Tales from the Hereafter


Edith Wharton’s collection of ghost stories opens with a foreword that sets the tone for the tales that follow.  Wharton admits that what is frightening to one is not necessarily frightening to another, but the stories of her collection play on her personal definition of “scary”.  In the ensuing eleven stories, themes of unfamiliar locales–usually cavernous, long-abandoned old family estates–and supernatural ghostly apparitions abound, generally leaving the reader sufficiently creeped out.  What is best about these stories, however, is not necessarily that they are scary, because admittedly, the majority of them are not.  The best part of this collection is simply Wharton’s masterful ability to wield an engaging short story.  The locations and characters come to life, and with it a mood of fear and anxiety.

My favorite stories came late in the collection with “Pomegranate Seed” and the finale, “All Souls'”.  In “Pomegranate Seed” Wharton introduces the reader to Charlotte Ashby, the second wife of newly-widowed Kenneth Ashby.  Kenneth Ashby was deeply devoted to is first wife Elsie, and as the story comes together it seems that Elsie may still have a hold on her beloved husband.  The source of terror in this story is the long hours that Charlotte spends first happily awaiting her husband’s return from the office and then dreading the thought that he will never return.  These are true fears most have felt at the prospect of losing a loved one and Wharton exploits this to the fullest.

Similarly, in “All Souls'” Wharton plays with the slow building of anxiety over a period of time.  In the collection’s finale we meet the dynamic and indefatiguable Mrs. Clayburn, a widow who has opted to spend the remainder of her healthy life in the estate she shared with her husband.  On All Souls’ Day, Halloween, Mrs. Clayburn receives an unexpected visitor and then spends an expertly-written and anxiety-ridden 36 hours in complete and frightening solitude.  The passage detailing Mrs. Clayburn’s day and a half alone in her cold and sprawling estate is the most frightening in the book and certainly the most memorable.

Though not always bone-chilling, THE GHOST STORIES OF EDITH WHARTON are an excellent speciment of Wharton’s writing and the perfect way to kick off the week approaching Halloween.


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