In honor of Oldstyle Tales’ 10th anniversary, for the month of November we will be highlighting rarely commented upon tales from our very first publication, The Best Victorian Ghost Stories, which was first released on Halloween, 2013. As this was our first book, the commentary on these stories was much shorter and less detailed (I was still trying to find my voice and wasn’t quite sure how “much” was too much or not enough), but I hope that I was still successful in fleshing out the background and subtext of these literary gems.
So, without further discussion, I’ll begin with a look at a melancholy little episode from the pen of Thomas Hardy…
If you were passing through a coastal town in Southern England in the 1890s, perhaps leaving your apartment (hopefully not a semi-detached) in London’s West End to visit a cousin in Plymouth, you might have heard this story when the coach stopped to change horses. Hardy creates a world that is pleasant and relatable, and we feel like we know the residents and the customs as well as the creaky turnstiles and breezy hedgerows after only a few pages. All of this makes its somber subject all the more tragic.
A group of passengers are travelling in a cart one summer day when two of them – the gloomy father of a seed salesman and a certain Mr. Lackland – begin discussing the death of a mutual acquaintance named William. The seedsman’s father remarks that there was “something very strange” about his death, and Lackland asks him to elaborate.
William, he recalls, was a quiet man, but he was always a bit “strange,” and seemed to exude an otherworldly energy: “you could feel when he came near ‘ee; and if he was in the house or anywhere behind you without your seeing him, there seemed to be something clammy in the air, as if a cellar door opened close by your elbow.”
The fatal ”strangeness,” however, all began one Sunday while he was still very healthy. The sexton was ringing the church bell when it suddenly became unaccountably heavy, requiring him to work much harder to toll it. The sources of the tension was never uncovered, and this struck the locals as something of a bad omen, as though death were on its way.
Later that same week, while William was asleep in bed and his wife was up late doing housework, she heard him rise from the bedroom, walk down the stairs, put his boots on, and walk out into the night. Both spouses were quiet by nature, and neither exchanged a word, as she assumed that he was going to clear his head or smoke a pipe.
She continued her work, but began to grow concerned when hours had passed and he still hadn’t returned. However, she was exhausted, so she left the door unlocked and went to bed, where – to her horror – she found him sleeping, and his boots still on the floor. There was only one staircase, so there was no chance that he had come back another way, but since they both needed rest, she let him sleep.
Upon his return from work the following afternoon, he denied ever having left the bedroom, and – although she was disturbed by this – his wife dropped the subject and tried to forget it. However, later that day, while at market, she was reminded by another villager that the previous night had been Old Midsummer Eve (June 23 – a holiday like Halloween or Walpurgis Night, which is said to be a time when the veil between the natural and supernatural dimensions is thinned).
One of the many superstitions tied to this holiday states that – at midnight on Midsummer Night – it is said that you can see ghostly forms of all the locals who will “be at death’s door within the year” entering the parish church. Those who will recover are later seen emerging from the church, but those who will succumb never exit. The villager explains that she and some others took up the tradition of watching the church door that night, and says that they were frightened because William came towards them from the gloom.
At first the other villager seems to think that William was playing a prank on them, but eventually both women realize that it must have been his spirit. His wife infers from the other woman’s sudden seriousness that the phantom failed to return from the church, but declines to press the matter. Her husband, she realizes, will die sometime in the coming year. But the blow is closer than she suspects…
Three days later, Silent William was mowing a meadow in the June heat and decided to take his lunch break under the shade of a large tree. He and his partner, John, fell asleep there, but when John woke up, he was repulsed to see a large white moth – a miller's moth – crawling out of William’s open mouth and fly into the distance. John immediately remembered that William had worked at a miller’s during his boyhood. Wanting to share this weird coincidence, he tried to shake William awake, but was horrified to find the man freshly dead from heatstroke.
That same hour, two miles away, a man named Philip was filling a pitcher of water at the local spring when he saw William – “looking very pale and old” – approaching the well. It surprised him because he knew that William’s only child had drowned there some years ago, and that “this had so preyed upon William’s mind that he’d never been seen near the spring afterwards, and had been known to go half a mile out of his way to avoid the place.” When he was told of William’s death, Philip’s story added to the growing village lore of William’s quiet life and ill-omened demise...
After a long, sad pause, Lackland observes that it is “a rather melancholy story,” and the seedman’s father laconically replies “yes, yes. Well, we must take ups and downs together.”
Thomas Hardy does not terrify or revolt us; his story is heavy and sullen with pathos. Rather than portraying the conquest of human agency over ghostly machinations, Hardy delves into the solemn smothering of a man by supernatural provenance, without either resistance or objection. Shuffling through a quiet life, William is snuffed unceremoniously, and his spiritual reflection is seen shambling by the well that swallowed his son. Human life, Hardy offers, is a slow, ambling, but often abbreviated, trailing off into time without theatrics like a streak of soot above an extinguished fire.
The story treats working class folklore and people with gentle respect without becoming wholly sentimental. This is in line with Hardy’s populist ethos and consistent with his metaphysical philosophy, which occupied a middle ground between rural England’s superstitious folk beliefs and West London’s posh, elitist materialism.
In Thomas Hardy and the Folk Horror Tradition, Alan G. Smith remarks that: “Hardy’s ‘achievement’ as an artist was to remain open to both reason and unreason, belief and disbelief, Gods and gods, the magical and the mundane. He can be found responding to the loss of a single over-riding religious meta-narrative with a rehabilitated paganism which imbues the landscape with its own inherent meaning. As Charles Taylor says: ‘In face of the opposition between orthodox and unbelief, many, and among them the best and most sensitive minds, were cross-pressured, looking for a third way’ … Hardy was of this number. Hardy embodies many of the complexities of the modern mind.”
Without necessarily verifying the superstitious man’s ghostly report, Hardy ultimately sides with his parting reflection – the stoic observation that “we must take ups and downs together.” Life, he shows us, is cruel and mysterious, and if we chose to find some kind of meaning in it, chances are that even the meaning will be darkened by the tragedy of the human experience, for – even if William’s death is shown to have been part of some kind of divine destiny – it brings little comfort, and all we are left with is “a rather melancholy story” – a fitting description of life itself, Hardy seems to say.