At the end of this post is a paragraph from a very very good ghost story that is 135 years old. But, first, I had to work out my thoughts about why I wanted to share it. And, it ties in with the premise for my ghost story anthology.
This is why I do what I do: I have been reading ghost stories and “mystery and suspense” stories and “uncanny” stories and “stories of the supernatural”—since the beginning of 2017, when I first began to narrow a list of hundreds of stories—maybe more—down to a growing longlist and then a shortlist for a 2-volume ghost story anthology—because, I thought, there is something about the stories written before 1920-ish, that were just better. They are better fiction, hands down, and I needed to explore this so I understood it better. After reading umpteen stories from 1780s-1915, give or take, I have come to the conclusion that, it is not about flowery language or “purple prose” or antiquated anachronistic plot structures, etc. etc. It is about being better-educated writers during a time when more was expected of our mind, our manners, our mores, our work ethic (even in writing), our reputation before “the world” (these periodicals made their way around and were widely read).
I had heard that a lot—the “overwrought prose of yesteryear” angle—and I was open to it being correct…and as I went along I compared some ghost stories from that time with some from the 1950s forward and all I could think was: ‘why does it seem that we have dumbed down fiction writing in the ghost story genre to a level of a Sport’s writeup in the Times?’ Nothing wrong with Sports writeups in the Times.
But, I don’t want to read fiction like that. I want depth, thoughtfulness, a sense from reading that the author is well-read, the characters, too; I want them drawn in 3D and not over-described.I want atmosphere. And, I want to feel like the entire story took time to build, like a cathedral, not a hut made out of hay bales.
I know some amazing writers today who are writing cathedrals. And I am so thrilled as a reader about it.
I remember reading a quote in college by Henry James, or maybe it was Joyce Carol Oates…about writing the “telling detail”…but I think we still struggle today, especially in genre or “pop” fiction, which can also be very high quality, (sometimes), with telling the “wrong” detail(s). Wrong is a subjective term. Maybe the better descriptor is the “unthoughtful” detail, the “rushed string of details” the ones that sound OK, but that when strung together fall short of showing something cohesive about the character (e.g., the red-head waltzed into the room wearing a black dress cut down to there and orange lipstick, emerald earrings that dangled like stars from her earlobes, a matching bracelet on her right wrist, bright-red patent-leather 10-inch pumps, black nylons like the ones you wore in the 1940s with a line up the back, and a purse made out of the skin of some animal, but oddly, with all of that bling, she wore not a single ring on any of her long graceful fingers, the nails of which were painted “hotlips red”).
I would argue that the only telling detail here, is that she wore no rings. Why? That detail interests me. The others don’t. They are part of a “formulaic” writing style, noir, Roger Rabbit meets Raymond Chandler, but isn’t written as well as Chandler, etc.
I don’t mean to be negative, just reflective about why some stories seem to inspire more awe in me; whereas others feel utilitarian, not unnecessary, just thin.
The writers of the 1800s weren’t writing “horror” or “weird” fiction. Because those weren’t genres yet. They were states of mind or emotion, or behavior. And they made their way into this high quality fiction. What I especially love in these stories, is the way the entire story is treated with such respect—from the pacing to the tension and from the atmosphere to the characters—these writers were grand writers, and they had been brought up not on “the milk of fiction” but on its “meat”. I fear today, we are if not back to the milk, then at least to some protein-shake-gluten-free, non-dairy, lactose-free milk substitute, with vegetable-product thickeners.
I am still on my longlist, because I thought I would find more stories and novellas, sooner. Last night I found two, that may skip the longlist and jump right to the shortlist. I’m so impressed. One is by Sir Walter Besant. I’d never heard of him until today. And, here is a paragraph from the second one, a longer story by “Mrs. Oliphant” (Margaret O. Wilson Oliphant)—and published in a two-part serialized format in a new periodical of the time, that went on actually to become very successful.
This story is 135 years old. You tell me if it doesn’t read like the best literature published today. Purple prose? Outdated style? I don’t think so. And this is just one paragraph. Imagine the whole story, about the solemn, wandering ghost of a woman, long-dead—Stay tuned for The Greatest Ghost Stories Ever Told, ed. Sanguine Woods, December 2017.
“They asked me to come at Ellermore when we parted, and, as I have nothing in the way of home warmer or more genial than chambers in the Temple, I accepted, as may be supposed, with enthusiasm. It was in the first week of June that we parted, and I was invited for the end of August. They had ‘plenty of grouse,’ Charley said, with a liberality of expression which was pleasant to hear.
Charlotte added, ‘But you must be prepared for homely life, Mr. Temple, and a very quiet one.’ I replied, of course, that if I had chosen what I liked best in the world it would have been this combination: at which she smiled with an amused little shake of her head. It did not seem to occur to her that she herself told for much in the matter. What they all insisted upon was the ‘plenty of grouse;’ and I do not pretend to say that I was indifferent to that.
Colin, the eldest son, was the one with whom I had been least familiar. He was what people call reserved. He did not talk of everything as the others did. I did not indeed find out till much later that he was constantly in London, coming and going, so that he and I might have seen much of each other. Yet he liked me well enough. He joined warmly in his brother’s invitation. When Charley said there was plenty of grouse, he added with the utmost friendliness, ‘And ye may get blaze at a stag.’ There was a flavour of the North in the speech—of all not disclosed by mere words, but also by an occasional diversity of idiom and change of pronunciation. They were conscious of this and rather proud of it. They did not say Scotch, but Scots; and their accent could not be represented by any of the travesties of the theatre, or what we conventionally accept as the national utterance. When I attempted to pronounce after them, my own ear informed me what a travesty it was.”
– Mrs. Oliphant, “The Lady’s Walk,” Part I, Longman’s Magazine, 1882