I love a good ghost story & I don’t read enough of them. I have quite a few collections on the tbr shelves & with Halloween last week, I decided to read one of the collections reprinted by Victorian Secrets. I was also reminded of this book because, as I mentioned last week, I’ve ordered the new Tramp Press edition of Charlotte Riddell’s A Struggle for Fame, which I’m looking forward to reading even more now.
The popularity of the ghost story really grew in the Victorian period. The sensation novel created a market for the shocking & the unusual & there were many periodicals looking for short stories to fill their pages. Women writers proved to be particularly adept at the ghost story &, on the evidence of this collection, Charlotte Riddell was one of the most effective at creating a genuinely spooky atmosphere. I think she’s also unusual in choosing male narrators, often in the first person, for her stories.
The stories in this collection are all similar in their setup. A house, left empty for some time, is rumoured to be haunted. A man, often young & over-confident, agrees to stay in a house to disprove those rumours of haunting. Sometimes it’s a married man, like Dick Tippens in Old Mrs Jones, doing quite well for himself, deciding to rent a house said to be haunted by Mrs Jones, a woman who was supposedly ill-treated by her husband & who disappeared mysteriously. All goes well at first but then, Mrs Tippens finds that her lodgers won’t stay, her children tell her that an old woman comes into their room at night & stares at them. Finally, Dick’s young cousin comes to stay & is tormented by Mrs Jones every night in her dreams until she takes to sleepwalking, desperately trying to remember what the old woman wants her to do.
In The Open Door, a disaffected auctioneer’s clerk agrees to go down & investigate the mystery of a house let to one of their clients. The client, Mr Carrison, refuses to stay there because of a door that refuses to stay shut. In The Old House in Vauxhall Walk, a young man who has quarreled with his father & walked out of home with nothing, meets an old servant who allows him to stay overnight in a house that he’s about to leave. Stories of a rich, miserly woman who once lived there & spent a lonely old age regretting her failure to help her family with her money have led to stories of haunting & Graham Coulton has a very odd dream that leads to the solution of a mystery about the old woman’s money.
Apart from the interest of the stories themselves, what I really enjoyed was the matter of fact style of writing. There are no Gothic overtones or quaintly archaic language. Charlotte Riddell tells her stories in plain, unadorned language that seems very modern compared to some Victorian fiction. I’m reading Charles Reade’s The Cloister and the Hearth with my 19th century bookgroup at the moment. I’m enjoying it but it’s a real baggy monster of a book. It must be at least 600pp long (it’s hard to tell as I’m reading the ebook), set in the 15th century & full of that archaic language that Josephine Tey in The Daughter of Time calls “writing forsoothly”. I’m enjoying the book (there are lots of things I love about it, especially Margaret’s story & Denys, the Burgundian soldier) but Reade obviously had to fill his three volumes as there are endless adventures that our hero is involved in on his journey from Holland to Rome (several of us were so bogged down in the journey that we’d forgotten where Gerard was going!) & the dialogue is very forsoothly indeed. To read one of Charlotte Riddell’s stories every night – short, sharp, very modern in style – was a refreshing change.
I also loved the sense of place. Several of the stories are set in the countryside & Riddell describes the delights of the country beautifully. Of course the beauty of the country side is in contrast to the evil lurking just out of view. Nut Bush Farm, to be let cheaply because there’s a mystery about the fate of the last tenant, is just what Jack is looking for.
I looked at it over a low laurel hedge growing inside an open paling about four feet high. Beyond the hedge there was a strip of turf, green as emeralds, smooth as a bowling green – then came a sunk fence, the most picturesque sort of protection the ingenuity of man ever devised; beyond that, a close-cut lawn which sloped down to the sunk fence from a house with projecting gables in the front, the recessed portion of the building having three windows on the first floor. Both gables were covered with creepers, the lawn was girt in by a semicircular sweep of forest trees; the afternoon sun streamed over the grass and tinted the swaying foliage with a thousand tender lights. Hawthorn bushes, pink and white, mingled with their taller and grander brothers. The chestnuts here were in flower, the copper beech made a delightful contrast of colour, and a birch rose delicate and graceful close beside.
Of course, the mystery of what happened to the last tenant – did he elope with a pretty young girl, leaving his wife & children destitute or was he murdered for the large sum of money he’d just withdrawn from his bank? – will colour Jack’s opinion of his new home.
Weird Stories is perfect for any time of year, not just Halloween. Read just one story a day & see if you find the tales of ghosts & haunted houses easy to dismiss from your mind.