I don't read enough of them, but I do love a good short story. Ghost stories in particular are a favorite of mine. For the last couple of years I've been reading short stories as part of Carl's R.I.P. event and I always look forward to them. I have several favorite collections of ghost stories (or stories that deal with the uncanny or fantastic) that I occasionally dip into, and I might just be on the lookout for something new this year as well (so if you have a favorite collection yourself, do please let me know). Several years ago I read Daphne du Maurier's collection (put out by NYRB Classics) Don't Look Now (my posts are here), and I think it's time to pull out her recently reissued collection, The Doll: The Lost Short Stories, finally.
Daphne du Maurier is one of my favorite short story writers and I often revisit several of her better known stories: Don't Look Now (one of her best stories, I think), The Blue Lenses, and The Birds (much darker than the movie adaptation). It's my goal to read all of her short stories (and all of her novels, too) at some point--a very far ranging goal is that one. I've got a few other ghost story favorites that are worth looking for and I might reread a few of these this year as well: The Girl with the Silver-White Hair by Truman Capote, The Tower by Marghanita Laski, and Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
But to kick things off this weekend I thought I'd try something new, well, Victorian-new actually. I'm in the mood for a good Victorian tale. I've only barely dipped into The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories, edited by Michael Cox and R.A. Gilbert, but it has a good selection of stories (from J.S. Le Fanu to Wilkie Collins to Mary Braddon). You never know what you're going to get with a short story, which is part of the fun really (kind of like a box of chocolate--will it be a good surprise or a bad one). I flipped through the book and my eye was caught by "The Story of Clifford House" by an anonymous author. Not just a ghost story, but a haunted house story as well. It first appeared in The Mistletoe Bough (Christmas 1878), which was edited by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Cox notes that it's tempting to think that Braddon herself wrote the story, but there is no evidence to support that idea, so I guess we'll never know. I am curious, though, who wrote the story--whether it was a man or woman at least.
The measure I use for just how scary a ghost story is, is whether when I am reading (or when I've finished) if I feel inclined to go remove clothes from the washing machine in my basement and put them in the dryer. I live in an old house with an unfinished basement and Saturdays are one of my days for laundry. So yesterday as I was reading and it was getting darker and darker and I knew I had one last load to get out of the dryer, I was just the tiniest bit phased by the story to decide the clothes could wait until morning to be removed. Then again, for me, it's often more the suggestion of creepiness that gives me that little scare than anything else. A story can have nothing gory in it, but just the idea of somethings amiss that will set me off. Close the book, then start thinking about what I've just read and I would prefer to stay somewhere cozy and well-lit than go down a creaky set of stairs to a room with one bald light-bulb to illuminate the room. Really good ghost stories prey on the imagination, don't they?
Read "The Story of Clifford House" in the bright sunshine and I think you'll be fine, but read it in the dark of night, the lights dimmed and all alone and you might just get a little chill. Since it was published in 1878 imagine a nice middle class Victorian family--happily married couple, two sweet children, and a small household staff. The family is tired of the country and wants to relocate to London and be able to partake more easily of the Season. Lucky for them they find a seemingly lovely house at just the right price, maybe even too cheap a price. When George and Helen realize there is something not quite right about Clifford House they do wonder about the "exceedingly moderate rent and the house-agent's profuse civility".
What I like about Victorian novels are all the little details.
"Wide, lofty apartments, staircases, and landings; a handsome dining-room panelled in pale cream-colour and gold; airy bed-chambers and dressing-rooms-one, in particular, attached to what seemed the principal bedroom, with a vast mirror occupying the whole side of the apartment which was opposite to the door leading to the bed-chamber."
It's in that mirror that Helen and George first catch sight of the woman with coarse blond hair. And a frightening image it is, too.
"I like gas in my dressing-room, though not in my bedroom, and the globes at either side of the great mirror were a blaze of light. As I entered I caught the reflection of a woman's figure in the depth of the glass, not my maid's. The glimpse I had was of a tall woman, strongly built, and broad-shouldered, a quantity of light hair hanging in a disordered manner on her neck, and the profile of a white, hard, masculine face, with the keen glittering eye turned watchfully towards the door."
There is something a little freaky about mirrors and the images they contain or the idea of a world beyond our own. Who is the woman and what does she want. It's not just Helen and George who see her, but the servants know something is not quite right about the house. Servants gossip and create a stir, and Helen and George deny the woman's presence even though they've seen her, too (must keep everything proper, right?). But sometimes spirits are unruly and don't keep to their own sphere.
"The Story of Clifford House" would have made for entertaining holiday (Christmas=ghost stories, right?) reading. It was entertaining RIP reading, too. Low to mid-level scare factor with this one. Just enough to get a small chill.