Ghosts by Edith Wharton
Trade Paperbacks – New York Review of Books – Nov 2021 – 274 pages
An elegantly hair-raising collection of Edith Wharton’s ghost stories, selected and with a preface written by the author herself.
No history of the American uncanny tale would be complete without mention of Edith Wharton, yet many of Wharton’s most dedicated admirers are unaware that she was a master of the form. In fact, one of Wharton’s final literary acts was assembling Ghosts, a personal selection of her most chilling stories, written between 1902 and 1937.
In “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” the earliest tale included here, a servant’s dedication to her mistress continues from beyond the grave, and in “All Souls,” the last story Wharton wrote, an elderly woman treads the permeable line between life and the hereafter.
In all her writing, Wharton’s great gift was to mercilessly illuminate the motives of men and women, and her ghost stories never stray far from the preoccupations of the living, using the supernatural to investigate such worldly matters as violence within marriage, the horrors of aging, the rot at the root of new fortunes, the darkness that stares back from the abyss of one’s own soul.
These are stories to “send a cold shiver down one’s spine,” not to terrify, and as Wharton explains in her preface, her goal in writing them was to counter “the hard grind of modern speeding-up” by preserving that ineffable space of “silence and continuity,” which is not merely the prerogative of humanity but—“in the fun of the shudder”—its delight.