"The Virago Book Of Victorian Ghost Stories" edited by Richard Dalby is, whatever else it was meant to be, is, just as importantly, an interesting look at the evolution of the modern ghost story. A companion book to The Virago Book of Ghost Stories (unseen by me), Dalby centers his anthology only on women writers this time, on the theory that a ghost story told from a women's viewpoint will show you an alternate viewpoint of Victorian society. A different viewpoint of Victorian society than that of the male writers who also wrote ghost fiction from the same period.
This book covers the period from 1883-1903, although Dalby freely admits that he's fudging the strict dates of what is referred to as the Victorian period, or the "Gaslight Era" of literature. The authors are, besides being all women, and from all walks of life; the housefraus, the professional writer, the rich, the poor, etc., are all British, except for the last two authors in the anthology. We start off with a minor preface by Dalby, and then a substantial, informative and interesting essay by Jennifer Uglow.
As an evolutionary look, the stories go from the ghostly dream, the incidental ghost, to the full-bloom supernatural ghost story. Many of these stories have a docudrama feel to them, as they read like matter-of-fact true stories.
The first story is 'Napoleon And The Spectre' by Charlotte Brontë, and is a story fragment that deals with a character that has a dream about the death of Napoleon. Historically important perhaps, but bad in every other way, the main one is that unless you have an intimate knowledge of Napoleon this story will mean absolutely nothing to the reader.
Afterwards we start getting into the incidental ghost stories. By incidental ghost stories I mean, whole stories in which the ghost pops up, often tangentially, in only part of the story, sometimes not even having any substantially integral part of the story. The ghost is just. . .there, and that includes what are some classic stories.
'The Last House In C---- Street' by Dinah M. Mulock, 'The Cold Embrace' by Mary E. Braddon, the incomplete 'Not To Be Taken At Bed-Time' by Rosa Mulholland, the gothic 'The Story Of Salome' by Amelia B. Edwards, 'Reality Or Delusion?' by Mrs. Henry Wood, the way overlong 'Winthrop's Adventure' by Vernon Lee, and a few others, and most of these can be found in the first half of the book. Not all of these are bad; it's just that they are almost ghost stories by accident, the supernatural could, most of the time, be left out with no substantial loss to the story. Afterwards, about the halfway mark, we start getting stories in which the supernatural is essential.
Of the twenty stories (and one poem) here several need singling out for special comment. `The Old Nurses Story' is a story that starts out slow and dull, but ends on a creepy note. Ultimately this is a story of hate, jealousy, sibling rivalry, and revenge, and this wintertime ghost story seems to have been clearly an influence on stories like August Derleth's `The Snow Vampires' and Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting Of Hill House".
'The Last House In C---- Street' is a good non-sensational, melancholy, and incidental ghost story about loves, love lost, and lost opportunities. I would have liked this story even if it wasn't a ghost story, and it reads like a "true" ghost story.
'Round The Fire' by Catherine Crow is an episodic series of ghost stories told by a group of women, with the main story being about an uppity uppercruster that gets his comeuppance. Hey, it worked for me.
'The Truth. . .' by Rhoda Broughton is an epistleistic story in which two friends, via a series of letters, discuss their lives, and the recent circumstances in their lives, with one friends life blooming, will the other's is deteriorating. Broughtan wisely doesn't try to explain the supernatural, in a story that reads a lot like her uncle J. Sheridan Le Fanu crossed with Poe, she just relates it.
'The Open Door' by Margaret Oliphant is a thoroughly modern story in which a long distance commuting father isn't afraid to show his love for his son, and will brave a lot for his son, unusual for the time of the stiff-upper lipped set. This is one of several ghost stories in this anthology in which the ghost is not evil, the story that is both a tragedy, and one of patriarchal love, a great story with some truly scary moments that should be essential reading for all ghost story fans.
'Many Waters Cannot Quench Love' by Louisa Baldwin, who was the aunt of Rudyard Kipling, and is just a sad little paranormal romance dealing with two lovers separated by an ocean that will both suffer the same sad fate. We've all read stories like this before, but almost none as good.
Violent Hunt's 'The Prayer' is a cautionary story about getting what you wish for. On his dying bed, a wife wishes for her husband to come back alive after dying, he does, but to a detrimental effect. A good little story that tells the tale from several viewpoints, the wife's, the servant's, and the buffoon doctor's, who simply will not acknowledge that something is wrong, and the revived husband's. A multi-layered story that is also a good early story dealing with emotional vampires, that is also a modern retelling of the Lazerus myth.
'The Affair At Grover Station' by American author Willa Cather is an excellent example of the paranormal mystery dealing with murder, love, and betrayal.
However, the crown jewel in this anthology is 'Cecilia de Noël' by the tragically short careered Lanoe Falconer. This is a short novel (one hundred and fourteen pages here) that is broken up into many chapters. That is about love and redemption, and deals with a set of revolving narrators dealing with the same story that is happening in the same house. Including the sexist dog Sir Atherton, a patronizing fool ("Not the best of them [women] is worth bothering about, let alone a shameless jilt."). The ghost here is pretty much an excuse for the author to examine many of the aspects of Victorian society, whether it is the ruling, the servant, or the religious class.
It is also a story that has a philosophical bent, and is full of quotable passages like "Charity, for instance, is a mischievous quality . . . which is not to be indulged or encouraged, but stamped out." Something modern Ayn Randians ought to love, or this bon mot "his name is Smart. Everybody in our village is called Smart--most inappropriately too." Again, this is another essential story that all ghost story fans should be acquainted with.
One of things which written about in these stories is the economics of the poor or middle class, with families often working hard while stuck in an unlivable house they can't sell or move out of even while circumstances either destroy the family or throws it into turmoil. You can tell which stories were for the leisure class and which were for the working class.
The copy of the book that I read is the large print edition, and it made reading some of these stories with their lo-o-ong paragraphs easier. The book is also sturdily built, mine is an ex-library copy and while it has seen a lot of use, it is still in great shape. This anthology also has thumbnail biographies on every author. On the other hand, there is no contents page, so I had to create one of my own, and I have put it in the customer's images so if you got this book you can just download a copy of it.
For this site I have also reviewed these books of interest from the same period:
The Fearsome Island by Albert Kinross.
Hauntings and horrors : ten grisly tales edited by Alden H. Norton & Sam Moskowitz.
KINGS OF HORROR by Arthur Machen & Robert W. Chambers.
The Maker of Moons by Robert W. Chambers (although the edition I originally reviewed is now sold-out).
The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy (Bison Frontiers of Imagination) by Francis Stevens.
More Tales to Tremble By edited by Stephen P. Sutton.
The Vampire Archives: The Most Complete Volume of Vampire Tales Ever Published (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard) edited by Otto Penzler.