Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014
Ghosts and More Ghosts
The Deluge: British and European Branch
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century
It is remarkable how the ghost story in its narrow sense—that is, a story with a ghost in it—continued to attract the attention of a wide array of Victorian writers. The ghost remained by far the most common supernatural trope used during this period, and in a distressing number of instances it was used in such an unimaginative and rote manner that it gradually doomed itself to aesthetic oblivion in the following generation, when M. R. James simultaneously raised it to its aesthetic heights and, by that very act, impelled a very different type of ghost story from his successors. Those who remain enthusiastic about the “Victorian ghost story” appear to be allowing their sense of nostalgia to overcome their critical faculty.
Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835—1915) gained celebrity with the publication of Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), which Henry James, in a tart review of a later novel, characterised as “a skilful combination of bigamy, arson, murder, and insanity” (“Mary Elizabeth Braddon” , 743). She and Wilkie Collins thus became the initiators of the “sensational novel” of the period—but of course no supernaturalism was involved, or, in general, even implied. Braddon did, however, write at least eighteen actual ghost stories, but only two—the first and the last—are of any consequence. “The Cold Embrace” (Welcome Guest, 29 September 1860) rests upon what had already become a stale premise—the vow of two lovers to return to each other, even after death—but is enlivened by its distinctive present-tense narration. A young woman dies, but her spirit continually gives her erstwhile lover a “cold embrace.”
But Braddon’s reputation, if she has any, as a weird writer will rest on the late story “Good Lady Ducayne” (Strand, February 1896). Here a young woman named Bella becomes the companion of an anomalously aged woman, the Lady Ducayne (“I’d put her down at a hundred—not a year less” , a parson says). She is “good” because of her financial generosity toward her various servants and companions, even though several of these have died, requiring a constant succession of replacements. When Bella gets what appears to be a mosquito bite, a doctor (apparently in league with Lady Ducayne) states, “What a vampire!” (269)—leading the reader to wonder, of course, whether he is referring to the mosquito or to some other entity. As Bella feels weaker and weaker, we are led to believe that something dreadful is going on; so too does a young medical student, Herbert Stafford, who ultimately rescues Bella by taking her out of Lady Ducayne’s service and conveniently marrying her. In the end it appears that Lady Ducayne is not a literal vampire, but that her doctor is bleeding Bella—and, presumably, either feeding the blood to Lady Ducayne or injecting it into her in some fashion, although this point is never directly addressed. In this sense, the story is perhaps not strictly supernatural, unless we think of it as one more reprisal of the “for the blood is the life” trope, whereby Lady Ducayne has extended her life unnaturally through ingestion of life-giving blood. Stafford appears to sense something of the sort:
The eyes that looked at him out of the face were almost as bright as the diamonds—the only living feature in that narrow parchment mask. He had seen terrible faces in the hospital—faces on which disease had set dreadful marks—but he had never seen a face that impressed him so painfully as this withered countenance, with its indescribable horror of death outlived, a face that should have been hidden under a coffin-lid years and years ago. (275)
It might be thought that the events of “Good Lady Ducayne” are a self-evident metaphor for the manner in which the rich victimise the poor, in this case by literally extracting their life-essence, but the progress of the tale seems to throw a few spanners in the works of this facile interpretation. Lady Ducayne really is “good” to her servants in the sense that she pays them well for doing relatively little work; and in the end she lets Bella go without much fuss and actually gives her the remarkable sum of £1000 as a kind of dowry for her upcoming marriage to Stafford.
Of considerably greater interest is the supernatural work of Mrs. J. H. (Charlotte) Riddell (1832—1906), a staggeringly prolific Anglo-Irish novelist who alternated between English and Irish settings in both her supernatural work and her other writing. Riddell is, however, handicapped not merely by an unimaginative emphasis upon the ghost as her sole vehicle for supernatural terror, but more specifically by the repeated use of a house that is haunted by a ghost who has had something bad (usually murder) happen to him or her. In one sense it is surprising how many small variations she can produce on this basic scenario, but in another sense it becomes difficult to tell her work apart after a time. The Uninhabited House (1875) is typical. A house in London is owned by an elderly woman named Miss Blake; her brother-in-law had died in the house, apparently a suicide, and thereupon it became haunted. Numerous individuals see an apparition of a man carrying a wad of money in his hands as he descends the stairs—can this be the dead Robert Elmsdale? To make a long story short, it turns out that Elmsdale did not commit suicide at all; instead, as a moneylender (mercifully, he is not Jewish), he had had trouble collecting on his loans, and a man named Harringford ultimately admits to killing him. The one interesting feature of the novel is a court case early in the narrative: Miss Blake has sued a Colonel Morris who has broken his rental contract by leaving the house after only a few days’ occupancy. His defence lawyer cleverly manages to get her and her daughter to admit on the stand that they too had seen the apparition of Mr. Elmsdale. I know of nothing quite like this scene: a classic scenario from the mystery or detective story has here been used to validate the supernatural.
Other works by Riddell are of much lesser interest. Many of them are, indeed, mystery stories with a supernatural patina, and Riddell would have been better advised to leave the supernatural out of them. Consider “Nut Bush Farm” (in Weird Stories, 1882). A farmer is thought to have abandoned his wife and children and run off with a young woman, but many of his friends cannot credit that the farmer, an upstanding individual, could have done this. In the end it turns out, to no one’s surprise (certainly not the reader’s), that the farmer was murdered—and the sporadic appearance of his ghost toward the end of the narrative does not seem an integral component in the resolution of the case.
“Walnut-Tree House” (in Weird Stories) is the kind of story the Victorians loved—a sentimental melodrama with a tinge of benign supernaturalism. A house in London is haunted by the spectre of a child—a small boy who, when his sister was taken away from the household by her cruel relatives, wasted away and died. But never fear! A happy ending of sorts is achieved by the convenient discovery of a missing will.
Riddell’s prose is considerably more fluent and smooth-flowing than Braddon’s, but the poverty of her imagination fails to raise her work to any level of distinction. Once you’ve read one story, you’ve read them all.
The very different work of Margaret Oliphant (1828—1897) is worth more detailed study than the work of Braddon or Riddell, for, even though she too is hampered by an overreliance on the ghost as the chief figure of her supernatural tales and novels, her work is guided by a philosophy—or, more properly, a wish-fulfilment—that transforms some of her work into a kind of religious allegory. Her autobiography makes clear the crushing grief she felt at the early deaths of her husband and three children (“I am alone. I am a woman. I have nobody to stand between me and the roughest edge of grief” ), and it is not surprising that she was inclined toward a somewhat heterodox but ultimately Christian view of the afterlife in which the departed remain intimately connected with the world they have left:
I try to realise heaven to myself, and I cannot do it. The more I think of it, the less I am able to feel that those who have left us can start up at once into a heartless beatitude without caring for our sorrow. Do they sleep until the great day? Or does time so cease for them that it seems but a matter of hours and minutes till we meet again? God who is love cannot give immortality and annihilate affection; that surely, at least, we must take for granted—as sure as they live they live to love us. Human nature in the flesh cannot be more faithful, more tender, than the purified human soul in heaven. Where, then, are they, those who have gone before us? Some people say around us, still knowing all that occupies us; but that is an idea I cannot entertain either. It would not be happiness but pain to be beside those we love yet unable to communicate with them, unable to make ourselves known. (93)
It is scarcely worth analysing this passage for its theological errors and assumptions. Hampered by orthodox indoctrination into a belief in God and heaven and the afterlife, Oliphant struggles with the paradoxes this belief entails: If souls are immortal, how can the dead cease to be interested in what is going on (especially to “those they love”) in the earth below? And since common experience establishes that very few of us have any experience of the presence of the souls of the dead in our midst, then it must be very difficult, but perhaps not impossible, for those souls to communicate with us, and us with them, in some inscrutable manner. Many of her stories—especially those collected in Tales of the Seen and the Unseen (1889)—are attempts to probe these mysteries in the guise of supernatural fiction.
The short novel A Beleaguered City (1880) may be a good place to start a discussion of Oliphant’s supernatural work. The tale is narrated by one Martin Dupin, the mayor of Semur, a small town in France. One day the town is engulfed with a curious grey light. The townspeople leave the city, and after several days the sun returns—but the town itself is still engulfed in gloom. Some citizens (mostly women) declare that they have seen the dead walking in the town. Dupin and the curé venture into the town. Eventually the cathedral bells begin to ring, the darkness lifts, and the citizens return.
Oliphant leaves no doubt as to the allegorical—or, at the very least, the metaphorical—nature of the overall scenario. The darkness that engulfed the town was manifestly inspired by a casual remark by several citizens that money had become their god—a belief that, in the eyes of one citizen, was “enough to bring the dead out of their graves” (4). Later, Dupin upbraids one of these crass materialists:
“You good-for-nothing!” I cried, “it is you and such as you that are the beginning of our trouble. You thought there was no watch kept up there; you thought God would not take the trouble to punish you; you went about the streets of Semur tossing a grosse pièce of a hundred sous, and calling out, ’There is no God—this is my god; l’argent, c’est le bon Dieu.’” (37—38)
Dupin’s mother observes at one point: “I have long felt that the times are ripe for some exhibition of the power of God” (81). And so on and so forth. In spite of the general realism of the work, and the elaborate efforts that Dupin makes to convince us of the literal truth of the events he is narrating, there is little sense of terror in A Beleaguered City, and its function as a parable is evident from the outset.
A transitional work—that is, one that constitutes a bridge between religious allegory and supernatural horror—is “Old Lady Mary” (Blackwood’s, January 1884; in Stories of the Seen and the Unseen). Here an old woman, Lady Mary, is repeatedly pestered into making a will to make sure that her goddaughter, also named Mary, is not left impoverished at her death. She finally does make a will—but does so in secret and hides it in a secret compartment in her desk. Sure enough, she dies and no one finds the will, rendering the young Mary destitute. The spirit of Lady Mary, appalled by these developments, feels a fervent desire to rectify the wrong she has committed—but how? When, upon her death, Lady Mary wakes up, she is told that the place she now finds herself in may or may not be heaven (“That is a word … which expresses rather a condition than a place” ). She is also informed that it is exceedingly difficult—but not, apparently, impossible—for her to communicate directly with a living person. Nevertheless, she undertakes the task—and, curiously enough, it is she who is frightened when she reenters her own house (“A great panic seized the woman who was no more of this world” ). A baby and a young woman who now occupy her house as tenants do sense her presence—but that is all. In the end, the desk is given to the vicar and eventually the will is found there. So in the end Lady Mary was not, in the strictest sense—or perhaps in any sense—responsible for the “happily ever after” scenario that concludes the tale. Oliphant apparently realised that her hands were tied: the dead do indeed have a certain difficulty in communicating with the living, so that she could not have them taking any direct role in the resolution of affairs lest at least a certain number of sceptical readers begin to wonder why this sort of thing does not happen all the time.
Oliphant’s actual supernatural tales are of a relatively mundane sort, and many of them are dogged by the same suggestions of padding and prolixity that afflict the work of Le Fanu and other Victorians. Consider “The Secret Chamber” (Blackwood’s, December 1876), a striking re-creation of the atmosphere of the old-time Gothic novels. Lord Gowrie tells his son, Lord Lindores, of a secret chamber in Gowrie Castle—a chamber that all the male members of the family are told about when they reach a certain age, and which appears to have some baleful significance in their family history. Gowrie takes his son there in the middle of the night. Inside is a curious individual, and it does not take long for Lindores to realise that it is the wicked Earl Robert, an ancient ancestor of the family: “Vaguely gleaming through his mind came the thought that to be thus brought into contact with the unseen was the experiment to be most desired on earth, the final settlement of a hundred questions; but his faculties were not sufficiently under command to entertain it” (120). But Oliphant does not waste time on the metaphysical implications of the situation. Whereas Lord Gowrie wishes Lindores to bow down in obeisance to Earl Robert, as he himself and all his ancestors have done, Lindores wishes to fight—and does so, engaging Earl Robert in swordplay. Later, the door leading to the secret chamber cannot be found. The story is an effective allegory of the attempt by the young to defy the heavy weight of family heritage, although certain features are left unexplained.
“Earthbound” (Fraser’s Magazine, January 1880) is an intermittently effective narrative mingling supernaturalism and romance. A guest staying at the home of Lady Beresford over Christmas thinks he catches glimpses of a woman wearing a white dress—a detail that other guests think must be an error, since the household is in mourning. When the man, Edmund Coventry, finally has a conversation with the woman, he finds some of her answers inscrutable: “I have been a long time here” , she remarks, even though she is very young, and she says that her name “was Maud” (160; my emphasis). It is no surprise that the woman is an ancestor of the home, having lived a century ago. But Coventry’s gradual infatuation with her is effectively handled. “The Library Window” (Blackwood’s, January 1896) tells of a young woman, Jeanie, who looks out across the street into the window of a house—evidently the room is a library. She sees the figure of a man there, writing; but later, when she gets into the house at a party, she finds that the window is a false window behind a bookcase. In the end we are told that a man had been killed there by the brothers of a woman who had occupied the room Jeanie had been in when she saw the figure. This is nothing but the now routine ghostly elements minimally reworked, but the cumulative build-up to the revelation is not ineffective.
Oliphant’s most effective weird tale is “The Open Door” (Blackwood’s, January 1882; in Stories of the Seen and the Unseen). Here too there is no striking originality of theme or conception—a ghost appears to be haunting the area where the modern part of a large house leads to the ruins of an older part of the house, and ultimately we learn that the ghost is the son of a housekeeper who died in the old house—but the gradual accretion of a powerful atmosphere of horror is well executed. Oliphant sets the stage for our acceptance of the supernatural manifestation by putting on stage both a scientist who doubts the spectral nature of the events and a minister who immediately recognises the voice of the ghost when he first hears it. The scientist even puts forth what he believes to be a convincing natural explanation for the events, but the course of the narration makes it clear that this explanation is not in fact sufficient to account for all the phenomena.
Prolific British short story writer W. W. Jacobs (1863—1943) was best known for humorous tales, many of them about the sea or sailing, but he dabbled in both supernatural and non-supernatural horror throughout his career. He did creditable work in both modes: “The Toll-House” (Strand, April 1907) is a powerful haunted house tale, while “His Brother’s Keeper” (Strand, December 1922) is an effective tale of the fear induced by a guilty conscience. Jacobs had, however, an annoying habit of suggesting the supernatural but deflating it with mundanity. Consider “The Brown Man’s Servant” (Pearson’s, December 1896). A sailor sells an immense diamond to a Jewish pawnbroker, Solomon Hyams, for £500; it is clearly worth much more, but Hyams realises the diamond must be stolen. Sure enough, the sailor admits that he and three others contrived to pilfer the diamond; one of their party is already dead, but the other two—a person named Nosey Wheeler and a Burmese who is never named—are still alive and, as events show, intent on getting the diamond back from Hyams. The Burmese comes into the shop and claims that he will victimise Hyams with “a little artful, teasing devil” (170); he appears to be true to his word, as he effects the murder of Hyams’s cat in a mysterious fashion. But it turns out that the “devil” in question is nothing but a snake; it bites Hyams, who, fearful of dying a slow, lingering death, shoots himself. “Over the Side” (Today, 29 May 1897) is another fake supernatural story set on board a ship.
On occasion, such as “Sam’s Ghost” (Strand, December 1915), Jacobs unites humour and the supernatural more or less effectively. Perhaps the most amusing specimen is perhaps “The Rival Beauties” (Million, 30 March 1895). Here a ship encounters a huge sea serpent (it appears to be about 100 yards long). The crew wishes to lure it back to New York harbour so that they can make money displaying it to audiences. The serpent appears to follow readily enough, but just as they are entering the harbour a sailor named Joe Cooper blows a foghorn and scares the serpent away. He did this because he was offended that the other sailors had jocularly claimed that his ugly face would itself scare the serpent and cause it to flee (hence the significance of the title).
Jacobs’s reputation in weird fiction will of course reside chiefly, if not exclusively, upon “The Monkey’s Paw” (Harper’s, September 1902), probably the most reprinted story in the history of supernatural literature. Whether it deserves its celebrity is, however, open to question. The plot of this well-known tale needs little description: a monkey’s paw brought back from India appears to have the power to make wishes come true—but in doing so it engenders certain highly unfortunate side-effects. For example, a man who obtains the paw wishes for £200, but the money arrives only when his son dies at work and his office pays the family the sum in question. Traumatised by this death, the boy’s mother fervently wishes that her son would come back to life—and he appears to do so, for there is a hideous banging on the door that ceases only when the father makes another (unspecified) wish—presumably that the son return to the dead. Jacobs is to be praised for restraint in this cataclysmic conclusion: is the banging on the door really being caused by the reanimated corpse of the son, and is the fact that the street is “quiet and deserted” (30) when the father, after making made his wish, opens the door an indication that the reanimated son has gone back to his grave or merely disappeared? To the extent that nothing strictly supernatural can be seen to have occurred in the course of the narrative, the tale could conceivably qualify as “ambiguous” in the sense I have previously defined.
The “moral” of “The Monkey’s Paw” is, however, so elementary—be careful what you wish for, you might get it—that it seems hardly sufficient to have engendered the story’s celebrity. The man who brings the paw from India notes that the “old fakir” from whom he obtained it “wanted to show that fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow” (19)—another moral axiom so unimaginatively obvious that it has little to recommend it. As it is, our lasting impression is of the suggestion of gruesomeness implied in the spectacular conclusion. Several of Jacobs’s stories are of this sort: “The Well” (in The Lady of the Barge and Other Stories, 1902) features the unearthing of a murdered body from a well: “the face of a dead man with mud in his eyes and nostrils came peering over the edge” (45); but this detail does not salvage what is otherwise a predictable supernatural revenge tale.
One would suppose that such a comic masterpiece as Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost” (Court and Society Review, 23 February 1887), and some others one could mention, would have put a serious dent in the enthusiasm of British and American writers for displaying one stock ghost after the other; but this does not appear to be the case. In any event, Wilde’s novelette ranks as one of the gems of comic weird fiction, and it is written with a tinge of genial malice that only he could manage. The targets of its satire are surprisingly diverse. We are here concerned with the U.S. Minister to England, Hiram B. Otis, who with his family decides to occupy Canterville Close, notorious for being haunted by a ghost. He himself, as a sensible American, does not believe in ghosts (as he states to Lord Canterville, who declared that the ghost always appears before the death of one of his family: “But there is no such thing, sir, as a ghost, and I guess the laws of Nature are not going to be suspended for the British aristocracy” ), and neither, apparently, does his family. Accordingly, when Hiram’s son, Washington Otis, sees bloodstains on the floor and is told that they can never be eradicated, he says, “That is all nonsense… . Pinkerton’s Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent will clean it up in no time” (70). The stain remover appears to work—but, alas, the stains are back the next day. Hiram himself later sees the ghost and its rusty chains—for which he helpfully recommends “Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator” (75). And so on and so forth.
Aside from wisecracks of this sort, “The Canterville Ghost” directs its satire both at the ghost itself—it flees when Hiram’s twin boys throw a pillow at it in fun—and at the stolid Americans who refuse to believe in him, or, at least, refuse to be frightened of him. In the end, fifteen-year-old Virginia Otis takes pity on the ghost and helps him to find eternal rest. (During this process the ghost admits that he himself restored the bloodstains to the floor by using Virginia’s paints—and when the red paint ran out, he used green, causing a bit of puzzlement all around.) The overall satire against both belief (either literal or aesthetic) in ghosts and on the triteness of the ghost story as a literary form is emphatic.
I suspect that the American writer John Kendrick Bangs (1862—1922) borrowed heavily from “The Canterville Ghost” for his own well-known comic tale, “The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall” (in The Water Ghost and Others, 1894), similarly predicated on the conflict between ancient superstition and contemporary technology. Bangs had earlier delivered an amusing rebuke to the prevalence of spiritualism and psychical research societies in “The Amalgamated Brotherhood of Spooks” (in Over the Plum-Pudding, 1901). As for H. G. Wells’s “The Inexperienced Ghost” (Strand, March 1902), it is both less amusing and less generally effective than Wilde’s tale, but not unworthy of note. Here a man named Clayton meets a ghost in his club and is surprised to find that it really doesn’t know its business (“I’ve tried to do it [i.e., haunt the club] several times, and it doesn’t come off. There’s some little thing has slipped me, and I can’t get back” ). Clayton upbraids the ghost, saying it’s all a matter of the right “passes” (a series of hand motions that will presumably induce supernatural phenomena)—and Clayton’s advice seems to work. But the story ends with anomalous tragedy when Clayton does the “passes” himself and ends up dead.