I used to avoid “funny” ghost stories. Humour seemed at odds with the effect I sought from reading about the supernatural. It dispelled the atmosphere, leaving the stories, and the reader, disenchanted. Later on, I learned that horror could be funny, and that funny things can be horrific.
What unites ghost stories and folksong? A Venn diagram of the two would surely put love and death in the centre. Robert Aickman wrote in the introduction to The 3rd Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories that the eerie tale fulfils our “need to escape, at least occasionally, from a mechanistic world, ever more definable, ever more predictable, and, therefore, ever more unsatisfying and frustrating.”
The stately homes of England, how beautiful they stand, To prove the upper classes have still the upper hand. – Noël Coward, “The Stately Homes of England”, 1938
From the grand halls of the aristocracy to the homely manors of the gentry, the country house has been an enduring feature of the English landscape for centuries. Its inhabitants have likewise long been conspicuous on the English social scene and this is reflected in fiction. Despite urbanisation and the major social changes that have taken place in Britain since the Second World War a fascination with this class of people, their way of life and their houses has remained. One only has to think of the most popular British period dramas for confirmation.
Some of the best tales of horror and terror have been produced by writers whose names do not conjure up the isolated castles, decaying mansions and sheeted forms of the gothic inheritance. These authors bring fresh perspectives to well-worn tropes and often use the form to explore themes found elsewhere in their works. Such stories are valuable to scholars of the supernatural in fiction, demonstrating the potential of the genre, and to those interested in individual authors, as they provide neat examples of overarching themes in a writer’s oeuvre. Most importantly, they give the reader a tale well-told.