Dickens is widely renowned in popular culture as a writer of grade-A ghost stories. “Could you name some?” a person – not particularly given to the ghostly – might ask of a supernatural aficionado such as yourself. “Well, A Christmas Carol,” you are bound to say. You will likely be quick at mentioning “The Signal-Man,” and perhaps “To Be Taken With a Grain of Salt.” But that might (perhaps, I say, just perhaps) be where you stop. Here is a list of Dickens’ seven best ghost stories… in my personal estimation. Some are comedic (most of his ghost stories were), but all are dark. There are tales of murder, suicide, existential terror, undercover ghosts, child butchery, cannibalism, deals with Satan, and executions. These stories deeply inspired Edgar Allan Poe (“A Madman’s Manuscript” and “The Mother’s Eyes” are largely responsible for any story he ever wrote about a crazy murderer), M. R. James, J. S. Le Fanu, and others. They are at times charming, at others disturbing, and oftentimes both.
pair beautifully with good, old port, a dim, snapping fire, a single lamp at the elbow, wing back chairs, winter nights, and sleet-lashed window panes.
7. THE BARON OF GROGZWIG, - AKA, BARON KOELDWETHOUT’S APPARITION
One of Dickens’ many spook stories of the comic variety, this one is notwithstanding perhaps the grimmest of them all. A rowdy bachelor spends his days riding, drinking, and hunting with his good friends until he marries a woman who browbeats him into a life of stoic gentility. Broken in spirit by the loss of his friends, he settles in a chamber with a knife and a bottle and decides to kill himself. At this point he is visited by the specter of suicide, a truly grisly vision wrapped in a shroud and ornamented with coffin plates. This wan and cadaverous spirit – weighed down by the weight of commonplace items and dressed in a highly symbolic fashion – is the grandfather of Jacob Marley, although he seeks the Baron’s destruction rather than his reclamation. Although the tale is comedic, it is dreadfully dark at points, and it marks the end of Dickens’ trend of writing light ghost stories (e.g., “The Lawyer and the Ghost,” “The Bagman’s Uncle,” “The Goblins who Stole a Sexton”). Far grimmer, too, if you consider the biographical implications considering his own disastrous marriage.
6. THE TRIAL FOR MURDER, - AKA, TO BE TAKEN WITH A GRAIN OF SALT
At one time in literary history, this was the most famous ghost story written by a professional. No anthology was complete without it, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” “The Body-Snatchers,” and “The Judge’s House.” But today it takes a back seat to… well, we’ll get to them. The story was coopted by M. R. James in his “Martin’s Close,” and by J. S. Le Fanu in “Mr Justice Harbottle” – both of which are exemplary ghost stories. A legal drama, this follows the adventure of a juror who is visited by the ghost of a murder victim. The waxy-faced phantom exposes his slashed throat, discredits witnesses, and harasses his murderer – all while being invisible to all but the juror. Although the tale is rife with promise (eagerly harvested by Le Fanu and in James in more stories than one), it is largely a cynical satire which suggests that the only way the justice system can be expected to work (in spite of its corruption, stupidity, and foolishness) is through supernatural intervention.
5. CAPTAIN MURDER AND THE DEVIL’S BARGAIN, - AKA, NURSE’S STORIES
This brace of tales is said to have been Dickens’ first exposure to terror: bedtime stories whispered to him in candlelight by his childhood nursemaid. The pair are indeed gruesome. In the first, Captain Murder is a Bluebeard who cuts his wives throats and cannibalizes them. When he butchers one fair maiden, her willy (and arguably insane) sister knowingly marries the brute, poisoning herself just before being slain, and ensuring that Captain Murder bites off more than he can chew. In the other – a truly Lovecraftian tale of hopeless fate – a ship’s carpenter resists a deal with the devil (one which all of his forefather’s have made), but ultimately gives in, with disastrous consequences to his shipmates. In this one, the devil is particularly sinister, and is accompanied by a talking rat (something which Le Fanu, Stoker, and Lovecraft would later adopt).
4. THE MOTHERS’ EYES, - AKA, A CONFESSION FOUND IN PRISON
This is a brilliant little tale that inspired Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Now, Poe fans – and I am one – we need to give this one its due, because the evidence is really undeniable. Between this and “A Madman’s Manuscript” (which smacks of “The Black Cat,” “Tell-Tale,” and “The Imp of the Perverse”), it’s clear that Dickens had some sway with the American Master of Terror. The story follows a man who loathes his sister-in-law, and vice versa. Her eyes haunt and condemn him. After her death, his brother reconciles with him on his own deathbed, and the man takes charge of his orphaned nephew. But his eyes are like those of his mother, and they torment him, torturing him with feelings of guilt, shame, and wickedness. Eventually – unable to take it – he slaughters the child and burries him in his lawn. When visitors come he is so paranoid (the grave has become a monomania) that he places a chair directly over it while they chat. But then a pack of bloodhounds break into the garden. And they are hungry. A truly excellent, chilling, and literary tale.
3. THE HANGED MAN’S BRIDE, - AKA, THE GHOST IN THE BRIDE’S CHAMBER
Starting with the same tone as his earlier, comic pieces, this tale follows two apprentices during their travels. They stop at a house with a haunted chamber, and – just as the clock strikes – an old man with glowing eyes and a throttled neck visits them with all of the pomp, seriousness, and duty of the Ancient Mariner (whose morbid ritual of storytelling he mimics). Humorous at first due to the apprentices’ idiotic inability to realize that they are speaking with the burning-eyed ghost of a hanged man, the story slides off into darkness as he tells of his sadistic neglect of his young and innocent wife, of how he bloodily murdered her suspicious admirer after she had wasted away, and of how the tree where he buried the body began to take… different shapes. The story is fantastic, eerie, and certainly influenced M. R. James in more ways than one (cf. “Martin’s Close,” “The Ash Tree,” “Stalls of Barchester Cathedral”). Definitely an under-appreciated gem of his oeuvre.
2. TO BE READ AT DUSK
By far his most mysterious ghost story, it may be his greatest although the going may be tough. “To Be Read at Dusk” requires intense attention and a mind for interpreting literature. It is, in some respects, a semiotic riddle which focuses on the definition of a ghost, and decides that the definition is not clean cut. Deeply psychological, it ponders the relationship between the conscious and unconscious, and posits that those things which are not seen (or said, or done, or shown) are no less real than those which are apparent – a very haunting concept for the repressed, idealistic Victorians who strove to discipline themselves into goodness. The tale is a framework settled around two stories: a group of envoys meet at an Alpine lodge under the shadow of a mountain whose snows are known to cover dozens of bodies. An eavesdropper listens to them talk of ghosts and of things which are not quite ghosts: of a refined lady who nightmares of a dark stranger who will take her from her loving husband, and of the moment when the husband befriends a man identical to the abductor in her dream, and of her disturbing disappearance; they tell also of two twins who agree to appear to each other at the moment of death, and of a shocking reverse in their expectations. But it is the eavesdropper himself, perhaps, who will have a ghost story to tell by the time he turns around when the speaking suddenly stops.
1. THE SIGNAL-MAN: No. 1 BRANCH LINE
Widely considered Dickens’ best (and in this century, his most famous) ghost story, “The Signal-Man” is – like “To Be Read at Dusk” – a disturbing mystery, one which challenges assumptions about fate, purpose, and free will. This very dark tale follows a benevolent gentleman who strikes up an empathic friendship with a very nervous railroad worker who runs the signal box at the mouth of a Dantean tunnel at the bottom of a ravine. The signalman is worried because twice already he has been warned of rail disasters by a faceless phantom – but to no avail. The warnings are vague and imprecise, and they taunt the poor wretch. Now they are back, and another horror is looming. The gentleman can tell that the signalman is far more intelligent than his station in life implies, and that he could rise above it and leave the desolate signal box for a better paying, more fulfilling career. But early in his life he was discouraged from social mobility, and now he accepts his lot. And this acceptance of helplessness – what psychologists call an outer locus, or a belief that we are slaves to fate – is perhaps what is haunting the signalman so horribly. The ending – as those of you know who have read it or seen the brilliant 1976 adaptation by Lawrence Gordon Clark – is troubling to say the least. One of Dickens most philosophical tales, it is deeply existential, and thoroughly haunting.
HONORABLE MENTION. THE GOBLINS WHO STOLE A SEXTON
Not quite a ghost story, but certainly supernatural, this Christmastime tale is a blend of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and “Rip Van Winkle,” as it follows a hateful miser who is walking home one dark winter’s night when he is ambushed and spirited away by a goblin in a graveyard. Possessions of his are found in the cemetery in the morning, and the wicked fellow is assumed dead. But a decade later he returns to tell his story. This lively and fascinating little sketch was a predecessor of A Christmas Carol (a series of supernatural beings use telepathic visions to reform a misanthropic miser) but is far shorter. Both creepy and charming, it follows well in Irving’s footsteps, Irving being Dickens’ literary idol, a master of the darkly comic supernatural tale, and the man whose Yuletide fiction was responsible for turning Dickens onto Christmas before Christmas was popular in Britain.