For Books’ Sake Halloween: Top 10 Literary Ghosts

31st Oct 2015

For Books' Sake Halloween: Top 10 Literary Ghosts
Ghosts have been prominent in fiction written by women since the emergence of the Gothic genre. With connotations of the uncanny, the otherworldly, and the unspeakable ghosts have allowed women writers to rupture traditional narratives and to destabilise ideas of womanhood and the home. The ghosts on this list are lovers, mothers, children, ancestors; they are warnings and reminders, manifestations of secrets and forgotten histories, and – since this is a list for Halloween – they can also be terrifying...

1.  Pearl in Weathering by Lucy Wood

Pearl – one of the narrators of Lucy Wood‘s sodden, wintry novel, and mother of central protagonist Ada – haunts the river next to her old house. Her presence encourages Ada to reflect on her past and the circumstances of her mother’s death. The novel opens with Pearl’s startling voice:

“Arse over elbow and a mouthful of river. Which she couldn’t spit out. Which soaked in and weighed her down until she was steeped in silt and water, like old tea. But where was her arse anyway, where was her elbow? There was nothing but water as far as she could tell. A stew of water and leaves and small stones and herself all mixed up in it – a strange grey grit.”

2. Beloved in Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved, the ghost of Sethe’s daughter, haunts Morrison‘s 1987 novel about the scars of slavery from the first page, violent and vengeful over what has been done to her. Later she appears as a young woman dressed in black, childlike and beautiful, who tears apart Sethe’s newly found peace: 

“Rainwater held on to pine needles for dear life and Beloved could not take her eyes off Sethe. Stooping to shake the damper, or snapping sticks for kindlin, Sethe was licked, tasted, eaten by Beloved’s eyes. Like a familiar, she hovered, never leaving the room Sethe was in unless required and told to.”

3. The White Ghosts in The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston

As the title suggests there are many ghosts in this iconic memoir but most memorable are the “White Ghosts” that Maxine Hong Kingston encounters as a child, who illustrate the alienation felt by her family after leaving China for America:

“America has been full of machines and ghosts – Taxi ghosts, Bus Ghosts, Police ghosts, Fire Ghosts, Meter Reader Ghosts, Tree Trimming Ghosts, Five-and-Dime Ghosts. Once upon a time the world was so thick with ghosts, I could hardly breathe; I could hardly walk, limping my way around the White Ghosts and their cars.”

4. Catherine in Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

The ghost of Catherine Earnshaw makes her unforgettable first appearance after her death in this classic novel, appearing to the first narrator Lockwood in a scene later immortalised by Kate Bush‘s 1978 song:

“I muttered, knocking my knuckles through the glass, and stretching an arm out to seize the importunate branch; instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand! The intense horror of nightmare came over me: I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, ‘Let me in–let me in!’”

5. Rebecca in Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

A ghost who looms so large the novel is named after her in this Gothic classic, Rebecca de Winter haunts the Manderley estate and her husband’s new wife. A warning to the unnamed narrator of her husband’s Bluebeard-esque past and a symbol of seductive womanhood that she cannot live up to:

“When the leaves rustle, they sound very much like the stealthy movement of a woman in evening dress, and when they shiver suddenly, and fall, and scatter away along the ground, they might be the pitter, patter, of a woman’s hurrying footstep, and the mark in the gravel the imprint of a high-heeled satin shoe.” 

6. The babysitter in The Specialist’s Hat by Kelly Link

Link‘s short story is a masterpiece of horror, with its childlike rhymes, haunted house, and missing children. And the babysitter might be the most terrifying figure of all: 

“They brush their teeth, climb into the ship-bed, and pull the covers up to their necks. The babysitter sits between their feet. “When you’re Dead,” Samantha says, “do you still get tired and have to go to sleep? Do you have dreams?”

“When you’re Dead,” the babysitter says, “everything’s a lot easier. You don’t have to do anything that you don’t want to. You don’t have to have a name, you don’t have to remember. You don’t even have to breathe.”

She shows them exactly what she means.”

7. The World of Yin in The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan

Kwan describes her experiences with the World of Yin to her sceptical half-sister Olivia, raised apart from her in America, in Amy Tan‘s novel about Chinese-American identity: 

“‘It’s true. I have yin eyes. I can see yin people.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Okay, I’ll tell you. But first you must promise never to tell anyone. Never. Promise, ah?’

‘Okay. Promise.’

‘Yin people, they are those who have already died.’

My eyes popped open. ‘What? You see dead people? … You mean, ghosts?’

‘Don’t tell anyone. Never. Promise, Libby-ah?’

I stopped breathing, ‘Are there ghosts here now?’ I whispered.

‘Oh yes, many. Many, many good friends.’

I threw the covers over my head.”

8. The wallpaper in The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The woman/women inside the yellow wallpaper echo the narrator’s confinement by her husband and society in this eerie, nineteenth-century short story:

“Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over. Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard.”

9. The house in White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

In Oyeyemi’s gothic maze of a novel the house belonging to the Silver family is haunted, sentient, and possessive of its occupant Miri. On one occasion it describes the people living inside of it as if they were the ones doing the haunting: 

“One evening she pattered around inside me[…]and she dragged all my windows open, putting her glass down to struggle with the stiffer latches. I cried and cried for an hour or so, unable to bear the sound of my voice, so shrill and pleading, but unable to stop the will of the wind wheeling through me, cold in my insides. That was the first and last time I’ve heard my own voice. I suppose I am frightening.”

10. Clara in The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

In Allende’s magical realist epic Clara del Valle, who sees spirits and predicts the future in her lifetime, appears to her granddaughter Alba when Alba is imprisoned by the military regime, encouraging her to live and to write the story that will become the narrative of The House of Spirits itself: 

“When she had nearly achieved her goal, her Grandmother Clara, whom she had invoked so many times to help her die, appeared with the novel idea that the point was not to die, since death came anyway, but to survive, which would be a miracle. With her white linen dress, her winter gloves, her sweet toothless smile, and the mischievous gleam in her hazel eyes, she looked exactly as she had when Alba was a child. Clara also brought the saving idea of writing in her mind, without paper or pencil, to keep her thoughts occupied and to escape from the doghouse and live.”

Jane Healey is a writer whose stories have been published in Tin House online and Paper Darts. She was shortlisted for the Costa Short Story Prize in 2014  and the Bristol Short Story Prize in 2013. She is currently writing a novel. She tweets at @Healey_Jane .