Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Haunted House - Dickens, Gaskell, Collins, et al

The Haunted House
is, according to The Victorian Web, the second of two collections of stories by Dickens and a few fellow authors. The stories are framed by the premise that a group of friends is living together in a presumably haunted house and they share their stories about the ghosts they encounter in the house over a Christmas holiday.

I was quite excited when I heard about this book and promptly ordered a copy from Amazon and dropped everything and read it when it arrived. My enthusiasm waned as the stories didn't quite live up to the premise, though some were interesting as stand-alone pieces. My main complaint is that they weren't really ghost stories insofar as having the narrator experience a paranormal encounter. Rather, they were stories that the fictional inhabitants of the house (i.e., Dickens, Collins, Gaskell, et al) were told by the ghosts in their rooms. But, those fictional inhabitants didn't actually tell about how they interacted with the ghosts, which is the whole point of a ghost story, in my opinion.

My favorite of the collection was Wilkie Collins', "The Ghost in the Cupboard Room," in which the ghost in the room recounts why he is haunted by a candlestick. It is truly an interesting story, inventive, well-written, and suspenseful. You don't know until the end whether the circumstance described in the story (i.e., the narrator is bound and gagged and left in the hull of a ship watching while a candle burns down and the man awaits his death as the flame approaches the long powder match that his captors have devised as his final torture) is the one that makes a ghost out of the narrator.

My least favorite is a toss-up between Dickens' "The Ghost in Master B's Room," and, sadly, Gaskell's "The Ghost in the Garden Room." I never could figure out what Dickens story was about--it wavered between the absurd and the pathetic without a coherent story line. Gaskell's turned out to be "The Crooked Branch," which I read in the Gaskell anthology, Gothic Tales (Penguin Classics). It was my least favorite in that collection as well, being utterly depressing and somewhat predictable. In this collection, it merely underscored my criticism that these weren't really ghost stories at all, but were called as such because of the frame around them.

My second favorite story was the one by George Augustus Sala, "The Ghost in the Double Room." This was a very inventive story in which, despite the age-old narrative trick of it-was-all-a-dream, the narrator is afflicted (aka haunted) by the ague, that is he develops the shakes on the eve of his wedding and cannot shake them. I've never read anything by Sala before, but I'm motivated to look for more of his works. This was a fun, highly readable story.

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