The Best Ghost Stories wot I have Read, Part Three

“Life from the Standpoint of the Tomb”: Vincent O’Sullivan

Robert Aickman, editor of eight volumes of The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories, wrote that the ghost story is ‘allied to poetry’. This may be because ghost stories, part of English literature’s Romantic inheritance, appeal to our emotions before they appeal to our intellect. The same can be said of horror generally. H.P. Lovecraft begins Supernatural Horror in Literature with a consideration of the history of human feeling, asserting that fear may be the oldest emotion of them all. Lovecraft also expressed his own reasons for writing weird fiction in highly romantic terms:

My own reason for writing stories is to give myself the satisfaction of visualising more clearly and detailedly and stably the vague, elusive, fragmentary impressions of wonder, beauty, and adventurous expectancy which are conveyed to me by certain sights […], ideas, occurrences, and images encountered in art and literature. I choose weird stories […] to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis.

For Lovecraft and for Aickman, who believed that the ghost story ‘makes contact with the submerged nine-tenths’ of the human condition, the writing of the strange story is a promethean act against reality (and who is a hero more emblematic of the Romantic than Prometheus?). The artist takes an image, beautiful, strange, disturbing, and places it where we can see it to its best advantage and ruminate on it, like the puritan considering the skull in the foreground of a portrait. When we look at the portrait ourselves it is the skull that we remember. That was the artist’s aim. Similarly the fan of the ghost story recalls images before plot – faces of crumpled linen, green monkeys, overgrown gardens and red rooms. This is the point that I am leading up to – ghost stories, like poems, can be carried and even made great by striking, original images and a well-made structure. The plot can be thin, it can even be predictable, but if the pictures produced in our minds are sufficiently strange and are arranged skilfully then we can forgive and forget the unoriginality of the story.

Vincent O’Sullivan was born into wealth in New York in 1868 and died in poverty in German-occupied Paris in 1940. He was a friend of Oscar Wilde, who said that O’Sullivan was ‘really very pleasant, for one who treats life from the standpoint of the tomb.’ O’Sullivan stood by Wilde in the final dark years after his imprisonment and move to Paris. This, along with the failure of his family’s coffee business, led to his reduced circumstances. He is now best remembered for the often anthologised stories ‘When I was Dead’ and ‘The Burned House’. I was first drawn to ‘The Burned House’ by its title, perhaps one of the best in the canon. It is both simple and evocative – marks of true inspiration. As in a poem, O’Sullivan gives the reader a mental picture rich in potential meaning, exciting, intriguing, mysterious, frightening and forlorn, in the shortest possible number of words. This is another affinity between the most effective and affective poems and ghost stories. Both should distil atmosphere, mix it with meaning, and serve it neat.

That gothic standby, the narrative frame, is also used to great effect, delivering yet another enduring image:

One night at the end of dinner, the last time I crossed the Atlantic, somebody in our group remarked that we were just passing over the spot where the Lusitania had gone down. Whether this were the case or not, the thought of it was enough to make us rather grave, and we dropped into some more or less serious discussion about the emotions of men and women who see all hope gone, and realise that they are going to sink with the vessel.

‘The Burned House’ is not a sea-set ghost story. Indeed, it has nothing to do with the sea, besides its frame. But it would be half the tale it is without these two opening sentences. Not only do they create one of the most memorable conceits in the history of the English ghost story, as melancholy and haunting as Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Convergence of the Twain’, in which we float in our thoughts through the freezing waters of the North Atlantic into the sunken ballroom of the Titanic. Simultaneously O’Sullivan lays the foundations for his story’s solid structure. A chance remark amongst strangers sanctions deeper conversation. Questions are raised, each gives their opinion. As in the works of Somerset Maugham travel creates encounters which create conversation which creates narrative.

It would be wrong to say that the quality of this story rests solely on its images and structure. ‘The Burned House’ is about hope and fate, and whether one can overcome the other. This is clear from the beginning. O’Sullivan created an intriguing protagonist in the ‘little, tight-faced man, bleak and iron-grey’ who narrates the main tale. This character knows the value of hope:

‘Some years ago I had to be for several months in the North of England. I was before the courts; it does not signify now what for, and it is all forgotten by this time. But it was a long and worrying case, and it aged me by twenty years. Well, sir, all through the trial, in that grimy Manchester court-room, I kept thinking and thinking of a fresh little place I knew in the Lake District, and it helped to get through the hours by thinking that if things went well with me I’d go there at once […]’.

The plot of ‘The Burned House’ is not the most compelling. There are other tales of travellers meeting aghast sheeted phantoms of the past (to paraphrase Poe) or telling of it after the fact. Nevertheless O’Sullivan, perhaps because of his experience as a poet, perhaps because he too lived a life in which he watched hope and fate vie for dominance, created a story which, through its imagery and structure, remains one of the most memorable in the Haunted Library.      


Aickman, Robert. ‘Introduction’, in The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories. Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1978 [1964], pp. 7-10.

Hardy, Thomas. ‘The Convergence of the Twain’, in Selected Poems. London: Penguin Books, 1998, pp. 70-72.

Lovecraft, Howard Phillips. ‘Notes on Writing Weird Fiction’. First published 1937. Available at

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

O’Sullivan, Vincent. ‘The Burned House’, in The Big Book of Ghost Stories, ed. Otto Penzler. New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2012, pp. 204-208.

Penzler, Otto. ‘The Burned House: Vincent O’Sullivan’, in The Big Book of Ghost Stories, ed. Otto Penzler. New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2012, pp. 203.


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).