When Edith Wharton was a young girl, she was stricken with typhoid and spent time recuperating in Germany. During that period of convalescence, Wharton chanced to read what she later described as a “robber story” that left her in the grips of a terror so intense that she was almost 30 years 0ld before she would against consent to sleep in any bedroom in which a book containing a ghost story could be found. The anecdote illustrates with perfect logic the connection between childhood fears and the horror genre. The connection can often be traced backward from an analysis of the type of horror that the child is drawn to as an adult. For Wharton, the horror is quite specific: in addition to writing highly regarded seriously ironic novels about the repression of the upper crust of American society, Wharton also produced a highly regarded body of ghost stories.
She published her first ghost story in 1904. ‘The Lady’s Maid’s Bell’ sets a template for what will prove to be recurring motifs in her supernatural fiction. The protagonists are usually women, explanations are ambiguous implied and the ghosts seem to be some kind of manifestation of domestic horror or unhappiness infecting the home itself.
Wharton’s two published collections of ghost stories, Tales of Men and Ghosts (1910) and Ghosts (1937) are often referred to as gothic literature, but in fact they are representative of the 20th-century psychological approach to horror. The ghosts are more often than not acting as agents of retribution or revenge for past sins left unredeemed and allow to fester. The manifestation of Wharton’s ghosts hint strongly at a subconscious motivation for having been written and it is entirely possible that Wharton herself never really fully understood what repressed memories proved to be the stimulus behind adding ghosts to her cast of affluent member of the Gilded Age moving about in New York society.