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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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Spooky Spotlight: Romantic Ghost Stories for Valentine's Day

Romance has always had a dark side: something sinister, possessive, even fatal lurks behind the desire to attract and be attracted. For centuries something spiritual – even supernatural – has been suspected in the ways of lovers in the night. Shakespeare called love-making “the beast with two backs”; in many ages the monomaniacal lust of a man for one woman has been blamed on witchcraft; the French refer to the sleep that follows intercourse as “le petite mort” – the little death. There is a night-side to our amours: a dark, animalistic release that takes place when we are alone with our love, drenched with shadows and candlelight.

Something vestigial and primitive about romance returns us to our less civilized forms, and for some of us, it is one of the few moments that we can genuinely sense our relationship to infinity and the realm of spirits. Consequently, romance has become one of the most prominent themes in Gothic fiction: from “Dracula” to “The Phantom of the Opera,” from “Wuthering Heights” to “The Raven,” nothing bridges the gap between reality and imagination, the physical and the spiritual, quite so nimbly as carnal attraction; and no genre is more capable of deconstructing these emotions quite so nimbly as horror.

In “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” H. P. Lovecraft famously declared fear to be the oldest human emotion. Without contesting that observation, I think love – that messy tangle of desire, admiration, lust, possessiveness, and passion – is almost certainly the second. After our basic needs have been met – we find ourselves warm, dry, sheltered, and feed – our very next need is emotional: the thirst for company, for understanding and belonging. In short, once our survival is no longer in question, the human spirit is most desperate for love. Love has left deep impressions in human culture, in art, literature, philosophy, religion, and government.

Whole genres of films, stories, and songs are devoted to its expression. Some of the most critical human rites of passage – proms, weddings, balls, festivals – revolve around the celebration of Eros. Many of the most passionate and aggressive political battles of the past two centuries have involved debating the appropriateness of marginalized love and its expressions. Nearly every religion on earth exalts love as the most divine of human emotions, and use the wedding ceremony as a spiritual reenactment of their theological values: by being near two lovers, we are permitted to briefly catch a glimpse of eternity. And yet, as even the most romantic among us are wont to recognize, love comes with a darkness as bleak as its light is illuminating. Love can be Heaven, but it can be Hell just as easily, and this is a concept in which many of the best writers of supernatural fiction have found powerful value.


PLAINTIVE POEMS: It just wouldn't be Valentine's Day without poetry. We've already published a collection of Gothic poetry, but these six are among the most romantic and hence the most tragic. Each involves a broken relationship, or a relationship that has devolved into a bad romance of astronomical proportions: ghostly lovers seek each other, heartbroken beaus dabble in necrophilia, and seductive specters lure the living into unholy unions. They include Alfred Noyes' "The Highwayman," Poe's "Annabel Lee," "The Raven," and "A Dream within a Dream," Keats' "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," and G.A. Burger's "Lenore."

HAUNTED HEARTS: Now it's on to the world of high romance and the supernatural power of attraction. These are stories that involve powerful and unstoppable affinities between people on opposite sides of eternity. Most have tragic endings, some are surprisingly pleasant, but all are undeniably strange. A woman finds herself alone with a deadly ghost -- a ghost whose lips she is drawn to; a man falls in love with a girl whose family suffers a vampiric curse; a pair who everyone thinks would hit it off meet and fall in love only after her death; and a bridegroom murdered by bandits returns to seduce his waiting bride ("The Woman's Ghost Story," Algernon Blackwood; "Olalla," R. L. Stevenson; "The Way it Came," Henry James; "The Bridal Pair," Robert W. Chambers; "The Spectre Bridegroom," Washington Irving; "The Haunted Inheritance," E. Nesbit).

COURTING CORPSES: Among the darkest (and most disturbing) tales in our collection, these stories involve abductions, seductions, and unholy alliances between the

living and the dead. Some of these ghostly admirers are well intended -- some may not even be aware that they are dead - but most have come courting with the goal of complete possession: body, soul, and mind. They include a decapitated beauty luring a skeptical materialist to damnation, a girl given in marriage to a possessive ghost for a chest of gold, a wedding where the groom shows up late in dusty clothes with an ugly welt on his head, and a swirling dance with a beautiful girl with insidious intentions ("The Adventure of the German Student," Irving; "Schalken the Painter,""Ultor de Lacy," and "Laura Silver Bell," J. S. Le Fanu; "John Charrington's Wedding," Nesbit; and "The Dance of Death," Blackwood).

VENGEFUL VALENTINES: What would Valentine's Day be without some cathartic tales of wronged lovers wreaking revenge? Not every love story leaves all of its

participants happy: in fact, most joyful unions have a trail of broken hearts in their wake. Exes, disappointed suitors, first wives, unrequited lovers, and third wheels often smart at the happiness of others. Here we have just that: murdered rivals returning from the dead, a first wife gradually possessing and killing her replacement, two victims of suicides (one a man and one a woman) refusing to give up on the lovers who drove them to despair, and more ("Man Overboard!" F. Marion Crawford; "Captain of the Polestar," Conan Doyle; "Sir Edmund Orme," James; "The Cold Embrace," Mary E. Braddon; "Ligeia," Poe; "The Coming of Abel Behenna," Bram Stoker).

HEARTBREAKING HORRORS: Now come the tear jerkers. While the Courting Corpse stories are generally all tragic, these lachrymose episodes have a habit of sticking in the memory for days: tales that underline the ultimate problem of love: the inevitability of separation. These are stories about very human errors leading to permanent conclusions. A newlywed couple's love nest is shattered by a local superstition come to life, an artist's obsession with his wife is her undoing, words spoken in a moment of anger lead to a rash act of hopeless despair, a man lends his psychic wife over to a treasure-hunting hypnotist (only to lose her to his fatal spell), and more ("Man-Size in Marble," "From the Dead," and "The Shadow," Nesbit; "Poor Pretty Bobby," Rhoda Broughton; "The Bohemian," Fitz-James O'Brien; and "The Oval Portrait," Poe).

LIMITLESS LOVERS: Ending things on a wistful note of melancholy romance with some of my favorite tales in the whole collection, are stories of lovers separated by time. Some of these stories end happily, but most leave us with a painful sense of awe -- wondering at the dueling powers of love and death, how the first seems so capable of defeating the second, but how it always seems to have victory snatched from its hands. We will read of men falling in love with women from strange and unexpected places: an alternate dimension accessible through a wormhole in China, a Breton castle made visible by a time slip (or reincarnation?), a mummy locked away in a museum, an Egyptian slave girl suspended in sleep in a sealed tomb, a time-blackened oil painting, and a cemetery where a crippled boy falls in love with a ghost ("The Maker of Moons," "The Demoiselle D'Ys," and "The Tomb of Samaris," Robert W. Chambers; "The Ring of Thoth," Doyle; "The Ebony Frame," and "Uncle Abraham's Romance," Nesbit).


Along with its life-affirming ecstasies, love brings the inevitable agony of separation, rejection, or loneliness. All love – whether romantic, friendly, or familial – must come to a permanent end at some point, and the brutal torture of the fear of these feelings form a yawning black hole in our collective consciousness, threatening our peace of mind with shadows of death. Long before love and fear became crystalized in the Gothic genre (more on that later), this potent mixture made early appearances in world mythology, where the tragedy of desire and the fear of loneliness led to some of the most memorable lovers in global literature.

Greek mythology is primarily just one great list of such relationships (making it impractical to attempt a litany of all the star-crossed lovers that make up its canon), but among their most famous pairings are Orpheus and Eurydice, Pluto and Persephone, Venus and Adonis, Pyramus and Thisbe, Helen of Troy and Paris, and Hero and Leander. The Middle Ages were no less fixated on the theme, introducing us to Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot and Tristan and Isolde, while the Renaissance introduced us to Dante and Beatrice, Petrarch and Laura, Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Desdemona, and the timeless trope of Death and the Maiden.

With the 18th century came the Age of Reason and a strong emphasis on rationality, duty, and self-control, temporarily deadening the lusty emotion of Renaissance literature (although novelists like Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Daniel Defoe, and Tobias Smollett did their damndest to thumb their noses at Enlightenment mores). The counter reaction to the Enlightenment was not long in coming, however: by the 1780s, the Gothic novel was all the rage, and a novel just wasn’t Gothic if it didn’t include tragic lovers, damsels in distress, lusty seducers, salacious immodesty, cosmic attraction between the sexes, or skin-prickling lovers’ trysts. Writers like Walpole, Radcliffe, Lewis, and Reeve borrowed from medieval romances, folkloric love stories, and antiquarian superstitions to stitch together fascinating stories of frustrated love, doomed relationships, and seismic emotions that would feed the imaginations of the next literary generation: the Romantics.

Obsessed with sentiment, strong feeling, and melodrama, few writers of the Romantic tradition could avoid using the star-crossed lovers trope. Byron, Keats, and Shelley, Blake, Coleridge, and Wordsworth used such emotions as the basis of their sentimental poetry. Even Jane Austen – a realist to the core – found herself lampooning the Gothic novel (more for fun than out of criticism) in “Mansfield Park,” while Charles Dickens gushed romantic pathos into “A Tale of Two Cities,” “Great Expectations,” and “David Copperfield.” Germans like Goethe, Schiller, and Burger studied the trope on the other side of the Channel, alongside Frenchmen like Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas and Russians like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

But of all the Romantics to find a sound footing in Gothic romance, the writers of unabashedly supernatural fiction were the most memorable. Mary Shelley did so in “Frankenstein,” Washington Irving followed suit in “The Adventure of the German Student,” and Nathaniel Hawthorne used it in “The Scarlet Letter,” “Rappacini’s Daughter,” “The Birth-Mark,” and many, many other tales. Edgar Allan Poe practicality built his career on mourning the loss of three prominent women in his life (his mother, a close family friend, and his wife, Virginia) who became transfigured in stories like “Ligeia,” “The Oblong Box,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Oval Portrait,” and poems like “The Raven,” “Lenore,” “Ulalume,” and “A Dream within a Dream.” In England, Charlotte Bronte and Emily Bronte had crafted two of the most unforgettable Gothic romances in “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights,” respectively.

To genuine writers of supernatural fiction, there has always been an indivisible union between love and fear, lust and terror, desire and repulsion. Later in the 19th century, ghost story writers like Le Fanu, Nesbit, and Conan Doyle would excel in using romantic attractions as catalysts of horrific events. In “Schalken the Painter,” Le Fanu repurposed the legend of the demon-lover (an evil spirit who seduces or abducts young women before spiriting them away to the netherworld) in the story of a painter who is secretly affianced to his master’s pretty ward. Their romance is suddenly jettisoned when a grotesque aristocrat pays the master a hefty dowry to marry the girl, who disappears with him shortly after. When Schalken sees her spirit in the basement of a nearby church – where she is bedding the corpse-like body of her husband – he is driven to paint the vision as a way of atonement for being such a meek suitor.

Supernatural abductions were a favorite theme of Le Fanu’s (“The Child who Went with the Fairies,” “Laura Silver Bell,” “Ultor de Lacy”), as was the comingling of sex and death. Nowhere is this more obvious than in “Carmilla,” his famous vampire novel (and the likely inspiration of “Dracula”) which featured a powerful same-sex attraction between the blonde, virginal Laura and the swarthy, sensual Carmilla. While Carmilla is later revealed to be a blood-sucker, her love for Laura never smacks of insincerity: she genuinely adores her intended victim, and it is later revealed that she, too, was a victim of vampirism. More than anything, “Carmilla” is a story about loneliness and love – the love that smothers its object, the love that destroys its beloved by the sheer force of its power.

Conan Doyle was perhaps more of a Romantic than fans of Sherlock Holmes realize: his non-Holmesian tales are racked with Dickensian sentiment and Gothic pathos – especially his ghost stories. Tales like “The Ring of Thoth” and “The Captain of the Polestar” tell of love’s reach beyond death, while “John Barrington Cowles” tells of the danger of love (in this case, the danger of falling in love with a sadistic woman with a knack for mesmerism and a possible vampiric pedigree). His stories teem with the same strong emotions, determined loyalty, and crushing pathos that made “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights” Gothic classics.

Edith Nesbit, however, is – in my mind at least – the undisputed queen of the romantic ghost story. Most famous for her children’s literature (she was a favorite of P. L. Travers and J. K. Rowling), Nesbit is usually only remembered in horror fiction circles for her masterpiece, “Man-Size in Marble.” A worthy tale indeed (it tells the story of young newlyweds who move to a town with a tradition of locking its doors on Hallowe’en Night and a pair of haunted statues in their medieval church), but it merely scratches the surface of Nesbit’s fantastic output. Married to a charismatic socialist leader who demeaned women and conducted dozens of public affairs (including inviting his favorite mistress to live with them), Nesbit’s stories had a tendency to feature hard-hearted men and wronged-but-long-suffering women.

Romances were predominant among her oeuvre, including the famous “John Charrington’s Wedding” (whose spectral bridegroom is borrowed from Washington Irving – by way of G. A. Burger – but with a far more sinister ending) and the soul-crushing “From the Dead” (a lover’s spat ends in hard words with have tragic consequences – and nearly end in necrophilia). The light-hearted “Haunted Inheritance” tells of a romance brought about by breaking into a haunted house, while the dismal “Shadow” sinks back to her usual baseline: a woman joins a married couple to help the wife recover from a troubled pregnancy, but her friendship with the man seems to summon a jealous specter of death.

In the Late Victorian and Edwardian Ages – a period graced with elegance, panache, and decadence – romance (or rather, lust) became the crux of the most prominent examples of horror fiction: Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Leroux’s “The Phantom of the Opera,” Machen’s “The Great God Pan” (wherein a femme fatale leads her lovers to suicide by exposing them to cosmic terrors), Stoker’s “Dracula” (which never required Freud for the keys to its erotic subtext), Oliver Onions’ “The Beckoning, Fair One” (a writer is made a homicidal love slave to a female spirit), William Hope Hodgson’s “Voice in the Night” (a chaste couple are shipwrecked on an island dominated by a parasitic fungus – likely a metaphor for venereal disease), and even M. R. James’ “Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” (a sexually repressed skeptic finds that the sheets of the bed next to him are possessed by a curious ghost) are laden with erotic connotations.

Many of these stories and novels would be adapted to the screen in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, bringing their steamy subtexts to the silver screen. Many of the Universal Monsters of those decades would become famous as sexual tropes (Frankenstein’s Monster and his Bride, Dracula, the Phantom of the Opera, the Wolfman, the Gill Man, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, King Kong, and the Mummy are all infamous for their lusty behavior). Romance and the gothic have continued to steam their way through the 20th and 21st centuries with such notable entries as “Dark Shadows,” “True Blood,” and the “Twilight” series, continuing the tradition of associating lust with death, and love with eternity.

The collection presented here offers samples of some of the greatest romantic ghost stories and supernatural fiction from the Golden Age of Horror. There are tales of ghostly highwaymen, resurrected vampires, Deceased lovers returning from the grave, marriages between ghosts and the living, marriages between skeptics and decapitated corpses, attractions struck up after breaking into haunted houses, attractions frustrated by hereditary curses, abductions by demon lovers, abductions by possessive spirits, abductions by vengeful ghosts, romantic waltzes with the Grim Reaper in female form, revenge had by jilted lovers, revenge had by murdered rivals, revenge had by deceased wives, romances with revived Egyptian slave girls, romances with cursed mummies, romances with enchanted portraits, romances across dimensions of time and space, tragedies involving poor communication between the genders, tragedies involving hypnosis, tragedies involving unintended affairs, and tragedies involving assault by animated statues. Oh, and much, much more.

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