Friday, September 10, 2010

The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories

"In the ghost story, obligations do not cease with death, & the past is never a closed book. What has been can be again, though often terribly transformed. For a progressive age...the idea of a vindictive past held an especial potential for terror."
~from the introduction by Michael Cox & R.A. Gilbert, written All Souls' Day, 1990

I have to confess that I am not a huge fan of anything in the horror genre (I recently considered writing to a movie theater chain to ask that they only show horror movie previews before horror movies because I dislike them so much). I thought, however, that I could probably stand some Victorian ghost stories. The introduction put me in Victorian perspective: Gothic tales set in the past were on the wane, & modern-day domestic fiction was more prevalent; & the rise of science could not quash the delight in a ghost story-although many stories were now presented with "spurious factuality", such as being in the form of a diary.

I read 5 stories from this collection: "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes" by Henry James; "Reality or Delusion?" by Mrs. Henry Wood; "The Body-Snatcher" by Robert Louis Stevenson; "At the End of the Passage" by Rudyard Kipling; & "John Charrington's Wedding" by E. Nesbit. Most of the stories I chose because of I had heard of the writers before in other genres. All were well written. I found "The Body-Snatcher" & "At the End of the Passage" the most gripping-"The Body-Snatcher", in tune with the era's preoccupation with science, had a medical theme as scholarly anatomists learn where the bodies they dissect come from; "At the End of the Passage", though set in India, has very little local color but has the air of an intense fever-dream brought on by heat & loneliness. "John Charrington's Wedding" was the shortest & almost a romance until its disturbing finale. The Master, Henry James, presents a story of sibling affection gone sour-most of the characters are unlikeable, but that's what makes the story work so well. Mrs. Henry Wood's story, beginning with "This is a ghost story. Every word of it is true", is the only story to ask, as in its title, was the ghost sighting real or imagined? "Reality or Delusion?" is probably the most down-to-earth, workmanlike of the stories, our unnamed narrator laying out the tale with the sobriety & eye for detail of a historian.

I am still, slowly but surely working my way through "Our Mutual Read", the Victorian reading challenge I started in January. My goal was Level 3: to read 12 books, at least 6 written during 1837 - 1901; the other books may be Neo-Victorian or non-fiction. Rashly, I also thought I might do the Period Film Mini-Challenge (watch at least 6 films that take place between 1837 - 1901) & the Short Story Mini-Challenge (read 12 short stories written or taking place between 1837 - 1901). Here's how I've done so far:

Level 3: 12 Books
-Death at the Priory: Sex, Love, and Murder in Victorian England by James Ruddick
-The Clumsiest People in Europe, or: Mrs. Mortimer's Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World, edited and with an Introduction by Todd Pruzan
-The Disastrous Mrs. Weldon by Brian Thompson
-Nightingales: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale by Gillian Gill
-The Second Mrs. Tanqueray by Arthur Wing Pinero (from Representative English Plays edited by J.S.P. Tatlock & R.G. Martin)

Period Film Mini-Challenge: 6 Films
-Return to Cranford
-The Mill on the Floss (1997 version with Emily Watson)
-Alice: A Look into Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & at the Curious Relationship between Alice Liddell & Lewis Carroll
-Around the World in 80 Days

Short Story Mini-Challenge: 12 Short Stories
-Victorian Love Stories: An Oxford Anthology (4 stories)
-The Oxford Book of Detective Stories (6 stories)
-The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories (5 stories)
-The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde

Well, it looks like I certainly have my work cut out for me! At least my Short Story Mini-Challenge is more than complete. (I can always aim for Level 2 [8 books] if the going gets rough.) Here are the next books I hope to read: Lectures on Art by John Ruskin; Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon; The Warden by Anthony Trollope; The Observations by Jane Harris; The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale; The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler; & Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

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