So far all my ghost story choices for RIP V have been by modern 20th century authors. It feels like they've been more twisty, a little edgier and more spine tingling than the Victorian story I read today. Mrs. Henry Wood's "Reality or Delusion?" is a much more traditional haunting. It's the sort of story that is simple and straightforward that someone might share with you on a dark and stormy night--do you believe it or not? I've not read many Victorian ghost stories, so I'm not sure if this is the norm. Somehow I think what a Victorian story might lack in real chills it makes up for in atmosphere.
"For almost the whole of the Victorian period the ghost story is of a piece: traditional in its forms and intentions, but that parallels the more general Victorian fascination with the trappings of death--the dark, extravagant splendour of the funeral, the baroque richness of the cemetery, the guilt-laden luxury of mourning. And then, at its most basic, the function of most Victorian ghost stories, like all similar fictions, was simply to produce what Michael Sadleir called 'the pleasurable shudder'--'a horror which we know does not--but none the less conceivably might--threaten ourselves'."
The late Michael Cox, who himself wrote two novels set in Victorian England, edited this collection of stories, The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories. Cox points out the Victorian craze for spiritualism and mesmerism in the 1840s and the fiction of the period played into its popularity. The ghost story was something the Victorians excelled at, it was part of their cultural and literary fabric.
"The successful ghost story, like the successful detective story, depends on using conventions creatively. The ghost story's basic dynamics are settled in the reader's expectations at the outset. We know that we are to be shown a climactic interaction between the living and the dead, and usually expect to be unsettled by the experience. The skill comes when an author is able to work closely within the limited conventions of the form whilst at the same time reassembling familiar components into something that can still engage and surprise. To some extent this requires a certain complicity between author and reader, whereby the latter becomes a willing accomplice in the whole design. But it also calls for fluent invention, well-developed dramatic instincts, and story-telling capability of a high order on the part of the author."
Mrs. Henry Wood is perhaps best known for her successful novel East Lynne, but she also owned and edited the magazine The Argosy from 1865 to 1887. Cox notes that the reason women took so well to the ghost story was likely due to the fact they needed to provide for their families, and that is certainly the case for Mrs. Wood. "Reality of Delusion?" is a very conventional ghost story, which is left up to th reader to decide just what young Maria Lease saw. The story begins:
"This is a ghost story. Every word of it is true, And I don't mind confessing that for ages afterwards some of us did not care to pass the spot alone at night. Some people do not care to pass it yet."
(Spoilers this paragraph). The story is essentially this--Daniel, a young man and son of the late bailiff, with rather superior ways of a gentleman but no money to back them up becomes involved in a love triangle. That's perhaps calling it something more than it might have been. Engaged to Maria, a plain looking girl but with proper manners, Daniel begins stepping out on the sly with a pretty young woman from France called Harriet (really Henriette, but a name too difficult for the villagers to remember). Maria decides to call him on it, determined to have it out with him, so she follows him one night. She catches him coming out of the barn of a neighbor, who also happens to be narrator of the story, with a sack of grain in hand. The door had been unused as it was not only a back door, but also the key to it had long been lost (only to be found in Daniel's pocket). The scene was not only witnessed by Maria, but also the narrator. Maria lets loose as only a woman scorned might. Twice disgraced--Daniel not only was walking out with Harriet and also gave her a gold chain bought with the proceeds of the stolen grain, but he was a thief. The next day Daniel goes missing, and Maria, now repentant for her promise to turn him in to the authorities, sees him walking in the wooded area near the barn, but he doesn't see her. It turns out she sees him well after he hung himself in those same woods. (End of spoilers).
So, I suppose this is the sort of story that does well around a fire, deep in the blackness of night. The reader (or listener) is prepared to be scared and the teller vouches for the authenticity of the story. "This is a ghost story. Every word of it is true." Believe it or not.
More stories read for the RIP Challenge: Miriam by Truman Capote, Sophy Mason Comes Back by E.M. Delafield, Sloane Square by Pamela Hansford Johnson, Voices in the Coal Bin by Mary Higgins Clark and Computer Séance by Ruth Rendell.