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The First Modern Ghost Story: Kipling’s ‘Mrs Bathurst’

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses one of Rudyard Kipling’s most baffling stories

I agree with Neil Gaiman: Rudyard Kipling was at his best in the short story form. The generous 800-page Fantasy Masterworks volume of Kipling’s ‘fantastical tales’ which I own (The Mark of the Beast And Other Fantastical Tales (FANTASY MASTERWORKS)) showcases the work of a writer who possessed not only a staggering imagination but narrative ingenuity which we rarely see in writers of short stories. Of all Kipling’s short stories, ‘Mrs Bathurst’ is one of the most ingenious. It is also one of the most genuinely chilling.

But ‘Mrs Bathurst’ is not among the more famous of Kipling’s stories, so it’s worth providing a brief summary here. I say ‘providing’ but ‘attempting’ may end up being a more accurate word, since this tale is difficult to summarise. A group of men who work for the railways in South Africa or in the marines sit about telling stories to each other. One of their number, Pyecroft, begins telling the others about a man, Vickery, a warrant officer who deserted the service in mysterious circumstances. Read the rest of this entry

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Flaxman Low: The First Psychic Detective

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle investigates the Victorian world of a neglected ‘psychic detective’

The popularity of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, published in The Strand magazine from 1891 until the 1920s, led to many imitators. As well as such creations as Ernest Bramah’s Max Carrados, the blind detective, and the psychological detective, Dr John Dollar (created by Doyle’s own brother-in-law, Raffles creator E. W. Hornung), a mini sub-genre of fictional detective also emerged: the psychic detective or paranormal investigator. Flaxman Low was not the most successful of these, but he is one of the most satisfying and enjoyable.

Although numerous scholars of the ghost story and psychic detective tale have traced the fictional paranormal investigator back to Dr Martin Hesselius, the creation of the Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu (whose 1869 story ‘Green Tea’ remains popular), it was not until the turn of the century, and in the first few years of the twentieth century, that the fictional psychic detective really took off. This was partly, as I explore in my academic study Bewilderments of Vision, a result of Read the rest of this entry

A Very Short Biography of M. R. James

The curious life of Montague Rhodes James

Many people regard M. R. James (1862-1936) as the finest writer of ghost stories in the English language. How did he come to write such highly regarded tales? In this post we offer a very short biography of M. R. James, focusing on the most curious or eye-catching aspects of his life.

Montague Rhodes James was born in Kent, England in 1862, the son of a clergyman, though from the age of three he was raised in Suffolk. The family lived at the Rectory in Great Livermere, Suffolk, which, a century and a half earlier, been the childhood home of the Suffolk antiquary Thomas Martin (c. 1696–1771), nicknamed ‘Honest Tom Martin of Palgrave’. Whether the course of M. R. James’s life – namely, his lifelong interest in the past – was inspired on some level by Honest Tom’s ghost is not, alas, recorded. Read the rest of this entry