Sunday, October 21, 2012

Classic Victorian & Edwardian Ghost Stories

‘No,’ said the elderly man with the stained moustache sitting opposite me in the train, ‘I don’t believe in ghosts, lot of nonsense.’  Having said that he vanished.  

I have no idea who Rex Collings is, but he has assembled a very entertaining collection of ghost stories, with a spine-chill factor of between 2 and 7, which is exactly what is desirable in such a collection, the intent of which is to give a frisson of terror but to ultimately allow for closure and peace of mind.  These are not horror stories and are not necessarily Gothic tales, either.  Some are humorous and make the “ghost” a joke; some treat the matter seriously and should not be read alone in the dark.  I quite like reading short stories during Tube journeys because they do not require the focus of mind that novels do. 

The epithet of Victorian is sometimes questionable, as in the case of Sir Walter Scott.  His is the most “Gothic” of the tales and reads like a somewhat toned-down Walpole or Radcliffe.  “The Tapestried Chamber” is a straightforward yarn and is little embroidered upon in that respect; it has two of the elements that are really essential for this collection, that being setting (an ancient castle in a woodland, an ancestral home) and a skeptical, manly protagonist who is insistent on never having believed in ghosts before (General Browne, lately from the American Revolution).  In fact, even when the authors are women, the narrators are almost always men.  I wonder if this is a particularly Victorian reaction against the female Gothic; in this “age of scientific reason,” sentiment is the domain of women and therefore can be explained away as “the vapours.”  

The next story, “The Spectre of Tappington,” by Richard Harris Barham, takes things a little less seriously, though it shares the setting of the former story, being an ancestral home.  However, given that it concerns an Elizabethan ghost who steals breeches, it seems hardly surprising that it should end with a wedding.  It is a very entertainingly written story, almost of a Regency bent, as if written by a male (and lesser) Jane Austen (even if during the action of it a pug gets scalded with tea!!). Things grow a bit more serious, though less sinister than religious, with R.S. Hawker’s “The Botathen Ghost,” the story of a 17th century clergyman who exorcises the ghost of a prophetic young women.  It reminded me in its rural setting of The Anatomy of Ghosts. 

There are a number of stories that can’t, strictly speaking, be called ghost stories at all.   I had a feeling I had heard Mrs Gaskell’s “Squire’s Story” as a radio drama some time ago, and by the end of the story that feeling was confirmed.  It has the feeling of Washington Irving in its 18th century rural setting, though the whitewashed country house is a bit of a double-bluff.  In the radio version, it was framed by the perpetually popular Cranford characters, but that version at least had a discernible climax, which I’m sorry to say the original lacks entirely. Thackeray’s story of Revolutionary France, “The Story of Mary Ancel,” is very well-written and quite a good thriller, but really has nothing to do with ghosts.  

Dickens’ “To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt,” is, all things considered, not strictly a ghost story, it has to do with the telling of the truth by a jury at a murder trial.  However, it is very haunting and creepy nonetheless.  “Narrative of a Ghost of a Hand” by J.S. LeFanu is rather creepy but ultimately mundane and a bit irritatingly melodramatic.  “The Traveller’s Story of a Terribly Strange Bed” is one of Wilkie Collins’ best-known tales and again, not really a ghost story but quite fun and atmospheric.  “In the Cliff Land of the Dane” by Robert Pease reminded me—in some weird way—of the radio adaptation of Ellis Peters’ Flight of a Witch on Radio 4extra a few years ago; overall it rather goes into the description of “unexplained.”  Saki’s wicked wit is evident in a similar tale called “Laura.”  I won’t spoil that one for you.  

Dickens’ “The Story of Bagman’s Uncle” and “The Phantom Coach” by Amelia B. Edwards come at a similar story from a completely different angle.  The former is a delightfully whimsical story of a Scottish drinker of repute who appears to get whisked into a past of nostalgic mail coaches and deeds of derring-do (or else has a very colorful hallucination).  Being Dickens, it’s wonderfully told.  Edwards’ story, however, was one of the more unusual and thought-provoking of the collection.  Who is the old man with a house full of scientific paraphernalia isolated on the moors?  Why does he let the narrator go?  And how unusual it is for a living person (at least in stories of this type) to nearly be killed by the re-enactment of a tragedy on its anniversary? 

“Fisher’s Ghost” by John Lang is an Australian ghost story, rather simple but effective.  “Eveline’s Visitant” by Mary Elizabeth Braddon anticipates Twilight territory with its twist. I am so happy to have finally read “The Canterville Ghost” by Oscar Wilde.  This was a wonderfully-written story, funny, beautifully descriptive, and while not scary, quite atmospheric and with superb detail.     

As for the really scary sh*t, there is some of that.  Having only ever read J.S. LeFanu’s “Carmilla,” which is a brilliant and beautiful tale yet nonetheless not very scary as such, I was unprepared for the chilling “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street.” For some reason, I found this story infiltrating my daydreams, perhaps because it is so sound-specific, and yet the sight of the ghost/manifestations are fleeting.  Sounds—such as bare feet descending stairs and coming to rest on the landing—are almost universal and in a creaky house such as the one I live in, it is far too easy for my overactive imagination to fear the worst.  

Damn him or it, curse the portrait and its original! I felt in my soul that the rat—yes, the RAT I had just seen, was that evil being in masquerade and rambling through the house upon some infernal night lark.  

I’ve often heard it claimed that M.R. James’ short stories are among the scariest of all time, though my experiences with his writing as adapted for radio have been underwhelming.  However, both his stories in this collection live up to his reputation.  “The Haunted Doll’s House” is terrifying and unusual; I won’t say much about it so it’s not spoiled for you.  “A School Story” is the collection’s pièce de résistance; I’ve never encountered such an unusual and creative ghost story that still sends a shiver down the spine. His work is like a puzzle and though things are never “explained,” there is a sense of closure when all the pieces are put together. 

Though strictly not a ghost story, “Markheim” by Robert Louis Stevenson is the best-written story in the collection; in fact, it’s rather a masterpiece and I’m surprised I’d never heard of it before.  Its depiction of the Devil is one of the scariest I can imagine.  “Man-Sized in Marble” by Edith Nesbit was also adapted for radio, and though I very much enjoyed the bittersweet simplicity of the original story, I think the adaptation was actually richer and more suspenseful.   “Thurnley Abbey” by Perceval Landon proves that even electric light cannot banish all ghostly activity. 

There is an appendix of “true” ghost stories from the Victorian period, including something from James Hogg, a clergyman’s story from India, and a rather strange yet anticlimactic avowal of weirdness from 1860 in the Tower of London (which I’ve just learned could be considered the world’s most haunted building).   

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