10 Classic British Ghost Stories
That Need Onscreen Treatments
Jane Nightshade looks at 10 British ghost stories that deserve adaptation for the big (or small) screen...
Ghost stories from the Victorian and Edwardian eras provide evergreen fodder for film and television adaptations. What’s more, they seem to be more popular than ever, with relatively recent films like the 2012 version of The Woman in Black (James Watkins) and 2015’s Crimson Peak (Guillermo del Toro) racking up big box office totals.
Most of these stories, however, are based on contemporary fare that imitates the Golden Age of the British Ghost Story (approximately 1870-the 1930s). Yet, there doesn’t seem to be many filmmakers interested in productions based on the real thing. This is odd since most of these tales are old enough to be in the public domain, requiring no payments for the rights. In addition, many (most?) of these classic stories have better plots and characters than films peddled today.
I’ve compiled a list of classic and neglected British (or British-set) ghost stories from the Golden Age that I think would make cracking feature films, anthology films, or at least television episodes. Some of these stories are wedded to their times and would have to be filmed as period pieces — nobody travels by steamship anymore — but others, like Stoker’s The Judge’s House, could easily be updated to modern times. Readers can find a lot of these online for free; to help, I’ve linked to various print or audio versions.
My picks for ten classic ghost stories that would make great screen adaptations are as follows:
1. The Upper Berth, by F. Marion Crawford
Crawford was an American Anglophile who lived most of his life in Europe. The Upper Berth is his most famous story, yet I don’t believe it’s ever been adapted for the screen. It concerns a Transatlantic steamer featuring a stateroom with a port-hole that never stays closed. And sometimes, passengers encounter a wet, dead thing that squeezes through the open port-hole and drives them to suicide.
2. August Heat, by W.F. Harvey
A London artist draws a picture of a guilty man in the dock. During a walk on a very hot day, the artist encounters a stonecutter who looks just like the man in his portrait. Meanwhile, the stonecutter happens to be working on a display tombstone with the artist’s name on it. This story was made into a great radio play in the 1940s but as far as I’m aware, it’s never received a screen treatment.
3. The Red Lodge, by H. Russell Wakefield
A family leases a splendid lodge by the river. Unseen forces communicate with the family members until they each begin to feel an overwhelming compulsion to run to the river and drown themselves in it.
4. The Judge’s House, by Bram Stoker
A Scottish medical student leases a house in an isolated village as a quiet place to study. The house is occupied by the ghost of a cruel hanging judge looking to pass a sentence on a new victim. IMDB features a listing for an ‘upcoming project’ with the same title, but there are no past productions that I could find.
5. The Book, by Margaret Irwin
An unsuccessful London stockbroker inherits an ancient occult volume that writes prophetic messages to him in Latin. This book offers lucrative stock tips in exchange for the stockbroker’s willingness to perform evil deeds.
6. God Grant That She Lye Stille, by Cynthia Asquith
An ailing aristocrat inherits her family’s ancient manse in the countryside. Unfortunately, the house is occupied by the spirit of a strong-willed, evil ancestor who wants to take over her body. Made into a so-so episode of Boris Karloff’s Thriller television series, this story deserves a better screen adaptation.
7. The Diary of Mr Poynter by M. R. James
Many of James’s more famous stories have been adapted as excellent films or television episodes, i.e. Casting the Runes, which was made into the classic Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957) and the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas, which adapted several of James’ stories. I’ve never seen or heard of this more obscure effort, however, receiving the screen treatment. One of James’s weirdest (and creepiest) ghost stories, The Diary of Mr Poynter involves a haunted pattern of drapery fabric and a lot of human hair (I kid you not).
8. Thurnley Abbey, by Perceval Landon
The original (and best) creepy dead nun story. A man stays overnight in an ancient converted abbey recently purchased by a friend. The house is haunted by the animated skeleton of a relentless nun. This story has been anthologised in print many times, but I’m unaware of any screen version.
9. The Open Door by Margaret Oliphant
The Scottish writer was a contemporary and friend of Charles Dickens; The Open Door is her most famous ghost story. It concerns a British Army officer who leases an estate in a Scottish village after retiring from service in India. The estate is near an old ruin haunted by a young man who tries to possess the officer’s sickly young son. The British anthology series Mystery and Imagination dramatised the story in 1966, but that seems to be the only version.
10. The Extra Passenger by August Derleth
Derleth was another Anglophile American, a prolific writer and editor who is best-known (perhaps) for being H.P. Lovecraft’s publisher. He also introduced Golden Age British authors to American audiences via his legendary publishing house, Arkham. The story concerns an errant nephew who bludgeons his rich uncle to death, using an on-again, off-again train trip to Scotland as an alibi. The plan works brilliantly, but then he notices an extra passenger in his rail compartment, one seemingly asleep with his hat over his face. This was dramatised by the American Thriller series in the early 60s, but that’s the only screen adaptation I can find.