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8 December 2021updated 09 Dec 2021 9:59am

Erica Wagner: The ghost stories that haunted my childhood

A book – a hardback, bound in clear plastic – which I read, and then read again, feeling that fluttering sense of wonder and terror that the best horror brings.

By Erica Wagner

A tucked-away corner of my school library in New York City; perhaps I was sitting in a window seat overlooking the East River. Second grade? Let’s say second grade. Seven years old. A book – a hardback, bound in clear plastic to protect it from grubby lower-school fingers – which I read, and then read again, feeling that fluttering sense of wonder and terror that the best horror brings. I would take this book out of the library until I was made to return it, wait a day, take it out again. It marked me forever. What was it called? I have absolutely no idea.

The title stuck in my mind is “The Stately Ghosts of England” and, although there is a book called that, it’s not the one I read. Perhaps what I recall most clearly, as a physical sensation, is a rising sense of delicious anxiety as, turning the pages yet again, I moved towards the book’s plate section. Reprinted was one of the 20th century’s most famous spirit photographs, “Brown Lady of Raynham Hall”. Photographed in the 1930s for an article in Country Life, it shows a spectral form – the classic ghost silhouette – descending a tall staircase; the treads can be seen through the phantom’s shape.

Sometimes I would squeeze my eyes shut in anticipation of reaching this image, which purports to be of Lady Dorothy Walpole, sister of Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister. I’ve looked it up online just now: it still makes me shudder. Why? There’s no good reason. I do not actually believe that an 18th-century lady’s restless spirit was captured on film. I do not believe that ghosts exist… at least, not as such. And it’s that little qualifier that has kept this book (itself ghostly in my recollection) so powerfully in my mind and heart. For decades I have been preoccupied by the labile borderland between the known and the unknown. Experience tells me memory is fragile, made up of stories told and told again; experience tells me too that it is in our human natures to believe place and spirit can meet and meld, that echoes of what has been survive us, somehow. We can never run away from anything or anywhere; we are, it seems to me, haunted continually. I treasure my hauntings. In this lost book, I first began to perceive their power.

This article is part of our “The children’s books that shaped us” series. Read more reflections from our writers here.

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