Saturday, July 21, 2018

Alison Lurie's Ghost Stories

Alison Lurie (b. 1926) is best known for her ten novels, which include The War Between the Tates (1974) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Foreign Affairs (1984).  She has also published the popular sociological study The Language of Clothes (1981), and two books on children's literature, Don't Tell the Grown-Ups (1990) and Boys and Girls Forever (2003). Lurie also edited The Oxford Book of Fairy-Tales (1993), and wrote three volumes of children's stories, The Heavenly Zoo (1979), Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folk Tales (1980), and Fabulous Beasts (1981).  The Black Geese (1999) is an illustrated book of the tale of the Baba Yaga from Clever Gretchen.

Lurie has written very little short fiction, but in 1994 she reminisced:

I finished a novel and didn't have a really good idea for the next one. I have a folder full of notes and ideas that I've accumulated for many, many years, so I looked through it. One note was about how my sister and I were sorting my mother's furniture and possessions after she died. I looked at one antique and said, 'How come you're still here and our mother's gone?' I felt irritated about it and thought, 'You don't even care. All you care about is if we take good care of you.'  A woman just having this thought isn't very interesting, but then I thought, 'What if this piece of furniture really did have feelings?' It's easy for me to think in this way, because I've read a lot of children's literature in which everything is anthropomorphized, and I've read a lot of ghost stories. Then I began to look at other ideas in the folder and realized that if I allowed the supernatural, suddenly there were all sorts of possibilities. (The Washington Post Book World, 23 October 1994). 

The novel she had just finished was The Truth about Lorin Jones, which was published in 1988. Her collection Women and Ghosts was first published in England by William Heinemann in June 1994; the U.S. edition, published by Nan A. Talese of Doubleday, appeared in September 1994. Both editions contain nine stories, five of which first appeared in magazines between 1989 and 1991. (The Avon trade paperback of October 1995, adds a tenth story, "Something Borrowed, Something Blue," but it is short and the least effective in the book.  It first appeared in Harper's Bazaar in 1994 under the title "The Satin Slip.")

To another interviewer, Lurie noted that "these aren't 'boo' stories. They are not like Stephen King, with horrible creatures living in the cellar of a hotel."  She also said that "ambiguity is part of the charm of ghost stories. We seem to like not being sure whether something is imagined or supernatural. The gray area between reality and the imagination has always been intriguing."  Lurie cited among her favorites Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's "Green Tea" ("That story, which I read when I was 8, scared me so much that I've always tried to avoid green tea") and Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw," and works by Edith Wharton, M.R. James, and Roald Dahl ("I've probably read all of Dahl's ghost stories. He has a wider mean streak than I do.  I'm more interested in amusing readers than frightening them.") [Quotes from The Chicago Tribune, 31 October 1994]

And Lurie's ghost stories are not wholly different from her novels of relationships between academic men and woman, though she has added aspects of the supernatural.  Some concern hauntings from the past, or hauntings of a room or even a pool. The best story in the collection concerns a poet who find that a doppelganger is apparently impersonating her at appearances across the U.S. Settings range from Key West to England (including an intriguing tale of the sheep in the Lake District) to India.  All are well told, and Lurie's characteristic style make them stand out as different from even the best of the usual fare.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if the doppelganger story might have been inspired by the real-life impersonator who for years passed himself off as Graham Greene, much to Green's annoyance and frustration. --md