While I was recovering my only prayer was to be allowed to read,” she wrote in “Life & I,” a posthumously published autobiography. Her mother was very fond of reading – Wharton had to ask permission to read novels until her marriage in 1885 – but on that occasion she got the merchandise. The book she acquired was a “thief story,” and it sent Wharton into an unexpected panic. “For a child without imagination, the story would undoubtedly have been harmless,” she wrote. But “with my intense Celtic sense of the supernatural, the stories of thieves and ghosts were perilous read.” She relapsed, and when she woke up, “it was to enter a world haunted by formless horrors.”

The “perilous” story, and perhaps its connection to his illness, has stuck with Wharton for years. “I had been a naturally fearless child; now I was living in a state of chronic fear, ”she wrote in“ Life & I. ”“ Fear of What? I couldn’t say – and even then, I never could articulate my terror. It was like a dark, indefinable threat, forever lying in wait for me, hiding and threatening. She was afraid of the dark and of being alone. She hated being left to wait outside. It wasn’t until she was in her thirties – long after she had grown into a “young lady with long skirts and my hair up,” as she writes – and on her way to winning the Pulitzer Prize for her novel “The Age of Innocence” that she was able to sleep in a house that contained a book of ghost stories. “I often had to burn books like this,” she wrote, “because it scared me to know they were downstairs in the library! “

Wharton was a practical woman, as savvy about business as she was about social conventions, and she eventually got over her fear of ghost stories enough to become a master of form. Towards the end of her life, in the mid-1970s, she spent time putting together a selection of her best ghost stories for publication. It was one of his last literary acts; she died in August 1937, in her sumptuous home in northern France. New Yorker by birth, she had been an expatriate for two decades. She had become increasingly preoccupied with the past, having lost many friends to war or illness, and her own health was declining. In “All Souls,” one of Wharton’s last stories, a wealthy old woman wakes up in a mysteriously empty house surrounded by thick snow. She is injured – a fractured ankle – and cut off from the outside world, and she crawls through the rooms to seek help. The silence is oppressive. (“It was not the idea of ​​noises that frightened her, but this inexorable and hostile silence,” she writes.) Story of the terror of death.

For a writer best known for her incisive social novels about the old New York City of her childhood, Wharton’s ghost stories are an important part of her work. In addition to longer works, including “The House of Mirth” and “Ethan Frome”, she has published some eighty-five short stories, many of which are spectral. Wharton’s Ghost Tales were the subject of an anthology alongside other American masters of malaise – Edgar Allan Poe, whom she admired, and her good friend Henry James – but her 1937 collection, published soon after. his death has long been exhausted. In October, it will be relaunched by NYRB Classics, with the same preface it was originally published with and the same title, “Ghosts”. Spanning the span of Wharton’s career – the first story, “The Maid’s Bell”, dates from 1902, the tales appear in their original, somewhat confusing order. Wharton does not seem to have arranged them chronologically or thematically, but according to his own mysterious preferences. “I liked the idea of ​​’This is exactly what she put out’,” Sara Kramer, editor-in-chief of NYRB Classics told me.

What Wharton has published is a haunting and often terrifying collection of stories that most often meet his criterion of a successful ghost story: “If that gives a cold shiver down your spine, he’s done his job and done it. did well. “In her preface, Wharton worries about the audience’s ability to appreciate a good ghost story, an instinct she sees” gradually atrophied by these two global enemies of the imagination, radio and film. “Life modern in 1937 was too loud, too diffuse and distracted, for a ghost to make much progress. “Ghosts, in order to manifest themselves, require two conditions abhorrent to the modern mind: silence and continuity,” writes- her. “Because where a ghost has appeared once, it seems to want to appear again; and it obviously prefers the silent hours, when the radio has finally ceased to jazz.

When “Pomegranate Seed,” one of the best stories in the collection, was first published in a magazine, Wharton received a flood of angry letters from his readers. The story follows Charlotte Ashby, the pragmatic second wife of a man named Kenneth Ashby. When the couple return home from their honeymoon, Charlotte notices the arrival of a series of letters, nine in total, addressed to her husband in handwriting she recognizes but can’t quite locate. . She becomes obsessed with the mysterious notes (Kenneth won’t tell her anything), even asking for her stepmother’s help. I’m not going to spoil the story, but there is a suggestion that the sender, who writes in a hand too weak to read, is not of our world. After the story was published, Wharton was “bombarded by a host of investigators.” They wanted “to be told how a ghost could write a letter, or put it in a mailbox. “A reader, demanding an explanation, included a stamped envelope with his address.” These problems have caused sleepless nights for many correspondents, “Wharton wrote curtly.

Most ghost stories take place in big old houses, dusty and full of secrets. “Being housebound is a theme she comes up on often,” Meg Toth, professor of literature at Manhattan College, who is writing a book on Wharton’s latest work, told me. Wharton was probably relying on experience; in 1901 she bought a hundred and thirteen acres in Lenox, Massachusetts, and built a new house, the Mount, modeled on a magnificent 17th-century English country house. She has designed formal gardens, sprawling grounds and a beautiful library. (Wharton first found success by publishing an interior design book, “Home Decorating,” in 1897). Wharton and her husband, Teddy, lived part-time at the Mount for just ten years, many of which were unhappy. Teddy suffered from fits of mental instability; they divorced in 1913.

Toth believes that Wharton “was drawn to the genre because she could overcome different fears that she had in her life.” In the early stories, “there is a lot about the breakdown of her marriage, the isolation and feeling trapped,” she said. Reading the stories, I sometimes felt like I had discovered a hidden room in a spotless house, and I turned to find that the door had closed behind me. In “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” a young woman named Hartley finds a job in a vast Hudson estate taking care of her mistress, Mrs. Brympton. On the first day, she is led down a long passage to her bedroom, which faces an open door across the hall. She wonders who owns this room. “This is nobody’s room,” the maid told him, quickly, and closed the door. “It’s empty, I mean, and the door shouldn’t have been opened.” Mrs. Brympton wants it to stay locked. Red alert!

In one of Wharton’s most famous ghost stories, “Afterward,” from 1910, a “romantic” American couple, Mary and Ned Boyne, are determined to buy an old English house with their own ghost. (“I don’t want to have to drive ten miles to see someone else’s ghost. I want one of mine there,” Ned says.) A friend half-jokingly recommends a house called Lyng in the Dorsetshire, but warns them that the situation is not straightforward. “Oh there is one, sure, but you’ll never know, “she said of Lyng’s ghost,” soon after. Once the Boynes move in, they nervously mock the ghost. Have you seen it? And you? … until the day Ned disappears. Alone, Mary begins to feel that the house is watching her. “No, she would never know what became of him, no one would ever know,” she thinks to Ned. “But the house knew; the library in which she spent her long lonely evenings knew. Sometimes Mary wonders if the “dark old walls” are going to “explode into an audible revelation of their secret.” But the house turns out to be “incorruptible”, “silent accomplice” and remains silent.


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