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Originally published October 22, 2012 at 5:00 AM | Page modified October 22, 2012 at 1:10 PM

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Otto Penzler puts the 'boo'! in 'Big Book of Ghost Stories'

A Q&A with Otto Penzler, editor of "The Big Book of Ghost Stories."

Seattle Times book editor

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Lit life |

I tell myself I don't believe in ghosts — until I hear a good ghost story. I just read an 833-page collection of 79 creepy, unsettling and suspenseful supernatural tales, "The Big Book of Ghost Stories" (Vintage, $25), and let me just say that I've been a little jumpy ever since.

"The Big Book of Ghost Stories" was edited by Otto Penzler, a giant in the world of mysteries and suspense. Penzler runs Mysterious Press, is proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan and has spent several years editing a series of hefty anthologies, including "The Big Book of Adventure Stories," "Zombies! Zombies! Zombies!" and "The Vampire Archives." So I called up Penzler to talk about ghosts, which he defines as "a spirit of someone who was once living, tethered to the Earth." I'm still jumpy.

Q: Who told the first ghost stories?

A: There's no way to prove this, but I'm guessing it goes back to prehistoric times. All cultures have had a belief in ghosts and a fear of ghosts. People have always told stories, and everybody likes being frightened, especially when you feel safe. Personally, I find them scarier than vampires or zombies.

Q: You must have sifted through hundreds of stories. What was your approach?

A: I have always been a pretty big fan of ghost stories. I consulted several reference books ... While I was very familiar with Victorian ghost stories, there are a lot of stories in the pulps [pulp magazines] that I got to use that most people have never read before. I probably read 500-600 stories to find the ones I wanted to use in the book.

Q: The author biographies are fascinating. Some of these writers were so accomplished, and yet they wrote ghost stories on the side.

A: The best example is M.R. James, who was an incredible scholar [at Cambridge]. He just did it for amusement. If you're deeply involved in very serious research, you have to lighten up a bit. Every Christmas he would gather his colleagues together and tell a story he had written for them — he wouldn't just read it, he would act it out. He was having the time of his life.

Q: What makes a good ghost story?

A: That's almost impossible to answer ... When I started I said, they have to be scary. But then there's Oscar Wilde's "The Canterville Ghost." There's nothing scary about it — it's very funny. There has to be a character you empathize with — you feel bad for the victim, or you empathize with the ghost. The same would be true of any fiction.

Q: The stories that involve children are particularly creepy.

A: Yes. I think children are harder to read. If they're not quite right in some way, they're really frightening. It's so unexpected, and the nature of suspense is encountering the unexpected.

Q: What are some of your favorites?

A: Among the funny ones, Mark Twain's "A Ghost's Story" and "The Canterville Ghost." "Brickett Bottom" is a great story, and a very short story by Vincent O'Sullivan called "The Burned House."

Q: Why did so many Victorian writers — Oscar Wilde, Edith Wharton, Henry James — embrace the ghost story?

A: Maybe they were just better at it. Today's ghost stories tend to be much more physically or psychologically violent. The Victorians were much more leisurely about what might or could happen, building suspense layer by layer, rather than punching you in the face.

Q: Do you believe in ghosts?

A: I don't believe in ghosts and have never seen one. I wish I could see one, and I would like to have seen one, because then I could believe in God. If I can see it, feel it and taste it, then I believe in it.

But many of my friends have. The great espionage writer Charles McCarry has a family ghost. He talks about it so matter-of-factly. I trust him. He's not a man given to weirdness.

Q: We don't hear so much about ghosts today; more about zombies and vampires. Why is that?

A: I think we've become a more extreme society in every way. Zombies are the most extreme, violent entity you could have. I think it will recede in time. You can't go any further than zombies — it becomes too much of a one-note story. There are a lot more shadings and subtlety in ghost stories.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW's "Well Read," discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.

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