The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories

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The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories edited by Michael Cox and R. A. Gilbert (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), ISBN 0-192-84085-1, 524pp., £9.00 pb.

First published in 1986, The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories has now been reissued. Since the most recent story, T. H. White's 1981 'Soft Voices at Passenham', was in any case already five years old at the time of the first publication, and since ghost stories are to some extent an inherently backward-glancing form, it has not really dated, except for the hilarious sentence in the introduction that in the English ghost story those who encounter ghosts are usually 'middle-class persons of independent, if modest, means: academics, writers, retired professionals, all of them people who might be expected to have leisure enough for the story to develop' (xv). I doubt that even in 1986 academics still counted among the leisured classes, but even if they did then, any ghost unwise enough to visit one now would probably find itself hit over the head with a lethal combination of the Roberts Report and a QAA self-evaluation document.

The passage of time has, however, undoubtedly made it easier for us to see that what is going on in this selection is not entirely what the editors think (or profess) is going on. Towards the close of the introduction, they declare that

In the present collection we have tried to hold five broad criteria in mind: each story should reveal to the reader a spectacle of the returning dead, or their agents, and their actions; there must be a dramatic interaction between the living and the dead, more often than not with the intention of frightening or unsettling the reader; the story must exhibit clear literary quality (not as subjectively vague a condition as it might sound); there must be a definable Englishness about the story, by which we generally understand English settings, English characters and institutions, and qualities (both stylistic and thematic) representative of the English ghost-story tradition as a whole; and finally, for not entirely practical reasons, the story must be relatively short. (Introduction, xvi)

Of these criteria, I would say that only the last, that of brevity, has been satisfactorily met, and that the penultimate, the emphasis on Englishness, is a definite red herring. A. E. Coppard's 1933 'Ahoy, Sailor Boy!', with its mulatto hostess and its reference to President Roosevelt, does not strike me as distinctively English; A. N. L. Munby's 1949 'An Encounter in the Mist' is set wholly in Wales, and V. S. Pritchett's Α Story of Don Juan' (1952) wholly in Seville, with no English characters of any sort; and Somerset Maugham's 1922 'The Taipan' arguably reflects only obliquely on Englishness.

The real figure in the carpet here, it seems to me, is gender. In H. Russell Wakefield's 1929 Old Man's Beard', Sir Perseus Farrar, 'the greatest authority in Europe on that awful and occult business, the female nervous system' (342), observes of supernatural phenomena in general that 'It is significant that they seem to lose their force with the donning of trousers' (349). It is true that Sir Perseus is referring here to trousers as civilised rather than savage dress - that is, as distinguishing the European male from the 'savage' male - but nevertheless, as his profession indicates, gender is also an important factor in his assessment. (It is notable in this story, for instance, that though it is a man who has committed the crime, it is a woman who is haunted, and whose condition is thoroughly pathologised by those around her. …

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