ON THOSE DARK evenings between Christmas and Twelfth Night, when the wind blows cold and long shadows creep across snow-covered lawns, what could be better than a good, old-fashioned ghost story? Readers eager to revive the Victorian practice of scaring the socks off the kids, or oneself, might like to try some tales by the following five classic British writers. They are the masters of the cozy shiver.
Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873). The greatest Victorian writer of uncanny tales. See, for instance, "Schalken the Painter," about a young girl forced to marry an unnaturally cold and stiff stranger. "Green Tea" relates a clergyman's haunting by an invisible monkey. And "Carmilla" remains the best of all short vampire chillers.
Vernon Lee (1856-1935). A prolific author in many genres, Lee (aka Violet Paget) specialized in tales of fatal beckoning fair ones. Try "Amour Dure" about a young art historian enchanted -- or bewitched -- by a long-dead, murderous and still powerful Renaissance beauty.
M.R. James (1862-1936). The finest practitioner of the antiquarian ghost story. Uniformly good, but especially outstanding are "Casting the Runes," about a magician's attempt to destroy a scholar; "Count Magnus"; "Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad"; and "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas," in which a modern researcher discovers that a medieval monk left a hoard of gold -- and something to guard it.
Arthur Machen (1863-1947). Best known for "The Great God Pan" and "The White Powder." Machen's most dazzling and disturbing work is "The White People," about a young girl's gradual seduction by ancient forces in the English countryside. Scholar E.F. Bleiler names this "the finest supernatural story of the century."
Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951). Superb tales of a malign nature, including that terrifying vision of the utterly alien, "The Willows." Also, the best of all campfire tales, "The Wendigo," and a shivery, slightly camp series of adventures featuring John Silence, psychic investigator.
There are many collections, in print and out, of work by these writers. Some good general gatherings of classic ghost stories include The Supernatural Omnibus, edited by Montague Summers; The Omnibus of Crime, edited by Dorothy L. Sayers; Great Tales of Mystery and the Imagination, edited by Herbert Wise and Phyllis Fraser; and The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories, edited by Michael Cox and R.A. Gilbert.