Spooky Spotlight: The Best Victorian Ghost Stories
If you ever happen to read our collection of "The Best Victorian Ghost Stories," you will be confronted with a selection of stories that do not necessarily match the average Victorian ghost story: many of these are darker, more psychologically-invigorated, cynical, and disturbing than the typical Victorian ghost tale. They are, in fact, quite atypical and quite exquisite compared with the more popular sentimental, moralistic fare that graced Christmas and Hallow-mass periodicals of the mid to late nineteenth century. “Schalken the Painter” details the rapacious demon buying the soul of a young woman from her uncle. “The Signal-Man” was written after Charles Dickens was nearly killed in a train crash that took dozens of lives and left him shocked and disturbed until his death soon after. The chilling horrors of “The Kit-Bag,” “Lost Hearts,” and “The Top Attic” all foretell the gruesome, neo-Gothic, weird horror of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, with their innocent protagonists and demonical antagonists – hardly “A Christmas Carol.” “Man-Sized in Marble” and the “Mystery of the Semi-Detached” – both by Edith Nesbit – are cynical and haunting stories of good people receiving unwarranted horrors, “The Red Room” is a morose study in the shapeless psychology of terror, and “Some Strange Disturbances” is a clear precursor to more popular but perhaps less nuanced stories by H.P. Lovecraft (“The Rats in the Walls”) and Bram Stoker (“The Judge’s House”). “The Old Nurse’s Story” is a grimly Gothic narrative of one child being lured to death by the ghost of another, while “Nothing But the Truth” and “Behold, it was a Dream!” – Rhoda Broughton at her best – are sophisticated far beyond their decade (the 1870s) in their sense of psychological realism and genuine horror. Having read dozens upon dozens of anthologized supernatural tales from this era, I have selected these few to represent the exemplar (rather than the standard) of Victorian ghost fiction.
A word or two on what you will read: the Victorian era spans Queen Victoria’s reign of 1837 to 1901. I extend beyond that, justifiably, to track the progress of the Gothic short story from the sinking of HMS Birkenhead (the origin of “women and children first” – a moment of genuine nobility of spirit) to the sinking of RMS Titanic (where the selfsame creed was proven deadly and ineffectual, and the ideals of the Victorians foundered), spanning 1852-1912. I am beginning in the midst of Victoria’s reign and leaving off at the culmination of the Edwardian period where the Victorian story saw a sudden reformation after the moral uncertainty caused by the mythic loss of Titanic and the savagery of the First World War and the Spanish Flu. In a later edition I will specifically examine the ghost fiction of the Long Edwardian Era (1895 – 1921), but I reap from several technically Edwardian stories to show the depths of psychological complexity and philosophical cynicism that the gothic story developed to from the bawdy machismo and moral certainty of 1852.
The Victorian Age was an epoch of severe social and industrial transition for the countries of Europe and their colonial objectives. The United Kingdom – the country whose literary stockpiles are the focus of this collection – is perhaps best remembered during this stage of human events (which bore its monarch’s name) for ushering in the industrial revolution, for its jingoistic and often bloody foreign policies, and for its stringent observance of moral, sexual, and gender-related self-regulations. Perhaps it is because of this unshakable exterior of personal restriction and national hubris that the generations succeeding the Victorians have been most enraptured with the diseased, fungal underbelly of their glorious society. Jack the Ripper’s gruesome spree in the whore-impregnated streets of East London, the moral ineptitude of grime-lacquered children being exploited for cheap and replaceable labor in Dickensian mill towns and mine shafts, and the slew of rumored sexual indulgences haunting the Royal family and the upper echelons of British society (from the Oscar Wilde trial to Cleveland Street scandal) are the events which most stringently retain the public interest and grace the screens of Hollywood and household televisions with lurid embellishments and milquetoast understatements alike.
The Victorian gothic has been its longest-lasting legacy in print as well; Sherlock Holmes’ fog-bloated London, Jane Eyre’s nocturnal terrors, Scrooge’s ghoulish encounters, and the mystique of Heathcliffe’s diabolical parentage represent a larger portion of our collective twenty-first century imagination than do the bourgeois sentimentality in which the era sought its legacy. Today Conan Doyle is further renowned than Tennyson, and Jack the Ripper is astronomically more well-known than General Gordon or Dr. Livingston. In our collective unconscious the Victorian era is a whitewashed tomb; its well-manicured exterior cloaks a vault of noxious corpses and bloated secrets straining against a yielding membrane of delusion.
The Victorian era saw an explosion in innovation not only for steel and rifling, but also in the short ghost story. An anthology covering the supernatural literature of the Georgian era (1714 – 1830) would yield up voluminous (literally) gothic novels with bleeding statues, animated suits of armor, and owl-infested graveyards – the camp that fuelled the B horror movies of the 1960s with their campy material. On a smaller scale, only existential essays and poems (Thomas Gray’s churchyard “Elegy” comes most to mind), but nary a short anthologizable story. The genre had not yet seen its dawning day. But it soon came with the help of one crossbreed of elements: steam. With steam power came the advent of river cutters and locomotives, and with these (and the subsequent suburbanization of the new capitalist aristocracy) came the new dawn of the work commute. Commuters and train-travelers needed entertainment to make the time go by, but the time went by much too quickly to read Mr Dickens’ latest novel in bulk. Periodicals rapidly capitalized from the need printing either short stories for a forty minute digestion, or novels in serial form to be returned to each week in a much more manageable format.
Almost as soon as the short story arrived in the laps of middle-classed men across the European world, the horror story arrived with it. Washington Irving’s “The Spectre Bridegroom,” “Rip Van Winkle,” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” ushered in a venue for such gloom-infatuated minds as Poe and Hawthorne to ignite their readership with a taste for the morbid and macabre. In the United Kingdom, where emotion was reserved for the imperial battlefields and sexuality denied in the obviously fetishized British ideal of womanhood, ghost stories provided an outlet whereby the unspeakable could be spoken, the unbelievable believed, and the unredeemable redeemed. Ghost stories subverted societal conventions by the very nature of their supernatural unconventionality: villains who would in the real world go unchallenged (e.g. Scrooge) – and heroes – who would in the real world go unnoticed (e.g. Hester Prynne) – are given their just desserts through otherworldly intervention.
Typical practitioners of the ghost story were often ineffectual writers whose sappy moral parables and cliché-riddled, agonizingly predictable plots have faded forever into history – and rightfully so. It has long been a literary truism that the hardest story to write is a good ghost story, and the Gothic drudgery that populated Victorian magazines proved this belief with ridiculous stories that could cause the modern reader to audibly groan. But there were masters of the craft. J. Sheridan Le Fanu was in the first rank, a writer whose grasp of irony, visceral horror, and philosophical tact allowed him to craft the century’s best supernatural tales, ripe with nuance and genuine horror – both psychological and physical. His niece Rhoda Broughton inherited his taste for the macabre, and was fostered by the era’s most famous writer of English ghost stories, Charles Dickens, who – though a splendid hand at the weird and chilling – ranks behind Le Fanu and his peers, Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James, and E. Nesbit, all of whom ushered the Edwardian ghost story into existence with their harsh spiritual philosophies and thrilling grasp of dramatic tension and mental terror. Nearly all popular authors of the era contributed to the genre, which the British public adored and British publishers craved. Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde, and Robert Louis Stevenson – all of whom are more remembered for their literary fiction, adventure, dramas, science fiction, or detective fiction – continue to be admired by supernaturalists for their ghost stories and weird fiction. While some writers were specialists in speculative and supernatural literature (such as Le Fanu, Stoker, and M. R. James, a writer need not be a connoisseur to get a ghost story published, and an established author had very little trouble marketing a tale that bore their name and the titillating subtitle, “A Ghost Story.”
While men like James and Le Fanu unquestionably excelled at their crafts, the ghost story was largely a female craft, and many of the genre’s most gifted masters were in fact mistresses: Mrs Oliphant, Mrs Henry Wood, Mary E. Braddon, Broughton, Mrs Gaskell, Mary Louisa Molesworth, Mrs J.H. Riddell, Amelia B. Edwards, and Nesbit dominated the literature (E.F. Bleiler counts Riddell, Broughton, and Edwards as the only Victorians to threaten Le Fanu’s supremacy – while I would count half-a-dozen others in that group, I certainly agree with his high opinion of their literary prowess). The best stories of these women convey a high level of emotional and psychological depth, often grounded in real-life anxieties that fail to resound quite so noticeably in the works of their male counterparts. Ghost stories were subversive by nature, allowing hidden realities to manifest in the face of public denial and avoidance, and women readily swarmed to the genre as a means of expressing unpopular anxieties about class, gender, sex, patriarchy, nationalism, religion, philosophy, society, war, crime, suicide, morality, and family life. American women of the age shared their British sisters’ desire to address these issues which – in literary fiction – would have created a scandal (think Lady Audley’s Secret or The Awakening), but were accepted as socially palatable when presented as supernatural: Edith Wharton (I would argue) tackled abortion, adultery, and spousal abuse in “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” Mary E. Wilkins Freeman addressed dysfunctional families in “The Shadows on the Wall,” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s one-hit-wonder, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a psychological horror story of the first degree that stands alongside The Awakening and Pygmalion as a staple of feminist literature. Women often wrote to support their families, or themselves, and female supernatural fiction is redolent with themes of social anxiety, financial insecurity, abuse of power by authority figures, and a mistrust of the sacred cows of Victorian society.
While not included in this volume, I would earnestly recommend to you the works of Mrs Henry Wood (“Reality or Delusion?”), Mrs J.H. Riddell (“A Terrible Vengeance,” “Nut Bush Farm”), and Mary Louisa Molesworth (“The Story of a Rippling Train”). Amongst the male writers whom we have not represented, I would turn your attention to Wilkie Collins (“A Terribly Strange Bed,” “The Haunted Hotel,” “ Miss Jeromette and the Clergyman”), Barry Pain (“The Four-Fingered Hand”), and Bernard Capes (“An Eddy on the Floor,” “The Thing in the Forest”). Bram Stoker, Rudyard Kipling, and R.L. Stevenson should, of course, also be considered.
Michael Cox and R.A. Gilbert tackle the nature of the Victorian ghost in their Oxford anthology; unlike the fleeting and aimless apparitions that (supposed) eyewitnesses to spirit manifestations report, the phantoms “of Victorian fiction … hardly ever lacked motivation … they revealed secrets, avenged wrongs, reenacted ancient tragedies, in some cases proffered help and comfort to the living, or bore witness to the workings of divine providence. Most disquieting of all, they could pursue blameless living victims with a relentless and unfathomable malignity” (xv-xvi). Ghost stories were particularly useful to an age of transition where the feudal past still existed in the landscape and memories of the industrial present.