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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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Charles Dickens' Shadowy, Anxiously Existential Ghost Stories

English literature is punctuated by a series of inescapably titanic figures – one or two per century – who overwhelmingly defined the mood, tone, and standards of their eras. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, and Wordsworth dominated their respective eras, and the chief don of the mid-19th century was Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870). His works are unrelentingly required for any survey of British literature during the period called the Victorian Era. His novels began with the Irvingian sketchbook of humoresques, The Pickwick Papers, followed by his socially conscious Oliver Twist, the anti-Malthusian social allegory, A Christmas Carol, the virtually autobiographical David Copperfield, an acidic attack on the ineptitude of British courts crying for legal reform in Bleak House, the stark and gloomy social criticisms of Hard Times, the historical meditation on parallelism and redemption, A Tale of Two Cities, and his world-weary bildungsroman, Great Expectations.

Born to penny-poor middle classed parents, Dickens knew keenly what it was to feel on the fence between two existences: one secure and fashionable, and one chaotic and scandalous. It was this feverish play between poles that he fed into his supernatural fiction, investing it with a gravity that pulled between sanity and madness, good and evil, normal and uncanny, without ever securing a firm footing. He suffered from a scandalous love life which saw his wife abandoned, his mistresses scandalized, and his children divided; he endured lifelong bouts of manic-depression – sometimes in productive spurts, sometimes in paralyzing waves; he grew weary and jaded with industrial society, capitalism, and commercialism – forces he struggled against valiantly if vainly; and while keenly religious he loathed the hypocrisy of the church, the charlatanism of spiritualists, and the selfishness of affluent Christians. All of these passions and fears and resentments were gradually – then forcefully – channeled into his speculative fiction, resulting in a number of invasive ghost stories that entice with pleasant language and characters, but cling to the imagination like a baited barb.

Dickens enjoyed, for the better part of a century, a reputation as one of the greatest writers of ghost stories in the language. Aside from the obvious Christmas Carol, he was well known for his light hearted satires (“The Lawyer and the Ghost”), his dark humored allegories (“The Baron of Grogzwig”), and his conventional spiritualist episodes (“The Trial for Murder”). His tales were regularly anthologized alongside Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Wilkie Collins, Sir Walter Scott, Henry James, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Rudyard Kipling. It is a reputation which he has unquestionably lost. As time has proceeded, these relatively conventional supernaturalists have fallen out of fashion in favor of masters of slow-burning terror and plot control such as M. R. James, Oliver Onions, E. F. Benson, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Edith Wharton, and H. Russell Wakefield.

Even among the Victorians, the great female writers (Amelia B. Edwards, Mrs J. H. Riddell, Rhoda Broughton, Mrs Oliphant, Elizabeth Gaskell, Miss Braddon, Maria Louisa Molesworth, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, E. Nesbit, and Sarah Orne Jewett) have overwhelmingly dominated the respect and attention of contemporary critics. But Dickens contributions to the field of speculative fiction continue to prove considerable, from his influence on Edgar Allan Poe, M. R. James, and J. Sheridan Le Fanu, to his genuine masterpieces of horror – some four expert ghost stories (To Be Read at Dusk, The Hanged Man’s Bride, The Trial for Murder, The Signal-Man), three still-effective supernatural allegories (Baron Grogzwig, A Christmas Carol, The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton), and two grisly tales of psychological horror (A Madman’s Manuscript, The Mother’s Eyes).

Dickens’ tales – many of which were modelled after the whimsical, character-driven supernatural tales of Washington Irving and the historically-set Gothic episodes of Sir Walter Scott – were almost always either social satires, social allegories, or contained undercurrent social themes, causing them to tread the borderlands between pure supernatural fiction (like that of M. R. James) and pure social realism (like that of Thomas Hardy). Elizabeth Gaskell, Mrs Oliphant, and Edith Wharton would follow his example, generating some of the century’s best socially conscious ghost stories. His early tales especially were concerned with basic human dignity, the plight of the poor, and humanist celebrations of life and loss, but as he aged his stories began to darken and broaden from social critiques to existential anxieties.

His best ghost stories mourned the loss of divine justice, the impotence of the law, and the corruption of authority, concluding either with pyrrhic victories (the evil are punished, but only after true justice is impossible) or – as in “The Signal-Man” and “To Be Read at Dusk” – disturbing, mysterious riddles which refused to yield answers to their tragic plots. Almost Lovecraftian in their sinister worldview, these later stories draw far away from the jolting whimsy of his early tales, creating a chiaroscuro universe of deep shadow closing in around weak points of light.

As previously mentioned, Dickens’ influence on speculative fiction was sizeable. The most obvious benefactor was the American critic, poet, and Gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe, whose tales of madness and murder were undeniably impacted by Dickens’ similarly themed “A Madman’s Manuscript,” and “The Mother’s Eyes” which presaged “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “Berenice,” “Ligeia,” “Morella,” “The Imp of the Perverse,” and to degrees “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “William Wilson,” “Hop-Frog,” and “The Cask of Amontillado.” Dickens returned the favor by modelling his story “The Hanged Man’s Bride” loosely off of “Metzengerstein” and “The Black Cat,” while “The Baron of Grogzwig” bears notable similarities to “Metzengerstein,” “Bon-Bon,” “The Devil in the Belfry,” and “Never Bet the Devil Your Head.” Other writers built on top of Dickens supernatural works (especially “Trial” and “Signal-Man”), but the most notable are his contemporary J. Sheridan Le Fanu – the unrivaled master of the Victorian ghost story – and the former’s 20th century protégé, M. R. James.

Le Fanu appears to have been inspired by “The Trial for Murder,” creating “Mr Justice Harbottle” while James constructed on top of both stories to forge his eerie courtroom drama “Martin’s Close.” “The Hanged Man’s Bride,” a decidedly Lefanuvian tale of guardian abuse, greed, ghostly revenge, and just desserts heralds bevies of Le Fanu stories (especially “The Haunted Baronet,” “Squire Toby’s Will,” “Harbottle,” “Madam Crowl’s Ghost,” and “Schalken the Painter”) and became reworked in many of James’ best known grotesqueries (particularly “The Ash Tree,” “Martin’s Close,” “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance,” “Lost Hearts,” and “The Stalls of Barchester”). His influence is also clearly felt in E. F. Benson, Wilkie Collins, Amelia B. Edwards, H. Russell Wakefield, E. Nesbit, Mrs Oliphant, and droves more.

For his part, Dickens’ supernatural fiction was chiefly inspired by the earlier work of the American humorist, historian, and sketch writer Washington Irving and the Scottish writer of historical romances, Sir Walter Scott. Irving’s touch can be easily glimpsed in “The Bagman’s Uncle” – loosely formed in the model of the half-credible narratives of Tales of a Traveler, some of which are blatantly humorous distortions of the truth (the sex-themed “Adventure of My Grandfather”) while others offered mysterious suggestions of either madness or genuine horror (“The Adventure of My Uncle,” “The Adventure of the German Student”).

“The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton” unabashedly suggests Irving’s two most popular tales – “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle” – consisting as it does of an antisocial ne’er-do-well who roams into a cemetery, is spirited away by the supernatural, becoming a legend in his own right when his affects are found abandoned hard by, and returns years later, a changed man. “The Baron of Grogzwig” bears stark similarities to several of Irving’s German tales (“The Spectre Bridegroom” especially), and the character of Fezziwig from A Christmas Carol is all but a caricature of Irving’s Christmas-loving Squire Bracebridge (Bracebridge Hall, with its nostalgic affection for Yuletide, inspired Dickens to write the Carol, and the two authors – with some help from Prince Albert – virtually singlehandedly revived Christmas in England after two centuries of dormancy).

Dickens continued to write prolifically until the railroad accident which inspired “The Signal-Man.” After this life-shaking event, his moods worsened, and his creativity dried up rapidly. His son credited the horror of the crash with abbreviating his father’s life. On 9 June 1865, a boat train driving passengers from the Kentish coast to London was derailed near the town of Staplehurst when it crossed over a section of rail which had been removed during a sloppy repair process. A signalman had attempted to wave the train to a halt, but he was located half the legal distance from the repairs, and the engine could not stop in time. Dickens’ car was among the seven which derailed, and after he had rescued his mistress and her mother, he frantically began tending to the injured. Several died in his company, ten in total, while forty were injured. The event robbed him of his voice for two weeks, and left him scarred until his death five years later to the day.

His most important work remains literary fiction, social realism, and historical fiction, with horror and supernaturalism occupying a terribly small portion of his vast oeuvre. But those stories which continue to circulate in anthologies such as this do so because of their unmistakable artistry – whether due to their humor, their allegorical significance, their psychological depth, their existential vision, or – though rarely – their abject horror. His tales can be charming, disturbing, haunting, and charismatic. They can be fine pieces to read to small children by cheery candlelight on October 31 (or December 24), or grim episodes to be mulled over by world-weary adults as they contemplate the role of fate, social responsibility, free will, and cosmic charity in their own lives.

Like Irving whom he adored, and James who adored him, Dickens’ supernatural work continues to charm and thrill regardless of its lack of octopoid aliens, fiery skeletons, or blood-drenched vivisections. He is not Stephen King. He is not H. P. Lovecraft. He is not Ramsey Campbell or Clive Barker or Dean Koontz. He is Dickens, Boz, and his speculative fiction is propelled, not by gore, or horror, or sadism, but by its subtle roots in the human unconscious – his stories which cause us to chuckle disarmedly while we read, but to furrow our brow in confused discomfort when we put the book aside and leave the room.

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