THE GHOST WRITER

By John Harwood. Harcourt. 369 pp. $25 Once, while wandering the aisles of a chain bookstore, I came across copies of Philip Roth's first Nathan Zuckerman novel, The Ghost Writer, shelved carefully in the "horror" section between books by Anne Rice and Dan Simmons. The irony was delicious. A "literary" novel had been consigned to the ghetto of genre based on its title, echoing the critical mindset that, because of their dubious subject matter and popular appeal, novels about the supernatural can't breach the great wall between entertainment and literature.

Now, a like-titled first novel by John Harwood is the latest in a long line of books to challenge this hoary proposition. Harwood's The Ghost Writer is stealth horror, gliding past the radar of genre courtesy of clever construction and an estimable publishing house. It helps, of course, that Harwood is not American but Tasmanian-born, writing from a distant shore -- and that his novel is an homage, a Victorian ghost story that honors the likes of Dickens and Henry James. It also helps that Harwood has written a smart, stylish and mesmerizing book.

The Ghost Writer spans some 20 years in the life of an Australian naif, Gerard Freeman, the only child of a suffocating mother and a null father. Raised on fanciful tales of his mother's youth at an English country manor, Gerard succumbs to an existence guided entirely by fiction. When not doting on his mother or working at the local library, he devotes his time and emotions to an impossible romance -- with a paraplegic pen pal in England, whom he courts with written words but never meets. This "invisible friend" -- and, in time, "invisible lover" -- is named Alice Jessell, evoking the spectral governess of James's The Turn of the Screw.

Gerard's fate is sealed by the novel's second page, when, at age 13, he unlocks his mother's bedroom drawer and discovers the photograph of an enigmatic young woman: "I felt I knew her . . . calm and beautiful and alive, more alive than anyone I had ever seen in a picture." Hidden with the photo is a weathered journal of arts and letters (dated 1898, the year Collier's published The Turn of the Screw); its pages include a ghost story written by Gerard's great-grandmother Viola Hatherley.

This story and three others are "reprinted" in The Ghost Writer, along with diary entries, letters and e-mail messages, as the novel -- like Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White and Bram Stoker's Dracula -- evolves into an epistolary mosaic. The ghost stories are its centerpiece, however, and make up fully half the book, subverting publishing's well-known aversion to story collections.

Harwood shows formidable talent for channeling past masters -- not only James but also J. Sheridan LeFanu, Oscar Wilde, M.R. James and the wickedly feminine intrigues of Marjorie Bowen. He revels in the sense of the impending that is often lost in contemporary horror and understands that anticipation may be more terrifying than revelation.

Elegantly paced and delightfully macabre, these tales celebrate the Victorian school and its obsession with the past's authority over the present, the thin line between affection and obsession, the glimpse of the lurid from the corner of the eye. Viola's stories, like Gerard's life, are haunted by fractured romance and frozen images -- a vision, a painting, a photograph -- that challenge "reality" with the possibility of a supernatural realm that is by no means divine.

When his mother dies after revealing that one of the stories "came true," Gerard is a 35-year-old nobody, still smitten with his unseen pen friend but finally free to confront the mysteries of his family's past. Spurred into action by Viola's final tale of love, betrayal and cruel vengeance, he hastens to England, where the elusive Alice is succeeded by a new correspondent, Miss A.V. Hamish -- an anagram for the vengeful Miss Havisham of Dickens's Great Expectations. She presides over a finale loaded with Victorian tropes: a veiled woman, a decaying country house, hidden passages, timbers that seem to bulge, revelatory pages torn from texts, diabolical machines and even a Ouija board.

There's a disappointing inevitability to the affair, complicated by Gerard's unending gullibility: He's worse than a teen extra in a slasher film, stumbling toward a dire epiphany with such eager ignorance that Harwood is forced to describe him as being driven by a "disembodied, sleep-walking sensation." But perhaps that's an apt fate for those who believe too strongly in fiction: to become a character in someone else's story.

"There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book," Oscar Wilde observed. "Books are well written or badly written. That is all." He could have been assessing the supposed distinction between entertainment and literature.

The Ghost Writer is well written, to be sure. Whether it's "merely" horror fiction doesn't depend on its title or its subject, and certainly not on where bookstores choose to shelve it. After all, as Henry James wrote to his friend H.G. Wells shortly after The Turn of the Screw was published: "The thing is essentially a pot-boiler and a jeu d'esprit." Sometimes "pot-boilers" have a strange way of turning into literary classics. *

Douglas E. Winter, a Washington, D.C., attorney, is the author of the novel "Run." His latest book is the critical biography "Clive Barker: The Dark Fantastic."