The Lit­er­ary Pil­grim .

Bryan Woods

Evergreen - - Contents - BRYAN WOODS

Christ­mas is the time for ghost sto­ries. As the evenings draw in and the shad­ows lengthen, we turn to tales of phan­toms. As Charles Dick­ens wrote in his es­say Christ­mas Ghosts: “We are telling win­ter sto­ries — ghost sto­ries — round the Christ­mas fire; and we have never stirred, ex­cept to draw a lit­tle nearer to it.”

After nearly 50 years of read­ing and en­joy­ing ghost sto­ries, I would like to rec­om­mend sev­eral that I hope will scare Ever­green read­ers pleas­antly.

Charles Dick­ens him­self wrote a num­ber of short sto­ries on a su­per­nat­u­ral theme. In “The Sig­nal­man” a phan­tom ap­pears to a sig­nal­man just be­fore ac­ci­dents are due to oc­cur on a re­mote rail­way line. “The Sig­nal­man” first ap­peared in the Christ­mas 1866 is­sue of Dick­ens’s own jour­nal All The Year Round. Since then it has ap­peared in many an­tholo­gies of ghost sto­ries. Dick­ens prob­a­bly based his story in part on the Clay­ton Tun­nel rail crash. This oc­curred in 1861 at Clay­ton in West Sus­sex when three lo­co­mo­tives col­lided with each other, re­sult­ing in 23 fa­tal­i­ties and 176 peo­ple with in­juries. The sub­se­quent in­quiry led to im­prove­ments in the safety reg­u­la­tions on Bri­tain’s rail­ways.

Other au­thors who were in­vited to write for All The Year Round in­cluded Wilkie Collins, El­iz­a­beth Gaskell and Amelia B. Ed­wards, a nov­el­ist, jour­nal­ist and noted Egyp­tol­o­gist, who also wrote a num­ber of ghost sto­ries. The best known of th­ese is “The Phan­tom Coach”, which was

first pub­lished in the Christ­mas 1864 is­sue of All The Year Round. It tells of a trav­eller who be­comes lost on a moor in the north of Eng­land, just as dusk is fall­ing. Des­per­ate for shel­ter, he stum­bles across a re­mote house whose oc­cu­pant di­rects him to a cross­roads where he can catch the mail coach. How­ever, he in­ad­ver­tently boards the phan­tom coach and en­coun­ters its ter­ri­fy­ing pas­sen­gers.

An­other no­table fe­male au­thor of the genre was Edith Nes­bit. Though bet­ter known for her chil­dren’s books, Edith Nes­bit also wrote four col­lec­tions of su­per­nat­u­ral sto­ries. The first of th­ese, en­ti­tled Grim Tales, was pub­lished in 1893 and in­cluded two mar­vel­lous spine- chillers — “John Char­ring­ton’s Wed­ding” and “Man- Size in Mar­ble”.

The lat­ter con­cerns a young cou­ple who move to the coun­try, where they hear of a leg­end about the ef­fi­gies of two knights in the lo­cal church, who are “drawed out man- size in mar­ble”. The knights are said to re­turn to the for­mer house, where the cou­ple are liv­ing, on All Souls’ Eve. The fi­nal sen­tence of “Man- Size in Mar­ble” is truly chill­ing and the story de­serves its sta­tus as a clas­sic of the genre.

The au­thor Bram Stoker was for many years the busi­ness man­ager and sec­re­tary to the ac­tor- man­ager Henry Irv­ing at the Lyceum The­atre in Lon­don. Al­though fa­mous for his vam­pire novel Drac­ula, Stoker also wrote some shorter gems of the ma­cabre. Th­ese were pub­lished un­der the ti­tle Drac­ula’s Guest in 1914.

In “The Judge’s House”, a young stu­dent named Malcolm Mal­colm­son, seek­ing soli­tude for his stud­ies, rents a house that once be­longed to a no­to­ri­ous hang­ing judge. Mal­colm­son is soon plagued by the rats that in­habit the old house, in­clud­ing one par­tic­u­larly malev­o­lent spec­i­men:

“He made a mo­tion to it as though to hunt it away, but it did not stir. Then he made a mo­tion of throw­ing some­thing. Still it did not stir, but showed its great white teeth an­grily, and its cruel eyes shone in the lamp­light with an added vin­dic­tive­ness.”

“The Judge’s House” is a highly at­mo­spheric ghost story with a twist at the end that stays long in the mind of the reader.

No men­tion of ghost sto­ries would be com­plete without ref­er­ence to M. R. James. Mon­tague Rhodes James had a dis­tin­guished ca­reer as an aca­demic, a scholar and a me­dieval­ist. In 1913 he be­came ViceChan­cel­lor of Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity and five years later he was ap­pointed as Provost of Eton, a post he held un­til his death in 1936.

The ghost sto­ries of M. R. James were writ­ten as a diver­sion, a way to pass his leisure hours. Each Christ­mas Eve it was his cus­tom to read aloud his lat­est tale to in­vited stu­dents at King’s Col­lege, Cam­bridge. Among the sto­ries were “Canon Al­beric’s Scrap­book”, “Lost Hearts”, and his most fa­mous story, “Oh Whis­tle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”. In this, Pro­fes­sor Parkins un­earths an old whis­tle which he pro­ceeds to blow upon and so in­ad­ver­tently sum­mons up su­per­nat­u­ral forces:

“Rapidly grow­ing larger, it too, de­clared it­self a fig­ure in pale, flut­ter­ing draperies, ill- de­fined. There was some­thing about its mo­tion which made Parkins very un­will­ing to see it at close quar­ters.”

M. R. James drew on his scholas­tic back­ground to pro­vide au­then­tic de­tails for his sto­ries. His ghosts are also im­plied rather than made ex­plicit, and are all the more un­set­tling be­cause of that.

The nov­el­ist and critic Sir Hugh Walpole also wrote some ex­cel­lent ghost sto­ries. His col­lec­tion All Souls’ Night was pub­lished in 1933 and con­tained such tales as “The Lit­tle Ghost”, “The Snow” and “Mrs. Lunt”. The last of th­ese is set in Corn­wall dur­ing Christ­mas and fea­tures a truly venge­ful fe­male ghost.

Other au­thors who have con­trib­uted to this de­mand­ing lit­er­ary genre in­clude Rud­yard Ki­pling, D. H. Lawrence, L. P. Hart­ley and, more re­cently, Su­san Hill. Her novel The Woman in Black is a per­fect read for this most haunted sea­son of the year.

What then makes a good ghost story? M. R. James him­self hoped to make the reader “pleas­antly un­com­fort­able when walk­ing along a soli­tary road at night­fall, or sit­ting over a dy­ing fire in the small hours.” Which, to me, sums it up per­fectly.

Amelia B. Ed­wards ( 1831- 1892).

Clay­ton Tun­nel, near Brighton in Sus­sex.

Mas­ter of the genre: M. R. James ( 18621936).

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