“Victorians: Victors of the Ghost Story”–An Essay by Andrew Barger, 2016


On rare occasions there arises a country, in a particular time period, which is so dominate in one particular area that its denizens forever change it, whether it be in art, sports, engineering, culinary delights, etc.

As I write this the day after the 120th Boston Marathon, one instance that comes to mind is the decades-long supremacy of the Kenyans in distance running. Another is Swiss watchmaking or German engineering or early philosophy of the Greeks. The Italian Renaissance painters must be remembered as well as the chocolatiers of Belgium, which have wreaked havoc on my waistline. Thank you very much, Belgians.

And then there are the British whose power in spinning a fantastic ghost story was unparalleled in the last half of the nineteenth century. Apart from Robert Chambers and Francis Marion Crawford, the best ghost short stories in the English language during this period were penned by Victorians.

Technically, the Victorian age was a decade or so longer than the fifty year period under review. It is defined as the period in British history when Queen Victoria ruled—June 1837 to January 1901. Makes perfect sense. This timeframe ushered in the modern ghost short story and the world has the Brits to thank for many a sleepless night. In this little dark corner of the art world that hovers around midnight, it is little surprise after reading a legion of ghost short stories from 1850-1899 that one cannot spell Victorian without the word victor.

And who were the Victorian kingpins of the paranormal? Perched squarely in the literary scene of the Victorian age was Charles Dickens. Ole Boz. Regardless of the knocks on some of his kitschy character names, he is one of the most widely known English authors of all time.

Dickens was an excellent ghost short story writer. Nothing less would be expected from the author of A Christmas Carol, first published in December of 1843. In it Scrooge is visited by four ghosts: Jacob Marley (his former law partner) and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. You know the story well. A Christmas Carol offers up the first instance of time travel in English literature where the protagonist travels to both the future and the past.

The ghosts streaming from the pen of Dickens were highly communicative with the living. They were no longer stagnate beings of the spirit world who moved silently among the darkling corners of haunted houses, but rather interacted with the sorry lot of the living in ways never before seen in literature.

Dickens’s earlier tale, “The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton” (1836) is a precursor to A Christmas Carol and involves a gravedigger who is going about his morbid trade on Christmas Eve when horror strikes among the gravestones. It is the first short story to contain time acceleration, where a family’s life flashes before the protagonist’s eyes.

For us lovers of a good supernatural story, let’s all tip our top hats to Charles Dickens.

He was so fixated with ghost stories that he wrote nearly twenty of them among his short stories and novels. His “No. 1 Branch Line, The Signal Man” of 1866 sits firmly in this collection. As if his many ghost stories weren’t enough for the genre, Dickens fostered the literary careers of many talented supernatural authors by publishing them in his weekly magazine—All the Year Round, including Joseph Le Fanu, Wilkie Collins, Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Elizabeth Gaskell.

The latter was but one of a number of British female writers in the ghost story genre who shined during this period. Mary Braddon, Rhoda Broughton, Catherine Crowe, Amelia Edwards, Mary Anne Evans (aka George Eliot), Florence Marryat (daughter of horror story writer Captain Frederick Marryat), Mary Louise Molesworth, Rosa Mulholland, Edith Nesbit, and many others stood out as fine ghost story writers of the Victorian age.

This is when female ghost story writers emerged from the shadowy recesses of the proverbial closet. They became less timid and that always makes for the creation of better art. They no longer had to write under pseudonyms or use the initials of their first and middle names to make it appear they were men.

In the Victorian age, with a strong queen at the helm, the women of Britain felt empowered to write in the supernatural genre if they wished. It was no longer viewed as a waste of time for a woman to pen a ghost story when morals could have been taught to the reading public in other genres. The perception of readers in relation to female supernatural writers changed in the Victorian age.

What’s more, during the nineteenth century the perception of colors altered, too.

The color yellow morphed from the cheerful glow of flowering snapdragons and daffodils on the English countryside to one that forewarned of evil in Britain and the United States. It became a color to describe the sickly, instead of the happy. Yellow fever entered the vernacular and those outside of the African continent became fearful of the viral disease spread by female mosquitoes. This was especially true given the active slave trade in parts of America. The color yellow soon became treated as a precursor to death thanks to writers in the supernatural community. By 1892, American Charlotte Perkins Gilman published her classic horror story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” In it the sickly colored wallpaper has a terrible effect on the occupant of the room. Three years later, fellow American Robert Chambers published his collection of short stories The King in Yellow that begged the overriding question “Have you found the yellow sign?” It contains the haunting ghost story “The Yellow Sign” (1895) included in this anthology and his treatment of the color in The King in Yellow has evolved into what is now referred to as the yellow mythos in supernatural literature.

In addition to Robert Chambers another American managed to whip up a ghost story worthy of this collection. It was titled “The Upper Berth” (1894) by Francis Marion Crawford and is the only one set on a ship. Both stories by Chambers and Crawford were highly regarded by H. P. Lovecraft. They are two of the most haunting in this collection.

And speaking of Americans writing supernatural fiction during this period,

Ambrose Bierce and Henry James have to be mentioned. There will be calls from the literary community that at least one of their ghost stories should be included. There is no question that some of their ghost stories were quite good. Ambrose Bierce penned nearly thirty supernatural stories though not all were ghost stories. “The Damned Thing” (1893) is often cited as one of his best. It is a horror story and an enhanced knock-off of the much earlier “What Was It?” (1859) by Fitz James O’Brien. Given the setting and focused storyline, “The Secret of Macarger’s Gulch” (1891) is Bierce’s finest short work. Again, it is not a ghost story.

Henry James, on the other hand, was a proponent of the subtle ghost story. Enter the timid ghosts. As if filled by English sensibilities, they were rarely overt in their actions. They never jump out from behind the curtain and say “Boo!” Their presence was felt all the same yet in a more nuanced way than traditional ghost stories. James wrote cigar smoking, single malt scotch sipping tales. His “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” (1868), “Sir Edmund Orme” (1892) and “The Friends of the Friends” (1896) are each well worth a read.

In this collection you will fail to find a humorous ghost story though a number where written in this period; nor is there one where a living individual is mistaken for a ghost. Give me the scary ghost, the evil ghost, the one bent on destruction or give me none at all. M. R. James pre-echoed these sentiments of mine a century earlier. “Another requisite, in my opinion, is that the ghost should be malevolent or odious: amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story.”[1]

You will learn much more about these ghost stories from the introduction given for each. They have been chosen for their ability to frighten and leave an indelible impression on the reader. I only wish I could experience them again for the first time.

Ghost stories! You can almost feel them whispering on the back of your neck. Fantastic, scary, wide-eyed around the campfire, check under the bed, make you sleep with the lights on, ghost stories. The Victorians had no shortage of them. They were naturals at the craft and the undisputed victors in the genre.

Andrew Barger
April 18, 2016

(Source: The Best Ghost Short Stories 1850-1899: A Phantasmal Ghost Anthology, Bottletree Books, 2016)

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