Monday, January 25, 2010

Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories

Lately, I have been completely obsessed by short stories.  I can't explain it (and I hope it doesn't mean that my attention span is getting even shorter in this day and age of instant information).  Basically it started shortly before The Classics Circuit tour of Edith Wharton.  I couldn't decide which of her books to read and whilst perusing my library's catalog, I found that their collection included a delightful CD version of four of Wharton's short stories from Selected Shorts, the excellent NPR radio program.  By far, my favorite was Christina Pickles' brilliant reading of Xingu.  (You wouldn't think it, but Wharton's ironic streak is sometimes hilarious.  She completely knocks the stuffing out of society matrons in this story.) Roman Fever is pretty wonderful too.

But I digress. Because of my obsession with Wharton, I discovered Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories, as it includes a one of her short stories -- yes, Edith Wharton, the queen of New York society novels, also wrote ghost stories.  Good ones.  Some of them are included in her collections, but they're also available in a single volume, which is worth looking for.

 Roald Dahl is himself one of my favorite short story writers.  If you have only read his delightful children's books, please go directly to your bookstore or library, or start googling the shorts and READ THEM NOW, because they're brilliant.  He has a marvelously wicked sense of humor, and most of his stories end with jaw-dropping plot twists.  He personally selected this collection, after an ill-fated attempt in the 1960s to create a weekly television anthology of ghost stories (rather like the Twilight Zone).  Dahl researched and read hundreds of ghost stories in preparation, and apparently, most of them were lousy.  He found 24 that were worth filming for the series, and fourteen of those are included in this anthology.

The stories range in time period over 100 years, from The Ghost of a Hand, a classic by the gothic writer J. Sherdian Le Fanu, to the 1950s and 1960s.  All of the stories except one seem to be British -- a Danish story called Elias and the Draug, which is my least favorite of the collection.  Dahl himself admits in the introduction that it's much scarier in the original Danish, but since I'm limited to English I'll have to take his word for it.  My favorite was Harry by Rosemary Timperley, in which a woman begins to fear that her adopted daughter's imaginary playmate isn't so imaginary.  It still makes me shiver a little when I think about it.  Edith Wharton's Afterward is also good, though it starts off a little slowly (typical of Wharton) but the payoff is excellent.  And the final story, The Upper Berth, would make me think twice about crossing the Atlantic by ship if I actually had the means to do so.  The collection also includes tales by British writers E. F. Benson, who wrote the Mapp & Lucia series (still on my to-read list) and L. P. Hartley.

Roald Dahl didn't write any of the stories in the anthology.  Though his work is sometimes macabre, his short works aren't actually ghost stories.  Howeve, he did write the introduction, which is great -- he writes about the nature of ghost stories, female writers versus male (lots of great ghost stories by women, surprisingly), and about the writing of children's fiction.  It's worth reading or even buying the book just for the introduction.

And now that I'm all into the short stories, I've decided to sign up for a challenge -- one that I may actually be able to achieve! Yes! It's The Short Story Challenge.  I'm going to try and read at least five short story collections this year -- I don't think I'll count Dahl's collection, since I read it before I signed up (that smacks of cheating) -- but there are lots of other authors I haven't read with great short works.  On my to-read bookshelf I've already got collections by Chekhov, Hemingway, Garcia Marquez (which is turning brown since I've owned it so long) and Haruki Murakami.  Here are some of my favorite short stories, in no particular order.  I've added links when available if you can't wait and want to read them immediately.
 I'm always looking for suggestions -- any favorites in the blogosphere? Please let me know in the comments section.


  1. I'm going to be reading Snow Glass Apples soon, either this week or next. I'm trying to decide if I should read that one or The Grey Lady by Gaskell first. Maybe the Gaiman one since my last two short stories were classics.

    I can't read whole collections. I've tried and I just tune the stories out after the first or second story. I love stories individually but not as a collection, which is why my personal short story challenge this year is to read one per week. That way I can really concentrate on them.

    But speaking of recommendations, CB from REady When You ARe, CB! is putting together a list of the 1001 best short stories ever. Currently he has a little over 300 stories on the list. You can check it out here:

    He's also taking suggestions so if any of these you mention aren't on there, you can certainly recommend them.

  2. I rarely read a whole collection in one sitting, and I agree, I sometimes lose steam and put the book down indefinitely. But they are great for traveling or when you just have little bits of time. Thanks for the link, I'll look at it directly.

  3. I LOVE Maupassant and Chekhov. Pevear and Volokhonsky have a great collection of Chekhov's stories you should find. And then, well, just read tons of Maupassant.

    I thought at first this was going to be about Roald Dahl's ghost stories. I'm pleased to hear that is' all sort of classics too.

  4. Rebecca, I do have the P&V translation of Chekhov! I'm also hoping to get to their version of Gogol's stories as well. I've wanted to read Gogl ever since I read "The Namesake" by Jhumpa Lahiri - also a great short story writer, I completely forgot her -- she won the Pulizer Prize for "The Interpreter of Maladies," a wonderful short story collection.

  5. I enjoyed Interpreter of Maladies too! I haven't read any Golgol, although I did read a Landolfi story ABOUT Golgol. I didn't know P&V did Golgol too. Must look in to it.

  6. I love the cover! I'm guilty of reading books because of the cover, but it looks haunted and haunted it must be!

  7. I'm guilty of choosing books because of their covers too -- or of avoiding books because they're old copies, which is so wrong because once I get into a book I don't usually care about the outsides.

  8. Yay! I've been really into them recently, too. I also blame the Wharton circuit :)

    Roman Fever was one of the craziest stories I've ever read. I had to keep checking the publication date and couldn't believe it. Shocking!

  9. I LOVED Roman Fever -- great twist at the end! And it's very modern. Have you read any of the ghost stories yet? I really like them. EW takes awhile to get to the point, but her work really stays with me.