Nothing about the extraordinary range of Michael Dirda’s knowledge spooks me anymore. But one of his most delightful interests is supernatural fiction.
A member of the Ghost Story Society, Dirda is currently teaching a sold-out two-part course on classic ghost stories at Politics & Prose. At the first lecture on Oct. 23, he touched on everything from the Witch of Endor in I Samuel to the witches in “Macbeth,” the werewolf in Petronius’s “Satyricon” and the horrific images in Dante’s “Inferno.” He moved on to Gothic novels, especially one of his favorites, James Hogg’s “The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner,” which he describes as “a novel reminiscent of Stevenson’s ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,’ but better.” He ended with M.R. James, “the greatest practitioner of the classic ghost story.”
In the upcoming class on Nov. 6, he plans to focus on Edith Wharton and E.F. Benson, who probably aren’t the first writers you’d think of in this genre. “Wharton’s stories are very adult,” Dirda tells me. “Two or three — ‘Afterward,’ ‘The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,’ ‘Pomegranate Seed’ — are truly exceptional. And Benson’s ghost stories are among the best of those who are sometimes referred to as the James Gang (i.e. followers of M.R. James).”
He’ll also discuss the rise of spiritualism in the late 19th century and how this can be seen in the work of Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood. “These stories tend to be almost metaphysical in nature,” he says.
You won’t find a smarter reflection on spooky tales anywhere else this season.