A lively collection of ghost stories from the seventeenth century to the present.
Britain is full of ghostly stories – from the wraith of John Donne’s wife to the Cock Lane poltergeist. Gillian Bennett has collected together the 100 best tales told to frighten and enthral over the last four centuries. Famous hauntings and familiar legends are combined with unusual and long-lost accounts of apparitions, boggarts, black dogs and ‘unhappy houses’ in this new collection.
The title sounds like one of those programmes Channel 4 used to put on where you spent all evening counting down the titles reckoned to be the best of something according to a viewers’ poll. So, why these, rather than some other hundred ghost stories? No criteria are provided, other than that Gillian Bennett has collected them and rates them highly. Of course these things are subjective anyway, and every compiler of such an anthology would produce a different selection, albeit with some overlaps.
While favourites may be missing, this is still a pretty good hundred to introduce readers to the literature. Most are taken from printed collections, though Bennett does conclude with a few she collected orally in the early 1980s, nearly all of which appeared in a slightly different form in her 1999 academic study “Alas, Poor Ghost!” Traditions of Belief in Story and Discourse.
The organisation is different to that of the typical paranormal guide. Rather than being presented geographically, the stories are arranged chronologically in four parts, covering the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, and are designed to be representative of their respective periods. Each century is prefaced by some remarks on its distinctive features, and on continuities.
The accounts range in length from a few lines to several pages, all with short introductions. Bennett is a member of the Folklore Society and former editor of its journal, so she has a good grasp of the wider context of the stories she presents, and is able to draw out motifs running across a number of seemingly independent accounts. Even though apparently anchored in a specific locale, the fact that similar stories often pop up in different places shows that they can migrate within an oral tradition.
If you thought that ghosts were timeless, the arrangement shows that they are not, or at least the way they are treated isn’t. Grouping allows the reader to gain a sense of how narratives reflect social and religious developments. The shortest entry in the book, taken from John Aubrey’s Miscellanies of 1696, is worth quoting in full to show how things have changed in three hundred years: “Anno 1670, not far from Cirencester, was an apparition: being demanded, whether a good spirit, or a bad? Returned no answer, but disappeared with a curious perfume and a most melodious twang.”
Not many ghosts these days seem to twang, melodiously or otherwise. On the other hand, there are continuities, for example the popularity in the nineteenth century of a form of ghost tourism, though more in the nature of flash mobs turning up at premises where they had heard there were ghosts, than the organised, and profitable, activity we know and love today. Poltergeists are as annoying as they ever were, and ghosts still return to complete unfinished business, reproach or comfort the living, or just stooge about for no apparent reason.
Bennett has produced an entertaining and useful collection which, assisted by the lengthy bibliography, will guide readers keen to know more to her sources. Despite the chronological organisation, a handy index of places means that the reader who wants to check on a particular location can find it with ease. Whatever one’s opinion of our haunted heritage, it is certainly varied, and behind this set of the hundred best British ghost stories is another hundred, and another, and another...