Edith Wharton’s ghost story Afterward is a subtle classic. Written in 1910, it focuses on the lives of a childless American couple – Mary and Ned Boyne – who are in the enviable position of Ned having made so much money that they are able to devote themselves to a life of leisure. As to the source of this considerable fortune, the reader is long left in the dark, and as is so often the case with large sums of wealth rapidly acquired, the reader is left feeling that the manner of its getting may not have been exactly salubrious. Here we encounter an echo of older morality tales, in which the protagonist sells his or her soul to the Devil in exchange for a sum of money or worldly power for an allotted span. As Old Nick is a gentleman who never breaks his word in this respect, we know that he will return to claim what is rightfully his at the hour and date agreed, and whereas he may not be a character who features in this particular tale, its basic structure may be deemed, in certain respects, to be similar.
Quite why the Boynes choose to make a new life for themselves in England is not specified, although reference is made to their desire to escape ‘the soul-deadening ugliness of the Middle West’ which had served as their home for the previous fourteen years. It is at the suggestion of their cousin, Alida Stair, that they purchase a characterful crumbling country house – Lyng – in Dorset, with mullioned windows, great exposed beams, and none of the modern conveniences such as hot water or electricity. It is in this Tudor time capsule, blessed with grounds large enough to accommodate a fishpond flanked by yews, that the two of them settle down to a tranquil life of ‘Benedictine regularity’, far-removed, it seems, from the troubles of the world. For a time.
At the opening of the story, Ned Boyne enquires into whether Lyng might also have a resident ghost, as this is something that he jokingly thinks ought to be a feature of a house of such an age. Both he and his wife are informed that it does indeed possess a ghost, but that it is never recognised as such until ‘afterward’, a remark that prompts him to pose the question: ‘But what in the world constitutes a ghost except the fact of its being known for one?’ In the case of this story, it is a question that long goes unanswered, and we do not discover the identity of the ghost until ‘afterward’. This is a fine piece of writing with skilful foreshadowing; a piece of escapism in which there proves to be no escape.
The reader may be interested in three other West Country ghost stories found within the pages of Uncanny Tales from the English Shires.