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And despite Hill’s embrace of James’s thoughts, he emphasizes that ghost stories “are not dependent on shadows, old houses, creaking stairs, or spider webs. All they require is loneliness—isolation. The protagonist of almost every ghost story is someone with regrets, someone isolated, someone lonely, someone vulnerable. In most ghost stories, the lead character is haunted well before she ever meets the spook.”

The Light of Day

Despite the popular conception, ghost stories can even be set in broad daylight. For example, in the Ellen Datlow–edited anthology Supernatural Noir (Dark Horse, 2011), Paul Tremblay’s “The Getaway” deals with what happens to some crooks after a daytime heist. Laird Barron, whose two acclaimed short story collections The Imago Sequence (Night Shade, 2007) and Occultation (Night Shade, 2010) include some ghost stories, such as “The Lagerstatte” from the later volume (about dead doppelgangers who afflict a woman who lost her husband and son in the same disaster), insists that “an atmosphere of frightfulness doesn’t necessarily rely on darkness. The prosaic and the mundane qualities of daylight and public settings can set up a manifestation quite neatly.” The growing ranks of Barron’s admirers for his literate dark fiction can look forward to his first novel, The Croning, from Night Shade in 2012, described by its author as “kind of like On Golden Pond, if Henry and Jane Fonda were preoccupied with black magic, machetes, and cosmic horrors.”

Unsurprisingly, talented writers can use the form for other purposes than exploring humanity’s heart of darkness. For example, Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger (Riverhead , 2009) is set in a haunted house in England in the 1940s, “as a way of exploring some of the social tensions that were active in post-war Britain—a time when the class system was being really shaken up, and there was a lot of class resentment and hysteria around, on a very large scale. My imaginary house, Hundreds Hall, effectively stands in for a whole unhappy ‘haunted’ nation; at the same time, however, I took the ghost story traditions very seriously.” Her utilization of the first-person preserves the blurring of the lines “between the ghost itself and the mind of the person experiencing it,” as in Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw,” another work where sunlight is no disinfectant against creepiness. And in Michael Marshall Smith’s The Servants (Eos, 2008), ghosts are an essential element in a young boy’s confrontation with his ailing mother’s mortality. Smith writes in the genre because “it can be spooky while speaking to very deep-seated ideas and concerns about mortality, friendship and love.”

John Connolly continues to introduce supernatural elements into his crime novels, including ghosts that serve as the “psychic equivalent of an echo, or the fading sound of a scream.” For him, the merger of the two genres is natural; both the mystery novel and the ghost story “are concerned with intrusions into day-to-day existence, although in one the intrusion is human, and in the other it is not.” Connolly’s 10th novel featuring Charlie Parker, an investigator who is both haunted and guided by inhabitants of another realm, The Burning Soul, is being published by Atria this month.

December brings a ghost story from Dean Koontz, 77 Shadow Street (Bantam), featuring a Gilded Age palace converted to condominiums, and with the unwelcome amenity of shadows without sources, voices whispering in unknown languages, and seemingly imaginary playmates.

As Koryta and Straub, among others, have demonstrated, there’s still plenty of life in the spectral undead, even if their horror is generally more suggestive and subtle than the gore that predominates most current horror movies. An upcoming exception will be the 2012 film adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, starring Daniel Radcliffe, one of the most successful recent ghost stories, albeit set in Victorian England.

They’ve succeeded in realizing Koryta’s aim “to remove—or at least grind down—the barrier of disbelief, to create the sense that, in the wrong place on the wrong night with the wrong wind blowing, this just might slip into your own life. If you can hold the reader’s imagination there while they turn the pages, you’ve succeeded in one of the critical tasks of the ghost story, I think.”

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