Supernatural Summer: Classic English and American Ghost Stories

Daniel Tures, Adult Librarian, Edendale Branch Library,
Ghost on the Beach. Watercolor and gouache on watercolor paper, 2021
Ghost on the Beach by Flukelady: Watercolor and gouache on watercolor paper, 2021

Lazy beach days… rainbow sno-cones… flip-flops and sunglasses… wandering phantasms from beyond the grave… it's all part of your favorite season of fun in the sun! Get ready for a supernatural summer, because Robert Anderson from the Literature & Fiction Department and I are here to tell you about some of our favorite summertime ghost stories.

Ghost stories tend to be set during certain times of year: the dim shadows of late autumn, a blustery spring squall, a snowy winter's night. However, a persistent handful takes place in high summertime, and these are intriguing. Summer might seem like the wrong time for ghosts. But in the right author's hands, the oppressive torpor and sleepless nights of a sweltering August make the perfect build-up to an encounter with the uncanny. A story that begins with a trip to a sea-swept coast or verdant countryside can play off expectations of a leisurely summer vacation, deepening the disquiet when an unexpected specter appears. And of course, nothing cools you down on a sizzling afternoon like the icy chill of a spine-tingling tale!

Beach scene in Long Beach, 1891
Beach scene in Long Beach, 1891

Midsummer, like midwinter, is one of the turning points of the solar year—the longest day and shortest night. The standing stones of Stonehenge align to the rising sun at the winter solstice and the setting sun at the summer solstice, usually June 20 or 21 in the northern hemisphere. In pre-Christian England, midsummer bonfires were lit for festivities to celebrate the sun's beneficence and to ward off witches and evil spirits; some of these ancient festivals, like Golowan in Cornwall, are still observed. As with midwinter, it was believed that the barrier to the supernatural realm was more easily crossed at midsummer, so ghosts and goblins were likely to be about. Just as early church leaders designated December 25 as Christmas partly to supersede existing pagan midwinter festivals, June 24 became the Feast of St. John the Baptist, who prophesied the coming of Jesus. The midpoint of the year, it augurs the coming of Christmas six months later. Supernatural midsummer imagery shows up in music and literature, like the fairies and enchantments of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Mole and Water Rat's encounter with the music of Pan in "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" from The Wind in the Willows, and the witches' sabbath on St. John's Eve portrayed in Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain.

Much of the old English midsummer tradition has to do with the natural world in full bloom and the worship of pagan nature deities, like the supposed ancient druid custom of burning a sacrificial wooden figure popularized by the 1973 movie The Wicker Man. But there are some ghostly traditions as well, like this superstition recorded by Thomas Hardy:

"On Midsummer Night it is believed hereabout that the faint shapes of all the folk in the parish who are going to be at death's door within the year can be seen entering the church. Those who get over their illness come out again after awhile; those that are doomed to die do not return…"

Horse and carriage on the beach, Long Beach, 1892
Horse and carriage on the beach, Long Beach, 1890

The Victorians not only invented the modern short story, they came up with much of our idea of summer leisure too. Nineteenth-century industrialization created white-collar jobs with stable salaries and paid vacation time; this made escaping the city for summer travel a desirable option for many more classes of people beyond the wealthy. As Lee Jackson tells us in Palaces of Pleasure: From Music Halls to the Seaside to Football, How the Victorians Invented Mass Entertainment, "The Victorians developed their own modern forms of leisure, suited to the industrial age… Quiet seaside resorts, newly served by steamships and railway lines, constructed elegant iron piers and palatial winter gardens. New mechanized amusement rides prospered at exhibition grounds and beside the sea, prefiguring the modern theme park…" Along with summer vacation came its attendant leisure activities, including summer reading. In Books for Idle Hours: Nineteenth-Century Publishing and the Rise of Summer Reading, Donna Harrington-Lueker shows how Victorian publishers expressly marketed light reading to go along with the burgeoning interest in summer travel, especially novels and stories set at resorts or vacation destinations.

Overcast day at the beach, 1900
Overcast day at the beach, 1900

Just as Victorian readers loved the wintery ghost stories that filled the 'Christmas numbers' of their favorite periodicals, many summer-themed ghost stories of the time are set on holiday, often opening with the main character heading out for a getaway to the countryside or the coast. This takes us on a symbolic journey away from modern urban hustle and bustle, back to verdant nature and the older ways of village life. We walk down strange paths, get lost in the woods. The senses are awakened, hidden layers of reality become perceptible. Summer ghosts are sometimes revealed in these stories to have met their untimely ends through seasonal activities—boating or swimming that led to drowning, or a torrid summer love affair that ended in violent tragedy. And summer houses make apt haunted houses, storing up the traces or impressions of what happened one summer, then closed up at the end of the season to stand silent and vacant until new vacationers arrive to stir the spirits the following year.

Here are ten delightful summertime ghost stories recommended by Robert and myself—happy haunted summer reading!

Robert: "The Open Door" by Mrs. J. H. (Charlotte) Riddell (1882)

"It was a lovely afternoon when I found myself walking through leafy lanes in the heart of Meadowshire. With every vein of my heart I loved the country, and the country was looking its best just then: grass ripe for the mower, grain forming in the ear, rippling streams, dreamy rivers, old orchards, quaint cottages." This passage from "The Open Door" does not sound like the beginning of a ghost story, but its author was indeed one of the leading ghost story writers of the nineteenth century, and this summery tale from her 1882 book Weird Stories is among her best. Her complete short ghost fiction can be found in The Collected Ghost Stories of Mrs. J. H. Riddell. Mrs. Riddell (1832-1906) was born Charlotte Cowan in Northern Ireland, the daughter of the High Sheriff of the County of Antrim. She grew up in prosperity, but when she was in her teens the family fortune was lost, and she decided to move to London to turn her childhood love of writing stories into a profession. Her marriage to a man who was prone to running up large debts meant that she had to write continuously at top speed to pay off his creditors. As was the case with most writers of her time, her ghost stories tended to appear in Christmas issues of popular magazines. "The Open Door" is narrated by Theophilus "Phil" Edlyd, a young man of twenty-two who is half-heartedly working as a clerk to an estate agent to help support his genteel but impoverished parents. One day Phil hears from a coworker that one of their clients, Mr. Carrison, is unable to live in Ladlow Hall, the country house he has leased from them, because one of the doors will not stay closed. Phil volunteers to go down to Meadowshire to investigate, but when he asks for more money than his boss is willing to offer for the job, he is fired on the spot. Undeterred, he visits Mr. Carrison and gets permission to spend a week at Ladlow, with expenses paid. Arriving at the empty manor, he soon discovers the problem door, on the ground floor: it has a latch and lock, but as soon as he turns his back or walks away after shutting it, it reopens in a few seconds. Phil learns from local residents that the last Lord Ladbroke was murdered in that room, and that a court battle between the heirs over conflicting wills is underway. As he continues his solitary investigation, he becomes convinced that the house is being visited not only by a ghostly presence but also by someone who is still very much alive.

Long Beach hotel, 1884
Long Beach hotel, 1884

Daniel: "The Canterville Ghost" by Oscar Wilde (1887)

"It was a lovely July evening, and the air was delicate with the scent of the pinewoods. As they entered the avenue of Canterville Chase, however, the sky became suddenly overcast with clouds, a curious stillness seemed to hold the atmosphere, a great flight of rooks passed silently over their heads, and, before they reached the house, some big drops of rain had fallen…" Oscar Wilde's first-published short story is a rib-tickling ghostly romp with lush summer scenery and a touch of romance. The new American ambassador, Hiram B. Otis, and his family take up residence in an old English country house, scoffing at warnings that it has been haunted for centuries. But an ineradicable bloodstain appears on the floor, and that night the specter of Sir Simon de Canterville ascends the stairs with glowing red eyes and clanking chains. Hiram advises him peremptorily to oil his chains with Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator and shuts the bedroom door in his face. Sir Simon runs through his usual bag of haunting tricks, but finds it impossible to frighten these cheery, unflappable Americans, and he gets frazzled when they turn the tables on him with rowdy practical jokes. He finally finds a sympathetic ear in pretty young Virginia Otis, who may also hold the key to deliver him from his post-life bondage. A sublimely witty culture clash between ghostly old England and hard-headed new America, available in the Wilde collection Complete Short Fiction.

Robert: "Old Man's Beard" by H. Russell Wakefield (1929)

"Old man's beard" is a colloquial name for several varieties of plants that have some resemblance to a human beard, including Spanish moss and a variety of clematis, but in this creepy tale, the beard belongs to an actual (though not necessarily living and breathing) old man. Herbert Russell Wakefield (1888-1964) was born in Kent, England, the son of a clergyman who later became bishop of Birmingham. After study at Oxford and service in the British infantry during World War I, Wakefield became an editor at a publishing house. His own early writing was mostly in the thriller and true-crime genres, but after he began editing a series of books called, "The Creeps Library," he started writing his own ghost stories, much in the style of M. R. James and Algernon Blackwood. "Old Man's Beard" first appeared in his 1929 collection Others Who Returned, and it has been reprinted more recently in The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories. The story's central character is a wealthy and rather conventional English businessman named Horace Bickley. Bickley and his wife have a lovely daughter named Mariella who has troubled her father by falling in love with a series of unsuitable men, including the family chauffeur. The latest object of her affection, a handsome but penniless young man named Arthur Randall, seems an equally poor choice to Bickley—until Randall unexpectedly inherits a sizable fortune. With the wedding scheduled for fall, the Bickleys invite Randall to spend two summer months with them at a seaside resort so they can get to know him better. Soon after the quartet has settled in at Brinton-on-Sea, Bickley notices that Mariella seems out-of-sorts and troubled but doesn't want to talk about it. When she fails to improve, he calls in an old family friend, Sir Perseus Farrar, an expert in the female nervous system, to meet with her. Sir Perseus learns that Mariella has been suffering from a series of nightmares, all involving an old man and a coffin, and ending with the feeling that she is being smothered by the hair of his beard. Mariella does not recognize the old man in her dreams as anyone she has ever met in real life. The doctor prescribes a medication to help her sleep and promises to look in on her every couple of days, and she seems to be gradually improving–until the evening she fails to return from a solitary afternoon on the beach...

Long Beach Municipal Auditorium beach scene, 1905
Long Beach Municipal Auditorium beach scene, 1905

Daniel: "The Lass With the Delicate Air" by Eileen Bigland (1952)

An English businessman rents a house in the Scottish highlands for the summer to recuperate from an operation. One afternoon, he hears someone whistling a haunting tune out in the garden, and he follows the sound to a nearby hilltop where he sees a beautiful young woman in a blue dress gathering primroses. She smiles at him, but her face is strangely pale and her dress is ragged, and soon she disappears. Every new moon he hears the whistling again, and goes up the hill to see her. Eventually, he learns the long-ago story of the blue girl and her lost love for whom she haunts the hilltop, and he strives to find a way to bring her peace before her next appearance. Eileen Bigland was born in Edinburgh in 1898 and her love of the Scottish countryside is evident: "As I blinked in the sunshine I thought suddenly of the shining firths of the north, the cloud-dappled hills, the scented forests of fir and pine… We took the coast road that runs by the Moray Firth, turned inland at Gollanfield, and climbed towards the Cawdor woods and the wine-dark peat moss behind them. Glancing back I saw the silver stretch of water, the black humps of the Soutars guarding the entrance to Cromarty harbor, the glittering white cap of Wyvis rising beyond…" This can be found in the anthology A Book of Modern Ghosts.

Robert: "The Wood of the Dead" by Algernon Blackwood (1906)

Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) is generally considered one of the greatest ghost story writers of his era, and almost all of his fiction falls into the category of "weird stories" of one kind or another. Blackwood's parents both had close connections to the British aristocracy, and he spent his childhood at Crayford Manor House on the outskirts of London. His father, a Post Office administrator, was an extreme religious conservative, and Algernon rebelled by immersing himself in the study of Buddhism and other Eastern belief systems. He spent most of the 1890s traveling around Canada and the United States, where he worked a variety of odd jobs, including hotel proprietor, bartender, violin teacher, dairy farmer, and reporter for the New York Times. He began writing during this period, and after returning to England he started to publish his stories in collections; in his later years, he became known for reading his tales aloud on radio and even on early television. "The Wood of the Dead" appeared in his first collection, The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories, in 1906, and it combines the two great passions of his life: nature and spirituality. The story's narrator is making a solo summer walking tour of England's west country and has stopped for a meal at a village inn. He begins a conversation with the only other occupant of the dining room, an elderly man who tells him that he is a native of the area who has returned to his beloved home country to call away someone who "is needed elsewhere for a worthier purpose." He urges the narrator to meet him at midnight in "The Wood of the Dead" to learn more. Perplexed but fascinated, the narrator consults the innkeeper's daughter about "The Wood of the Dead" after the old man vanishes and learns that years ago the inn was a private residence, and the man who lived there claimed that whenever he saw a local resident enter the nearby wood singing, he knew that person would soon die. The narrator finds himself impelled to explore this local legend, and instead of continuing on his journey, he books a room at the inn and prepares for a midnight walk in the woods…

Santa Monica Bay with lighthouse, 1927
Santa Monica Bay with lighthouse, 1927

Daniel: "The Rival Ghosts" by Brander Matthews (1884)

Another transatlantic ghostly rumpus! A group of passengers on an ocean liner debate which has better spooks, the Continent or the States, and gather around Uncle Larry to enjoy a yarn that speaks to both sides. It begins with Duncan, an eligible New York lawyer who has inherited a house in Salem from his mother's family that is haunted by a mysterious ghostess, who only manifests to drive off unwanted guests. Then from his father's side, he learns that he has also inherited a Scottish baronetcy, and when he travels there he learns that those estates are haunted too, by a guardian ghost who always accompanies the master of the house. When he returns to Salem to spend his summer vacation, the guardian ghost has followed him across the pond, and now clashes furiously with the Salem ghostess, sending flaming banjos and tambourines flying around the parlor in the classic manner of a Victorian seance. Duncan falls in love with a girl he wants to marry and bring back to Salem, but the quarreling ghosts will make cohabitation difficult—can he find a harmonious way to bring them together? Brander Matthews was a professor of dramatic literature at Columbia, and the many sidebars from Uncle Larry's audience read like a screwball production: "Girls,' said Dear Jones, 'never go out in a rowboat at night with a young man unless you mean to accept him.'" Read it in the wonderfully titled compendium Mystic-Humorous Stories.

Robert: "The Giant Wistaria" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1891)

This tale, first published in The New England Magazine, is a prime example of a ghost story subgenre in which some carefree vacationers rent a possibly haunted house as a lark but get more than they bargained for. Its author, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) is best known today for her feminist writings, her social activism, and her famous short story "The Yellow Wallpaper," published in the same journal just a few months after "The Giant Wistaria." Charlotte Perkins was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and the descendant of several prominent New England families; in particular, her paternal grandmother was the sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher. Her parents separated when she was very young, and she grew up in impoverished circumstances in Rhode Island. "The Yellow Wallpaper" was inspired by her disastrous first marriage to artist Charles Stetson and the severe postpartum depression she suffered after the birth of her daughter, which led to her being subjected by her doctor to an extreme rest cure during which she was not allowed to read, write, or go outside. Charlotte eventually rebelled against the "cure," divorced her husband, and lived for several years in Pasadena, California. She later returned east, was happily married to her first cousin, and spent seven years as the publisher and sole writer of The Forerunner, a journal in which her feminist utopian novel Herland (rediscovered by feminists in the 1970s) appeared. "The Giant Wistaria" begins with a grim prelude which appears to be set in New England during the Puritan era. A young woman has given birth to a child out of wedlock, and her unforgiving father has decided that she will be forced to marry her cousin and that the child will be taken away from her and left behind when the family sails back to England the next day. Reference is made in the story's first sentence to the "new vine" growing outside the family home. The action then shifts to a much cheerier present-day (1890s) scene in which a young couple named Jenny and George decide to rent a dilapidated old house for the summer. A prime feature of this dwelling is an enormous wisteria plant that more or less holds up the front of the house. There is also a creepy basement with an old well. Jenny and George invite two other couples to join them, and on their first night in the house, the women speculate cheerfully about the likelihood of ghostly visitors. The next morning at breakfast, several members of the group reveal dreams or visions they had which all seem to fit together into an ominous pattern involving that basement well and a young woman with a red cross around her neck... "The Giant Wistaria" can be found in The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Writings, where it can be read in the context of other feminist fiction and nonfiction by the author.

Daniel: "The Pool" by Daphne Du Maurier (1959)

Daphne du Maurier is known for her sumptuous, well-paced horror stories and gothic romances, several of which have been adapted into classic films—Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940) and The Birds (1963), and Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973). "The Pool" is a mystical coming-of-age story that unfolds during a sweltering June. Deborah and Roger are once again done with school for the summer and staying at their grandparents' country house, although Deborah, nearly a teenager, is outgrowing her younger brother's youthful antics. She is drawn to a pond deep in the woods, and sneaks out of the house to return to it at night; there she sees a procession of ghostly figures entering the water, and longs to join their secret world. As in many summer ghost stories, the heat and the closeness of nature portend inner changes coming to fruition, boundaries being crossed. "The heat wave was on its way. Deborah, leaning out of the open window, fancied she could see it in the sky, a dull haze where the sun had been before; and the trees beyond the lawn, day-colored when they were having their supper in the dining room, had turned into night-birds with outstretched wings…" This one is from du Maurier’s story collection The Breaking Point.

House by the sea in Long Beach, 1920
House by the sea in Long Beach, 1920

Robert: "With and Without Buttons," by Mary Butts (1932)

Mary Butts (1890-1937) has never been a widely known writer, but she was very much involved in the literary modernism that flourished in England in the years after World War I. She published five novels plus numerous short stories, poems, and essays in her relatively short life and every few decades she seems to get rediscovered (and republished) by a small but devoted band of readers. Butts grew up in an affluent family in the Dorset region of southern England–the countryside that also produced and inspired Thomas Hardy. She rebelled against her strict mother and lived an extremely unconventional life, even shocking some of her very open-minded fellow writers and artists with her eccentric behavior. She indulged in opium and other drugs and had a series of relatively brief romantic relationships with both men and women. Jean Cocteau was a close friend, as were Aleister Crowley, Bryher, and H.D. She considered her talent equal to that of T. S. Eliot and lamented the fact that he didn't seem to care for her writing; Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein were bores, in her opinion. Much of her fiction had a mystical or fairy-tale element, including the ghost story "With and Without Buttons," which she completed in 1932 and tried to dedicate to M. R. James—he seems not to have answered her letter telling him that he'd inspired it. The story remained unpublished until after Butts' death at age 46 following gastric ulcer surgery; it finally appeared in 1938 in Last Stories. The narrator and her sister (we never learn their names) are spending the summer in an isolated village in Kent, where they've rented half of a house that's been divided into two side-by-side dwellings. They like their neighbor in the other half–a man named Trenchard—but they are irritated by his extreme rationalism. He has traveled to various parts of the world and had many unusual experiences, but he always has a logical explanation for everything. The sisters decide to create a ghost that will convince Trenchard he's being haunted. The plan they devise involves a box of women's gloves (with and without buttons) that they find upstairs in their part of the house: When they make their periodic visits to Trenchard, they will start leaving a glove here and there, and he will be unable to come up with a logical explanation. On their next visit, Trenchard mentions that he's found two gloves, and the narrator is annoyed with her sister for not telling her that she was starting their experiment. But it turns out that the sister only planted one of the gloves; the other one seems to have appeared on its own. Over the next few weeks, more "extra" gloves appear, and the sisters decide it's time to start making inquiries in the village about the house's previous occupants. You can find this story, and twelve other dark tales by women, in the anthology Women's Weird: Strange Stories by Women, 1890-1940.

Daniel: "Ghosts on the Lake" by Ilse Aichinger (1956)

"During the summer people take little notice of them or think them no different from themselves, and those who leave the lake at the end of summer never notice them at all. Only towards autumn do they begin to become perceptible. Visitors who come later or stay longer, who end by not being sure whether they themselves are guests or ghosts, are able to pick them out…" In this terse handful of vignettes, three vacationers at a lake become ghosts at some point, and spend eternity on holiday. A man takes his motorboat out for a spin but finds he can't shut off the motor, and so winds up circling endlessly from shore to shore, waving at friends as he passes until they leave at the end of the season. A woman wearing sunglasses stops removing them when clouds pass overhead and soon discovers that she can no longer take them off at all without fading away. Three young girls on a ferry giggle and whisper about a deckhand on board, who is irked into trying to demonstrate his bravery when a squall starts up and falls over the side. "He rests in peace, as is stated on his tombstone because his body was pulled out of the water. But the three girls still go backwards and forwards on the steamer and giggle behind their hands…" Aichinger was taken out of school, and sent to work in a factory by the Nazis. After the war, she became a well-known writer in Austria. Her existentialist fables were sometimes likened to those of Kafka, though hers explore a more emotional experience of absurdity. "Ghosts on the Lake," from The Bound Man and Other Stories, is told from the ghost's point of view. As in some recent films, these ghosts seem unaware that they are no longer living, but perplexed at what is now for them an endless summer.

View of Long Beach from Magnolia Pier, 1889
View of Long Beach from Magnolia Pier, 1889

Suggested Reading

book cover
The Collected Ghost Stories of Mrs. J. H. Riddell
Riddell, J. H., Mrs.

Book cover of Complete short fiction
Complete Short Fiction
Wilde, Oscar

Book cover of The Oxford book of English ghost stories
The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories

book cover
A Book of Modern Ghosts

book cover
Empty House: And Other Ghost Stories
Blackwood, Algernon

book cover
Mystic-Humorous Stories

Book cover of The yellow wall-paper and other writings
The Yellow Wall-Paper and Other Writings
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins

The Breaking Point book cover
The Breaking Point
Du Maurier, Daphne

Book cover of Women's weird : strange stories by women, 1890-1940
Women's Weird: Strange Stories by Women, 1890-1940

the Bound Man book cover
The Bound Man, and Other Stories
Aichinger, Ilse