Ghost stories continue to be one of the most popular types of short stories, especially since the subgenre first appeared in early gothic novels such as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (i.e., the ghost story of the Bleeding Nun) and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. I became enthralled with ghost stories after I read Rhoda Broughton’s Twilight Stories (1873) a few years ago. In particular, Broughton’s “Behold, It Was a Dream!” feels quite modern in its depiction of xenophobia, especially with the story being written over 100 years ago. Ever since reading this collection, I’ve been an avid ghost story collector, and, needless to say, I was eager to get my hands on not just one but two new collections of supernatural tales and ghost stories: Even in the Grave and Other Terrors: An Inclusive Anthology. Published in July 2022, both anthologies illustrate that the ghost story is alive and well despite being a classic genre.
Haunting in ghost stories — that is, short stories filled with paranormal and supernatural activity that elicit reactions of fear, terror, and horror — isn’t anything new, but the sources of fear, terror, and horror have changed over time, especially in the 21st century. Even in the Grave illustrates this. The anthology, which is edited by James Chambers and Carol Gyzander, includes 20 deliciously haunting supernatural tales. The title of the collection is even inspired by an Edgar Allan Poe quote (“In death — no! even in the grave all is not lost”), which portrays the anthology’s focus on death and the afterlife. Chambers and Gyzander recruited writers such as Gordon Linzner, Amy Grech, Oliver Baer, and Meghan Arcuri to pen captivating ghost stories with a modern twist.
Even in the Grave pays tribute to the Victorian ghost story tradition, and each story in this collection includes the appearance of a ghost in some form. Chambers, in his portion of the introduction, states that every story depicts a “personal and inventive way of approaching this classic sub-genre and exploring themes of life and death, past and present, and where the boundaries and intersections between them lie.” The Victorian ghost story is well known for including a few frights and scares due to the appearance of a ghost, and ghost stories were wildly popular in both Britain and the United States, especially during Christmastime. Cultural factors like spiritualism, a rise in mortality rates, and explorations of the human mind contributed to the popularity of ghost stories during the Victorian era. What is most striking about ghost stories is the genre’s ability to transgress and subvert ideologies, power, and cultural norms. Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Old Nurse’s Story,” for example, challenges the patriarchal mistreatment of women in marriage. Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol questions the capitalist greed and classism that deeply impacted the lower and working classes in Victorian England. Ghost stories that appear in Even in the Grave, such as Allan Burd’s “The Final Experiment of Eugene Appleton,” challenge notions of progress, the scientific pursuit of knowledge, and experimentation. Ghost stories also champion marginalized identities, such as women, lower and working classes, people with disabilities, and people of color. Stories like Robert Masterson’s “The Source of Fr. Santiago de Guerra de Vargas’ Monstrous Crimes” from Even in the Grave illustrate the violent consequences of colonization. In this grim tale, a ghost inhabits the body of a friar, who then goes on a killing spree.
Some ghosts in these short stories haunt the perpetrator of a crime. For example, “Power Out, Wind Howling,” by Jonathan Lees, relays the story of a hidden family secret at the Mathis estate that literally haunts Anderson Mathis III, a young family member. In a shocking encounter at the end of the story, Anderson recollects,
The figure has consistency, wet with a gelatinous drip. And for the first time, I see what my family saw, what haunted them until their deaths, the little lacerations from his face to his feet. Tiny, puckering, bloodless mouths opening and closing with the urgency of hungry children.
Anderson, just like every other family member, is consumed by the dirty secrets of the family’s wealth and experiences the consequences of generational trauma.
Robert P. Ottone’s “After Trevor Vanished” tells the story of a disappearance that haunts Deirdre and her family at their lake house. Her boyfriend, Trevor, goes missing and is never found. The mysteriousness of the lake is believed to be connected to the haunting of a Native American woman whose lover was killed by white men several hundred years prior. In a horrifying scene, Deirdre encounters the decaying remains of Trevor’s body:
Slowly, he leaned in and kissed her. Musk and decay entered her mouth, and she gagged a moment before the icy feeling found its way to the base of her neck. Trevor ran his cold hands up her spine, his grip firm but radiating frost.
Deirdre’s disappearance and death, similar to Trevor’s, can be interpreted not only as the haunting of long-lost love but also the haunting of colonization. Overall, Even in the Grave continues the subversive tradition of the ghost story by permitting the ghost to speak from beyond the grave.
Another anthology, Other Terrors, edited by Vince A. Liaguno and Rena Mason, is composed of 24 horror works that span from poetry to short stories. The ones in Other Terrors are reminiscent of horror fiction and sci-fi, and some even seem to be influenced by H. P. Lovecraft’s tales. Liaguno and Mason’s introduction opens with a haunting sentence that sets the tone for the entire anthology: “From the other, all terrors flow.” This sentence illustrates the collection’s focus on how the Other (more specifically, Otherness and difference) has been a continual source of terror and horror in gothic fiction, especially in the subgenres of ghost stories and horror tales. Other Terrors provides a unique take on the gothic theme of the Other, which has appeared in works like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Otherness has been typically associated with race and sexuality (i.e., Dracula), disability (i.e., Frankenstein), class, and nationality, categories of identity that have been demonized in certain gothic fiction.
When compiling this collection, Mason and Liaguno asked short-story writers such as Tananarive Due, Stephen Graham Jones, and Gabino Iglesias to reimagine “the idea of fearing the other, the other as a source of terror, in both traditional and progressive ways.” Other Terrors champions identities of Otherness and illustrates the deadly horrors of xenophobia, racism, sexism, imperialism, and colonialism. “The Turning,” by Hailey Piper, illustrates how families can be the root cause of damage and isolation rather than difference and Otherness itself. Krissy’s family attempts to poison and kill her as she transforms into a were-dactyl, but she is saved by a swarm of were-dactyls who come to her aid:
They rush at Mom and Dad, their prehistoric screeches drowning out human screams. Krissy isn’t much help, but the others make quick and bloody work. Not because they’re were-dactyls or true pterosaurs. Not because they can. They’re quick because they’re a flock of shared experiences, and they’ve had practice in their own houses, each forced to break free of some terrible eggshell the way Krissy has to break free tonight.
Piper’s horror tale depicts the family unit and domestic sphere as unsafe spaces, especially in their mistreatment of nonnormativity and difference.
Shanna Heath’s “Miss Infection USA” illustrates the devastating consequences of classism and environmental degradation that disproportionately impact female bodies. Miriam, who tries to help her sister Martha win the Miss Infection USA contest, recounts Martha cutting off her own head in order to receive treatment for her ailments:
Even my own screams were drowned out.
The cameras and their operators raced on wheels and on foot to focus their lenses and worship every angle of Martha, burning her idol into the screens of her three million converts as they venerated at her hallowed feet. I fell to my knees, slapped by slick and sticky hands together, and offered prayers of adoration to Martha the Divine, the new Miss Infection USA.
The objectification and commodification of women’s bodies lead to a disturbing twist in Heath’s horror tale. Liaguno and Mason, in Other Terrors, have compiled an intriguing set of horrifying stories that range from the mundane to the fantastic.
Both anthologies illustrate the surge of attention paid to ghost stories and horror fiction today, especially when considering recent TV shows like The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor. These shows highlight renewed interest in ghostly hauntings, fear, and horror. (Both of these shows, too, were inspired by earlier gothic fiction such as Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.) Jordan Peele’s films Get Out and Nope, as well as the popular show Lovecraft Country, also showcase viewers’ desire for the macabre. More importantly, all of these shows and films illustrate the subversion of dominant power structures and ideologies (i.e., sexism in The Haunting of Hill House and racism in Lovecraft Country) through horror and the gothic. This is a progressive direction for both genres, which, at times, have upheld dominant, problematic ideologies. (Consider racism in Lovecraft’s tales.) Other Terrors in particular provides a fresh take on the perception of the Other; instead of reinforcing harmful assumptions of Otherness, stories from this collection illustrate the horrors of racism, sexism, and xenophobia instead. Even in the Grave reimagines the figure of the ghost as a poignant commentary on technology, repression, and scientific pursuits of knowledge and their harmful effects. In the current climate of hatred of Otherness (i.e., the anti-Muslim attitudes of post-9/11 America and rise in extremism in the wake of the Trump administration), gothic writers have utilized the genre — as well as the subgenre of the ghost story — to critique the onslaught of intolerance that continues to impact the lives of millions around the world.
In Even in the Grave and Other Terrors, true horror doesn’t stem solely from a ghost or another supernatural phenomenon; instead, these tales illustrate the horrors of humanity, like all forms of bigotry. Readers should add Even in the Grave and Other Terrors to their bookshelves next to copies of Lovecraft’s tales and Victorian authors’ macabre stories. Whether looking for a ghost story filled with pure fright (John P. Collins’s “Old Spirits and Fine Tobacco” from Even in the Grave) or bloody revenge against oppressors (Michael H. Hanson’s “Night Shopper” from Other Terrors), readers will enjoy both anthologies’ bloodcurdling, thrilling tales — stories that will make them lock their doors and check underneath their beds before drifting off to sleep.
Lindsey Carman Williams, PhD, is a Blackburn postdoctoral fellow at Washington State University.