6 Creepy Victorian Ghost Stories to Read Right Now
Victorian and turn-of-the-century ghost stories have a particular attraction: They need no contrivances to create places that are lonely and old, a place where bad things are kept hushed up instead of dealt with. From the first line, you’re put in a world with no electricity to banish darkness and no 911 to call if the darkness becomes more than you can handle.
The narrator, Jack, has a torrid affair with the married Mrs. Wessington. Quickly his passion dies, his “fire of straw burnt itself out to a pitiful end,” and he tries to free himself of her. But even when he brutally tells her he can’t stand her, she refuses to believe they can’t live happily ever after. He makes plans to marry another woman, and Mrs. Wessington becomes so distraught that she dies, as Victorians who’ve been spurned are wont to do. Jack is very happy she’s dead. But he keeps seeing her private rickshaw around town. And then he sees her. Mrs. Wessington still has love left to give, whether Jack wants it or not.
When the narrator’s young son begins raving about an unbearable noise he hears at night outside their Victorian country mansion, everyone thinks the boy is going mad. Except his father, who believes his boy is neither crazy nor lying. Lying in wait at night, he too hears the noise, the most soul-wrenching piteous crying he’s ever heard. It’s coming from the abandoned ruins of the old servant’s quarters. It isn’t easy to recruit friends and servants to track down the source of the horrible noise, but if he’s to save his son from “brain-fever,” he must uncover the secret of the abandoned cottage.
"The Cold Hand," wherein an overnight guest is tormented in his bed by the specter of, well, a cold hand, is the first story in a different sort of ghost story collection. The compilation of tales in this particular book Ghost Stories: Collected with a Particular View to Counteract the Vulgar Belief in Ghosts and Apparitions are intended to disprove the existence of ghosts. Its compiler, Mr. Darley, does so by presenting mystery stories for which the most exciting solution is “ghost,” but in actuality is something easily explained. These tales have less style than Sherlock Holmes stories, but the same idea of illuminating the impossible so that whatever remains must be the truth.
Elizabeth Gaskell, well known enough in her day to simply go by “Mrs. Gaskell,” could spin a mean ghost story. Charles Dickens thought so, anyway. He mentored her and published her often in his journal Household Words. "The Old Nurse’s Story" features a sweet little orphan girl, Rosamund, that the Old Nurse devoted her own youth to caring for. She accompanied the child when she became a ward of elderly relatives, and took up residence in a grand but lonely mansion. Life was settling nicely for the nurse and her sweet charge ... until a tiny ghost-child began banging on the windows, leading little Rosamund up into freezing hills behind the estate. It seems the sins of the elderly relatives are demanding atonement in the form of the youngest member of the family.
5. The Open Window by Saki, 1914
Saki was the pen name of Scottish writer Hector Hugo Munro, who specialized in wit and satire. "The Open Window" is a quick delve into the style that made him popular. It concerns a man who has gone to the country-side to deal with his many minor ailments, particularly his nerves. While there he visits friends of a relative, mostly to have someone to talk to about his many afflictions. It is on one of these visits he learns of the tragedy that took place out on the bogs, a desperate widow’s delusion, and how formidable teenage girls can be.
6. The Bowmen by Arthur Machen, 1915
This is probably the most stout-hearted ghost story ever written—unless you’re German. Then it’s just propaganda. But at any rate, when the English soldiers of WWI were outnumbered by thousands of Germans at a key piece of ground, they knew all was lost, and accepted it with good cheer. All except one soldier, who remembered his Latin, Adsit Anglis Sanctus Georgius. “May St. George be a present help to the English."
BONUS: The Terrible Old Man by H.P. Lovecraft, 1920
And now we step completely out of Victoriana clear to 1920. But this is allowed; it’s done so that Mr. Lovecraft can be invited to the party. Mr. Lovecraft isn’t the sort of man whose feelings you want to hurt. Neither is The Terrible Old Man, who pays for his groceries in Spanish gold minted two centuries prior, and spends his evenings talking to a group of thrumming bottles that he addresses with colorful pirate names. Unfortunately, the three men that come to rob The Terrible Old Man one night aren’t aware of his sensitivity.