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- Famous Modern Ghost Stories - 2/55 -
Apparitions are more readily recognizable at present than in the past, for they carry into eternity all the disfigurements or physical peculiarities that the living bodies possessed--a fact discouraging to all persons not conspicuous for good looks. Freckles and warts, long noses and missing limbs distinguish the ghosts and aid in crucial identification. The thrill of horror in Ambrose Bierce's story, _The Middle Toe of the Right Foot_, is intensified by the fact that the dead woman who comes back in revenge to haunt her murderer, has one toe lacking as in life. And in a recent story a surgeon whose desire to experiment has caused him needlessly to sacrifice a man's life on the operating table, is haunted to death by the dismembered arm. Fiction shows us various ghosts with half faces, and at least one notable spook that comes in half. Such ability, it will be granted, must necessarily increase the haunting power, for if a ghost may send a foot or an arm or a leg to harry one person, he can dispatch his back-bone or his liver or his heart to upset other human beings simultaneously in a sectional haunting at once economically efficient and terrifying.
_The Beast with Five Fingers_, for instance, has a loathsome horror that a complete skeleton or conventionally equipped wraith could not achieve. Who can doubt that a bodiless hand leaping around on its errands of evil has a menace that a complete six-foot frame could not duplicate? Yet, in Quiller-Couch's _A Pair of Hands_, what pathos and beauty in the thought of the child hands coming back to serve others in homely tasks! Surely no housewife in these helpless days would object to being haunted in such delicate fashion.
Ghosts of to-day have an originality that antique specters lacked. For instance, what story of the past has the awful thrill in Andreyev's _Lazarus_, that story of the man who came back from the grave, living, yet dead, with the horror of the unknown so manifest in his face that those who looked into his deep eyes met their doom? Present-day writers skillfully combine various elements of awe with the supernatural, as madness with the ghostly, adding to the chill of fear which each concept gives. Wilbur Daniel Steele's _The Woman at Seven Brothers_ is an instance of that method.
Poe's _Ligeia_, one of the best stories in any language, reveals the unrelenting will of the dead to effect its desire,--the dead wife triumphantly coming back to life through the second wife's body. Olivia Howard Dunbar's _The Shell of Sense_ is another instance of jealousy reaching beyond the grave. _The Messenger_, one of Robert W. Chambers's early stories and an admirable example of the supernatural, has various thrills, with its river of blood, its death's head moth, and the ancient but very active skull of the Black Priest who was shot as a traitor to his country, but lived on as an energetic and curseful ghost.
_The Shadows on the Wall_, by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman,--which one prominent librarian considers the best ghost story ever written,--is original in the method of its horrific manifestation. Isn't it more devastating to one's sanity to see the shadow of a revenge ghost cast on the wall,--to know that a vindictive spirit is beside one but invisible--than to see the specter himself? Under such circumstances, the sight of a skeleton or a sheeted phantom would be downright comforting.
_The Mass of Shadows_, by Anatole France, is an example of the modern tendency to show phantoms in groups, as contrasted with the solitary habits of ancient specters. Here the spirits of those who had sinned for love could meet and celebrate mass together in one evening of the year.
The delicate beauty of many of the modern ghostly stories is apparent in _The Haunted Orchard_, by Richard Le Gallienne, for this prose poem has an appeal of tenderness rather than of terror. And everybody who has had affection for a dog will appreciate the pathos of the little sketch, by Myla J. Closser, _At the Gate_. The dog appears more frequently as a ghost than does any other animal, perhaps because man feels that he is nearer the human,--though the horse is as intelligent and as much beloved. There is an innate pathos about a dog somehow, that makes his appearance in ghostly form more credible and sympathetic, while the ghost of any other animal would tend to have a comic connotation. Other animals in fiction have power of magic--notably the cat--but they don't appear as spirits. But the dog is seen as a pathetic symbol of faithfulness, as a tragic sufferer, or as a terrible revenge ghost. Dogs may come singly or in groups--Edith Wharton has five of different sorts in _Kerfol_--or in packs, as in Eden Phillpotts's _Another Little Heath Hound_.
An illuminating instance of the power of fiction over human faith is furnished by the case of Arthur Machen's _The Bowmen_, included here. This story it is which started the whole tissue of legendry concerning supernatural aid given the allied armies during the war. This purely fictitious account of an angel army that saved the day at Mons was so vivid that its readers accepted it as truth and obstinately clung to that idea in the face of Mr. Machen's persistent and bewildered explanations that he had invented the whole thing. Editors wrote leading articles about it, ministers preached sermons on it, and the general public preferred to believe in the Mons angels rather than in Arthur Machen. Mr. Machen has shown himself an artist in the supernatural, one whom his generation has not been discerning enough to appreciate. Some of his material is painfully morbid, but his pen is magic and his inkwell holds many dark secrets.
In this collection I have attempted to include specimens of a few of the distinctive types of modern ghosts, as well as to show the art of individual stories. Examples of the humorous ghosts are omitted here, as a number of them will be brought together in _Humorous Ghost Stories_, the companion volume to this. The ghost lover who reads these pages will think of others that he would like to see included--for I believe that readers are more passionately attached to their own favorite ghost tales than to any other form of literature. But critics will admit the manifest impossibility of bringing together in one volume all the famous examples of the art. Some of the well-known tales, particularly the older ones on which copyright has expired, have been reprinted so often as to be almost hackneyed, while others have been of necessity omitted because of the limitations of space.
NEW YORK, March, 1921.
INTRODUCTION: THE IMPERISHABLE GHOST
THE WILLOWS BY ALGERNON BLACKWOOD
THE SHADOWS ON THE WALL BY MARY E. WILKINS FREEMAN
THE MESSENGER BY ROBERT W. CHAMBERS
LAZARUS BY LEONID ANDREYEV
THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS BY W. F. HARVEY
THE MASS OF SHADOWS BY ANATOLE FRANCE
WHAT WAS IT? BY FITZ-JAMES O'BRIEN
THE MIDDLE TOE OF THE RIGHT FOOT BY AMBROSE BIERCE
THE SHELL OF SENSE BY OLIVIA HOWARD DUNBAR
THE WOMAN AT SEVEN BROTHERS BY WILBUR DANIEL STEELE
AT THE GATE BY MYLA JO CLOSSER
LIGEIA BY EDGAR ALLAN POE
THE HAUNTED ORCHARD BY RICHARD LE GALLIENNE
THE BOWMEN BY ARTHUR MACHEN
A GHOST BY GUY DE MAUPASSANT
BY ALGERNON BLACKWOOD
From _The Listener_, by Algernon Blackwood. Published in America by E.P. Dutton, and in England by Everleigh Nash, Ltd. By permission of the publishers and Algernon Blackwood.
After leaving Vienna, and long before you come to Buda-Pesth, the Danube enters a region of singular loneliness and desolation, where its waters spread away on all sides regardless of a main channel, and the country becomes a swamp for miles upon miles, covered by a vast sea of low willow-bushes. On the big maps this deserted area is painted in a fluffy blue, growing fainter in color as it leaves the banks, and across it may be seen in large straggling letters the word _Suempfe_, meaning marshes.
In high flood this great acreage of sand, shingle-beds, and willow-grown islands is almost topped by the water, but in normal seasons the bushes bend and rustle in the free winds, showing their silver leaves to the sunshine in an ever-moving plain of bewildering beauty. These willows never attain to the dignity of trees; they have no rigid trunks; they remain humble bushes, with rounded tops and soft outline, swaying on slender stems that answer to the least pressure of the wind; supple as grasses, and so continually shifting that they somehow give the impression that the entire plain is moving and _alive_. For the wind sends waves rising and falling over the whole surface, waves of leaves instead of waves of water, green swells like the sea, too, until the branches turn and lift, and then silvery white as their under-side turns
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