Before movies, television, and teams of high-tech “ghost hunters” running around darkened houses, there was only one sure-fire way to scare people: ghost stories. Some of the greatest names in literature have expertly crafted haunting tales that put the reader in a whole other world in which every shadow holds a new fear—where the lines between the living and the dead are erased and the spirits are always willing.
In this collection of over forty ghastly ghost stories are works from celebrated names including Edgar Allan Poe, Saki (H. H. Munro), Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Washington Irving, Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson, and many more. As frightening and unforgettable as they are fun, The Best Ghost Stories Ever Told are sure to keep you up night after night after dark and stormy night.
About the Author
Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) was born in Bombay and educated in England. He returned to India to begin a career in journalism and would go on to become one of the most popular and acclaimed writers of his day. Among his best-loved works is The Jungle Book, a collection of stories about a boy raised by wolves in the Indian jungle, which was adapted into the classic Disney film of the same name. In 1907, Kipling became the first English-language writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Mark Twain was the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835–1910), who grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, and worked as a printer, riverboat pilot, newspaperman, and silver miner before his short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” brought him international attention. He would go on to write two of the great American novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and many other enduring works of fiction, satire, and travelogue. He is one of the most widely recognized figures in US history.
Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930) practiced medicine in the resort town of Southsea, England, and wrote stories while waiting for his patients to arrive. In 1886, he created two of the greatest fictional characters of all time: the detective Sherlock Holmes and his partner, Dr. Watson. Over the course of four novels and fifty-six short stories, Conan Doyle set a standard for crime fiction that has yet to be surpassed.
The son of a professional cricketer and a lady’s maid, H. G. Wells (1866–1946) served apprenticeships as a draper and a chemist’s assistant before winning a scholarship to the prestigious Normal School of Science in London. While he is best remembered for his groundbreaking science fiction novels, including The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, and The Island of Doctor Moreau, Wells also wrote extensively on politics and social matters and was one of the foremost public intellectuals of his day.
Willa Cather (1873–1947) was one of the most popular and critically acclaimed American authors of the early twentieth century. Born in Virginia, she moved with her family to the frontier town of Red Cloud, Nebraska, at the age of nine, an experience that profoundly affected her literary career. Her Prairie Trilogy—O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia—is considered one of the finest achievements in American letters, and in 1922 she won the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours, her novel on World War I.
An international celebrity during his lifetime, Charles Dickens (1812–1870) is widely regarded as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. His classic works include A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and A Tale of Two Cities, one of the bestselling novels of all time. When Dickens was twelve years old, his father was sent to debtors’ prison, and the boy was forced to work in a boot-blacking factory to support his family. The experience greatly shaped both his fiction and his tireless advocacy for children’s rights and social reform.
Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) was an Irish playwright, novelist, essayist, and poet. Celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic for his wit, he is rumored to have informed a customs agent upon his arrival in America, “I have nothing to declare but my genius.” Wilde’s health and reputation were destroyed by his imprisonment for “gross indecency” in 1895, and he died in poverty a few years after his release. Today, his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and his play, The Importance of Being Earnest, are recognized as masterpieces of English literature.
Edith Wharton (1862–1937) published more than forty books during her lifetime, including the classic Gilded Age society novels Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth, and The Age of Innocence, for which she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894) was a Scottish novelist, travel writer, poet, and children’s author. Plagued by poor health his entire life, he was nevertheless an amazingly prolific writer, and created some of the most influential and entertaining fiction of the nineteenth century, including Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855) was the eldest of the three Brontë sisters who survived into adulthood. Raised in a strict Anglican home by her clergyman father after the deaths of her mother and two elder siblings, she published all of her poetry and fiction under the pen name Currer Bell. Jane Eyre, her most famous work, is widely considered one of the finest and most influential novels of the nineteenth century.
Henry James (1843–1916) wrote some of the finest novels in the English language, including The Portrait of a Lady, The Golden Bowl, and The Wings of the Dove. The son of a prominent theologian and brother of the philosopher William James, he was born in New York but spent most of his life in England and became a British citizen shortly before his death. A master of literary realism, James is also well known for the groundbreaking novellasDaisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw.
Daniel Defoe (c. 1660–1731) was an English merchant, author, and political pamphleteer best known for the classic adventure novel Robinson Crusoe.
Elizabeth Gaskell (1810–1865) was an English author and social activist best known for her novel North and South, a searing portrait of the industrial revolution and the tale of an unlikely romance between a beautiful and headstrong minister’s daughter and a combative mill owner.
E. Nesbit (1858–1924) began writing for young adults after a successful career
in magazines. Using her own unconventional childhood as a jumping-off point, she published novels that combined reality, fantasy, and humor. Expanded from a series of articles in the Strand Magazine, Five Children and It was published as a novel in 1902 and is the first in a trilogy that includes The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet. Together with her husband, Nesbit was a founding member of the socialist Fabian Society, and her home became a hub for some of the greatest authors and thinkers of the time, including George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells.
J. Sheridan Le Fanu (1814–1873) was an Irish writer who helped develop the ghost story genre in the nineteenth century. Born to a family of writers, Le Fanu released his first works in 1838 in Dublin University Magazine, which he would go on to edit and publish in 1861. Some of Le Fanu’s most famous Victorian Gothic works include Carmilla, Uncle Silas, and In a Glass Darkly. His writing has inspired other great authors of horror and thriller literature such as Bram Stoker and M. R. James.
M. R. James (1862–1936) is considered the father of the British ghost story. Before gaining fame as a fiction writer, James had a career as a respected scholar of the medieval period. With the release of his Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, James built a reputation in horror literature that has gone on to inspire greats such as H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Stephen King. James later became provost of Eton College from 1918 until his death in 1936. He is buried in Eton.
John Kendrick Bangs (1862–1922) was an American author, editor, humorist, and satirist. Bangs worked as an editor at various publications, including Life and Harper’s Magazine. The genre Bangsian fantasy, characterized by interactions between famous personages in the afterlife, is named after him.
O. Henry (1862–1910) was the pseudonym of American author William Sidney Porter. Arrested for embezzlement in 1895, he escaped the police and fled to Honduras, where he wrote Cabbages and Kings (1904). On his return to the United States, he was caught, and served three years before being released. He became one of the most popular short story authors in history, known for his wit, surprise endings, and relatable, everyman characters.
Read an Excerpt
THE MONKEY'S PAW
W. W. JACOBS
Without, the night was cold and wet, but in the small parlour of Laburnam Villa the blinds were drawn and the fire burned brightly. Father and son were at chess, the former, who possessed ideas about the game involving radical changes, putting his kings into such sharp and unnecessary perils that it even provoked comment from the white-haired old lady knitting placidly by the fire.
"Hark at the wind," said Mr. White, who, having seen a fatal mistake after it was too late, was amiably desirous of preventing his son from seeing it.
"I'm listening," said the latter, grimly surveying the board as he stretched out his hand. "Check."
"I should hardly think that he'd come tonight," said his father, with his hand poised over the board.
"Mate," replied the son.
"That's the worst of living so far out," bawled Mr. White, with sudden and unlooked-for violence; "of all the beastly, slushy, out-of-the-way places to live in, this is the worst. Pathway's a bog, and the road's a torrent. I don't know what people are thinking about. I suppose because only two houses in the road are let, they think it doesn't matter." "Never mind, dear," said his wife, soothingly; "perhaps you'll win the next one."
Mr. White looked up sharply, just in time to intercept a knowing glance between mother and son. The words died away on his lips, and he hid a guilty grin in his thin grey beard.
"There he is," said Herbert White, as the gate banged to loudly and heavy footsteps came towards the door.
The old man rose with hospitable haste, and opening the door, was heard condoling with the new arrival. The new arrival also condoled with himself, so that Mrs. White said, " Tut, tut!" and coughed gently as her husband entered the room, followed by a tall, burly man, beady of eye and rubicund of visage.
"Sergeant-Major Morris," he said, introducing him.
The sergeant-major shook hands, and taking the proffered seat by the fire, watched contentedly while his host got out whisky and tumblers and stood a small copper kettle on the fire.
At the third glass his eyes got brighter, and he began to talk, the little family circle regarding with eager interest this visitor from distant parts, as he squared his broad shoulders in the chair and spoke of wild scenes and doughty deeds; of wars and plagues and strange peoples.
"Twenty-one years of it," said Mr. White, nodding at his wife and son. "When he went away he was a slip of a youth in the warehouse. Now look at him."
"He don't look to have taken much harm," said Mrs. White, politely.
"I'd like to go to India myself," said the old man, "just to look round a bit, you know."
"Better where you are," said the sergeant-major, shaking his head. He put down the empty glass, and sighing softly, shook it again.
"I should like to see those old temples and fakirs and jugglers," said the old man. "What was that you started telling me the other day about a monkey's paw or something, Morris?"
"Nothing," said the soldier hastily. "Leastways nothing worth hearing."
"Monkey's paw?" said Mrs. White, curiously.
"Well, it's just a bit of what you might call magic, perhaps," said the sergeant-major off-handedly.
His three listeners leaned forward eagerly. The visitor absent-mindedly put his empty glass to his lips and then set it down again. His host filled it for him.
"To look at," said the sergeant-major, fumbling in his pocket, "it's just an ordinary little paw, dried to a mummy."
He took something out of his pocket and proffered it. Mrs. White drew back with a grimace, but her son, taking it, examined it curiously.
"And what is there special about it?" inquired Mr. White as he took it from his son, and having examined it, placed it upon the table.
"It had a spell put on it by an old fakir," said the sergeant-major, "a very holy man. He wanted to show that fate ruled people's lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow. He put a spell on it so that three separate men could each have three wishes from it."
His manner was so impressive that his hearers were conscious that their light laughter jarred somewhat.
"Well, why don't you have three, sir?" said Herbert White cleverly.
The soldier regarded him in the way that middle age is wont to regard presumptuous youth. "I have," he said quietly, and his blotchy face whitened.
"And did you really have the three wishes granted?" asked Mrs. White.
"I did," said the sergeant-major, and his glass tapped against his strong teeth.
"And has anybody else wished?" persisted the old lady.
"The first man had his three wishes. Yes," was the reply; "I don't know what the first two were, but the third was for death. That's how I got the paw."
His tones were so grave that a hush fell upon the group.
"If you've had your three wishes, it's no good to you now, then, Morris," said the old man at last. "What do you keep it for?"
The soldier shook his head. "Fancy, I suppose," he said slowly. "I did have some idea of selling it, but I don't think I will. It has caused enough mischief already. Besides, people won't buy. They think it's a fairy tale; some of them, and those who do think anything of it want to try it first and pay me afterwards."
"If you could have another three wishes," said the old man, eyeing him keenly, "would you have them?"
"I don't know," said the other. "I don't know."
He took the paw, and dangling it between his forefinger and thumb, suddenly threw it upon the fire. White, with a slight cry, stooped down and snatched it off.
"Better let it burn," said the soldier solemnly.
"If you don't want it, Morris," said the other, "give it to me."
"I won't," said his friend doggedly. "I threw it on the fire. If you keep it, don't blame me for what happens. Pitch it on the fire again like a sensible man."
The other shook his head and examined his new possession closely. "How do you do it?" he inquired.
"Hold it up in your right hand and wish aloud," said the sergeant-major, "but I warn you of the consequences."
"Sounds like the Arabian Nights," said Mrs. White as she rose and began to set the supper. "Don't you think you might wish for four pairs of hands for me?"
Her husband drew the talisman from his pocket, and then all three burst into laughter as the sergeant-major, with a look of alarm on his face, caught him by the arm.
"If you must wish," he said gruffly, "wish for something sensible."
Mr. White dropped it back in his pocket, and placing chairs, motioned his friend to the table. In the business of supper the talisman was partly forgotten, and afterwards the three sat listening in an enthralled fashion to a second instalment of the soldier's adventures in India.
"If the tale about the monkey's paw is not more truthful than those he has been telling us," said Herbert, as the door closed behind their guest, just in time for him to catch the last train, "we shan't make much out of it."
"Did you give him anything for it, father?" inquired Mrs. White, regarding her husband closely.
"A trifle," said he, colouring slightly. "He didn't want it, but I made him take it. And he pressed me again to throw it away."
"Likely," said Herbert, with pretended horror. "Why, we're going to be rich, and famous and happy. Wish to be an emperor, father, to begin with; then you can't be henpecked."
He darted round the table, pursued by the maligned Mrs. White armed with an antimacassar.
Mr. White took the paw from his pocket and eyed it dubiously. "I don't know what to wish for, and that's a fact," he said slowly. "It seems to me I've got all I want."
"If you only cleared the house, you'd be quite happy wouldn't you?" said Herbert, with his hand on his shoulder. "Well, wish for two hundred pounds, then; that'll just do it."
His father, smiling shamefacedly at his own credulity, held up the talisman, as his son, with a solemn face, somewhat marred by a wink at his mother, sat down at the piano and struck a few impressive chords.
"I wish for two hundred pounds," said the old man distinctly.
A fine crash from the piano greeted the words, interrupted by a shuddering cry from the old man. His wife and son ran towards him.
"It moved," he cried, with a glance of disgust at the object as it lay on the floor. "As I wished, it twisted in my hand like a snake."
"Well, I don't see the money," said his son as he picked it up and placed it on the table, "and I bet I never shall."
"It must have been your fancy, father," said his wife, regarding him anxiously.
He shook his head. "Never mind, though; there's no harm done, but it gave me a shock all the same."
They sat down by the fire again while the two men finished their pipes. Outside, the wind was higher than ever, and the old man started nervously at the sound of a door banging upstairs. A silence unusual and depressing settled upon all three, which lasted until the old couple rose to retire for the night.
"I expect you'll find the cash tied up in a big bag in the middle of your bed," said Herbert, as he bade them good night, "and something horrible squatting up on top of the wardrobe watching you as you pocket your ill-gotten gains." He sat alone in the darkness, gazing at the dying fire, and
seeing faces in it. The last face was so horrible and so simian that he gazed at it in amazement. It got so vivid that, with a little uneasy laugh, he felt on the table for a glass containing a little water to throw over it. His hand grasped the monkey's paw, and with a little shiver he wiped his hand on his coat and went up to bed.
In the brightness of the wintry sun next morning as it streamed over the breakfast table he laughed at his fears. There was an air of prosaic wholesomeness about the room which it had lacked on the previous night, and the dirty, shrivelled little paw was pitched on the sideboard with a carelessness which betokened no great belief in its virtues.
"I suppose all old soldiers are the same," said Mrs. White. "The idea of our listening to such nonsense! How could wishes be granted in these days? And if they could, how could two hundred pounds hurt you, father?"
"Might drop on his head from the sky," said the frivolous Herbert.
"Morris said the things happened so naturally," said his father, "that you might if you so wished attribute it to coincidence."
"Well, don't break into the money before I come back," said Herbert as he rose from the table. "I'm afraid it'll turn you into a mean, avaricious man, and we shall have to disown you."
His mother laughed, and following him to the door, watched him down the road; and returning to the breakfast table, was very happy at the expense of her husband's credulity. All of which did not prevent her from scurrying to the door at the postman's knock, nor prevent her from referring somewhat shortly to retired sergeant-majors of bibulous habits when she found that the post brought a tailor's bill.
"Herbert will have some more of his funny remarks, I expect, when he comes home," she said, as they sat at dinner.
"I dare say," said Mr. White, pouring himself out some beer; "but for all that, the thing moved in my hand; that I'll swear to."
"You thought it did," said the old lady soothingly.
"I say it did," replied the other. "There was no thought about it; I had just — What's the matter?"
His wife made no reply. She was watching the mysterious movements of a man outside, who, peering in an undecided fashion at the house, appeared to be trying to make up his mind to enter. In mental connection with the two hundred pounds, she noticed that the stranger was well dressed, and wore a silk hat of glossy newness. Three times he paused at the gate, and then walked on again. The fourth time he stood with his hand upon it, and then with sudden resolution flung it open and walked up the path. Mrs. White at the same moment placed her hands behind her, and hurriedly unfastening the strings of her apron, put that useful article of apparel beneath the cushion of her chair.
She brought the stranger, who seemed ill at ease, into the room. He gazed at her furtively, and listened in a preoccupied fashion as the old lady apologised for the appearance of the room, and her husband's coat, a garment which he usually reserved for the garden. She then waited as patiently as her sex would permit, for him to broach his business, but he was at first strangely silent.
"I — was asked to call," he said at last, and stooped and picked a piece of cotton from his trousers. "I come from 'Maw and Meggins'."
The old lady started. "Is anything the matter?" she asked breathlessly. "Has anything happened to Herbert? What is it? What is it?"
Her husband interposed. "There, there, mother," he said hastily. "Sit down, and don't jump to conclusions. You've not brought bad news, I'm sure, sir"; and he eyed the other wistfully.
"I'm sorry —" began the visitor.
"Is he hurt?" demanded the mother wildly.
The visitor bowed in assent. "Badly hurt," he said quietly, "but he is not in any pain."
"Oh, thank God!" said the old woman, clasping her hands. "Thank God for that! Thank —"
She broke off suddenly as the sinister meaning of the assurance dawned upon her and she saw the awful confirmation of her fears in the other's averted face. She caught her breath, and turning to her slower-witted husband, laid her trembling old hand upon his. There was a long silence.
"He was caught in the machinery," said the visitor at length in a low voice.
"Caught in the machinery," repeated Mr. White, in a dazed fashion, "yes."
He sat staring blankly out at the window, and taking his wife's hand between his own, pressed it as he had been wont to do in their old courtingdays nearly forty years before.
"He was the only one left to us," he said, turning gently to the visitor. "It is hard."
The other coughed, and rising, walked slowly to the window. "The firm wished me to convey their sincere sympathy with you in your great loss," he said, without looking round. "I beg that you will understand I am only their servant and merely obeying orders."
There was no reply; the old woman's face was white, her eyes staring, and her breath inaudible; on the husband's face was a look such as his friend the sergeant-major might have carried into his first action.
"I was to say that Maw and Meggins disclaim all responsibility," continued the other. "They admit no liability at all, but in consideration of your son's services, they wish to present you with a certain sum as compensation."
Mr. White dropped his wife's hand, and rising to his feet, gazed with a look of horror at his visitor. His dry lips shaped the words, "How much?"
"Two hundred pounds," was the answer.
Unconscious of his wife's shriek, the old man smiled faintly, put out his hands like a sightless man, and dropped, a senseless heap, to the floor.
In the huge new cemetery, some two miles distant, the old people buried their dead, and came back to a house steeped in shadow and silence. It was all over so quickly that at first they could hardly realise it, and remained in a state of expectation as though of something else to happen — something else which was to lighten this load, too heavy for old hearts to bear.
But the days passed, and expectation gave place to resignation — the hopeless resignation of the old, sometimes miscalled, apathy. Sometimes they hardly exchanged a word, for now they had nothing to talk about, and their days were long to weariness.
It was about a week after that the old man, waking suddenly in the night, stretched out his hand and found himself alone. The room was in darkness, and the sound of subdued weeping came from the window. He raised himself in bed and listened.
"Come back," he said tenderly. "You will be cold."
"It is colder for my son," said the old woman, and wept afresh.
The sound of her sobs died away on his ears. The bed was warm, and his eyes heavy with sleep. He dozed fitfully, and then slept until a sudden wild cry from his wife awoke him with a start.
"The paw!" she cried wildly. "The monkey's paw!"
He started up in alarm. "Where? Where is it? What's the matter?"
She came stumbling across the room towards him. "I want it," she said quietly. "You've not destroyed it?"
"It's in the parlour, on the bracket," he replied, marvelling. "Why?"
She cried and laughed together, and bending over, kissed his cheek.
"I only just thought of it," she said hysterically. "Why didn't I think of it before? Why didn't you think of it?" "Think of what?" he questioned.
"The other two wishes," she replied rapidly. "We've only had one."
"Was not that enough?" he demanded fiercely.
"No," she cried triumphantly; "we'll have one more. Go down and get it quickly, and wish our boy alive again." The man sat up in bed and flung the bedclothes from his quaking limbs. "Good God, you are mad!" he cried, aghast.
"Get it," she panted; "get it quickly, and wish — Oh, my boy, my boy!"
Her husband struck a match and lit the candle. "Get back to bed," he said unsteadily. "You don't know what you are saying."
Excerpted from "The Best Ghost Stories Ever Told"
Copyright © 2011 Stephen Vincent Brennan.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction Stephen Brennan,
The Monkey's Paw W. W. Jacobs,
Green Tea Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu,
The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes Rudyard Kipling,
The Mystery of Barney O'Rourke John Kendrick Bangs,
The Red-Haired Girl Sabine Baring-Gould,
The Man and The Snake Ambrose Bierce,
The Open Window Saki (H. H. Munro),
The Story of Salome Amelia B. Edwards,
The Black cat Edgar Allan Poe,
John Charrington's Wedding E. Nesbit,
The Old Nurse's Story Elizabeth Gaskell,
The Business of Madame Jahn Vincent O'Sullivan,
The Canterville Ghost Oscar Wilde,
A Haunted Island Algernon Blackwood,
The Secret of Macarger's Gulch Ambrose Bierce,
The Romance of Certain Old Clothes Henry James,
The Lost Ghost Mary E. Wilkins Freeman,
Man-Size in Marble E. Nesbit,
The Queen of Spades Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin,
The Story of the Spaniards, Hammersmith E. and H. Heron,
Number 13 M. R. James,
The Apparition of Mrs. Veal Daniel Defoe,
Round the Fire Catherine Crowe,
The Isle of Voices R. L. Stevenson,
The Plattner Story H. G. Wells,
On the Brighton Road Richard Middleton,
The Last House in C — Street Dinah M. Mulock,
The Furnished Room O. Henry,
Hamlet 's Ghost William Shakespeare,
Caterpillars E. F. Benson,
The Black Mate Joseph Conrad,
A Tough Tussle Ambrose Bierce,
Napoleon and the Spectre Charlotte Bronté,
John Jago's Ghost Wilkie Collins,
The Terror Guy de Maupassant,
Not to be Taken at Bed-Time Rosa Mulholland,
The Haunted House Charles Dickens,
The Bold Dragoon; or, The Adventure of My Grandfather Washington Irving,
A Ghost Story Mark Twain,
Afterward Edith Wharton,
The Brown Hand Arthur Conan Doyle,
The Affair at Grover Station Willa Cather,