Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories – 1983

Though I do enjoy the occasional ghost story, an entire collection–even of the best ever–was a little much, and I’m happy to list this on Paperback Swap where 3 members are wishing for it. Perhaps they work better when you’re not alerted to the genre. When you know it’s a ghost story, right off the bat the mysterious child/dog/crone/policeman isn’t so mysterious–only the details remain to be determined. The only image which stuck in my mind was the “white fat hand” in Sheridan Le Fanu‘s “The Ghost of a Hand.” The story itself is more imagistic than plot-driven. I did especially enjoy my dear E.F. Benson‘s “In the Tube,” more light-hearted than the rest and with an optimistic ending (as in The Sixth Sense, the ghosts want the help of the living to communicate with their loved ones). That’s the key–I like fantasy and not pure horror because the latter is so often purposeless. Why the haunting? No reason is given in classic horror–the scary stuff just is, and the story dwells on the protagonists’ reactions. My impression is that seeing the motivations and mechanisms of the Big Bad steers closer to fantasy.

In the introduction, Dahl claims that women are/were (this was the early 80s) disproportionately represented in the writing of great ghost stories, as they are/were in great children’s books. After talking about how rare and difficult it is to write a truly classic children’s book, he veers off into an anecdote about the publisher Crowell Collier inviting “all the most celebrated writers in the English speaking world to write a children’s story.”

…[A]ll the writers accepted. These were big names, mind you, famous novelists, so-called giants of the literary world. I won’t mention who they were but you would know them all.
The stories came in. I saw each one of them. Only one writer, Robert Graves, had any conception of how to write for children. The rest of the stories were guaranteed to anaesthetize in two minutes flat any unfortunate child who got hold of them. They were unpublishable.

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