Thursday, December 23, 2010

Some Famous Ghosts of Literature

I'd forgotten all about this ghostly article by legendary Melbourne book dealer and Penny Bloods collector, John P. Quaine. It also appeared in The Argus, in January 1938, and mentions Roy Bridges' A Mirror of Silver at the end.

Queer Tales of Witches, Vampires, Ghouls, Banshees, -and Doppel-gangers

"Like one that on a lonesome road doth
walk in fear and dread,
And, having once looked round, goes
on and turns no more his head,
Because he knows a frightful fiend
doth close behind him tread!"

It is no use any longer disguising the unwelcome truth that we are living in an age of terror. I am not alluding to any of the numerous political and social worries over which the world weeps at present, but to another and (from the bookman's point of view) more unwholesome development.

Leering at us from every bookstall to-day is a bewildering array of ephemera devoted solely to alleged tales of terror, horror, and associated frightfulness. In every case the coloured wrapper is garnished with the portrayal of a fear smitten maiden in the clutches of a ghoul-like creature busily engaged in putting her to death by some unimaginable method of maltreatment.
It is only just to mention that the terror goes no further than the wrapper. The "nerve-jolting tales" describe the menace of unearthly love-makers. Usually the heroine takes a midnight stroll through a lonely, forest, crosses a glade, and encounters a select company of the "undead dead" dancing merrily on the moon-kissed sward. She discovers, of course, that they are not nice people to know.

These tales, so unutterably wearying in their straining after thrills, add nothing to the world's ghost-lore, and they are merely conducive to profanity. Students of the uncanny in literature positively refuse to enthuse over the antics of corybantic cadavers.

No simple scribbler can write a readable ghost story. Like an effective painting, it has to be the work of an artist. Surrealism in the field of the phantom is out of place. The Rev. Montague Summers, the world's greatest authority on terrific literature, avers that only those who believe in ghosts can write about them properly.

This is a somewhat debatable point. H. G. Wells and other writers who scout the idea of supernaturalism have produced some excellent ghost stories. The authors of such narratives, like the ever increasing army of people who collect them, are men and women of all shades of belief - or none at all. The ghost story enthusiasts, whether they believe in veritable psychic phenomena and are familiar with the activities of the doppel-ganger, polter-geist, wraith, or revenant, or, on the other hand, laugh at such manifestations as subjective hallucination ("plain hooey," in modern American), are united in their appreciation of the story-as a story.

So we of the Bug and Goblin Brother-hood are not concerned with the truth or falsity of any of the choice items we prize. Allegedly true accounts like Dale Owen's "Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World," Mrs. Crowe's "Night Side of Nature" (a classic of legendary lore), or the scores of purely propagandist volumes issued from the era of the "Rochester Rappings" down to our own time find room on our shelves alongside such avowedly imaginary tales as Stevenson's "Body-snatcher" or Bram Stoker's "Dracula."

Now the collecting of ghost stories does not mean cramming our shelves with everything relating to the debatable land. Were it so, even the most modest collection would more than fill our Public Library. Only the very rare volumes or those produced by master hands are worth shelving, and the innumerable stereotyped tales of benignant or malignant phantoms gliding through dismal corridors may be classed with the modern ephemeral literature already alluded to.

The very air breathed by the specialist in supernatural lore is impregnated with warlocks, witches, vampires, ghouls, boggles, trolls, leprechauns, and banshees.

The orthodox spectre, with warning finger uplifted, plays only a small part in the great ghastly drama displayed before the mental optics of the occult student.

Of all the terrifying performers in these supernormal romances the vampire is universally regarded as first favourite. The vampire was rare in English literature before the beginning of the 19th century. On the Continent of Europe, of course, he was always a commonplace. Then Byron introduced us to one in his "Giaour"; Southey had another in his poem "Thalaba," but there was nothing in prose form until Byron's slight fragment, upon which Dr. Polidori based his gruesome story, so long attributed to Byron himself. This tale, it will be recalled, was, like Mrs. Shelley's much abused "Frankenstein," the result of that famous gathering at Geneva in 1816.

I am sure Coleridge's "Christabel" would have been a very fine vampire story, but just as we are beginning to appreciate the lovely Lady Geraldine the poet stops dead and refuses to finish the narration. It remained for the father of all modern phantastic stories, Le Fanu, to finish the adventures of the sprightly lady. His tale "Carmilla" seems built upon Coleridge's fragment, combining the dreadful terrors of Prest's "Varney the Vampire or the Banquet of Blood" with the eerie suggestiveness of "Christabel." The more modern "Dracula" is only an enlargement of "Carmilla," with sundry additional horrors thrown in.

Le Fanu, curiously enough, was neglected for many years; you will search the pages of encyclopaedias and bibliographical dictionaries in vain for any reference to him. With the exception of a memoir in the "Dictionary of National Biography" he was ignored until recently, but now at last he is coming into his own.

He is the great master in the field of fear. Just a century ago he began his "Purcell Papers" in the "Dublin University Magazine" (a periodical which seems to have specialised in fierce stories), entitling the first of them "The Ghost and the Bone-setter." He never relied on impressive titles for his pieces; neither did he open up with "a wild scream of horror," but in the old-fashioned manner of his era he led up gradually to the terrible denouement, investing the narrative with an atmosphere of dread. Even his long detailed accounts of adjacent scenery hinted at inevitable infernal atrocity; his forest foliage breathed anathema; like the mysterious tree in Thomas Hood's "Dream" there were

"A crouching satyr luring here, and there a
goblin grim,
As staring lull of demon life as Gothic
sculptor's whim."

Le Fanu admirers here and abroad are still engaged In identifying his unsigned fragments which appeared in various publications. The list is not complete, but we are hopeful that eventually some-thing like a collected edition of his works will be published.

Besides the many ghost stories which rely on sheer horror for their sensation there are the hundreds of humorous supernatural narratives which abounded in old-time periodicals. These, as long as they do not end with a natural explanation of the phenomena (which renders a ghost story null and void In the eyes of the cult), are added to the collector's bag. Thus Ingoldsby's "Spectre of Tapplington" (a prose piece apart from the "Legends"), Samuel Lover's "Stories and Legends of Ireland" (all pure burlesque), and other note-worthy works which have embodied tales of the supernatural, humorously illustrated, are allowable in a ghost collection.

Tales of witchcraft, of course, rank next in popularity to the vampire stories, and of these Harrison Ainsworth's "Lancashire Witches," with all the plates by Gilbert, is the rara avis.
Australia has contributed little to the literature of Ghostland. For years we had to be satisfied with "Fisher's Ghost," and that unfortunate spectre had to work overtime.

It is rather surprising that more has not been done in acclimatising the old world phantoms. It may be that we are lacking somewhat in tapestried chambers and baronial halls, which seem so necessary for a self-respecting spectre during his nocturnal perambulations. Still, there is ample scope for such work. Scenes of violence (more sordid, may-hap, than those which sent forth the oversea phantoms on their wanderings) were common enough in our early days, and the sin-expiating beneficiaries would be passable substitutes for the bewigged or beshackled wraiths of Europe.

Our own Roy Bridges, however, be-stowed a boon on the Brotherhood of the Bug and the Goblin when he wrote his "Mirror of Silver." It finds pride of place in many a ghost-lover's collection.


  1. Hi James:

    Okay, I'll bite: tell us more about Roy Bridges and A Mirror of Silver (1927). I see it's listed in Bleiler, along with one other of Bridges' books, Legion: For We Are Many (1928). But the author doesn't show up in any of the three volumes of A Spectrum of Fantasy, nor are any of his short stories to be found in genre publication.


  2. Doug, it's not the marvellous piece of work JPQ suggests - a series of connected stories about a cursed mirror that lets the owner see the violent things that has happened in its presence in the past. Not bad, but no Bugs.