Monday, July 6, 2015

Victorian Secrets

Gaslit Nightmares: An Anthology of Victorian Tales of Terror (1988): edited by Hugh Lamb, containing the following stories:

  • The Undying Thing (1901) by Barry Pain
  • The Serpent's Head (1886) by Lady Dilke
  • The Phantom Model(1894) by Hume Nisbet
  • The Black Reaper (1899) by Bernard Capes
  • The Accursed Cordonnier (1900) by Bernard Capes
  • The Vengeance of the Dead (1894) by Robert Barr
  • The Beckside Boggle (1886) by Alice Rea
  • Maw-Sayah (1893) by Charles J. Mansford
  • In the Court of the Dragon (1895) by Robert W. Chambers
  • The Old House in Vauxhall Walk (1882) by Charlotte Riddell
  • The Drunkard's Death (1836) by Charles Dickens
  • Luella Miller (1902) by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
  • A Psychological Experiment (1900) by Richard Marsh
  • The Mystic Spell (1899) by Dick Donovan
  • The Late Mr Watkins of Georgia (1898) by Joel Chandler Harris
  • The Ghost in the Mill (1870) by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • A Derelict (1895) by J. A. Barry
  • The Haunted Mill (1891) by Jerome K. Jerome
  • An Unexpected Journey (1893) by J. H. Pearce
  • The Pride of the Corbyns (1875) by Isabella Banks
  • The Page Boy's Ghost (1896) by The Countess of Munster
  • Mysterious Maisie (1895) by Wirt Gerrare.

'Late Victorian Tales of Terror' would be more accurate, as the 1836 story by Charles Dickens is an outlier by nearly 40 years. This is the sort of anthology that I think would appeal more to someone with a historical interest in the horror genre. The stories aren't great for the most part, but I had only encountered four of the 22 stories before (oddly enough, those include the two worst stories in the anthology, by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Jerome K. Jerome, and the best, Mary Wilkins-Freeman's terrific all-timer "Luella Miller").

There's no general introduction, but editor Hugh Lamb is generous with the introductions to the individual stories, giving brief bios of the writers and publication information. You might be surprised how rare both those things are in anthologies. 

Some stories are barely vignettes masquerading as 'true' stories, representing the vast array of such ghost stories that appeared during the Victorian era, especially once the whole medium craze kicked off in the second half of the 19th century and ghosts were everywhere, pretending to be real.

Other than "Luella Miller," which is a great and unusual and under-stated vampire story that deservedly gets reprinted a lot, my favourite stories tend towards the pulpy and baroque. "Mysterious Maisie" by Wirt Gerrare(!) is fast-paced and pulpy as Hell, filled with monsters, a monstrous medium, and a 4-foot-long crocodile guarding the kitchen. It's the sort of story in which the ghost is the good guy. Or good girl, in this case.

I also enjoyed "The Pride of the Corbyns," a somewhat racist story set in the Barbados that involves angry white people rising in their mausoleum to protest the burial of mixed-race bodies among them (!!). "The Undying Thing" isn't quite as great as its title, but it still works. "The Accursed Cordonnier" is a bit of an oddity, dealing as it does with the Wandering Jew. Or is it the Anti-Christ? This being 19th-century England, we first encounter him in a Gentleman's Club.

If you're looking to be consistently scared, I'd probably look elsewhere. But if you're interested in a wide variety of approaches to horror, some excellent and some a little stinky, Gaslit Nightmares is well-worth seeking out. As should be the case, a decent number of female writers are represented here, as ghost stories were one of those genres in which women writers could successfully seek publication during the Victorian era. Oh, and that Dickens story, written when Dickens was a young writer, still packs quite a wallop. Recommended.

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