Horror is perhaps best dictated to the senses – to the animal rather than the intellectual faculties. Amelia B. Edwards shoots for both in this cerebrally visceral tale by cushioning a quaint, fireside chat with a scholar of the natural and supernatural between two lonely, agonizing experiences of fear. The first is an experience that anyone might have when a car breaks down in an unfamiliar county on a winter night. The second is a vision that most can only say to have viewed – and smelled – in their nightmares. It is the intellect behind its construction that projects this story directly into the soft underbelly of irrational human terror. Like Wells, Edwards (whom E. F. Bleiler ranks amongst Le Fanu and Broughton as one of the Victorian’s best supernaturalists) introduces us to a bleak landscape in a bleak universe – one hostile to humanity and devoid of help or guidance.
The plot is virtually archetypal: lost in the grim, snowy moors of northern England, a hapless hunter is on the brink of death when he is directed to the warm cabin of a bitter alchemist, whose theories on the unknown spike his imagination before setting off once more, this time in hopes of encountering the local coach set to come their direction. The title of the story allows for little subtlty: he does find a coach thundering down the frosty highway, and he does halt it and manage to gain entrance to its interior. But what lurks within the interior might send him rushing back into the black winter night.
The story begins – not entirely unlike Dickens’ “The Signalman” – with a curious English man of leisure exploring a dreary landscape, not expecting to learn a lesson about the cosmos. The narrator, Murray, tells us that twenty years have passed since the events he will relate happened, and that he has never told them to a living soul until now. On the December day in question, he had left his bride of four months to go hunting grouse by himself on a snow-swept, northern moor. They are very much in love, and she is anxious about his expedition – concerned about his becoming lost in the savage wastes – but he proceeds anyway, sure of his ability to navigate the unfamiliar heath. However, as the sun sets on the brutal hill country, there are no signs, roads, houses, or landmarks in sight, and he has no idea where he is. Suddenly, as the wind whips the snow up around him, he realizes that only a few hours stand between him and death, and he desperately searches the darkening horizon for signs of life.
As the cold closes in around him, he is losing hope of surviving, when he notices a distant light bobbing across the moors. It comes closer, and he realizes that it is a strange man with a lantern. Murray waves him down and begs him to lead him back to safety, but the stranger – a flinty old Scot with a cold-hearted allegiance to Fate – requires a great deal of coercing before he agrees (he views Murray’s situation to be his own problem – he is the victim of his own foolishness – and argues that his master will not want a guest – even if this means leaving Murray to freeze to death). Finally strong armed into conducting him to safety, the old man, Jacob, directs him to a rustic cottage where his master – a retired scholar – lives far from the influence of society.
Indeed, the master is disturbed by the intrusion, and scolds Jacob, but Murray argues that he only wants to stay long enough to recover, so that he can live to see his wife (they are twenty miles from any village), and he promises to leave as soon as day breaks. Apparently intrigued by his existentialist plea (Murray, a lawyer, is asked what right he has to seek refuge there, and he answers “[by] the right of self-preservation”) the master relents, and invites Murray into his parlor where they eat a steaming dinner by the snapping fireplace. The house is virtually a museum of scientific and alchemical study: among the master’s collection are a massive telescope sits, a small organ painted with saints and devils, a dingy collection of scientific and occult folios, a sprawling chemistry set of retorts, test tubes, vials, and jars, a model of the solar system, a galvanic battery, a microscope, and ancient maps.
Murray is intrigued by his learned host, whose broad forehead, wild hair, and smoldering eyes remind him of a bust of Beethoven, and thanks him for his hospitality as he savors a glass of sherry. Indeed, the master responds, it is quite a favor: he has not had a single guest (or read a single newspaper) in twenty-three years, so Murray’s intrusion is his first encounter with the outside world since then. He is curious, however, as to the state of the world, and grills Murray on what has happened in the last two decades. He is particularly interested in scientific and technological developments, and then their conversation trails off into philosophy, theology, and metaphysics.
The master is certainly in his element with these topics, and delights in their talk. He doesn’t view this as any different from their conversation on academics, because in his experience the supernatural is the hidden flip-side of the scientific:
"The world … grows hourly more and more sceptical of all that lies beyond its own narrow radius; and our men of science foster the fatal tendency. They condemn as fable all that resists experiment. They reject as false all that cannot be brought to the test of the laboratory or the dissecting-room. Against what superstition have they waged so long and obstinate a war, as against the belief in apparitions? And yet what superstition has maintained its hold upon the minds of men so long and so firmly? Show me any fact in physics, in history, in archæology, which is supported by testimony so wide and so various.
"Attested by all races of men, in all ages, and in all climates, by the soberest sages of antiquity, by the rudest savage of to-day, by the Christian, the Pagan, the Pantheist, the Materialist, this phenomenon is treated as a nursery tale by the philosophers of our century. Circumstantial evidence weighs with them as a feather in the balance. The comparison of causes with effects, however valuable in physical science, is put aside as worthless and unreliable. The evidence of competent witnesses, however conclusive in a court of justice, counts for nothing. He who pauses before he pronounces, is condemned as a trifler. He who believes, is a dreamer or a fool."
Murray learns that the master was driven out of academics by thought leaders of the establishment who ridiculed him for his open mind and metaphysical speculations. As he ponders the master’s wild theories, they realize that it has stopped snowing and that the night is clear and bright now. Thinking of his anxious wife, he wonders aloud if he could attempt to make it back to the inn where they are staying to spare her a sleepless night of worry.
The master learns where their inn is – twenty miles away – and points out that the night mail coach, which shuttles down a highway not far from the cottage, changes its horses at the same town. Since Murray is desperate to let his wife know that he is all right, the master recommends that Jacob guide him to the highway, and that he wave the mail down and hop a ride.
Fortified by a glass of whiskey, he turns to thank the master for his hospitality, but the eccentric scholar has disappeared into his study. Jacob is annoyed that he has to walk five miles to the highway, but grabs his lantern anyway, and the two head out into the cold, starless night. Jacob is silent and taciturn, but Murray is still occupied by his conversation with the master: he is still mulling over individual phrases, sentences, and mystical theories from the old man’s lips.
Suddenly, Jacob stops and points out a stone wall which represents the “old coach road,” which – he claims – will intersect with the new one if followed for three miles (he has decided to cut out early). He says that Murray will be able to tell when he’s close because he will see a signpost not far from a spot where the stone wall is badly damaged by “the accident,” at a spot where the road is narrow and high. Murray asks what accident he refers to, and learns that nine years ago a mail coach was travelling down it – “the worst bit o’ road in the whole county” – when it crashed over the parapet and plunged fifty feet down into a ravine.
Four people were immediately killed, and two other men died from their injuries (a mail coach has seating for four passengers inside and one next to the driver; the driver and an armed guard – who sits on an outside seat in the rear, with a blunderbuss and a post horn – are the crew). With that, Jacob absconds, and Murray watches his lantern bob and disappear into the distance.
His mind is deeply troubled by the master’s speculations, and he tries to drown them out by humming parts of tunes and by calculating compound interest in his head. The night grows colder and lonelier around him, and his breath is strangely labored as though he was “scaling the uppermost heights of some gigantic Alp.” Finally, he spies two points of light moving down the road: the lamps of the night mail. He is confused, because he hadn’t yet found the signpost or the damage from the accident, and so this must be the old coach road, long disused. But he decides that he must have missed it in the dark: this must be the new coach road, “for here it came round the bend of the road, guard and driver, one outside passenger, and four steaming greys, all wrapped in a soft haze of light, through which the lamps blazed out, like a pair of fiery meteors.”
It seems “strangely lofty” in the dark, and at first it passes him by despite his shouts and flailings, but it stops up the road and he runs to catch up. The guard, driver, and passenger are “muffled to the eyes in capes and comforters,” and no one offers a word of greeting or turns their head in his direction. He opens the door for himself, and finds one vacant seat, which he settles into as the coach starts off again.
At first pleased, he begins to grow uneasy with his silent companions and the strange atmosphere of the interior which “seemed, if possible, colder than that of the outer air, and was pervaded by a singularly damp and disagreeable smell.” He attempts small talk with the man across from him, but his multiple attempts to chat are ignored and he assumes the man to be asleep. Peering through the dusk, however, he realizes that the man’s eyes “were turned full on me. Yet he never answered a word.”
He is increasingly nauseated by the “strange smell” of the coach, and asks a second passenger if he would care whether he opens the window to let fresh air in. He gets no response, so he reaches over and pulls it down. However, as he does, the strap of the sash comes off in his hand – all too easily – and he sees that the glass is mottled with years’ worth of mildew. Shocked, he looks back to the inside and notices that it is rotting away with “the last stages of dilapidation” as if it had been “mouldering away for years.” Mold covers everything, the soggy wood breaks with the slightest touch, and the stench has grown unbearable.
He turns to the third passenger and cries out that the coach is “in deplorable condition,” but his words die in his throat as he finally sees the truth:
“He moved his head slowly, and looked me in the face, without speaking a word. I shall never forget that look while I live. I turned cold at heart under it. I turn cold at heart even now when I recall it. His eyes glowed with a fiery unnatural lustre. His face was livid as the face of a corpse. His bloodless lips were drawn back as if in the agony of death, and showed the gleaming teeth between… I saw that he was no living man -- that none of them were living men, like myself! A pale phosphorescent light -- the light of putrefaction -- played upon their awful faces; upon their hair, dank with the dews of the grave; upon their clothes, earth-stained and dropping to pieces; upon their hands, which were as the hands of corpses long buried. Only their eyes, their terrible eyes, were living; and those eyes were all turned menacingly upon me!”
He forces the door open and tries to jump, but he is too late: the moon gushes through a tear in the clouds, revealing the signpost, and he watches in horror as the coach crashes into the stone fence and tumbles down a black gulf where everything is swallowed in darkness...
He wakes up to find his wife beside him, nursing him back to life. He had been discovered at the bottom of the fifty-foot ravine where the accident had occurred, but had fallen into a snow bank which saved his life. Delirious and suffering from a broken arm and fractured skull, he recovered only due to his youth and previous health. He kept the story of the phantom coach from his wife, out of concern for her nerves, but during his convalescence, he told his physician about his experience. The doctor so arrogantly dismissed his story as the fever dream of a broken mind, that the two nearly came to blows and Murray – who surely remembered the master’s rough treatment by the materialist academic establishment – smothered his rage in secrecy.
He grants that the reader will come to their own conclusion, but will be undeterred: “Others may form what conclusions they please -- I know that twenty years ago I was the fourth inside passenger in that Phantom Coach.”
Edwards’ chilling tale is – especially in its climactic scene – a montage of masterful atmospherics. A blend of shadowy scenes weave one into the other, culminating in the pungent horror awaiting in the phantom coach. Tension builds and depresses like a road bobbing along a series of moorland hills. While it may be argued that the middle section fails to set up the conclusion, the antique metaphysician suspends the reality of the frosted air and the pensive wife waiting at home. Upon entering his candle-lit domain the protagonist is ushered into a world previously invisible to him – one which is only too real once he exits. The wasted desolation of the moor country minimizes human agency and enhances the threat of the outer unknown.
The cosmic terror of the outerspaces and unbroken landscapes – of impersonal snow and all-consuming night – is temporarily deflated by the appearance of a lantern and the safety of the philosopher’s hearth. The temporary respite may seem jarring and unnecessary, but it is an essential transition: before the conversation in the cabin, the north country is a bleak, uninhabited cosmos – a threat of its own, godless and teeming with spiritual hostility. After conversing with the exiled academic, however, the blackness he returns to is now the domain of the once-invisible world: the universe is no longer the same to him, no longer warm and promising, but cold and consuming: he is indeed the “fourth inside passenger in that Phantom Coach” a fellow passenger on a grisly journey, finally conscious of his awful status in the universe.