The collection Gothic Tales, edited by Laura Kranzler (2000), comprises your most famous ghost stories published from 1851 to 1861. Reading those stories is like entering a Gothic castle, and their plots can be as intricate as the castle’s labyrinthic corridors.
One of my favourite stories in this collection was The Poor Clare, first published anonymously, in 1856, in Charles Dickens’ magazine Household Words. Here we have a girl unwittingly cursed by her own grandmother and doomed to be forever haunted by an evil doppelgänger. The grandmother, Bridget, is a lonely old woman and a devout Catholic who seems to be seen as a witch in her local village. When her beloved dog is slayed by a squire, her desire for revenge unleashes an evil that will haunt the murder for many generations: consumed by anger, Bridget utters a curse upon him, so that he might lose the very thing he loves the most. Although we are made to sympathize with the witch, I could not help but feel an underlying anti-Catholic prejudice pervading the story, as Bridget’s faith seems to add a mysterious, almost forbidden layer to her nature, as if linked to some kind of pagan superstition.
Disappearances, published in Household Words in 1851, is a list of local stories and gossips of mysterious vanishings. In Curious, if True, published in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Cornhill Magazine in 1860, we have a traveller who meets characters that seem to come from fairy-tales.
The Doom of the Griffiths, published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1858, centres on an ancient family curse passed through generations, mirroring Oedipus tragic story. The Squire’s Story, published in Household Words in 1853, centres on a gentleman who may not be exactly what he seems. In Lois the Witch, originally published in All The Year Round in 1859, we have a fictionalised account of the Salem witch trials (I’ve written more about this story here).
The Old Nurse’s Story, first published in Household Words in 1852, is a story about ghostly figures haunting an old mansion and roaming the Northumberland moors. Framed as a narrative told to a group of children by an old nurse, the story centres on the time when their mother, Miss Rosamond, was a little girl. Hired to take care of Rosamond, the old nurse keeps in charge of her when the little girl’s parents die. They are sent to live with Rosamond’s old aunt, Miss Furnivall, in the ancestral home of the family. Miss Furnivall is very old and lives with her servant and childhood friend, Miss Stark. Strange things start to happen in the old mansion: people hear organ music playing by itself, a strange girl appears at the window to lure Rosamond outside in the bitter cold, and Miss Furnivall seems to be surrounded by a dark past that keeps coming back to haunt her. As the winter progresses, the haunting gets only worse and worse.
The Grey Woman was first published in All The Year Round in 1861. It features a Gothic castle full of dark, labyrinthic corridors, an innocent girl, and a Bluebeard kind of husband. Anna, a miller’s daughter in eighteenth-century Germany, is more or less forced to marry a rich, aristocratic French man, M. de Tourvelle. She is taken to his castle in France, and her life gets increasingly isolated under the controlling hand of her husband in her suffocating new surroundings. A series of chilling events leads her to try to escape in the company of her courageous maid, Amante. The two will go through a series of adventures that reminded me a little of Jill, by Amy Dillwyn (1884). The story is also an interesting take on the power of female friendship.
Another of my favourite stories was The Crooked Branch, published in The Haunted House in 1859. It centres on a couple of farmers, Nathan and Hester, who indulge the selfishness of their son Benjamin out of love for him. As he develops into an uncaring, manipulative man, the couple’s love for their son becomes even more distorted and difficult to grasp, like an evil thing in disguise – as if they were accomplices in the damage Benjamin, the crooked branch of the family, does to them.
Most of the stories centre on the consequences of evil passed down through generations, such as in The Doom of the Griffiths, The Old Nurse’s Story, and The Poor Clare. In this story, in particular, we have a sense of how a curse comes back to the one who has uttered it, so that not only the squire but also Bridget herself are doomed to lose the person they love the most.
In many of the stories, the past returns to haunt the present. “The most ancient myths tell of the transgressive nature of the backward glance. Lot’s wife heedlessly looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt. No sooner has Orpheus glanced at Eurydice, than she is lost to him for ever”, wrote Emily Cohen in ‘Museums of the Mind: The Gothic and the Art of Memory’ (ELH 62/4, 1995, p. 883). As Oedipus’s backward glance results in blindness, your exploration of evil and revenge through gothic elements gives us the uncanny feeling of being trapped in a dark corridor in a haunted castle.
“The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children”, we read in The Poor Clare, and “The sins of the fathers are visited on their children”, we read again in The Grey Woman – both echoing The Bible, in Exodus 34: 7: “Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.”
The topic of women trapped by curses mirrors another frequent feature in the stories: mansions are haunting cages both in The Old Nurse’s Story and in The Grey Woman, where Anna is trapped not only in her husband’s castle, but also in every place she ends up seeking refuge. Also recurrent is the exploration of women’s power, in the character of Bridget in The Poor Clare, and of women’s powerlessness, in the character of Lois in Lois The Witch – as if the two opposites, power and powerlessness, touched each other in the transgressive figure of the witch as something in-between the fluid categories of the female demon and the female angel in the house.
You also seem to be touching, ever so slightly, on the topic of women’s oppression in Victorian times: not only home and domesticity are sources of horror in many of the stories, but also the system in which Miss Furnivall, from The Old Nurse’s Story, and Bridget, from The Poor Clare, live seems to be the main responsible for turning their potential for good into something that destroys them. It is almost as if you were using gothic elements so as to show how the seemingly civilised, rational order is built on irrational, primitive principles.
It was interesting to notice that, in most stories, the horror element was not exactly placed in the supernatural features per se, but in the concrete behaviour of people who do evil to each other and are later haunted by the fact that they cannot change the past. You seem to be using gothic elements to comment on a larger view of morality and on the blurred line between virtue and sin. You have little to do with those ghosts, but you dwell upon what is behind them: “Why do I tell you all this? I have little to do with the Squire and Madam Starkey; and yet I dwell upon them, as if I were unwilling to come to the real people with whom my life was so strangely mixed” (‘The Poor Clare’).
In your stories, the supernatural is taken as a firm reality, situated on the ambiguous edge between the explained and the unexplained. You seem to use gothic elements for a moral purpose, so as to explore the theme of evil, as if your ghosts were metaphors for moral transgression. In Benjamin, from The Crooked Branch, we have a monster created by a world which fails to recognise the truth of what it has created. Here, as in the other stories, evil is no mystery, but a real social construction whose sources can be retraced and understood. Likewise, the salvation some characters occasionally achieve is not otherworldly, but an expression of concrete social morality – and, as in The Grey Woman, as an expression of female friendship.
In The Poor Clare, Curious, if True, The Old Nurse’s Story, and The Grey Woman, we are told the story by someone who took part in it in a way or another, and the main narrative is often interrupted by meta-narrative comments. The Grey Woman is told in Anna’s letter to her daughter, which was later read by a visitor to a mill; The Poor Clare is told by a young man who falls in love with Bridget’s granddaughter; Disappearances is narrated by someone who collected stories he heard or found in the news; Curious, if True seems to be part of a letter.
Since ghost stories are meant to be read to an audience (particularly in Victorian times), this narrative strategy adds a layer to the reading experience, simultaneously pulling us close to the stories (since the narrator seems to be telling them to us) and keeping us at a remove (since the narrator is not the person who is actually reading the story, but some voice lost in the past).
You have a gift for creating atmosphere and suspense, packing the stories with twists and turns that motivate us to keep reading to know the rest; as well as a gift for interweaving historical fact, local legend and your own fiction. I must say, however, that, as much as they are pleasure to read, the stories have rather unsatisfying endings: they are mostly closed in an abrupt way, sometimes too neat, as if written in a rush.
We have a feeling that we have come a long way just to end in… nothing. Is this all?, we ask ourselves, as the stories come to a close. So, yes, your stores are like a Gothic castle, full of secret passages – however, as we come to the end of their many dark labyrinths, the castle itself, like a ghostly presence, seems to dissolve.
“Solitary and savage had been her life for many years. Wild and despotic were her words and manner to those few people who came across her path. The country-folk did her imperious bidding, because they feared to disobey. If they pleased her, they prospered; if, on the contrary, they neglected or traversed her behests, misfortune, small or great, fell on them and theirs. It was not detestation so much as an indefinable terror that she excited. In the morning I went to see her. She was standing on the green outside her cottage, and received me with the sullen grandeur of a throneless queen.” – Elizabeth Gaskell, Poor Clare, in Gothic Tales