Dickens wrote several types of ghost stories, and most were more rhetorical exercises or moral parables rather than horror stories, but that makes them no less important or even chilling than the most haunting narratives of M.R. James, H.R. Wakefield, or Robert Aickman. The first ghost story he is known to have penned is, at face value, a simple joke, but the humor behind this dwarfish episode is deep and black with bitter cynicism. Presaging Mark Twain, Guy de Maupassant, Ambrose Bierce, and other misanthropists who blended the supernatural and the humorous to snipe at humanity, Dickens’ first ghost story may appear to be a soft chuckle in a can, but the echoes boom.
Excerpted from "The Pickwick Papers," the story begins in the 1790s with a poor lawyer taking up residence in a mouldering old apartment. The place is musty, dusty, and damp, and he attempts to tidy the place up and make it feel homier, but isn't successful. He sits down by a weak fire, drinking a glass of whiskey purchased on credit, and considers chopping up the old cabinet that came with the room for firewood. He considers this option out loud, and is met with a groan coming from the cabinet. He assumes it was the chimney, but soon the doors of the cabinet part, revealing a raggedy man inside. Taking him for an intruder, the lawyer attempts to attack him, but the specter interrupts him with a doleful description of his life: he is the ghost of a man who died in the apartment years ago, leaving his children without an inheritance, and cursed to spend eternity in the room where he watched his hopes dissolve into misery. He warns off the lawyer, claiming sole ownership of the room, but the lawyer is not put-off: he asks the ghost -- whom he assumes has no limitations of space or time -- why he spends his afterlife in a moldy apartment when he could travel to the world's sunniest, cheeriest places without a moment's notice. The ghost had never considered this, and is staggered by the idea, and before he disappears to find a better place to live, the lawyer asks him to spread the word: if ghosts would leave the world's saddest, grimmest living quarters, then the mortals who live there would have one less trouble. The spirit agrees to alert his compatriots to this option and is never seen again.
A onetime favorite of ghost story anthologies, “The Lawyer and the Ghost” has since developed a reputation for being a disappointing joke rather than a spooky foray into the supernatural. But in it was laid the foundation for Dickens’ truly chilling tales such as “The Signal-Man,” “To Be Read at Dusk,” “The Hanged Man’s Bride,” and “The Trial for Murder,” which similarly use their ghostly situations to expose a disturbing element of human society. The dark background to this little jest is the concept that there are people living in modern, industrial cities who would be happier – or at least have a better quality of life – if they were dead. A dead man can escape his misery, and while many some people are capable of improving their circumstances, there continue to be some whose only recourse is death: after having advised the spirit in changing his circumstances, we may wonder if the tenant took his own advice and committed suicide. Dickens’ ghost stories almost unanimously are used to critique Victorian society through satire, metaphor, analogy, and symbolism. His first foray into speculative fiction is hardly scary, but it is haunting, calling into question the humanity of a society that offers more to its ghosts than its poor.