John C Adams Reviews 'The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories'

(Oxford, 1991)

This week's 'Monday Musings' feature from John C Adams Reviews is my review of a wonderful anthology, 'The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories'. It kicks off a weeklong special on the theme of 'Ghosts'.

Ghost stories are capable of immense variation and originality, but the writing of a truly excellent one still requires its author to follow the 'rules'. The reader's expectations of the components of a ghost story are quite firmly established. This makes selecting the best ghost stories from any period quite a challenge if the stories are to be fresh yet fulfill readers' expectations. The stakes are particularly high when considering the period synonymous with the ghost story: Victorian times.

'The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories' focuses on tales published during the period 1840-1910, a slight extension of 'Victorian' to cheekily include the Edwardian era, but one that permits the inclusion of some excellent writers in the subgenre. Consequently, the flexibility of the editors in extending the period under consideration is greatly in the reader's favour.

The selection begins with one of my favourites: 'The Old Nurse's Tale' by Elizabeth Gaskell (1852). Featuring many of the traditional elements of the ghost story, it is an excellent choice. Other well-known writers follow, such as Dickens, Henry James, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins. However, the selection of stories has been made very imaginatively. Instead of the more obvious choice for these famous authors, more nuanced choices are made, such as Dickens' 'To Be Taken With A Grain of Salt' (1865) and 'The Romance of Certain Old Clothes' (1868) by James. The very best writers of the time were included, but with a freshness that delights the reader.

One or two writers less well known for their ghost stories, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, were included. This gave a sense of the unpredictable to this anthology that I really enjoyed. But we were back on familiar territory by the end of the anthology, finishing with Algernon Blackwood's 1908 tale 'The Kit Bag'. There was a chronology of the Victorian period listing stories and writers at the end of the book that I found very helpful, too, detailing many more items than it had been possible to include in the main part of the anthology.

Many of the Victorian short story writers who penned regular ghost stories were women, possibly arising out of the traditional view of the time that women were inextricably linked to the home. Ghost stories began, and to some extent remain, grounded in home life, notwithstanding that some people's haunted homes were (or had been) very grand indeed. Female writers were well represented in this anthology.

When the ghost story emerged as a formal subgenre of horror and began to be included in magazines and periodicals, it was by no means a new phenomenon. In fact, telling scary tales around the fire is as old as mankind's existence. These features - the cosy fireside, the rapt listeners, the incremental increase in tension and suspense - were finely honed over millennia before the ghost story was first set down on paper.

This book provides an excellent overview of the best of the subgenre from a period that adored ghost stories and couldn't get enough of them.

I'll be blogging twice more this week as part of my weeklong themed 'Ghosts' special. On Wednesday I'll be posting my review of 'Haunted' by James Herbert ('Way Back Whensday'), and on Friday I'll be posting a review of the BBC sitcom 'Ghosts' for 'Weekend Watchers.'

In the meantime, the comments section is open. Many thanks to Kevin Escate, Erik Muller and Simon Berger for providing the images for this blog via Unsplash.

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