While writing some ghost stories myself, I have been re-reading some of the ones I came across years ago by way of inspiration.
I found most of these in collections on my parents’ bookshelves. I’ve no doubt that some of them came as part of job lots from auctions, which my mother used to fill the expanse of bookshelves we had in the rambling old houses they used to renovate. Many of these came from the Fontana books of ‘Great Ghost Stories’. Some from collections of Victorian ghost stories, and some from a collection of Irish Gothic stories by assorted authors I have never been able to trace again.
There was one decidedly gothic one set in an isolated castle in rural Ireland. Its evil dying owner schemes to marry the brother and sister who, not knowing their relationship, are his wards. There was a crypt with a body which always leaves its grave to stand by the door and other such terrors. The terrifying atmosphere greatly impressed me, though no doubt it was helped along by reading it while living in an isolated rambling old house myself.
Another involved a haunted dolls’ house – not the one by M R James, but something even worse. The females dolls which came with this house, which has an inaccessible inner room, come to haunt the corridors in the young owner’s house. Much later, as an adult, when lost in the country, she comes on an isolated house which is exactly like her old dolls’ house, and the owners show a horrible exultation at her appearance.
However, there were many that I have come across since. I have always strongly disagreed with the view that the traditional ghost story of the haunted great old house has been overdone: to me it is unbeatable. It was on the urging of another writer that I changed the setting of my own story ‘Rhiannon’s Tomcats’ into a prosaic council house rather than an isolated one out of town, but I am not convinced that wasn’t a mistake. Certainly, most of my favourite classic stories have that traditional flavour. Here are my ten favourites.
1. ‘The Old Nurses Tale’ by Elizabeth Gaskell. This classic story, published in 1852 in the Christmas edition of Dicken’s ‘Household Words’ is about the haunted Furnivall Manor in Northumberland, where the aged Miss Furnivall and her companion hide a terrible secret with its origins in a bitter sibling rivalry. In the depths of the winter, a spectral child tries to draw the young nurse’s small charge Rosamond out into the snowy fells. For those interested, I wrote a review for this for my Christmas 2018 post. https://lucindaelliot.uk/?s=The+Old+Nurses+Story+Elizabeth+Gaskell+
2. ‘Squire Toby’s Will’ by Sheridan le Fanu. I consider the evocative descriptions in this story unrivalled for creating an atmosphere of spine chilling foreboding. Another story of bitter sibling rivalry set in an ancient house, with an unrivalled description of one of the brutal, uncivilized country squires of the eighteenth century. I wrote a post on this for Halloween in 2019. https://lucindaelliot.uk/?s=Squire+Toby%27s+Will
3. ‘Miss de Mannering of Asham’ by F M Mayor (1935) is another story of a haunted old manor house, containing a tragic and touching love story. I have reviewed this here: https://lucindaelliot.uk/2016/09/21
4. ‘Mr Jones’ by Edith Wharton is subtly terrifying, and again, wonderfully atmospheric. I can’t find when it was written, though as it features cars, that was obviously early in the twentieth century. The ghost of the relentlessly loyal butler Mr Jones, who rules the great old house both dead and alive, is the more terrifying for being evasive (it is interesting that Edith’s Wharton ‘s maiden name was ‘Jones’). I thought I had reviewed this, but can’t find the post if I have.
5. ‘Oak of Oakden’ by Vernon Lee (1895) is of course, the subject of my last blog post and a fascinating take on the ‘spectral lover’ theme, set in a Elizabethan manor in the Kent countryside which the narrator, unlike me, seemed to find remarkably bleak. https://lucindaelliot.uk/2021/04/18/
6. ‘Mad Monkton’ by Wilkie Collins, a friend of Dickens, is an alarming tale of the innocent victim of a family curse. I have only just tracked it down having not read it since I found it in one of the above collections of ghost stories at fifteen.
7. ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ by Marjorie Bowen is unusual in being as ridiculous as it is sinister. It is also a fine moral tale, showing the futility of placing too great an attachment to material possessions. https://lucindaelliot.uk/2017/09/19
8. ‘The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral’ by M R James (1910). The actual story takes place in the archedeacon’s house. When the doddering Archdeacon Putney of Barchester suffers from a fatal fall down the stairs, his place is taken by the energetic and ambitious Archdeacon Haynes, who is tormented by spectres.
9. ‘The Tractate Middoth’ by M R James (1911). This story, unusually for M R James, includes a love story (a man who ‘never married’, James despised the post Freudian use of sex as a primal force in ghost stories, which he seems to have thought vulgar). There is also a happy ending, which I do like, and which is also fairly rare in M R James’ sinister tales. I am bending my own rules in including this story in my list, as the place which is mainly haunted by the ghost is not an old mansion, but an old library.
10. ‘The Judge’s House’ by Bram Stoker (1891) also
appeared firstly in a Christmas edition of a magazine, in this case, one called ‘The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News Weekly’ (Authors in those days certainly had a lot of magazines to which to submit their short stories: I had never even heard of this one). It is horrifying and involves malevolent rats at the mansion of a deceased ‘hanging judge’.
What is intriguing about all these stories is that they all pre-date the mid twentieth century and most were written in either the Victorian or the Edwardian eras. They belong to the Age of Empire, to a Britain where there were sharp class divisions, where a labouring and servant class catered for the comfortable lifestyle of the few, one where shocking disparities in wealth and life opportunities were taken for granted.
Still, there is a great traditional appeal to their depictions of life in that age. There is even a form of rough justice that when the squire’s mansion so often contains its dark, dismal secrets, the subject to gossip to the local villagers as they go about their daily grind and struggle against poverty.
These stories were also written largely before the age of the electric lighting. Someone (I’ve forgotten who) said that the age of ghost stories was effectively ended by that invention. I am far from sure about this; I have lived in supposedly haunted houses and the electric lighting seemed fairly ineffectual at chasing away the mysterious footsteps, the feeling of being watched…