By Otto Penzler
Tales of the supernatural have been a fixture of the storytelling tradition since preliterate times, and the most popular form they have taken is the ghost story. This should not be at all surprising, as the fear of death and its aftermath has abided in the breasts of humans ever since they became cognizant of what it meant to no longer be alive in the manner in which it is traditionally understood. Animals, down to the most primitive invertebrates, share this fear without precisely being aware of what it means in a conscious sense, but they nonetheless do all they can to stay alive. The question of what follows the extinguishing of life probably does not keep mosquitoes or squirrels awake at night, but more than a few homo sapiens
have pondered their uncertain futures with trepidation in the dark of night.
All cultures on the planet have superstitions about the dead returning as spirits or -phantoms—-belief systems memorialized in drawings and writings from the very beginnings of civilization. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead,
departed people are shown to return, not merely looking as they did in life, but dressed in similar garments. Therefore, apparently not only do dead people have the ability to materialize, making themselves visible again after they are gone, but so do textiles, leather, and metal.
In the Bible, the story of King Saul calling on the Witch of Endor to summon the spirit of Samuel has been recorded, as have the questions surrounding whether Jesus after his resurrection was a living being or a ghost. From ancient texts in Greek mythology, various types of ghosts are described in Homer’s Iliad
and Romans, notably Plutarch and Pliny the Younger, wrote about haunted houses.
Literature of all eras abounds in ghosts stories. William Shakespeare often used ghosts in his plays, most famously in Hamlet
and Charles Dickens wrote the greatest pure ghost story of all time in A Christmas Carol.
Others among the world’s greatest authors who have written in the genre include Ben Jonson, Horace Walpole, Jane Austen, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Guy de Maupassant, Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, Edward -Bulwer--Lytton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Oscar Wilde, Willa Cather, F. Scott -Fitzgerald—-well, -really too many to continue.
What is the great attraction of supernatural fiction in general, and the ghost story in particular? From the time of childhood, we have a fear of the dark (and rightly so, as we don’t know exactly what is lurking out there, wrapped in the black cloak of invisibility). Although it frightens them, children still love to hear scary stories at bedtime; just consider such fairy tales as Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood. We never outgrow our love of fairy tales, even if in adulthood they take a more complex form as stories about vampires, serial killers, werewolves, or terrorists.
Ghost stories may be told in many different tones and styles, ranging from the excruciatingly horrific to the absurdly humorous. Ghosts, after all, may have widely divergent goals. Some return from the dead to wreak vengeance; others want to help a loved one. Some are the spirits of people who were murdered or committed suicide and so could not rest because their time officially had not yet come and therefore walked the earth instead of stretching out comfortably in their graves. Some were playful, enjoying the tricks and pranks their invisibility allowed them, while others delighted in their own cruelty, committing acts of violence and terror for the sheer inexplicable pleasure of it.
All these ghosts, and more, appear in this volume. You will meet ghosts who frighten you, who make you laugh, and for whom you will feel sorry. And they are true ghosts. I have tried to remain true to the notion that ghosts are spirits or specters of the dead. Some stories that frequently have appeared in other ghost story anthologies have nothing at all to do with ghosts. They may be trolls, or evil plants, vile fungi, monsters, or other creatures of that ilk. Rightly or not, I have attempted to be a bit of a -narrow--minded purist about it all, not that it created a problem. There have been an astonishing number of outstanding ghost stories written by some of the finest authors who ever dared allow their dark creations to be set down on paper. It has been a confounding challenge to select the stories for this, the biggest collection of ghost stories ever compiled. It was tempting to include all the great classics but that would have filled to overflowing even this gigantic tome. It was equally tempting to stuff the pages with -little--known stories, often every bit the equal of the cornerstone titles, but it is impossible to attempt to produce the definitive collection of ghost stories and omit M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, H. P. Lovecraft, or Edith Wharton. Although I admire some of the supernatural tales of Henry James, especially “The Turn of the Screw,” he won’t be found here because that novella has been anthologized to death, is easy to find elsewhere, and is so long that a -half--dozen other stories would have had to be sacrificed. Putting together an anthology is not a pure science, so there are contradictions galore. I’ve included “The Monkey’s Paw,” for example, which has also been anthologized to the point of being a cliché. Still, it’s short, -didn’t use up too much space, and it is lively (unlike dear old Henry -James—-no offense). To make up for the very familiar stories, I’ve included some that you’ve never seen before, several of which appear in book form for the very first time. The Golden Age of the ghost story (the late Victorian and Edwardian eras) is fully represented, and so is the Golden Age of the pulp magazines (the 1920s and 1930s), while the contemporary masters have not been ignored.
Whether this collection is best enjoyed next to a summer campfire or a winter fireplace is up to you. On the other hand, it is so enormous that it may endure through several seasons. Whenever you read it, I hope you have a shiveringly good time with it. After all, in the dead of night, who would not believe in ghosts?
Although I read more than a thousand stories to find and identify those that I hope you will most enjoy, it would not have been possible to compile such a comprehensive and -wide--reaching volume without the invaluable assistance of those who know a great deal more than I do. Sincere, if hopelessly inadequate, thanks are owed to Robert Weinberg, John Pelan, Chris Roden, Gardner Dozois, Joel Frieman, Harlan Ellison, John Knott, and those I’m forgetting who so freely and generously offered their assistance and expertise.
Excerpted from The Big Book of Ghost Stories by Edited with an Introduction by Otto Penzler. Copyright © 2012 by Otto Penzler. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.