Two thousand years of ghost stories make a pretty solid heft in the hand for something so shivery — the parcel was labelled 1kg. Ghost stories have been part and parcel of almost every culture and rites to honour the dead continue almost unchanged. Bengal has its colonial ghosts, mamdo bhoots, shankhchunnis, petnis and a whole host of others with crossed feet or back to front heads. Not that ghosts need to take any shape remotely resembling human; there are ghosts of animals and Stephen Kings has a terrifying line of haunted cars.
It is Welsh&’s theory that the supernatural exerts such a powerful fascination simply because it allows readers to explore themes of love, death and remorse secure in the knowledge that it can always be passed off as fiction. After all, there are no such things as ghosts, are there? Coleridge summed it up with his ‘woman wailing for her demon lover’ from which came the title of Elizabeth Bowen&’s story. Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker and MR James are, of course, represented, but so are some rather unusual stories like Truman Capote&’s A Beautiful Child. which might not be called ghost story at all because it has a living Marilyn Monroe in it but focuses on the doomed, the walking dead in a sense. Vampires too make the supernatural cut, though whether they would be constituted as ghosts or not is open to debate.
Scotland, known for its dark nights, witches and body snatchers is represented by Robert Burns, James Hogg and Ali Smith. Oscar Wilde makes a happy appearance in the middle of all the darkness with his Canterville Ghost.
There are also the forbidden themes of incest, cannibalism and madness which go hand in hand with a seemingly forbidden world. The Victorian stories typically make use of governess narrators since they are part of the house but not part of the family and can be described as leading a kind of ghostly presence to be seen and not heard. Governesses can be preyed on or haunted, the Turn of the Screw being the example everyone automatically thinks of, though here Welsh includes a tale by Mrs Gaskell which is a more manageable length.
Adding a different flavour to the selection are ghost stories from places like Japan, Scandinavia and Africa, with some Native American tales as well. India is absent. However, the global selection gives readers a chance to compare the diverse fear factors.
Of course, there are stories that could have been included and Welsh confesses that she was forced to leave out many of her own favourites because of practical reasons like length and copyright. That said, not all the book is equally scary, though some of the tales certainly do deserve to be read with lights blazing.
The reviewer is a freelance contributor