Valancourt Books, 2018
"Night, and especially Christmas night, is the best time to listen to a ghost story. Throw on the logs! Draw the curtains! Move your chairs a little nearer the fire and hearken!"
-- Frederick Manley, "The Ghost of the Cross-Roads"
Let's put ourselves in the moment.
|from from Visit Lancashire|
Outside the snug home of Andy Sweeny, a terrible storm is raging, while inside the house, the Christmas celebrations are in full swing. Everyone's got
"a glass of steaming punch in his hand; every one's face is lighted with love and radiant with joy; every one toasts every one, sings merry songs, dances with his sweetheart,or makes love to her in some shady corner, while the aged every-ones make matches for their their boys and girls; and the blind fiddler plays away for dear life. The flames grow brighter as the storm without increases... In short, there never was a happier home; there never were such music and such punch as Mrs. Sweeny's, nor jollier souls to drink it."Space has just been cleared for dancing when the revelers are interrupted by what one of them describes as the "banshee's cry," and the door is opened to a stranger. When asked if he'd seen a ghost that night, the newcomer promises to tell them "all that happened." It is "these words"
"which promised the glorious entertainment always to be had from a ghost story ....""The Ghost of the Cross-Roads" by Frederick Manley is the absolutely perfect story with which to begin this book since it really does place the reader right into the heart of Victorian Christmas warmth and merriment, complete with "crackling fire," "steaming punch," and above all, the promise of a ghost story to round out the evening. As Jerome K. Jerome wrote in his Told After Supper,
"Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres. It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood."This promise of "glorious entertainment" at Christmas, as Colin Fleming relates in a 2014 article at the Paris Review blog, anticipates a sort of "pleasing terror," in which
"the status quo is infused with a sensation of something being a touch off, chuckles give way to shared, uneasy glances that maybe this isn't all merrymaking."The twenty stories in this volume were originally published between 1867 and 1898, and while there are plenty that fall on the more traditional and disquieting, "uneasy" side of ghostly tales that include hauntings and even a vanishing village (!), there are definitely a few in which the ghosts (again quoting Colin Fleming),
"even when they mean to avenge themselves upon us, also seem to have dipped into the nog a time a time or two, with their own playfulness in evidence."There are at least two spirits who take their cues from a certain character in one of Oscar Wilde's stories, and more than one who seem to be right out of Dickens, but with unexpected endings that are funny and at the same time a bit refreshing. Simon Stern, who wrote this volume's introduction, comments on the more comical sort of ghost stories, saying that most of them came from century's end,
"when the familiarity of the genre in its traditional form, carrying the accumulated weight of many decades, may have prompted writers to seek out new directions."That's not a bad thing, really, especially not here.
I appreciated not only the "wide variety of incarnations" of Victorian ghosts represented here, but also the variety of authors of these stories as well. Some of the authors will be quite familiar to regular readers of Victorian ghost stories, including Mrs. J.H. Riddell and Mrs. Henry Wood, but there are others I've never heard of before to add to my inner database of obscure Victorian writers, as well as their anonymous storytelling counterparts.
I look forward to reading The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories every year at this time; it's now become a regular part of my holiday season routine. As Frederick Manley tells us,
"Night, and especially Christmas night, is the best time to listen to a ghost story,"but this collection of Victorian tales of ghostly mayhem is perfect reading for any night of the year.