Unused review essay piece.
The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, Volume Three
Edited by Simon Stern
If Christmas is a season of gratitude, then let us make sure we extend some to the Victorians who had the good, frightful sense to realize that a measure of the reminders of mortality could enhance our festive season, without dimming it.
While we’re at it, a bumper of nog might be raised for Valancourt and their third annual collection of ghost stories from that era. As the back flap reminds us, Dickens, of course, did his thing in 1843 with A Christmas Carol, but there were scores of tales written during this age, especially during the Christmas portion of the year, meant to warm us with terror, another holiday irony.
Simon Stern, a University of Toronto professor, is responsible for doing the yeoman’s work on this annum’s iteration of the eldritch. He has gone well beyond the spectral call of duty, for even if you are a longtime diehard reader of ghost stories, you’d seemingly have been tasked beyond human means to round up these works, which have been plucked from the magazines and newspapers of their time, not having been seen, since that time.
If you’re prone to grousing, you might expect there to be some duff works in here, but all twenty have at least some version of a bountiful offering. Let us consider, for instance, Lillie Harris’s “19, Great Hanover Street.” I have no clue who Harris was. I don’t know if this was a man or woman. It could have been a pen name. But I do know that this tale of a doctor who takes up residence and builds his practice in a “small mansion” that is on the cheap is one of the more redoubtable ghost stories of the age.
On December 22, whomever lives in the house either dies or goes mad and dies not long after. As a man of science, the doctor regards this as bunk—or humbug, if you prefer—and meets a woman, the most beautiful he has ever seen, standing outside his house in the night when he returns home, begging for shelter.
Harris’s brilliance is for making us believe that this pragmatic physician could fall in love, as he puts it, in a quarter of an hour. But his doing so causes us to cast our minds back through the remembrances of our own lives, asking if that one-time infatuation may have, in truth, been more than we were willing to accept at the time. M.R. James liked to pull the curtain back with his stories, and give you the bogey; Harris simply has the doctor unfasten a necklace around this woman’s neck, and then it becomes a case of “o dear, did not see that coming.”
Dickens regarded Christmas not merely as a time of celebration, but an opportunity for us to play the role of actuary in our emotional lives. To formulate an internal ledger of what we have gained and lost as humans in the latest installment of the short term—another year—and what we can grow and gain in the long term: that is, the rest of our lives.
There’s a druggier adumbration of that sensibility in J.E. Thomas’s “The Nameless Village,” which was published at Yule time, but steps beyond the standard parameters of ice and snow for a tour of a village encased in a seemingly always-vernal glen.
There is a woman who nearly doubles as a witch who advises Thomas’s traveling protagonist on the sights he ought to see. It’s like architectural tourism, but of a place that does not exist, for the protagonist can never find it again. Like the rush of one’s favorite Christmas morning, it’s gone for good, save how it lodges in memory, where it stays for good, a potent reminder that for all of the advice we hear about leaving the past behind, the past travels with us.
G.B. Burgin’s “Sir Hugo’s Prayer” is the rib-tickler of the book. A deceased husband and wife, in ghost form, haunt the top of an old caste. The husband, Sir Hugo, has his “Imperceptible sword slanting ruthlessly” through the legs of his wife, Lady Follett, a joke if there ever was one on the inability to consummate one’s post-death marriage.
They are compromised ghosts, in that they can only mewl somewhat, and breath cold air on their subjects. There is a bicycle race—standard ramparts stuff, no doubt—in which two suitors will try to win the hand of the girl. One of the suitors has giant legs—a fact mentioned repeatedly—on account of a vigorous training regimen for this very moment. He’s also a cad, which causes Sir Hugo to entreat Holy St. Wencelaus—the overseer of these things—if he might become visible to trip up this would-be Lothario, as it were. The price: another hundred years of ghost-based purgatorio. He consults with his wife, and away we go.
The opening “The Ghost of the Cross Roads,” by Frederick Manley, makes no desiccated bones about what these stories can encapsulate in spirit: “Night, and especially Christmas night, is the best time to listen to a ghost story,” it begins, before setting us in a “snug parlour,” which has the added benefit of making us feel as we have a chair there, too.
That’s a trick of these stories—they will divide and conquer, if you will, with their plots, where a man or a woman ends up in a situation they’ve not been before, almost always facing it alone, but that feeling of community is retained. Blues fans will get a charge out of seeing the old Robert Johnson crossroads mythos played out in an older manner still, just as Mephisto, wherever he might be, could suck long and leeringly on a candy cane as he read this tale. So, too, should you, lest you bite your tongue as a result of that which you did not expect to see, which in turn entered into you. Consent to gratitude.