The best ghost stories from the Victorian era to read for Halloween or Christmas – selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
As the nights are drawing in, how about a ghost story? The Victorians loved a ghost story, and many of the most celebrated writers of Victorian novels had a go at this ghoulish genre, from Elizabeth Gaskell to Charles Dickens to Robert Louis Stevenson. Here are ten of our favourites. If you like the sound of these suggestions, more blood-curdling reading matter can be found in our pick of Edgar Allan Poe’s best stories.
Elizabeth Gaskell, ‘The Old Nurse’s Story‘ (1852). Gaskell is best known for writing such classic realist novels as North and South (which we include in our list of best Victorian novels), but she could also write spookily about the supernatural. ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ was written for Charles Dickens’s magazine Household Words. The narrator – the old nurse of the title – is an old family retainer who has worked in the service of the same family for three generations. She tells the young children about a dark incident that she experienced in the company of the children’s mother, when she was a young woman and visiting her mother’s ancestral home (this isn’t the last time a haunted house will feature on this list). Mysterious goings-on involving a spooky organ playing music and a scene reminiscent of Wuthering Heights ensue.
Sheridan Le Fanu, ‘An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street‘ (1853). Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was a master of the ghost story, and this creepy little tale is among his most popular. It takes a familiar trope of the ghost story – a couple of friends spend the night in an old mansion – and offers a sinister insight into one man’s past, a particularly nasty judge whose ghost visits the two men.
Charles Dickens, ‘The Signal-Man‘ (1866). A Christmas Carol may have been more influential in helping to establish the tradition of the Christmas Eve ghost story, but this later tale retains its ability to chill the blood of modern readers. A signalman who works on the railways observes that the mysterious appearance of a ghost always precedes a terrible tragedy on the railway line. In 1976, Andrew Davies – later to adapt both Bleak House and Little Dorrit for television – adapted ‘The Signal-Man’ for the BBC. You can watch the entire film here. (Click here for our pick of Dickens’s greatest novels.)
Amelia B. Edwards, ‘Was it an Illusion?‘ (1881). Subtitled ‘A Parson’s Story’, this ghostly tale from the pen of prolific writer and Egyptologist Amelia Blandford Edwards turns on the uncertainty surrounding the figures whom a school inspector spies on the road as he is travelling across the cold northern English landscape at dusk. Is he dreaming or hallucinating, or being haunted by ghosts? In many ways a classic of the genre, ‘Was it an Illusion?’ revels in the hinterland between rationalism and superstition which was so widespread in the late nineteenth century, which saw the founding of the Society for Psychical Research and the emergence of modern psychology and psychoanalysis.
Charlotte Riddell, ‘The Open Door‘ (1882). This story shares much with the sensation novel, that bestselling genre of Victorian fiction that had enjoyed huge popularity during the 1860s and 1870s. Here we have another haunted great house, with a mysterious door that just won’t stay shut. Is it a ghost that keeps opening it? When the man investigating the strange case learns the dark truth that lies behind that door, it begins to look likely. What exactly went on behind that open door? Grab a blanket and a hot drink and start reading to find out…
Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘The Body Snatcher‘ (1884). Robert Louis Stevenson‘s 1884 Christmas ghost story, ‘The Body Snatcher’ was advertised by six men who were paid to roam the streets of London wearing huge coffin-shaped sandwich boards and plaster skulls. These figures caused such a stir among the people of London that the police were called in to ‘suppress the nuisance’ … the power of advertising! Based on the body-snatching mania in Edinburgh during the early nineteenth century, where criminals would steal newly interred corpses from the local graveyards (and, where necessary, kill people to provide fresh corpses more quickly), Stevenson’s story turns on that very issue -the fact that body-snatchers often snatched the life out of their victims before snatching their bodies. But there’s a surprise twist in this story…
Oscar Wilde, ‘The Canterville Ghost‘ (1887). Okay, so this one isn’t all that scary, but it’s nice to have a bit of variation. It was the first of Wilde’s short stories to be published. An American family move into Canterville Chase and soon become acquainted with Sir Simon, ghost of the old owner of the manor centuries ago. But this is a ghost story with the Oscar Wilde treatment, so the family completely fail to be terrified by the presence of the ghost. Indeed, in a curious twist it is the ghostly Sir Simon who ends up terrified, when the twin sons of the American owners produce a mock-up fake ghost! ‘The Canterville Ghost’ is a satire on the social and cultural differences between the American and English people, as well as on the Victorian ghost-story genre itself.
Rudyard Kipling, ‘At the End of the Passage‘ (1890). We’re off to India for this next tale, about a British colonial official who – afflicted by the severe heat – begins to hallucinate and experience unsettling visions. But are they mere hallucinations? And can someone be so frightened of their own shadow as to – well, we’ll say no more, for fear of giving the game away. (Some curious facts about Kipling’s life and work here.)
M. R. James, ‘Lost Hearts‘ (1895). One of just two stories M. R. James published in the Victorian era (many of his stories were written in the 1900s and 1910s), this is an unsettling story about an orphan boy who goes to stay at the house of his distant relation, Mr Abney. Soon after his arrival, the young boy learns that two children who came to stay at the house in the past both mysteriously disappeared…
Henry James, The Turn of the Screw (1898). This is the ‘ambiguous ghost story’ par excellence, a tale that – like many of James’s less popular works (he described The Turn of the Screw as a ‘pot-boiler’), refuses to tell us exactly what it means. The main narrative is told by a governess at a house who is put in charge of two children, Miles and Flora. The governess begins to see two figures of a man and a man around the grounds of the house, and learns from the housekeeper that Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, both former employees at the house (and both of whom have since died), were involved in a relationship and were also close to the two children. The sinister tale builds slowly, refusing to offer any clear solutions – which makes the whole business even spookier. More of a ‘novella’ than a short story (James himself liked the vague word ‘tale’), The Turn of the Screw is well worth devoting a few hours to on a cold autumnal evening.
Some of the online copies of the stories we’ve linked to aren’t the easiest to read, but thankfully many of these classic Victorian ghost stories are included in The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories, a great compendium of ghoulish fun which we’d recommend to the phantasmobibliophile, or lover of ghostly reading. Henry James’s novella is available in The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories (Oxford World’s Classics).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Images (top to bottom): Charles Dickens, public domain; M. R. James in 1900, author unknown, Wikimedia Commons.