Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Tag: Ghosts

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol, 1843

This copy of A Christmas Carol belonged to my boyfriend’s great-grandfather and so I read it with great care – reading such an old copy added something special to my experience. A Christmas Carol is such an iconic tale but one I had never read firsthand. It is funny how the creation of a man one hundred and sixty-eight years ago can be so integrated into our culture and language surrounding Christmas that we use the name of his main character as an adjective.

I was initially surprised at parts of the dialogue which were familiar to me from adaptations. During The Muppet’s Christmas Carol, for example, when Scrooge is described as being ‘solitary, like an oyster’ I chuckled at the quirkiness of the description. Dickens wrote it.

My all time favourite line from this story has got to be:

Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!

I think this says it all about Dickens’ writing: the language is a real joy. (Say it out loud!) I bet he picked each word with extreme care.

I read on the Penguin Doing Dickens blog that Dickens is supposed to have thought up A Christmas Carol during the course of one of his infamous walks around London. He seems very much to have been a man for the people. There are all levels of society here, with a particular emphasis on how rich men like Scrooge have an obligation to look out for those suffering.

The introduction to the book immediately got me hooked:

I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

A book that has never been out of print since it was published, that helped rekindle the growing Victorian nostalgia for traditional Christmas, that has won the hearts of each new generation that encounters it: I don’t think the ghost of A Christmas Carol will be put to rest any time imaginable.

Reading Ghosts

The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

Wasn’t he looking, through the haunted pane, for something he couldn’t see?

Ghost stories, horror films – whatever it is, nothing is more unsettling than creepy children. There is even a Phones 4 You advert on at the moment that involves a ghostly girl that I mute whenever it comes on the TV.

The Turn of the Screw involves a governess, her two charges, and the ghosts of a previous governess and manservant. What really got me about the ghost story itself was that you are never quite sure whether the ghosts are a trick by the children or whether the governess is mad. The reader doesn’t know which, and a lot of the time the characters in the story don’t know either. The experience of reading about the ghosts appearing was unsettling – particularly the first time one appears. The atmosphere is incredibly well written – the ghost appears, looking entirely human, standing on top of a tower looking directly at the governess who is walking in the garden. The way James described how the ghost was staring unrelentingly made me imagine it so clearly I got chills. I love reading ghost stories (despite being completely unable to watch horror films) because physically they give you something reading other genres can’t; I can swoon about romantic heroes, laugh at jokes and cry at unhappy tales but nothing heightens all the senses like a ghost story does.

This novella put me very much in the mindset of reading The Woman in Black, which I loved. I think the element of both that draw you in are the fact that the story is being read from something written down. In this case the story has been passed to the unnamed narrator by someone who was given a autobiography of the governess’ experiences. In The Woman in Black the story is being written/ told to the narrator’s family. I suppose the role of the narrator in the ghost story is to add some authenticity to the account. There is also something dangerous about listening to/ reading a ghost story – like you are being let into something secret, something irrational, but something weirdly familiar.

I thought The Turn of the Screw was quite different to The Portrait of a Lady, which is the only other Henry James novel I have read. One is more Victorian, the other more romantic. The contrast between the two, and the experience of reading both make me convinced I would like to read more Henry James.

Genuinely Terrified!

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson

I read this for the most part in broad daylight and I was still really really scared. I’ve never read any Shirley Jackson before, but now I’m anxious to get my hands on more. Firstly, whoever chose this image for the book cover deserves a medal because it completely captures the eerie dappled light and drabness, not to mention the topsy turvy-ness and ominous feeling someone is watching you. Is it the house? Is it something inside? Secondly, it has the best opening lines I’ve read in ages.

I think the book is so scary because Jackson really captures how it feels to be absolutely terrified. The way she writes when something supernatural is happening creates a perfect sense of urgency as the unknown draws ever closer. And afterwards, in the morning, there is a lot of rationalising and nervously making light of it all that further confirms just how scared you were. If I were to re-read this, I’d take a closer look at all the characters again, because there is so much going on psychologically.

Shirley Jackson, you terrified me and I loved it.

Best Book Opening Ever?

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House

Children Make the Best Ghosts

The Small Hand, Susan Hill

Yes, the cover is that beautiful. Susan Hill is queen of creating the perfect amount of atmosphere for modern victorian-inspired ghost stories. This one is about an antiquarian book dealer (so, yes, there is a lot of rarities here to satisfy a lover of books) who stumbles upon a derelict house in the country. He is magnetically drawn to the house, and upon visiting feels an icy hand of a child holding his own. Obviously anything else I tell you would ruin the point of finding out what happens for yourself, but there are unexpected settings and mysterious family histories involved.

I loved the notion of the building being a factor in the story, almost like a character. This theme appears in quite a lot of the books I have read and loved; like The Little Stranger or Rebbecca. And coincidentally this months UK Vogue had an article by Joanna Briscoe about the identities that places have, so I can’t be the only one who loves elements like these.

This book is not dissimilar to The Woman in Black, if you enjoyed that, you’ll enjoy this. I don’t necessarily think that writers should be experimental in the kind of writing they do – to me, it isn’t a criticism to say that an author’s books are stylistically obviously theirs. I love finding authors that write a particular genre brilliantly and stick to it.

The Woman In Black

The Woman in Black, Susan Hill

There is nothing like a ghost story on a winter’s evening. I have seen the stage adaptation of this book before, and it is brilliant, and pretty faithful to the original story: A young solicitor is sent from London to tend to the affairs of a recently deceased client in a remote part of the country. With a creaking old house separated from the rest of the village by marshland and rising tides, the main character starts work.

If I hadn’t known anything about Susan Hill, I would have assumed she was a victorian writer, a jumble of Edgar Allen Poe and Wilkie Collins perhaps. An old fashioned ghost story; with mysterious wasting women in graveyards, rocking chairs in nurseries, and drownings in the marshland. Hill captures atmosphere and builds tension perfectly.

The main difference between reading and watching The Woman in Black is the sound of the novel; during the play, the sounds were what made it terrifying. I was lucky to be able to remember them as I was reading; although I think that even without this background, I could create the sounds out of my imagination because the novel is so well written.

The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters

This is one of the best books I’ve read in ages, a modern gothic classic in the making. Theres a perfect combination going on in this book between the psychologically creepy ghost story type elements during the background of a beautifully decaying post war georgian stately home. I wanted to wander around Hundreds Hall in its heighday… and stay well away when all the strange goings on were going on. I couldn’t put it down and read it in one weekend, as it got darker I could feel myself getting chills. Perfect.