It is rare that SFX magazine and I even remotely agree when it comes to ‘best of’ selections. This is hardly surprising as whatever SFX’s perceived readership might be, I’m fairly sure it’s not me – I’ve never been especially interested in media sf or fantasy, or gaming for that matter, and to glance at SFX is to see a world in which books seem barely to figure. But equally, ‘live and let live’ seems to be a good credo with which to work; sf and fantasy come in so many forms these days I refuse to complain about the lack of attention to literature any more.
Nonetheless, you may imagine my surprise when I found that I pretty much agreed with the SFX top ten best ghost stories ever, at least in terms of those I’m familiar with (and it would of course be churlish of me to observe that all these stories have coincidentally received film adaptations, some better than others).
10 – M.R. James – Casting the Runes
9 – Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol
8 – Peter Straub – Ghost Story
7 – Susan Hill – The Woman in Black
6 – Edgar Allan Poe – The Tell-Tale Heart
5 – Stephen King – The Shining
4 – W.W. Jacobs – The Monkey’s Paw
3 – Jonathan Miller (M.R. James)– Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You (film)
2 – Henry James – The Turn of the Screw
1 – Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House/The Haunting
I’ve not read either the Straub or the King, though I really ought to (and in the case of the King, I now realise I was put off by the fatal combination of Kubrick and Jack Nicholson).
The inclusion of M.R. James is always likely to please me, though it’s interesting that the second is the Miller film adaptation of ‘Oh Whistle And I’ll Come toYou, My Lad!’ which is a fine piece of work in its own right.
Likewise, ‘A Christmas Carol’ is guaranteed to please; it’s still a wonderful story. My current favourite adaptation is the version with Patrick Stewart as Scrooge (though Alastair Sim and Michael Hordern have turned in excellent performances over the years). But as SFX also notes, Dickens’ best ghost story is undoubtedly ‘The Signalman’ (also filmed, and well worth watching. It is available on Youtube).
The Woman in Black is more problematic. My first acquaintance with it was when I saw the stage adaptation in London, way back when it first opened. It was a wonderful piece of melodrama and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The novel seemed flat by comparison; it seemed to me that Susan Hill was too self-conscious about her influences (a view I’ve seen no reason to change with her subsequent ghost stories, at least one of which is simply an overextended version of James’s ‘Mezzotint’). ITV’s adaptation, written by Nigel Kneale, was equally terrifying, and even the reading recently broadcast on Radio 4Extra was extremely frightening. I even confess to certain hopes for the new Daniel Radcliffe film, too, but the odd thing about this novel is that it really does seem to work better in practically any other medium than the original.
Poe’s ‘The Telltale Heart’is an interesting choice; I’m not sure I would regard it as a ghost story in the classic sense of an external haunting, but as a psychological haunting, it would be hard to beat. One might say the same about Henry James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’, and it is the classic example of the Todorovian hesitation (‘The Innocents’ is a genuinely terrifying film version, while Benjamin Britten’s opera of ‘The Turn of the Screw’ is a wonderful thing).
I was a little more surprised by the inclusion of ‘The Monkey’s Paw’; I hadn’t realised it was still that well known as a story, but I’m glad it is. I remember hearing the story when I was young and it has always stuck with me. Good stuff. But there is an immense pleasure in seeing Shirley Jackson top the list with The Haunting of Hill House, which is an excellent story, and genuinely scary.
So, at some point I must read the Straub and the King.