Library Director’s Notebook
What do Henry James, Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf have in common? Probably many things, but one similarity between them that may not immediately come to mind is that they all wrote and really enjoyed ghost stories.
The ghost stories they wrote were not horror stories as modern readers might think of them ; rather, the stories penned by these accomplished authors are short on gore and long on suspense, tension, and psychological dread. These stories do not terrify with lurid details; instead they raise the hackles of our fear through subtle suggestion, startling revelations, and often heart-rending tragedy. Children are often the innocent victims of malignant forces in these literary ghost stories; the children in The Turn of the Screw by Henry James immediately come to mind.
In the recent novel This House Is Haunted by John Boyne, the literary ghost story of the late 19th and early 20th century is revived with great skill and artistry. This story, narrated by school teacher Eliza Caine and set in England in the year 1867 begins with an upsetting event as Eliza loses her beloved father to a viral chill and fever, after they had both enjoyed a rousing performance by their favorite author Charles Dickens. Devastated by the loss of her father who was also her dearest friend, Eliza cannot bear to continue in her old, staid life and seeks employment away from London as a governess.
She answers an ad for a governess of two children and is offered the post immediately, sight unseen by her employers. But from the moment Eliza arrives at the train station to await someone to take her to Gaudlin Hall, strange and threatening things begin to happen. At first Eliza almost believes she has imagined these frightening events, but she soon cannot escape the belief that someone or some malignant thing is out to get her.
Her concern is not only for herself but for the young children placed in her care. Isabelle and Eustace, her young charges, seem to hold some secret together, a secret they are loathe to share with their new governess. Isabelle, the eldest, is downright hostile to Eliza, but Eustace, nearly silent, seems willing to befriend her, if he dared. As she tries to unravel the mystery that haunts Gaudlin Hall, the tragedy of the family begins to emerge. Yet those living in the neighborhood and town who might have provided important clues to the mystery seem to be in league against Eliza, doing all they can to conceal the truth from her.
This wonderfully spooky story is written with grace and verve. We cannot help but admire Eliza and her determination to get to the truth, even as we fear for her. Before the tale ends, malevolent powers of great ferocity will be unleashed. The last chapter, a mere two pages long, leaves the reader aghast.
This House is Haunted is a ghost story Dickens, James, Woolf and Wharton would have relished!