The Best Ghost Stories wot I Have Read, Part One

This series is neither in-depth analysis nor a compilation of the best of the best, but a presentation of some notable writers and their particularly notable stories. These stories deserve to be pulled out of the haunted bookshelf and held up to the light. They produce a particular effect and linger in the reader’s mind, and they show that the ghost story is not simply a matter of read and be afraid. The selected tales contain worlds of allusion, reference and themes. This series will give us glimpses of the worlds within these grains of sand on literature’s surf-tormented shore. Abandon hope of a spoiler-free read all ye who enter.

Ambrose Bierce

‘GHOST, n. The outward and visible sign of an inward fear.’

  • Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Born in a log cabin in 1842 and vanished among Mexican revolutionaries around 1914, it is glib but perhaps fair to say that Ambrose Bierce is Mark Twain’s embittered Northern literary cousin. Both lived through the Civil War, though Bierce’s war was much more prolonged, bloody and traumatic. Both men were part of their country’s westward expansion. Both were journalists living in a time in which vituperation on the page could spill over into violence on the streets. Twain reacted to his times with humour and humanism. Bierce reacted with horror and pessimism. Both became titans of 19th century American letters, though Bierce is known mainly by genre fans, influencing HP Lovecraft[i] and Rod Serling,[ii] as well as being the subject of some study by notable scholars of weird fiction such as ST Joshi.[iii] Despite this, Bierce’s work is taught in some US schools and studied by some academics for his war writing.[iv]

‘The Spook House’ is among Bierce’s most interesting work. On first reading it is hard to understand all of its implications. The reader closes the book with the feeling that, briefly, a door has opened onto a nightmare, or perhaps onto Hell itself. While we escape, along with one character, we are left with the impression common to many of Bierce’s tales that any of us could stumble into the pit at any moment, never to be seen more. Not only does this clearly relate to the experiences of an author who has lived under the arbitrary rule of fate in wartime, but it is part of the moral tradition of the ghost story. The desired effect, as MR James put it, is to make the reader think, ‘“If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!”’.[v] This tale may fit into that intriguing category which we might call “Ghost Stories that are Not Ghost Stories”. As we shall see in future posts, though a story may not have a ghost, it could still be called a “ghost story”. If we follow Bierce’s definition from The Devil’s Dictionary then the “ghost” in a ghost story could be an odd feeling, an unnatural occurrence, or an inexplicable happening onto which the character’s fears are projected. It is clear from Bierce’s work that a ghost story can also be a meditation on chance and fate. Furthermore, I have not even begun to unpick the thread in ‘The Spook House’ that seems to run all the way back to the real Hell of slavery.

Like ‘The Spook House’, ‘A Vine on a House’ requires a second reading, even to begin to understand what has happened here (all haunted house stories implicitly ask the question “What has happened here?”). This tale gives the reader a queasy impression of the unseen connections between the natural and supernatural worlds. Indeed, in Bierce’s stories, we see precursors to the sickly, overgrown vegetation that forms such a memorable twitching backdrop to works by HP Lovecraft[vi] and TED Klein.[vii] We might call this the horror of the organic, a theme also found in the work of Bierce’s near-contemporary Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman.[viii] Like another notable story by Bierce, ‘The Middle Toe of the Right Foot’, this tale touches on deformity in women. Female characters in Bierce’s writings are often victims, consistent with the gothic and horror traditions in literature and film, though there is notable narrative sympathy for some of them. One could make an interesting study of his female characters in relation to Victorian ideals of beauty, conjugal love and the feminine. In the narrative, feminine deformity is a useful plot device, but also a symbol of how difficult it is for Bierce’s female characters, in the world that they inhabit, to be both flawed and loved.

‘The Secret of Macargar’s Gulch’ is on the face of it a straightforward haunted house tale, not unlike that written down by Pliny, often cited as one of the earliest recorded ghost stories.[ix] What sets it aside from the run of haunted house narratives is Bierce’s talent, mentioned above, for making the natural world a seeming extension of, or mirror to, the supernatural world. This story contains some of Bierce’s most evocative writing, immersing the reader in the backwoods of mid-19th century America. The atmosphere feels genuine and unique to its period, in which a man hunting on foot among country barely known to him or its settlers was without physical signposts and the metaphorical signposts provided by a common body of tradition, or “lore”, as we might call it. Cut off from both of these the narrator must rely on his senses in the wilderness before piecing together what those imperfect organs relayed to him using the binding power of shared human knowledge in a more central and populated location. As we shall see in future posts, this dichotomy between the central and the edgelands is a recurring theme in ghost stories. This arguably has much to do with the increase of travel and migration from the early 19th century onward. Unable to populate and humanise a landscape with lore, the character is in a vast arena of possibility, the scale of which dwarfs human understanding and approaches the sublime in its overawing uncertainty.

All of the Bierce stories mentioned deal with familial murder or the extermination of entire families. His preoccupation with this particular theme, and with murderers who get away, reflects a time in US history when individuals and families could indeed be preyed upon by implacable killers who could then disappear into the hinterlands. One only has to think of the Harpe brothers of Tennessee, or the Bloody Benders of Kansas, to know that many of those travelling the trails did not reach their intended destinations. Bierce the journalist would have been perfectly aware of the mutability of life on the shady edges of manifest destiny. It is not too much of a leap to identify in such narratives, real and fictional, the seeds of later unstoppable 20th century monsters, such as Leatherface, Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees.

We have now taken a cursory glance at three short works by a notable author in the ghost story canon. In these very short stories we can identify such diverse themes as fate, war, slavery, the relationship between the natural and supernatural worlds, body image and gender, beauty, love, society and the feminine, dislocation between humanity and the landscape, the central versus the edgelands, the sublime, violence both real and imagined, and the legacy of horrors real and imagined. It should be obvious by now that such stories, though they contain “pleasing terrors”, also convey insights into times, places and themes that we may not at first be familiar with. Ghost stories are entertaining. They are also valuable.

Next time, we shall continue our look at The Best Ghost Stories wot I Have Read, peering at the work of absurdly underrated author Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman.  

*Painting of Ambrose Bierce by JHE Partington. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.


Bierce, Ambrose. ‘The Spook House’, first published 1889. Available at

–. ‘The Middle Toe of the Right Foot’, first published 1890. Available at

–. ‘The Secret of Macarger’s Gulch’, first published 1891. Available at

–. The Devil’s Dictionary, first full edition published as The Cynic’s Word Book, 1906. Available at

–. ‘A Vine on a House’, in Present at a Hanging and Other Ghost Stories, 1913[?]. Available at

Clarke, Roger. A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof, London: Particular Books, 2012.

Cushman, Stephen. ‘On Ambrose Bierce’, Civil War Institute Summer Conference, 2013. Available at

Freeman, Mary Eleanor Wilkins. ‘The Wind in the Rose Bush’, in The Wind in the Rose Bush, and other Stories of the Supernatural, 1903. Available at

Joshi, ST. The Weird Tale, Holicong: Wildside Press, 2003.

Klein, TED. ‘The Events at Poroth Farm’, in American Supernatural Tales, ed. ST Joshi, London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2007, pp 309-358.

Lovecraft, Howard Phillips. Supernatural Horror in Literature, New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1973 [1945].

Serling, Rod. ‘Introduction to “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”’. The Twilight Zone, series 5, episode 22.

[i] Lovecraft wrote an early study of Bierce’s ghost stories in Supernatural Horror in Literature (1973 [1945]: 66-70).

[ii] Serling called Bierce a ‘past master of the incredible’ in his introduction to the Twilight Zone’s presentation of Robert Enrico’s film version of ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’, series 5, episode 22.

[iii] See Joshi (2003: 143-167).

[iv] See, for example, Stephen Cushman’s lecture on Bierce and the Battle of Chickamauga.

[v] James (2016 [1911]).

[vi] See ‘The Colour out of Space.’

[vii] See ‘The Events at Poroth Farm.’

[viii] See ‘The Wind in the Rose Bush.’

[ix] See Clarke (2012: 114-116).


2 thoughts on “The Best Ghost Stories wot I Have Read, Part One

  1. Thank you Lewis for a very interesting insight into these works.
    Looking forward to the next episode.
    I will be checking out the titles you have quoted.


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