"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

7 stories from The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories (2016)

....It was Christmas, the season for such tales; and the old room, with its dusky walls and pictures, and vaulted roof, drinking up the light so greedily, seemed just fitted to give effect to such legendary lore. The huge logs crackled and burnt with glowing warmth; the blood-red glare of the Yule log flashed on the faces of the listeners and narrator, on the portraits, and the holly wreathed about their frames, and the upright old dame in her antiquated dress and trinkets, like one of the originals of the pictures stepped from the canvas to join our circle. It threw a shimmering lustre of an ominously ruddy hue upon the oaken panels. No wonder that the ghost and goblin stories had a new zest. No wonder that the blood of the more timid grew chill and curdled, that their flesh crept, and their hearts beat irregularly, and the girls peeped fearfully over their shoulders, and huddled close together like frightened sheep, and half-fancied they beheld some impish and malignant face gibbering at them from the darkling corners of the old room....

--"Horror: A True Tale"

The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories

Edited by Tara Moore


* * *

The Tapestried Chamber (1828) by Sir Walter Scott

Of all the old chestnuts, "The Tapestried Chamber" is one of the oldest. It is so overused in anthologies that until tonight I never read it. Silly to cheat myself out of a pleasant hour!

Pity General Browne, part of George III's defeated army in Virginia. After surrender abroad, the soldier returns home and gets served another ignominious rout. His friend Lord Woodville places the general in the titular chamber in the interests of an experiment: to see if family rumors about the room are true.

The next morning, Woodville shows Browne the family portrait gallery:

....Here, was a cavalier who had ruined the estate in the royal cause; there, a fine lady who had reinstated it by contracting a match with a wealthy round-head. There, hung a gallant who had been in danger for corresponding with the exiled court at Saint Germain's; here, one who had taken arms for William at the revolution; and there, a third that had thrown his weight alternately into the scale of whig and tory.

     While Lord Woodville was cramming these words into his guest's ear, "against the stomach of his sense," they gained the middle of the gallery, when he beheld General Browne suddenly start, and assume an attitude of the utmost surprise, not unmixed with fear, as his eyes were caught and suddenly riveted by a portrait of an old lady in a sacque, the fashionable dress of the end of the seventeenth century.

     "There she is!" he exclaimed, "there she is, in form and features, though inferior in demoniac expression to, the accursed hag who visited me last night."

     "If that be the case," said the young nobleman, "there can remain no longer any doubt of the horrible reality of your apparition. That is the picture of a wretched ancestress of mine, of whose crimes a black and fearful catalogue is recorded in a family history in my charter-chest. The recital of them would be too horrible: it is enough to say, that in yon fatal apartment incest, and unnatural murder, were committed. I will restore it to the solitude to which the better judgment of those who preceded me had consigned it; and never shall any one, so long as I can prevent it, be exposed to a repetition of the supernatural horrors which could shake such courage as yours."

Readers who appreciated E. F. Benson's "The Room in the Tower" will particularly enjoy this short story.

* * *

The Old Nurse's Story (1835) by Elizabeth Gaskell

The challenge for the reader of "The Old Nurse's Story" (another old chestnut) is to turn down impatience and let the tale work its menaces and fascinations.

It's a shocking story.

     One fearful night, just after the New Year had come in, when the snow was lying thick and deep, and the flakes were still falling—fast enough to blind any one who might be out and abroad—there was a great and violent noise heard, and the old lord's voice above all, cursing and swearing awfully,—and the cries of a little child,—and the proud defiance of a fierce woman,—and the sound of a blow,—and a dead stillness,—and moans and wailings dying away on the hill-side! Then the old lord summoned all his servants, and told them, with terrible oaths, and words more terrible, that his daughter had disgraced herself, and that he had turned her out of doors,—her, and her child,—and that if ever they gave her help,—or food,—or shelter,—he prayed that they might never enter Heaven. And, all the while, Miss Grace stood by him, white and still as any stone; and when he had ended she heaved a great sigh, as much as to say her work was done, and her end was accomplished. But the old lord never touched his organ again, and died within the year; and no wonder! for, on the morrow of that wild and fearful night, the shepherds, coming down the Fell side, found Miss Maude sitting, all crazy and smiling, under the holly-trees, nursing a dead child,—with a terrible mark on its right shoulder. "But that was not what killed it," said Dorothy; "it was the frost and the cold;—every wild creature was in its hole, and every beast in its fold,—while the child and its mother were turned out to wander on the Fells! And now you know all! and I wonder if you are less frightened now?"

"Alas! alas! what is done in youth can never be undone in age! what is done in youth can never be undone in age!"

* * *

Horror: A True Tale (1861) by John Berwick Harwood

     When I recovered from that long illness, through which I had been nursed so tenderly, the pitying looks I met made me tremble. I asked for a looking-glass. It was long denied me, but my importunity prevailed at last—a mirror was brought. My youth was gone at one fell swoop. The glass showed me a livid and haggard face, blanched and bloodless as of one who sees a spectre; and in the ashen lips, and wrinkled brow, and dim eyes, I could trace nothing of my old self. The hair, too, jetty and rich before, was now as white as snow, and in one night the ravages of half a century had passed over my face. Nor have my nerves ever recovered their tone after that dire shock. Can you wonder that my life was blighted, that my lover shrank from me, so sad a wreck was I?

     I am old now—old and alone. My sisters would have had me to live with them, but I chose not to sadden their genial homes with my phantom face and dead eyes. Reginald married another. He has been dead many years. I never ceased to pray for him, though he left me when I was bereft of all. The sad weird is nearly over now....

Harwood starts carefully, slowly accumulating layers of incident and interaction. This build-up, prelude to the scene-of-scenes, is perfectly executed. The climax itself is orchestrated to a fare-thee-well, inundating the reader.

* * *

Bring Me a Light! (1861) by J. M. H.

     We were back on the road again, and going across the shoulder of a great fell;—the sun had just disappeared behind a distant range of similar fells; it left no rosy clouds, no orange streaks in the sky—black rain-clouds spread all over the great concave, and in a very few minutes they burst upon us. There was a cold, piercing wind in our teeth. I felt my spirits rise. The vast monotonous moor, the threatening sky, and the fierce rushing blast had something for me sublime and invigorating. I looked round at the new range of moorland which we were gradually commanding, as we rounded the hill.

     "I like this wild place, Mr. Thirlston," I said.

     "Wild enough!" he grumbled in reply. " 'Tis college learning is a deal better than such house and land. Beggars won't live in th' house, and th' land is the poorest in all England."

     "Is that the house, yonder, on the right?"

     "There's na ither house, good or bad, to be seen from this," he replied: but I observed that he did not turn his head in the direction I had indicated. He kept a look-out straight between the horse's ears; I, on the contrary, never took my eyes off the grey building which we were approaching. Nearer and nearer we came, and I saw that there was a sort of large garden or pleasure-ground enclosed round the house, and that the road ran past a part of this enclosure, and also past a large open-worked iron gate, which was the chief entrance. Very desolate, cold, and inhospitable looked this old house of mine; wild and tangled looked the garden. The tall, smokeless chimneys were numerous, and stood up white against the blackness of the sky; the windows, more numerous still, looked black, in contrast with the whitish-grey stone of the walls. Just as we entered the shadow cast by the trees of the shrubbery, our horse snorted, and sprang several yards from the enclosure.

     "Now for it! It is your own fault for running away, and bringing us late," muttered Ralph Thirlston, grasping the reins and standing up to get a better hold of the horse. Timothy now stood still; and to my surprise he was trembling in every limb, and shaking with terror.

     "Something has frightened the beast," said I. "I shall just go and see what it was," and was about to jump down, when I felt Ralph Thirlston's great hand on my arm: it was a powerful grip.

     "For the love of God, lad, stay where ye are!" he said, in a frightened whisper. "It's just here that my brother met his death, for doing what you want to do now."

     "What! For walking up to that fence and seeing what trifle frightened a skittish horse?" And I looked at the fence intently. There was nothing to be seen but a straggling bough of an elder bush which had forced its way through a chink in the rotten wood and was waving in the wind.

     Finding that the man was really frightened as well as the horse, I humoured him. He still held my arm.

     "There is no need for any one to go closer to see the cause of poor Timothy's fear," I said, laughing. "If you will look, Mr. Thirlston, you will see what it was."

     "Na! lad, na! I'm not going to turn my face towards the deevil and his works. 'Lord have mercy upon us! Christ have mercy upon us! Our Father which art in heaven—' " and he repeated the whole prayer with emphasis, slowness, and with his eyes closed. I sat still, an amazed witness of his state of mind. When he had said "Amen," he opened his eyes, and looking down at the horse, who seemed to have recovered, as I judged by his putting his head down to graze, he gave a low whistle, and tightening the reins once more, Timothy allowed himself to be driven forward. Thirlston kept his face away from the enclosure on his right hand, and looked steadily at Timothy. I gave another glance towards the innocent elder bough,—but what was my astonishment to see where it had been, or seemed to be, the figure of a man with a drawn sword in his hand.

     "Stop, Thirlston! stop!" I cried. "There is somebody there. I see a man with a sword. Look! Turn back, and I'll soon see what he is doing there."

The reader will contend with a shovel-full of Victorian over-explanation and some brow-beating obviousness when grappling with "Bring Me a Light!" All the rhetorical vices of the time are present, alas, and to be expected: perhaps we don't read ghost stories for their endings, but for their beginnings?

"Bring Me a Light!" has a dreamlike opening with a nighttime cart ride and site of a figure at the side of the road. There is nothing in the moment to compare with the heights reached in "Count Magnus" when poor Mr. Wraxall sees the count and his familiar from his carriage, but the moment stirs uneasiness nevertheless.

* * *

Old Hooker's Ghost (1865) by Anonymous

In many ways this story is a bravura piece of writing, balancing a large cast and multiple complications. A specter appears during the Twelfth Night fancy-dress dance at Huntingfield Hall. Is it a guest or the spirit of a wronged and long-dead game keeper?

....the countenance was deadly pale, and there was an unnatural glare in the eyes which it was painful to look at, while the features were rigid and fixed in an extraordinary manner. A curious halo, or mist it seemed, surrounded the figure as it stalked along, turning neither to the right hand nor to the left, nor appearing to notice any one in the room. No one ventured to speak to it and ask it whence it came, but two or three gentlemen, who had come in characters of a doubtful nature, crept hurriedly out of its way. One was in black, with a pair of small chamois horns on his head, hoofs on his feet, and a long tail, which he carried gracefully coiled round his arm; another was a wood-demon, a green monster with wings, and claws, and horns, he was accompanied by a troop of imps, all of different colours, though bearing many of his characteristics; while a third represented a leaden blue-coloured demon, produced in the unwholesome imaginations of German poets. Everything about him was blue—watch, snuff-box, and toothpick-case. He got out of the way with even more haste than the rest, to the great amusement of the little imps, who did not appear to have the same dread of the awful-looking being as the rest.

     On it came, slowly and silently, people making a broad way for it, and some even hurrying out of the room with looks indicative of terror; the bright lights grew dim as it passed, so many afterwards declared. The Gipsy, when she saw it, started, and, after scrutinising it for a moment, became so agitated that, had it not been for her companion, who was evidently a fellow not to be daunted by even his Satanic Majesty himself, she would have fallen. The sailor, on seeing this, looked very much inclined to rush forward and bring the ghost, if such it were, to action, but the Gipsy, grasping his arm, held him back.

     "No, no. Do not interfere with it," she exclaimed. "There may be more of reality in it than you suppose."

* * *

The Ghost's Summons (1868) by Ada Buisson

A young doctor keeps watch at the bedside of a patient convinced he is doomed.

     How long I slept I know not, but suddenly I aroused with a start and as ghostly a thrill of horror as ever I remember to have felt in my life.

     Something—what, I knew not—seemed near, something nameless, but unutterably awful.

     I gazed round.

     The fire emitted a faint blue glow, just sufficient to enable me to see that the room was exactly the same as when I fell asleep, but that the long hand of the clock wanted but five minutes of the mysterious hour which was to be the death-moment of the "summoned" man!

     Was there anything in it, then?—any truth in the strange story he had told?

     The silence was intense.

     I could not even hear a breath from the bed; and I was about to rise and approach, when again that awful horror seized me, and at the same moment my eye fell upon the mirror opposite the door, and I saw—

     Great heaven! that awful Shape—that ghastly mockery of what had been humanity—was it really a messenger from the buried, quiet dead?

     It stood there in visible death-clothes; but the awful face was ghastly with corruption, and the sunken eyes gleamed forth a green glassy glare which seemed a veritable blast from the infernal fires below.

     To move or utter a sound in that hideous presence was impossible; and like a statue I sat and saw that horrid Shape move slowly towards the bed.

     What was the awful scene enacted there, I know not. I heard nothing, except a low stifled agonised groan; and I saw the shadow of that ghastly messenger bending over the bed.

     Whether it was some dreadful but wordless sentence its breathless lips conveyed as it stood there, I know not; but for an instant the shadow of a claw-like hand, from which the third finger was missing, appeared extended over the doomed man's head; and then, as the clock struck one clear silvery stroke, it fell, and a wild shriek rang through the room—a death-shriek.

* * *

Jack Layford's Friend: With an Account of How He Laid the Ghost (1869) by L. N.

Marriage options, appropriate and inappropriate, are parsed by an apparent spirit during a Christmas house party. Mortal protagonists must also contend with appropriate and inappropriate attractions.

     "At first," Jack went on, "I thought if it would only speak, it would be better than the horrible silence; but when it did speak, it was more horrible still. I may as well make a clean breast of it, and tell you that I fairly bolted under the bedclothes. When I could positively bear it no longer, I screwed up my courage and came to the surface once more; but the thing was gone."

     "But not before you had heard what it had got to say?"

     Jack stammered and flushed in an unaccountable manner.

     "Phil," he said earnestly, laying his hand on his friend's knee, "there's not another man in this world I would have told all this to."

     "I can believe it, Jack, and I shouldn't have liked it a bit more than you did; so tell me all about it, old boy, what it said, and everything."

     "That's the queerest part of it," Jack began, anything but white-faced now. "You remember what you were telling us in the hall,—about your sister and your cousin, you know?"

     Phil nodded, a trifle wonderingly.

     "Well, that's what it was."

     Phil could only stare at Jack blankly.

     "You take me?" the latter asked.

     "Can't say I do—unless," Phil added, "you mean me to understand that a visitant from the other world comes to talk to you about my relations, which, to say the least of it, sounds rather unlikely."

     "I didn't mean that—at least, not exactly; it was a kind of—in short, a warning—there!"

     "Concerning marriage and cousinship?"

     Jack nodded.

* * *

How Peter Parley Laid a Ghost: A Story of Owl's Abbey (1875) by Anonymous

Imagine Scooby-Doo not only rationalizing haunting as crime, but teaching viewers about Gothic architecture and Bow Street Runners. That's "How Peter Parley Laid a Ghost."

* * *

I made the command decision to close The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories five stories from the end. The final five or their authors are familiar to me.


21 December 2021

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