Edith Wharton’s supernatural tales are, on the whole, overlooked by the general reading public in favour of her many acclaimed novels such as The Age of Innocence. For me, however, it is her ghost stories brought together in this volume that cried out to be read, my appetite for her prose having been whetted some years ago by her most famous exercise in the genre – Afterward. Whereas the latter is frequently cited as being the most accomplished of her ghost stories, having read this volume there are a handful of others that I would rate almost as highly, including The Duchess at Prayer, Mr Jones, and Pomegranate Seed.
Stylistically, Wharton’s literary excursions into the supernatural share certain commonalities with the two Jamesian masters of the ghost story genre – Henry and M.R. – being both restrained and suggestive in their approach, and often playing upon an ambiguity of interpretation rather than trading in overt and visceral horror. Although the ghost story might commonly be regarded as a sub-genre of ‘horror’, it tends, in the capable hands of its greatest exponents, to be something more subtle, and it is the sense of the uncanny in these tales, rather than any sense of visceral revulsion, that predominates.
Her prose is often sumptuous and beguilingly evocative, whether describing the gardens and interior of a Tuscan ducal villa, or the air of lassitude hanging over a crumbling Crusader castle in the Levant, with the settings of her tales often mirroring her favourite personal haunts. Thus we not only encounter narratives that unfold in her native New York and New England (Pomegranate Seed, Bewitched), but also in old England (Afterward, Mr Jones), Brittany (Kerfol, Miss Mary Pask), Italy (The Duchess at Prayer, The Eyes) and further afield (A Bottle of Perrier). Like Wharton herself, who sadly endured almost three decades of unsatisfying marriage, many of the female protagonists that we meet in these pages find themselves, and their happiness, constrained by less-than-ideal domestic circumstances. We see this sentiment expressing itself most powerfully in her gothic masterpiece in miniature, The Duchess at Prayer, which contains the sort of deliciously horrific twist that Roald Dahl would have given his eye teeth for.
In her early life she read and absorbed the classics, history, philosophy and poetry, and read relatively little fiction, and her writing is as a consequence imbued with a powerful intelligence. The best of Edith Wharton’s ghost stories rank alongside the very best in the genre, and her deft and subtle approach, relying upon the careful delineation of the uncanny and the skilful sculpting of atmospherics in a perfectly realistic setting, makes for a deeply satisfying, albeit often unsettling, read. If your taste should incline in this direction, then I would not hesitate in recommending this very reasonably priced volume to you published in paperback by Wordsworth Press.
You may also find the Breton-set ghost story The Bread Oven of interest.