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.
1. “The Phantom ’Rickshaw” // Rudyard Kipling
In 1888’s “The Phantom ’Rickshaw,” Jack Pansay 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 have 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.
According to Kipling biographer Andrew Lycett, the author put a fair amount of himself into the tale. Pansay, for example, begins by saying that his doctor told him he needed rest and fresh air; this, Lycett writes, “clearly referred to Rudyard’s physical and mental condition” when he spent time in Simla (now Shimla), India. Lycett also says that Pansay’s hallucinations are drawn from Kipling’s thoughts about a woman he couldn’t get off his mind: Florence Garrard, who broke up with him while he was in India, causing Kipling to throw himself into his work (something else he had in common with Pansay). The experience inspired Kipling’s first novel, The Light That Failed.
2. “The Open Door” // Margaret Oliphant
Scottish novelist Margaret Oliphant was a prolific writer; after publishing her first novel in 1849, she went on to pen everything from travelogues to historical fiction to literary criticism—and a few ghost stories, too. In “The Open Door,” published in the early 1880s, the young son of the narrator 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. 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. Oliphant dedicated the story to the mother of her publisher, William Blackwood III; the Blackwood family home served as inspiration for the home in “The Open Door.”
3. “The Cold Hand” // Felix Octavius Carr Darley
The 1846 story “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 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, Felix Octavius Carr 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.
4. “The Old Nurse's Story” // Elizabeth Gaskell
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” from 1852 features a sweet little orphan girl, Rosamund, that the Old Nurse devoted her own youth to caring for. She accompanies the child when she becomes a ward of elderly relatives, and takes up residence in a grand but lonely mansion. Life is settling nicely for the nurse and her sweet charge ... until a tiny ghost-child begins 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” // Saki
Saki was the pen name of Scottish writer Hector Hugo Munro, who specialized in wit and satire. “The Open Window,” published in 1914, is a quick dive into the style that made him popular. It concerns a man who has gone to the countryside 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” // Arthur Machen
“The Bowmen” by Welsh author Arthur Machen (a.k.a. Arthur Llewellyn Jones) is probably the most stout-hearted ghost story ever written. In the story, the English soldiers of WWI are outnumbered by thousands of Germans at a key piece of ground. They know all is lost, and accept it with good cheer. All except one soldier, who remembers his Latin, Adsit Anglis Sanctus Georgius: “May St. George be a present help to the English.” The story was published in a 1914 issue of The Evening News and was hugely popular, but in an introduction to the story published in 1915, Machen wrote, “I was heartily disappointed with it, I remember, and thought it—as I still think it—an indifferent piece of work.” You can form your own opinion by reading it here.
A version of this story ran in 2014; it has been updated for 2023.