We are continuing to celebrate Oldstyle Tales’ 10th anniversary during the month of November by highlighting neglected Victorian supernatural tales from our very first publication, The Best Victorian Ghost Stories, which was first released on Halloween, 2013.
And we have news!
Due to the warm response which you've given this series, we will be releasing an expanded, ten-year anniversary, third edition of this anthology, complete with updated commentary and four new ghost stories. You can expect it on December 31 as we close out our ten-year celebration, and anyone who has previously purchased an earlier edition can reach out to get a free ebook version.
This week’s episode is, in my opinion, the quintessential Victorian ghost story, and yet it has had precious little commentary written on it. It's a creepy, lingering story, whose snow-swept horrors are perfect for this time of year: Amelia B. Edwards' grisly, metaphysical parable, "The Phantom Coach..."
Horror is perhaps best dictated to the senses – to the animal rather than the intellectual faculties. Amelia B. Edwards shoots for both in this cerebral but 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 H. G. Wells, Edwards (whom E. F. Bleiler ranks amongst Le Fanu and Broughton as one of the Victorians' best supernaturalists) introduces us to a bleak landscape in a bleak universe – one hostile to humanity and devoid of help or guidance. Edwards was a remarkable woman who understood the staggering weight of loneliness and alienation. She was a brilliant Egyptologist, but her gender made her an outsider in this exclusively male discipline, and a closeted lesbian whose love interests always seemed to be remote even when they were interested: her primary, live-in partner was 27 years her senior (perhaps more of a doting mother-figure than a peer or lover) and her heart was broken when one romance with a married woman ended when her husband (a pastor who had quietly approved of the affair) moved for work. Her life’s work, then was the study of a long-dead civilization, and her present life was marred by her inability to find either professional respect or romantic fulfillment.
Like the protagonist of this story, she found herself alone and adrift in a universe seemingly keen on making her its plaything, and like the strange, arguably queer-coded hermit who rescues the narrator from freezing to death on the pitiless moors, she had worked hard to accept her nonconformity and to come to terms with being a social castaway. However – as the first man learns and the second man knows – even in loneliness, whether it be professional, romantic, or existential, we are never really alone, and as comforting as this may at first seem, Edwards warns that we must be warry, lest we find ourselves in some especially strange company...
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, woven one into the other, culminate in the pungent horror waiting us in the phantom coach. Tension builds and depresses like a road rolling up and down a series of moorland hills. While it may be argued that the middle section fails to set up the conclusion, Edwards’ otherworldly 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 liminal world previously invisible to him – one which is only too real once he exits. In the first act, the moorland’s wasted desolation diminishes the value of human agency and enhances the threat of the outer unknown. We are immediately struck by the idea that a well-off, recently-married, healthy young man could easily die during a casual walk in his own country (not in a foreign desert or on the high seas or in a the polar tundra) just for the want of warmth and shelter for a shorter period of time than it takes to make sourdough bread. And all due to a thoughtless but inoffensive mistake.
We are startled by the seriousness of death and the fragility of life. And yet, this uncomfortable gush of cosmic terror – the awe 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. From the temporary safety of his cottage, the old alchemist paints a vision for him of a different kind of cosmos: still dangerous, still treacherous, but no longer without meaning – or at least no longer without a plan.
Whether this plan is for good or ill (or its own inside jokes) is unclear, but what his host is adamant about is that the universe is electrified with subtly disguised meaning that is not clear to those in the mainstream, but which becomes easier to see from the margins – like those inhabited by Edwards, from her social, professional, and sexual alienation. The outsider finds it easier to identify the threads of meaning, and to notice the role of fate where the conformist is likely to tout their own industry. Likewise, the conformist might be more willing to blame themselves for putting their life in danger than to acknowledge their helplessness in the hands of supernatural destiny. Better, perhaps, to die an idiot as a result of one’s own hubris than to humble oneself to the whims of a Greater Power that has liberty to use, exalt, or dispose of us without our permission.
This sense of fate and personal smallness was, of course, a natural observation to Edwards (whose gender and sexuality precluded her from professional respect and social acceptance without consulting her input), and we can certainly see much of her in the eccentric philosopher: another queer-coded academic living in exile with a same-sex companion, spoken down-to by the establishment and rejected for his nonconformist perspective.
The transitory respite may seem jarring and unnecessary, but it is an essential terminal needed to provide Edwards’ story with its thesis in the third act. Before his conversation in the cabin, Murray only sees the north country as a bleak, uninhabited cosmos – godless, mindless, and neutral. After conversing with the exiled academic, however, the blackness he returns to is now the domain of the once-invisible world, teeming with spiritual energy and significance: the universe is no longer the same to him, no longer a completely random game of chance ruled by mathematic logic, but an insidiously engineered illusion run by fate, mystery, and not a little dark humor.
The appearance of the Phantom Coach is an apotheosis – a divine appearance where spiritual reality is made manifest in a startling way – which illustrates the alchemist’s unsettling worldview and his deep belief in the hidden side of life: that there is more to this life than “this life,” that our decisions are, perhaps, not quite as influential as the domineering forces (social or spiritual) that manipulate human destiny, and that life rolls on, generation after generation, in repetitive, macrocosmic cycles of ascent, achievement, hubris, and downfall (a lesson particularly obvious to Edwards the Egyptologist).
This revelation could be both heartening and horrifying, and to Murray – a man who would perhaps rather die of his own stupidity than accept that he is a witless pawn in the game of some organizing, universal force – it is a nightmare. He is indeed the “fourth inside passenger in that Phantom Coach” a fellow passenger on a grisly journey, finally conscious of the universe’s inscrutable intelligence.
Ultimately, the tale is a meditation on helplessness, and its purpose is to have Murray experience and understand helplessness. In the first act, this is the helplessness of his mortality – how a simple mistake can cancel out all of his hard work and thrifty planning, and leave his young bride (whose own helplessness he constantly imagines, and for whose sake he risks death a second time, hoping to suspend her anxiety). In the third act – with its apotheosis of the Phantom Coach – Murray’s metaphysical fellowship with the dead passengers leads to a second kind of helplessness, more sinister and discombobulating: the helplessness of a being manipulated, tried out, and discarded by a smug overlord.
Whether this is domineering power is Fate, the Cosmos, God, Karma, or the ghosts themselves, Murray is forced to acknowledge his smallness in the universe and to viscerally feel his personal insignificance to them – a feeling which (given his gender and social standing) must truly be just as galvanic and world-changing as the experience of riding in a ghostly coach surrounded by staring corpses.