With Halloween just around the corner, I thought I’d follow up my Top Ten Neo-Victorian Novels post with a timely dose of spooky stories. I’ve chosen only ones that you can read in a single sitting…in the daytime…with all the lights on. In no particular order, then:
- Henry James, ‘The Turn of the Screw’ (1898)
James’s novella is probably the best known and most canonical story on this list, and for good reason. This story practically invented the classic horror trope of the creepy/possessed child.
‘The Turn of the Screw’ has all the hallmarks of a high Victorian ghost story, with its framing narrative which sees a group of friends gathered at a country house and sharing spooky tales around the fire, but the main body of the text takes the form of an account by an unnamed governess who has come to Bly house to take care of the children and, with any luck, entice the often-absent master. You’ve probably spotted the parallels with Jane Eyre, and in many ways this text is the twisted sister of Bronte’s novel. As the governess becomes more and more isolated at Bly the story becomes one of psychological horror and as a reader you begin to question whether the malevolent ghostly presences and sinister children are real or whether you are simply shackled to the point of view of a narrator who is descending into hysteria and madness. Eerie stuff.
- Grant Allen, ‘Pallinghurst Barrow’ (1892)
Now, I read ‘Pallinghurst Barrow’ many years ago, so I’ll admit I don’t remember the intricacies of the plot. However, two aspects of this story have stayed with me: 1) Everyone may or may not be high the entire time. The narrator, one Rudolph Reeve is staying at yet another English country house in an area menaced by tales of ghosts and faeries and other associated folk-tale nasties. To calm his nerves before sleep, Rudolph is offered a nightcap of ‘Cannabis Indica’ (as you do) and things begin to get real creepy real quick. 2) The songs! In much the same way that ‘One two, Freddy’s coming for you…’ is far creepier than anything else you see or hear in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Grant Allen’s inclusion of eerie folk-type songs are what makes this story quite so chilling:
Pallinghurst Barrow — Pallinghurst Barrow!
Every year one heart thou’lt harrow!
Pallinghurst Ring — Pallinghurst Ring!
A bloody man is thy ghostly king.
Men’s bones he breaks, and sucks their marrow
In Pallinghurst Ring on Pallinghurst Barrow
- Sheridan le Fanu, ‘Green Tea’ (1869)
Le Fanu is one of those authors who get whispered about with quiet awe – ‘did you know he once used to outsell Dickens?’ etc. – but has never quite become an established part of the Victorian literary canon. ‘Green Tea’, though, is a masterclass in creepiness, and is in some ways more chilling than anything Dickens ever wrote. The story itself is framed as a doctor’s case study of the Reverend Jennings, who has been working too hard and drinking too much of the titular green tea. This has somehow opened him up to malevolent psychic influences which manifest as one creepy-ass ape (NB: a post on creepy-ass Victorian apes coming soon.) Like ‘Pallinghurst Barrow’ there is a strong and unsettling relationship between substance abuse and the supernatural which continues to haunt the Victorian imagination in texts like Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde or Arthur Machen’s The White Powder.
- Arthur Machen, ‘The Great God Pan’ (1894)
Sex is scary, m’kay.
Machen’s bizarre and truly terrifying tale has been praised by the Stephen King as ‘one of the best horror stories ever written. Maybe the best in the English language.’ The story is constructed as a sequence of apparently disconnected storylines which gradually converge to form a story the mysterious Helen Vaughn and a brain surgery gone wrong. It is the prototype of the cosmic horror story: seeing past the veil of reality to some primal malevolent force of the universe that can’t be explained, or at least can’t be comprehended without making a person stark raving mad…and horny as hell.
Helen Vaughn is probably one of the best femme fatales in Victorian literature and, for a modern reader with all our preconceived ideas about Victorian morality, it’s fascinating to try to unpick whether existential terror is a metaphor for sexuality or whether sexuality is a metaphor for existential terror in this story.
- Jean Lorrain, ‘The Magic Lantern’ (1891)
Jean Lorrain deserves to be so much more famous than he is. In an age best known for the Wilde trials, Lorrain was once thrown out of a Paris restaurant for loudly and openly improvising an extempore poem about a threesome with two stevedores. Good for you, Jean – get yours! ‘The Magic Lantern’ is a gorgeous little gothic revisionist tale about the general creepiness of fin-siècle society. The premise is remarkably simple: two guys sitting in in the stalls at the opera watching the crowds. Lorrain manages to take you on a tour of the monstrous people who inhabit his world, from vampires to zombies and even androids.
- Charles Dickens, ‘The Signalman’ (1866)
It goes without saying that Dickens is the grand master of the ghost story and, really, I could have switched ‘The Signalman’ for any of ‘The Haunted House’, ‘The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain’, ‘The Trial for Murder’ and the much-loved ‘Christmas Carol’. I’ve chosen this one partly in the hope that someone will read it and explain the ending to me. As for the plot: trains are terrifying. That’s really the gist of what is a very pared-back but very atmospheric little story. And Dickens had good reason to fear the railway. Less than a year before ‘The Signalman’ was published Dickens, along with his mistress Ellen Ternan, had been one of the passengers involved in the Staplehurst rail crash which killed several fellow travellers. It was an unease that was by no means unique to Dickens, though, since Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Engineer’s Thumb’, Dracula, Richard Marsh’s The Beetle and more than a few of M.R. James’s stories (any and all of which deserve a place on this list, now that I think of it) feature trains. Of course, the railways had a tremendous impact on publishing, with serials like The Strand specialising in short, journey-length fictions to be sold in railway book stalls like W.H. Smith, but there is also another, more anxious side to the Victorian relationship with the railway. Despite being a technological marvel, the railway also threatened to collapse social boundaries by throwing complete strangers together in confined spaces and, unlike the carriage or cab which could be halted easily, the train, with all its speed and power, was wholly beyond the control of its passengers. Amy Milne-Smith’s article ‘Shattered Minds: Madmen on the Railways 1860-1880’ (2016) is a great piece on mid-Victorian railway anxiety.
- E. T. A. Hoffmann, ‘The Sandman’ (1816)
Written in 1816, Hoffmann’s ‘The Sandman’ is the earliest of the stories on this list and yet it also feels the most mind-blowingly modern. I’m torn about how much more I can say without giving away the twist, but let’s just say that The Terminator, Blade Runner, Alien and others owe more than a little bit to this seemingly quaint tale of early-nineteenth-century courtship. It’s worth a read purely to experience the sheer wackiness with which the writing style shifts from Jane Austen-like descriptions of dancing and lace gloves to furious, maniacal-sounding passages about hellfire and blindings. (Yes, you read that correctly.)
- Rudyard Kipling, ‘At the End of the Passage’ (1890)
Nobody does Imperial Gothic like Kipling and, again, I might have chosen any number of Kipling’s stories from ‘The City of Dreadful Night’, ‘Wireless’, ‘The Mark of the Beast’, ‘My Own True Ghost Story’, ‘The Phantom Rickshaw’…you get the picture. ‘The End of the Passage’ tells the story of four empire men – a civil servant, a doctor, a surveyor, and an engineer – who meet at a remote outpost of empire. The engineer has been plagued by nightmares and is starting to suffer from the effects of sleep deprivation and isolation. The drug of choice prescribed in this story is bromide, but alas it doesn’t quite have the desired effect. But it’s the final touch in this story – one with a camera…you’ll know it when you see it – that is the most chilling. Like many of Kipling’s gothic tales, the plot is almost entirely replaced by a feeling of paranoia, isolation, and a slow, creeping sense of decay which brings with it the threat of madness or suicide. If imperial gothic is your thing, then I recommend B.M. Croker too.
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892)
I made the mistake of reading this story alone in the house one evening. Big mistake. Even after more than one hundred years, Charlotte Perkin’s Gilman’s slim little story feels like it does suspenseful psychological horror better than the best-crafted horror film. And as a feminist fiction it is an equally fascinating read. The unnamed narrator has been brought to a country house by her physician husband (interesting to compare the portrayal of medical professionals by Gilman to those found in ‘Green Tea’ and elsewhere) to rest and recuperate from a ‘temporary nervous depression.’ Scary ensues. You’ll be repainting your bedroom a nice, neutral shade of magnolia before October is out. Also, I couldn’t not share Kate Beaton’s spoof of The Yellow Wallpaper and its themes from Hark a Vagrant:
- Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘Lot 249’ (1892)
I’ve chosen Doyle’s story of an Oxford student who becomes obsessed with Egyptology and manages to reanimate an ancient mummy, only to have the thing go on a vengeful rampage, as an example of the late-Victorian vogue for mummy fiction which happened after Britain’s annexation of Egypt in 1882. But Doyle’s terrifying man-mummy is only half of this bizarre craze; the other half I’m calling ‘Sexy-Mummy’ (MILF, if you will) fiction, and includes tales like H. Rider Haggard’s ‘Smith and the Pharaohs’, which sees this finely-bearded gent longing for this exotic (and long-deceased) lady. Check out Bradley Deane’s wonderful article on ‘Mummy Fiction and the Occupation of Egypt: Imperial
Striptease’ (2008) for more on the genre.
Have I missed any of your favourites? Let me know in the comments or @VictorianMasc