Columns > Published on December 14th, 2012

LURID: Spine-Tingling Victorian Ghost Stories

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LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

A sad tale's best for winter: I have one
Of sprites…” — A Winter’s Tale

Once upon a time, the best ghost stories were told, not written.  The measured combination of voice and silence represented the apex of prime time entertainment.  Each tale was as unique as the teller, unspooled in a signature style, never the exact same version twice.  Supernatural yarns could be spun to different ends, for comic effect, to scare, or to serve as a moral example.  In the days before the Industrial Revolution, the ghost story was the alpha and omega of popular culture.

Back then, people existed in a world without background noise, sleeping in pitch black, soundless chambers where every creak of a floorboard, every scratch on the windowpane, every whisper in the hallway was a terrifying aural assault.  Life was short, death a mystery and daylight still hours away. In the absence of many branches of scientific explanation, their physical world danced to a phantom beat.  No wonder they delighted in spectral and supernatural explanations of phenomena such as cold spots, marsh lights, or shrinking timber, and as a way of ordering their fears so they could get to sleep at night.  

Ghost stories also served as a way of transmitting folk memories.  While the names of ancestors faded beneath churchyard lichen, their sins – fatal love triangles, infanticides, spousal abuse, armed robberies, driving a coach and four under the influence – were preserved as solemn, spooky fables.  Crimes and misdemeanors that shocked the community were reconstructed as supernatural cautionary tales, the perpetrators condemned to play out their transgression (the stabbing, the leap from the attic window, the desperate gallop through the moonlit woods) as phantoms, entertaining and warning generations to come.

“Pen, ink, and paper are cold vehicles for the marvelous, and a ‘reader’ decidedly a more critical animal than a ‘listener’” – J.S. Le Fanu

Storytelling season peaked in the long, dark months, beginning after Martinmas, November 11th. This marked the beginning of natural winter when most agricultural activity ceased, and also the date of hiring fairs, when workers picked up their meager belongings and moved on to their next employment.   An incoming servant or shepherd could be relied on to bring novel tales of terror to entertain the existing household, as well as being impressed by the indigenous things that went bump in the night.   An elegantly constructed and original yarn might seduce a potential lover or deter a rival – a juicy story was certainly a way of gaining favor with both inferiors and superiors within the domestic hierarchy.

Sadly, those days are long gone.  In modern homes, of an evening, individuals huddle on couches, tapping, clicking, unable to pay proper attention to any of the screens in front of them or the people beside them.  We demand surround-sound 3-D entertainment that will overwhelm our senses. It’s difficult for our over-stimulated twenty-first century selves to imagine the chill pleasure of listening, really listening to a sonorous ghost story with ears undulled by the modern roar.  Yet, there’s still something about the dark nights and low temperatures at this time of year that speaks to our remembered love of a spine-chiller by a roaring fire. 

Thankfully, the Victorians, those great collectors, celebrated the ghost story in print.  The baroque trappings of Death and cemetery-set fictions fascinated them and their demand for spooky tales engendered a Golden Age of the form.   Literary writers of the period saw no shame in embracing the genre.  On the contrary, they delighted in the fine-tuning of tone and register, the precision of word choice, and the slick characterization required for a successful spectral yarn.  Writing during a time of rapid social change, they also viewed the ghost story as a vehicle for recalling the vanishing pre-industrial world, and demonstrating that feudal values and pastoral traditions had ways of peeking through contemporary veneers.  Their best ghost stories are always drenched in nostalgia for people (and nameless things) who are no more.

The Golden Age was ushered in by Edgar Allen Poe in the 1830s.  Poe himself was haunted by the premature loss of his loved ones – his parents, his cousin/wife – and spent a lot of time contemplating what happened to consciousness after physical death.  The protagonists of many of his ghost stories and poems are lonely, isolated individuals, yearning for companionship even if it comes from beyond the grave.  In most cases, they see dead people because they have unfinished business with them, whether that business is as lovers (Ligeia, Annabel Lee) or victims of wrongful death (The Tell-Tale Heart).  Ghosts are also agents of destiny, come to shepherd the living into the spiritual realm (Masque of The Red Death, Fall of The House of Usher).  Poe’s communion with the dead occurs outside contemporary time and place: scions of the decaying aristocracy wander their “gloomy, gray, hereditary halls” (Berenice) situated in remote wooded landscapes – a Gothic rendering of the fairy tale castle.  His ghost stories are ethereal fantasies, rooted in dreams rather than reality. Romantic to the bone, they also prefigure a lot of the psychological preoccupations of modern literature – Poe’s hauntees are just as cursed and tormented as the spirits that plague them.  Fittingly, Poe’s own spirit is reported to haunt a number of locations, including his favorite watering hole, The Horse You Came In On in Fell’s Point, Baltimore, where a spirit (“Edgar”) swings on the chandelier and slides the cash register drawer open and closed.

Poe’s Gothic landscapes continued to be used by writers of ghost stories even as the influence of Romanticism faded.  British writers also employed winter weather as a plot feature, utilizing the added chill factor of snow on the ground.  Amelia B. Edwards situates The Phantom Coach (1864) on “a bleak wide moor in the far north of England”.  Her hero finds himself isolated from the rest of humanity (“Not the faintest smoke-wreath, not the tiniest cultivated patch, or fence, or sheep-track, met my eyes in any direction”) and must take his chances in sub-zero temperatures – and contend with the phantom conveyance of local legend -- if he ever wants to see his beloved wife again.  Elizabeth Gaskell’s tale of love, revenge and infanticide, The Old Nurse’s Story (1852) takes place in a remote Cumbrian manor house, and she ratchets up the horror as the blizzards swirl and the “winds howled and ravened for their prey”.

People existed in a world without background noise, sleeping in pitch black, soundless chambers where every creak of a floorboard, every scratch on the windowpane, every whisper in the hallway was a terrifying aural assault.

As the epoch wore on, and the middle classes rose to prominence, ghosts moved out of Poe’s crumbling mansions and into the ordinary homes and workplaces springing up in their stead.  As cities ate up the countryside, specters adapted to the changing landscape and found new corners in which to lurk.  For some Victorian writers, the ghost story was a way of linking modern innovations with ancient fears.  This required some evolution of the form.  Writers took a more journalistic perspective, often relaying the account of supernatural phenomena through the eyes of a dispassionate third party investigator rather than an unhinged eyewitness.  It wasn’t necessary to believe in ghosts in order to write (or enjoy) a story about paranormal activity.

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s signature story style embodies this mix of the rational and the inconceivable.  Through A Glass Darkly (1872) is a collection of five supernatural tales, framed as the casebook of metaphysical detective, Dr. Martin Hesselius.  A self-proclaimed man of science, Hesselius proposes all kinds of fanciful psychopathological theories about his patients’ afflictions – theories that two centuries previously would have had him burnt at the stake for dabbling in the occult.  The first story, Green Tea, revolves around a country vicar haunted by “a small monkey, perfectly black”, and the collection builds up to the novella Carmilla, which deals with a deadly apparition of a different sort, a vampire.  Although his work is peppered with references to the likes of Emmanuel Swedenborg, whose hypotheses about the spirit world provide the foundation of Spiritualism, Le Fanu dodges the question of belief in the afterlife by depicting Hesselius as possibly misguided in his diagnoses.  He refuses to commit as either a skeptic or a believer, and gives his readers space to swing either way.

Le Fanu wasn’t alone in his agnosticism.  While their fellow Victorians embraced Spiritualism as an alternative to conventional religion, writers such as Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle joined the still-extant Ghost Club (established 1862) and set about the formal investigation of supposedly haunted sites.  Dickens’ interest in the supernatural is demonstrated in his earliest writings, and ghost stories form part of the narrative of The Pickwick Papers (1836-7) and Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9).  Dickens’ most famous ghost story is the syrupy A Christmas Carol, but he’s also remembered for some far darker tales of beyond. In The Uncommercial Traveler he attributes his ongoing interest in the supernatural to the macabre bedtime stories told by his nurse “before I was six years old”. 

The Signal-Man (1866) explores the deadly underbelly of technology.  The railroad was seen as emblematic of the forward thrust of the era, but steam-speed travel came at a price. While the construction (and subsequent maintenance) of the British railway system in the 1830s and 1840s generated thousands of jobs, much of the work was difficult and dangerous.  Accidents were common, especially when building tunnels which, thanks to natural hazards like quicksand and hidden springs were prone to collapsing, trapping and killing dozens of navvies. Almost two hundreds years later, these ‘holes through hills’ still seem like evil places. The unfortunate worker forced to spend his days and nights in a railway cut was as much of a lost soul as if he were trapped in the bowels of a medieval castle.

[The Signalman’s] post was in as solitary and dismal a place as ever I saw. On either side, a dripping-wet wall of jagged stone, excluding all view but a strip of sky; the perspective one way only a crooked prolongation of this great dungeon; the shorter perspective in the other direction terminating in a gloomy red light, and the gloomier entrance to a black tunnel, in whose massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air. So little sunlight ever found its way to this spot, that it had an earthy, deadly smell; and so much cold wind rushed through it, that it struck chill to me, as if I had left the natural world.

It seems the railwayman is doomed from the top, no matter what logical discourse the narrator brings to quell the rising tides of foreboding.  Dickens blends a number of different elements into The Signal-Man; the tabloid grit of a railway disaster (he was personally involved in the 1865 Staplehurst derailment that killed ten and injured dozens of others), his sense of injustice at conditions endured by the working man, and a fascination with the power of premonition.  This last is also a feature of The Trial For Murder (1865) – recommended reading for anyone embarking on jury duty.  There’s no sign of the saccharine morality present in A Christmas Carol or his other Christmas spook story, the novella The Haunted Man and The Ghost’s Bargain (1848). 

Although the novella has its merits, especially when it comes to building atmosphere and backstory to a haunting, the ghost story can be most resonant as a short, twisted anecdote, of the kind relished by crime reporter, satirist and social critic Ambrose Bierce.  He specialized in relaying direct, economical reports of supernatural phenomena, without editorial ornament, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions.   He is best known for the seminal An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge (1890), an account of the last moments of a hanged man.  Echoes of this non-linear exploration of the perimortem experience can be seen in the movies Jacob’s Ladder, The Escapist and Carnival of Souls to an episode of The Twilight ZoneAn Occurrence… originally appeared as an entry in Tales of Soldiers And Civilians, Bierce’s literary refraction of his Civil War service.  These stories unfurl on confused, fog-wreathed battlefields, and depict both soldiers and local inhabitants as unable to handle the casualties – both supernatural and natural – of war.  Present At A Hanging And Other Ghost Stories also contains a number of chilling incidents – The Other Lodgers details the pitfalls of turning up at the wrong hotel, Two Military Executions illustrates how justice always finds a way of getting done, while The Thing At Nolan and At Old Man Eckert’s are straightforward versions of local legends.  Bierce eschews the Gothic melodrama of other writers of the era and his stories are all the more bone-chilling for their unvarnished simplicity.

Another writer who favored the folkloric approach was Thomas Hardy.  Hardy grew up in a working class Dorset household, and his childhood – thanks to his musician father and storyteller mother – was steeped in local legends and this generated a lifelong interest in folklore.  There are many references in his novels to Dorset ghosts, from the phantom coach seen by Tess in Tess of The D’Urbervilles to the spectral Roman soldiers mentioned in The Mayor Of Casterbridge to the spirits of the Two Brothers in The Woodlanders.  Ghosts also feature heavily in his poetry – particularly after, like Poe, he became a widower.  For Hardy, phantoms form part of the physical landscape.  Born in 1840, he lamented that he was part of a disappearing breed.  In a letter to Rider Haggard in 1902 he wrote:

...if you ask one of the workfolk ... questions on local fairies, ghosts, herbs &c, they can give no answer: yet I can recollect the time when the places of burial even of the poor and tombless were all remembered, and the history of the parish and squire’s family for 150 years back known. Such and such ballads appertained to such and such a locality, ghost tales were attached to particular sites…

In Wessex Tales (1888), Hardy sought to preserve these memories of "the poor and tombless". The Withered Arm, an eerie account of wronged women, folk magic, premonition and karmic destiny, is one of the most unnerving stories of the era, especially as it’s told with such conviction.  In Hardy’s Wessex, this really happened.

Wherever you stand on the spectrum of supernatural beliefs, a spooky yarn is always a delight, especially when it’s told with a dash of Victorian melodrama, with a winter storm raging outside.  It’s impossible to list all the classics here – F. Marion Crawford, Wilkie Collins, Bram Stoker and Rudyard Kipling also contributed many creepy entries to the genre – please add your personal favorites to the comments below. So, when the low skies and long nights get oppressive, treat yourself to a collection or load up your eReader (many short stories from this era are available free online) and curl up by the fire.  The lucky ones among you will have a friend to read them aloud.

Happy Holidays!

Get Victorian Ghost Stories at Bookshop or Amazon

Get Gothic Tales at Bookshop or Amazon

Get In A Glass Darkly at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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