Ghosts did not go out when electric light came in, though it could be felt at the time that this was bound to happen. They can look like a trick of the moonlight and candlelight of the past: and yet most of the pieces in the Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories are taken from the well-lighted last quarter of the last century and first quarter of this one. Readers of this book could be excused for thinking that ghosts have been switched on to accompany, or to compete with, the illuminations of the modern world, that they are a relief from the exactions of reason. Ghost stories can look like a nostalgic game, a trivial make-believe, played when it was no longer widely held, by readers of books, that the spirits of the dead return to the land of the living - mopping, mowing, gibbering, giving their owl's cries, causing the tapers to burn blue, sheeted, but never in any circumstances nude. The last of these superstitions is commemorated in a story by A.E. Coppard, chosen for the Oxford Book, in which a dressy female revenant performs a more than usually disappointing strip-tease. She is also taking part in a literary jeu d'esprit.
LRB 2 April 1987 | PDF Download