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

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

Thursday, December 23, 2021

8 stories from The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories Volume II (2017)

....If the following narrative were nothing more than a mere invention, it would have very little in it to recommend it to the notice of the reader; but detailing, as closely as possible may be, some circumstances which actually occurred, and which were never accounted for,—no case of spectres found to be finger-posts or pollards in the morning, nor dim flickering lights seen in churchyards at midnight, afterwards proved to have been carried by resurrection-­men or worm-catchers,—it may form a fitting addition to the repertoire of unaccountable romances, which, taken from the pages of Glanville and Aubrey, are narrated at this fire-side period always in time to induce a dread of going to rest, and a yearning for double-bedded rooms and modern apartments.

     For our own part, we believe in ghosts. We do not mean the vulgar ghosts of every-day life, nor those of the Richardson drama, who rise amidst the fumes of Bengal light burned in a fire-shovel, nor the spring-heeled apparitions who every now and then amuse themselves by terrifying the natives of suburban localities out of their wits. To be satisfactory, a ghost must be the semblance of some departed human form, but indistinct and vague, like the image of a magic lanthorn before you have got the right focus. It must emit a phosphorescent light,—a gleaming atmosphere like that surrounding fish whose earthly sojourn has been unpleasantly prolonged; and it should be as transparent and slippery, throwing out as much cold about it, too, as a block of sherry-cobler ice. We would go a great way upon the chance of meeting a ghost like this, and should hold such a one in great reverence, especially if it came in the dreary grey of morning twilight, instead of the darkness which its class is conventionally said to admire. We would, indeed, allow it to come in the moonlight, for this would make its advent more impressive. The effect of a long cold ray streaming into a bedroom is always terrible, even when no ghosts are present to ride upon it. Call to mind, for instance, the ghastly shadow of the solitary poplar falling across the brow of Mariana in the 'moated grange,' as Alfred Tennyson has so graphically described it.

     Once we slept—or rather went to bed, for we lay awake and quivering all night long—in an old house on the confines of Windsor Forest. Our bedroom faced the churchyard, the yew-trees of which swept the uncurtained casement with their boughs, and danced in shadows upon the mouldering tapestry opposite, which mingled with those of the fabric until the whole party of the "long unwashed" thereon worked, appeared in motion. The bed itself was a dreadful thing. It was large and tall, and smelt like a volume of the Gentleman's Magazine for 1746, which had reposed in a damp closet ever since. There were feathers, too, on the tops of the tall posts, black with ancestral dirt and flue of the middle ages; and heavy curtains, with equally black fringe, which you could not draw. The whole thing had the air of the skeleton of a hearse that had got into the catacombs and been starved to death. The moonlight crept along the wainscoat, panel after panel, and we could see it gradually approaching our face. We felt, when it did so, that it would be no use making the ghosts, whom we knew were swarming about the chamber, believe that we were asleep any more. So we silently brought all the clothes over our head, and thus trembled till morning, preferring death from suffocation to that from terror; and thinking, with ostrich-like self-delusion, that as long as our head was covered we were safe. Beyond doubt many visitors flitted about and over us that night. We were told, in fact, afterwards, that we had been charitably put in the "haunted room"—the only spare one—in which all kinds of ancestors had been done for. Probably this was the reason why none of them let us into their confidence; there were so many that no secret could possibly be kept. Had we been aware of this interesting fact, we should unquestionably have added ourselves to the number of its traditional occupants long before morning, from pure fright. As it was, we left the house the next day,—albeit we were upon a week's visit,—with a firm determination never to sleep anywhere for the future but in some hotel about Covent Garden, where we should be sure of ceaseless noise, and evidences of human proximity all night long; or close to the steampress office of a daily paper. But this by the way; now to our story.

"A Real Country Ghost Story"

The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories: Volume Two

Edited by Allen Grove


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A Real Country Ghost Story (1846) by Albert Smith

     The apothecary stayed in the house that night,—for his assistance was often needed by the mother of the dead girl,—and left in the morning. The adventure of the night before haunted him to a painful degree for a long period. Nor was his perfect inability to account for it at all relieved when he heard, some weeks afterwards, that young Sherborne had died of a wound received in the battle off Cape St. Vincent, on the very day, and at the very hour, when the apparition had appeared to him on Shepperton Range!

Smith's mercurial humor in the story's opening lulls the reader. "A Real Country Ghost Story" is a brief, old-fashioned crisis apparition tale, the kind fruitfully mocked fifty years later by Jerome K. Jerome.

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The Ghost of the Treasure-Chamber (1886) by Emily Arnold

Heroine Ruby asks, "[W]hat has money to do with love?" Where would popular fiction be without that question, and the host of answers it has spawned? There is no peace, and no peace of mind, under the dictatorship of capital without treasure. Macawber knew this, as does every influencer today. 

Emily Arnold's lovers are saved from penury and separation thanks to supernatural agency and Ruby's undaunted courage:

     The ghost paused at the sliding panel which Derrick had shown me, it flew back; he entered, then beckoned me to follow. I would have given worlds to refuse, to run away, to scream, to do anything that would alarm the household; but I could not. My lips were dumb, and the strong magnetic attraction, impossible to resist, that had dragged me from my bed, now forced me to go on. I stepped into the recess, the panel closed; I was a prisoner!

     Sir Guy advanced to the end of the small room; I saw his hand raised to a portion of the wainscot, it fell back, and presented to my astonished gaze a steep stone staircase. Down we went. It must have been pitch-dark, but we needed no candle; that pale, phosphorescent gleam accompanied us. The stone steps were dank and slippery with slime, whilst noisome creatures that foster in the dark—horrible toads and bats, that filled me with loathing—slunk away at the strange light, and the clank of armour. If only I could have screamed aloud it would have been some relief to my agonized brain, but I was powerless to utter a sound. I counted the steps as we descended. There were three flights of a hundred each.

     At length we came to a huge iron door, bolted and barred. It opened at our approach, and we passed into a kind of vaulted chamber built of great blocks of stone. The ghost laid his hand upon one—it was the centre of the fourth tier—an enormous piece of solid masonry swung back, discovering a smaller room. Here, Sir Guy came to a standstill; he beckoned me nearer, I obeyed him and, looking round, I saw by the light he emitted a pile of gold cups, goblets, drinking vessels of every kind and shape, chalices and crosses set with gleaming jewels. But what was that figure seated by the table on which the treasure was heaped? It was habited as a cavalier, while the remains of a plumed hat hung from the back of a chair.

     As I gazed at it in horrified silence, it raised its bent head from the table, and looked at me. It was a skeleton, the fleshless, grinning skull glaring horribly in the faint obscurity. Then an icy breath seemed to freeze the marrow in my bones, and a voice said, "I have granted your request; see that you fulfil your promise to me, or you will be lost for ever."

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Number Two, Melrose Square (1879) by Theo Gift

This is more like it. "Number Two, Melrose Square" gives us an up-to-date woman narrator on her own in London. She pursues translation work at the British Museum and rents in Bloomsbury. No love threatened by lack of a dowry necessitating a hunt for ancestral treasure here. The main antagonism is between Gift's stalwart protagonist and a menacing housekeeper, the insidious Mrs. Cathers.

     "Tush, ma'am! What's the matter with the 'ouse?" she said rudely, and pressing me back on the pillows with a hand strong enough to be unpleasantly suggestive in my weakened state. "There's not a soul stirred in it but yourself after the gentleman went last night, and nothing ain't happened excep' that you've nearly druv yourself into a fever an' got a fit of the hystericks with the bad air in that beastly Museum, and writin' mornin', noon, an' evenin', too, as is enough to drive anyone mad. I expect you was reg'lar wore out, and most like fell asleep aside of your bed a-sayin' your prayers, and got awful nightmares in consequence, as was only natural. Why, you was cryin' out and struggling in one still when I came upstairs. And now just you lie down, ma'am, an' take a sleep to quiet you. Why, bless you! you'll be all right when you wake, and thankful to me I didn't let you go rampagin' about when you wasn't sens ible what you was sayin' or doin'."

     I looked up in the woman's face and saw that it was useless to try either argument or command on her; for there was a darkly obstinate expression about her mouth which told me she meant to have her way. Perhaps if I pretended to give in to her, and lay still for a while, I might be able to get up later and leave the house without any further appeal to her. That any such appeal would be futile I felt sure. Indeed, her resoluteness in keeping me in the house and preventing me from speaking to other people, with her peculiarly persistent avoidance of asking me any question, either now or on the previous night, as to what had happened, preferring to put forward a made-up story of her own as though she were going through a programme learnt by rote beforehand, made me certain that she either knew more of the secrets of this gloomy house than anyone suspected, or was in the landlord's pay to keep them from being brought to the light of day at any cost, even of life or reason, to a tenant....

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The Weird Violin (1893) by Anonymous

I'm not sure how many concert-grade violinists would go on stage with an oddly carved instrument purchased second-hand earlier the same day. The hero of "The Weird Violin" pulls it off, but the cost is high, indeed.

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Walsham Grange (1885) by E. Morant Cox

A spectral comedy: will mortals clear a house of ghosts, or vice versa?

     After Mrs. Ross had gone, a complete search was made in her room; but no sliding panel could be found. However, that night the gentlemen sat up, determined to discover the mystery. Well, just about a quarter to twelve up gets Mr. Woodbury, and says, "Look here, Ferriers; you're a sensible man; and you know you don't believe in ghosts; and I think it's not right for us to lend ourselves to such absurd folly; and, in fact, as a father of a family, I shall not consent—to—watch for a ghost. So good-night!" And off he goes to bed. After this, first one and then another gets up, glances at the clock, and says, each in more or less the same words, "Yes, you know it's only cats, Ferriers; and Mrs. Ross had nightmare. I agree with Woodbury; so good-night!"

     At last Ferriers finds himself left alone. It wants just two minutes to twelve. He hesitates. Presently a dog begins to howl. This is too much—and Ferriers bolts. Well, the shrieks that night were worse than ever; and next day all the guests went away. Ferriers and his wife, of course, couldn't spend Christmas there alone, so they went too; and the old house was once more left dark and deserted....

* * *

Haunted! (1885) by Coulson Kernahan

Kernahan's story strikes a very modern note: murderous jealousy, subterranean id-like symbolism, and more than a hint of Poe or Maupassant's first-person madmen.

     One morning the manager of the hotel asked me if I would make one in a party which was going to drive to the famous caverns of Terrane. I said that I should be pleased to do so, or rather the automatic creature which moved and spoke in my name said so, for the real self was still wrapt in the dreamlike torpor. I have very little recollection of the drive, but I remember our arrival at the mouth of the caverns,—which I had heard were miles in extent, and the most wonderful in Europe. Our guide marshalled us in Indian file, I being last, and having placed a lighted torch in the hand of every third person, he led us into the grotto. Even in my dazed and wildered condition I was filled with wonder at what we saw. We passed through dark, icy caverns where gigantic stalactites and stalagmites writhed and twisted like huge reptiles around us. We crept, bent double, through slimy cavities and winding passages, where the chill water dripped monotonously about us; and then we emerged into an enormous cavern, so vast and lofty that the lurid light of our torches utterly failed to penetrate the unsearchable darkness that brooded around. The air, chill as in the halls of death, seemed heavy with a mysterious blackness, and above us there swept a fierce wind that howled and rumbled, like far-off thunder in the hollow womb of night. Then, as we stood there full of shuddering awe, as the wind lulled, we heard sweeping and rushing below the roar of mighty waters, and as the guide flung a torch into the gloom that encircled us, we found that we stood on the edge of a vast abyss, at the bottom of which we could see the inky gleam of black waters rolling sullenly below. And around crept and writhed foul, slimy, crawling things, that stole noiselessly away into the darkness, and above wheeled clouds of strange bat-like creatures, uttering unearthly cries of blind, impotent anger....

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The Steel Mirror (1867) by W. W. Fenn

     If I was in a dream, I was dreaming that I was awake, and awake in precisely the same place, and under the same circumstances, in which I knew myself to be; the same thoughts, the same feelings, the same surroundings were as vividly reproduced as any events in the most startling dreams ever are. The only difference being, that instead of dreaming of remote affairs and conditions, I was dreaming of the present—the positive, tangible present.

     Here, then, I was lying, asleep or awake, as you please, when I became aware of a dim mist gradually overspreading the mirror, such as might be produced by human breath, increasing now, and then decreasing, just as if the action of the lungs in respiration made it fluctuate. This effect had continued for a minute or more, when I observed the reflected palm of a stealthy hand passed, as it were, straight across the steel, as though to wipe away the obscuring vapour, and then I saw upon the now unclouded metal—a face!—not the face itself, but palpably the reflex of one, as we may see our own in any glass! It appeared to be gazing at its eyes, yet there was no intervening form, no figure visible of which, I felt certain, this vision was but a reproduction.

     Starting upright in bed, convulsively clutching the clothes, whilst cold drops of perspiration broke out upon my forehead, and my tongue clove to the roof of my mouth, I remained horror-stricken, for the face hitherto unrecognizable, now clearly showed itself to be that of a woman! the head and cheeks partially enveloped in something white. Rapidly increasing in distinctness, the white head-covering grew into the similitude of widows' weeds, as worn a few centuries ago, and the features! great powers! I shudder as I recall my sensations, plainly and unmistakably assumed the form of those of my wife!

     The terrible truth of the likeness was made more manifest for a while, as the shape seemed to draw nearer; a spirt of flame, at the same time, springing brightly from the grate, showed the apparition with startling vividness. It was the last spark of light in the fire, which, burning brightly for one moment, instantly afterwards disappeared, leaving the room in total darkness.

     I fell back in a swoon, from which I only slowly recovered as the dreary morning light was creeping through the shutters. Paralyzed though I was, by a multitude of bewildering sensations, I at last managed to dress myself, and hasten downstairs, firmly resolving, that if the post brought no reassuring news from home, I would go back to town immediately. It would be mere mockery attempting to enter into Christmas festivities under this roof.

Apparitions sometimes foretell a doom only poorly understood by percipients.

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White Satin (1875) by Anonymous

"White Satin" is a completely charming adventure tale: a young lady poses as an ancestral spirit to thwart anti-Jacobite intruders hunting her husband and brother-in-law.

....At last, one evening, Lady Lisle had a few words with Baldwin at the foot of her little staircase.

     "My lady," said the old man, "I'm in fear for Mr. Richard. Mr. Woolner has laid hands on a little valise of his with a few letters in it, and has them with him now in the parlour. I think—I think they must be——"

     "Ah!" said Lady Lisle. It was a cry suddenly choked. Were her pains wasted then, after all?

     "I dare not advise the risk. Mr. Woolner is asleep in his chair," Baldwin went on. "But listen to me, madam. You can do no more. Come away to my house to-night. You have done wonders, but there must somewhere be an end."

     "If I do come to your house tonight," said Lady Lisle, "it will be with those letters in my hand. Courage, Baldwin! one more charge for the old name."

     She looked at him and smiled. The old man took her hand and kissed it, for he could say no more. Lady Lisle glided off on her dangerous errand with a sudden recovery of all her old spirit.

     The hall was empty; she met no one, but stole along the passages, and gently pushed open the door of the winter parlour. There, opposite to her, in the very place where she had listened that night for Sir James's return, sat Mr. Woolner fast asleep. On the table beside him lay three letters. Lady Lisle moved slowly round to his left side, half behind him, bent over the table, looked at them, and gathered them into her hand with a sudden movement. Then she looked up at him again, and saw that he was awake, staring at her with the confused uncertainty of a sudden return from dreams. Lady Lisle drew slowly back, crumpling the letters in her hand.

     "I wish you a good-night, Mr. Woolner!" she said in a soft, quiet voice, curtseyed low and gracefully, glided to the door and was gone.

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23 December 2021

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