I thought that I had finally exhausted the possibilities of Victorian ghost stories to write about at Halloween time. I have covered the Jameses, Henry and M.R., LeFanu, as well as all the anthologies (here, here, and here), or so I thought. But one dark, rainy, October afternoon, while prowling the quiet stacks of the library in forlorn hope of discovering something occult, I came across a mysterious, worn, leather-bound tome whose title, as best it could be read, was Necronom…. OK, it was actually an unusually warm autumn day, bright and sunny, the library was packed, and the book was a trade paperback copy of The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories, edited by Michael Cox and R.A. Gilbert. It was a good find nonetheless, and most likely safer than dipping into the Necronomicon, that accursed text.
Here, the editors have assembled a fascinating collection of less common ghost stories from both well-known writers of the Victorian period as well as those whose star has perhaps fallen (or maybe never really rose). Le Fanu is here as is Elizabeth Gaskell. Fantasist George MacDonald has a place as do Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and E. Nesbit. Many of these authors are better known for other genres of work than ghost stories, but I can attest that they all can raise the hair on the back of your neck in a fashion suited to the season. A host of lesser known writers also appear in the collection. I particularly enjoyed R. S. Hawker’s “The Botathen Ghost” from 1867, a story of a haunted preacher in 17th-century England.
Like most early ghost stories, these tales appeal more to psychological terror than the gore and violence that seem to dominate contemporary horror writing. Revenants, arcane objects, and unusual books and paintings are often at the center of the tale, and handling them as often as not is definitely the wrong thing to do. These are great stories for reading aloud, as many of them probably were intended to be. But also just fun reading in the fall when the dark comes early, and the shadows begin to creep.
Check the WRL catalog for The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories.