Just what is the difference between a ghost story and a horror story? This is a question that has vexed me, if no one else, for over twenty-five years. It was raised when, while an eager undergraduate reading English Literature,* I asked if I could do a dissertation on the ghost stories of M R James. Having established, with some difficulty, that I did not mean Henry James, doubts were raised over the academic value of studying horror stories to which I retorted that, no, these were ghost stories. And what, pray, was the difference? I was asked over a light sherry.** To this day I still cannot provide an answer to my, or anyone else’s satisfaction. The best I have ever been able to manage is that horror stories strive to gain their effect by describing something physically horrific while ghost stories strive to gain their effect by not doing so, I suppose, I don’t know. All I do know is that ghost stories do have to have a supernatural element. Lacking that means that they are stories only. Good ones, maybe, even touched by transcendent genius perhaps, but not ghost stories by definition. No, ghost stories need, not necessarily ghosts, but the supernatural. Beyond that, I am stymied.
*as we used to say on University Challenge when it was proper with Bamber Gascoigne not that Paxman fellow, now there’s a chap who looks like he had to buy his furniture
**well, it would have been a light sherry had I gone to Oxbridge rather than the concrete slab university which suffered my presence for three years, cheap instant coffee if memory serves
And if you haven’t read M R James, you really should, or listen to Michael Hordern reading them as he was born to do. You won’t regret it, though you may never sleep quite so well.