Ed. Tara Moore | Publisher: Valancourt Books
During the Victorian era, it became traditional for publishers of newspapers and magazines to print ghost stories during the Christmas season for chilling winter reading by the fireside or candlelight. Now for the first time thirteen of these tales are collected here, including a wide range of stories from a diverse group of authors, some well-known, others anonymous or forgotten.
It really isn’t Christmas for me without a book of ghost stories. I read Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories last year, and this year I decided to go for something classic…
I loved the way the introduction to The Valancourt Book of Victorian Ghost Stories set the scene and I thought it was an interesting overview of the role of ghost stories in Victorian society. And I definitely learned something. I would have liked a bit more about the enduring importance of ghost stories, to put into context the reason for this anthology in the first place.
For starters, the quality of the writers featured in the Book of Victorian Ghost Stories is phenomenal; Elizabeth Gaskell and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to name two of the most famous. And I found all the stories generally quite spooky, in a way I wasn’t anticipating, and very entertaining.
There were a few standout themes, which it was interesting to see different treatments on in the various stories. The haunted house was very popular and used in a variety of different ways. The ghosts and ghouls often had a physical form, which is less common in modern ghost stories. There was also almost always a reliable first-person narrator, to add that authenticity and believability to the story and make it scarier.
Some of the stories were a little long, and the one for children I found a little moralising (How Peter Parley Laid A Ghost). However, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and discovered some real little gems of stories in the collection.
I’m not going to go through all the stories, because there are quite a few, but some of my favourites were:
Sir Walter Scott, The Tapestried Room
I’ve never read anything by Sir Walter Scott before, but I’ve definitely heard him mentioned as a favourite author of the period. I was interested to see what his writing style would be like.
I loved the introduction to this story, where the author (who is also the narrator) talks about the best time to read a ghost story, and how oral storytelling is a more effective medium than print. I’m not sure I would agree with his conclusions, but I liked the glimpse into the author’s thought process.
The story was quick, fun, and quite chilling. It had a rather obvious conclusion – but was no less enjoyable for that. The language was very typical of the period, but even for a Victorian writer I found it a little convoluted and old-fashioned at times.
I did laugh a little when the protagonist, who has been stitched up by his friend and tricked into sleeping in a haunted room, suddenly decides to forgive him for no good reason (because he’s a “good chap” and has a big house). I’m not sure I would be so generous!
Elizabeth Gaskell, The Old Nurse’s Story
I adore Elizabeth Gaskell, so I was super excited to find her ghost story in the anthology.
The beginning of the story is a little confusing without the explanation, but once you’re into the swing of things it all makes sense. The story was a little long for a ghost story, but very spooky (child ghosts! The creepiest of all the ghosts!), had great suspense and tension, and was actually slightly disturbing… I enjoyed it very much.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Captain of the ‘Pole-Star’
Arthur Conan Doyle is a master of the mystery form, which he puts to use in this short ghost story. He was also familiar with writing shorter stories, which I think served him better than some of the other writers (the story by Margaret Oliphant had chapters, which was a little laborious).
I loved the arctic setting, which felt very unusual, and was interested to learn that Arthur Conan Doyle himself made a journey to the arctic circle. It’s described beautifully, and that wonderful sense of place which is captured so succinctly is essential to the spookiness of the tale.
The characters were of a familiar type if you’ve read Sherlock Holmes, as is the style of narration and pacing. The story itself has many similar tropes to the other ghost stories in the Book, which must have been key ingredients for the genre at the time. However, I think what sets this story apart, is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s unwillingness to dismiss the supernatural or find a rational explanation for the events he described. I think that made it all the spookier.
I haven’t read a whole lot this week, I have to say. I’ve definitely been slacking. But Christmas is a busy time, and other things have had to take priority (sigh)…
However, this book counts for 4 categories on my December Book Bingo, so I’m feeling pretty good about that! The Valancourt Book of Christmas Ghost Stories is my “book with a Christmas theme”, “something spooky”, “short story collection”, and “children’s” – 40 points.
How are you all doing with your reading this month? Is anyone else struggling to make time?!