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A Brief History of Hysteria: The Ghost Story from Victorian Times to Present

by
Vaughn Entwistle

 

The Victorian era arguably marks the zenith of the ghost story and the setting down of the basic conventions that modern day authors evoke to this day.

The industrial revolution had caused a migration of the population from rural farms and thatched roof cottages to the brick tenements and slums of large cities. And although the move had left behind the imps, sprites and faeries of the woodlands, the ghosts that had previously haunted only the ruins of gothic castles had no trouble following us into the metropolis.

This was the first technological age, ushering in advances in mechanical engineering and the sciences. Rationalists such as Darwin, Faraday, and Brunel were flinging open the windows of the physical world. But tragically, immunology was still fairly primitive and many young Victorians died in the bloom of youth from diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and consumption (tuberculosis). For this reason, many people still held fast to the irrational, as witnessed by the rise of Spiritualism and a fascination with the occult.

Still, the past was rapidly slipping away. Public street lighting transformed the urban landscape, and yet large cities such as London remained strange and dangerous places after dark, haunted by Ripperesque shadows and the unhealthy vapours seeping from the obscenely swollen soil of London's overcrowded graveyards. And even though many Victorian houses had first indoor gas and then electric lighting to hold back the darkness, London was swarmed with ghosts that appeared in novels, on the theatrical stage, in spirit photographs, and in the pages of Penny Dreadfuls, which fed the public appetite for the lurid, the eldritch, and the horrific. This fascination even manifested itself in the world of fine literature. Victorian and Edwardian authors such as Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry James realised that ghosts cannot be constrained by physical barriers, as they have free reign in the playground of the mind. Where traditional ghost tales usually involved the clanking of chains and ended with a Boo!, the Victorians began to introduce a psychological aspect to their stories that left in the mind of the reader an indelible stain of the irrational, so that the tales continued to resonate long after the book had been closed.

With that in mind, here are five of my favourite historical horror/ghost stories whose loathsome white roots are deeply entangled in the mouldering coffin soil of Victoriana:

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A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens - 1843.

Although the later movie versions have sugar coated this tale, the original is terrifying in the way that only a grisly hand, wrenching aside a bed curtain to reveal a horrible face can be. Is there anything as truly scary as the ghost of Jacob Marley? The 1951 black and white movie version featuring Alastair Sim as Scrooge comes closest to capturing the claustrophobic fear of the novel.

 

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The Tell-Tale Heart, by Edgar Allen Poe - 1843.

Not a ghost story, per se, but a landmark in horror fiction. Probably most of us read this story in high school. Despite being so well known it retains its power and Poe's overwrought prose actually adds to the overall effect.

 

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The Horla, by Guy De Mapassant - 1887.

A deeply creepy exercise in psychological horror. A man is haunted by an invisible entity (the Horla) that sucks the very breath from his lungs as he sleeps. Maupassant creates a narrative stained by madness and terror that steadily ratchets up a palpable sense of dread. I read this first as an undergraduate in college. I recently re-read the story and found it just as disturbing. If you haven't read this tale, I urge you to seek it out.

 

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A Warning to the Curious, "O Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad,", and anything else by M.R. James - 1924.

Although M.R. James is a long way from the Victorian era, can you compile a list of ghost stories without including him? I think not. One of my favourite indulgences on a rainy day is to crack open a collection of M.R. James' ghost stories and dive in anywhere. I've read most of them multiple times. They have an amazing ability to disturb without resorting to gratuitous gore.

 

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Through the Walls, by Ramsey Campbell - 1970.

Set in the urban decay of present day Liverpool, Campbell taps into the alienation and underlying paranoia of modern life. Campbell's Liverpool (or often his fictional sea-side town of Bichester) is a familiar world that transforms in an instant into something frightening and uncanny. Interestingly, Campbell often uses settings such as fairgrounds and arcades in his fiction-places usually associated with fun and games. But Campbell draws out the sinister coiled within. He often employs the POV of a young boy or girl whose youth and inexperience makes them especially vulnerable. As in the stories of M. R. James, the ghosts and faceless horrors in Campbell's stories are often only briefly glimpsed, and sometimes not at all. Ramsey Campbell is usually hailed as the modern master of the ghost story and for good reason.

 

HorrorTalk would like to thank Vaughn Entwistle for taking the time to write this piece for us. Make sure you pick up his latest novel out from Titan Books, The Angel of Highgate, today!

Lord Geoffrey Thraxton is notorious in Victorian society – a Byronesque rake with a reputation as the "wickedest man in London." But on a fog-shrouded morning in Highgate Cemetery, Thraxton encounters a spectral wraith that stirs his morbid fascination with death and the supernatural. After surviving a pistol duel, Thraxton boasts his contempt for death and insults the attending physician. It is a mistake he will regret, for Silas Garrette is a deranged sociopath and chloroform-addict whose mind was broken on the battlefields of Crimea. When Thraxton falls in love with a mysterious woman who haunts Highgate Cemetery by night, he unwittingly provides the murderous doctor with the perfect means to punish a man with no fear of death.

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