Jilly: Good Ghost Story–The Girl in a Swing

Do you enjoy a good ghost story? They’re not usually my thing, but around this time of year they creep up on me whether I will or no. Like yesterday, when I found myself drawn into Michaeline’s excellent and satisfying re-telling of the story of Old Betty and Raw Head the razorback hog.

That set me to wondering what’s the best ghost story I ever read. Richard Adams’ The Girl in a Swing won by a mile. In case you’re wondering, yes, it is by the author of Watership Down. He wrote a number of other novels in various genres, but as far as I’m aware this is his only scary story. It may not be the most famous ghost story I’ve ever read, but it’s the one that had the most profound and lasting effect on me.

The Girl in a Swing was published in 1980 so it must be more than thirty years since I first read it, and I can still remember how it made me feel. It’s not a slam-bam horror story. There are no chainsaws or buckets of blood. It’s a story of ordinary people living normal lives in a present-day world. It’s very low-key and the pace is deliberately slow. The writing is quality, as you’d expect, and little by little, it drew me in until I was completely hooked. Richard Adams did a brilliant job of making me care about the characters, and at the end I was horrified, scared, shocked, moved and very sad.

The book is the story of Alan, a young, rather geeky English ceramics dealer. He’s introverted, highbrow and proper. On a business trip to Copenhagen he meets a beautiful, brilliant but impoverished German woman called Karin (or in some versions, Kathe). They meet, they connect, they marry and embark on an intense, erotic, and obsessive relationship. Karin is almost too good to be true, but her background is shrouded in mystery. Alan has a degree of psychic sensitivity, and as hints are given and small mysteries accumulate, the tension builds and builds until the eventual, terrible, tragic denouement seems almost inevitable.

If you’re up for a quality ghost story this Halloween, I strongly recommend this one.

Click here for the link to Amazon, but fair warning, the reviews are sprinkled with spoilers.

What’s the best ghost story you ever read?

4 thoughts on “Jilly: Good Ghost Story–The Girl in a Swing

  1. Oh, that sounds really good!

    Some of my favorite ghost stories are movies, and movies that I saw as a kid (on Turner Broadcasting System — boy, those who know will know how much that dates me!). The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and one of the Topper movies were great stories in my mind, but don’t quite hold up to the test of time. The Ghost and Muir is pretty good, but the Topper story I read seemed kind of incomplete.

    I just ran into an article on Tofugu tangentially about Lafcadio Hearn’s weird tales from Japan. I think I read those as a kid, too. When you binge on something, things tend to blur, and some stories pick up features that really belong to another story, but I think it can be a good kind of synthesis.

  2. My all-time favorite is Ammie, Come Home, by Barbara Michaels, closely followed by Tryst by Elswyth Thane.Thane’s is a love story between a girl and a ghost with a bittersweet ending. Ammie, Come Home scared the crap out of me. I think I slept with the lights on in my teenaged bedroom for a week after I read it.

    Checking out The Girl in a Swing.

  3. The Girl in a Swing sounds terrific. I can remember some truly creepy stories—The Lottery, anyone?—but no real ghost stories. I’ll have to enlarge my repertoire! I used to love the Topper movies, too, but I haven’t seen them in a while.

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