What unites ghost stories and folksong? A Venn diagram of the two would surely put love and death in the centre. Robert Aickman wrote in the introduction to The 3rd Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories that the eerie tale fulfils our “need to escape, at least occasionally, from a mechanistic world, ever more definable, ever more predictable, and, therefore, ever more unsatisfying and frustrating.”
The traditional song, often set in a vague and archaic time, can be equally attractive to those who wish to escape the prosaic world. However, the folk song and the ghost story do not ignore the stuff of life. Instead, they transform it into art that captivates our attention while making us engage with the problems of our humanity.
A case in point is that of “The Demon Lover”. This ballad, which dates back to 1685 and has since become part of the corpus of traditional song in Britain, Ireland and North America, tells of a woman whose lover returns from sea only to find her married to another man. The old flame re-pledges his love, telling her that he turned down a king’s daughter for her sake. He promises her wealth and persuades her to leave her husband and young children, and they sail off in one of his seven ships. When at sea, however, he either reveals his true identity (supernatural) or their intended destination (Hell) and, with that, the ship sinks.
This ballad speaks of the dangers posed to lovers by the strength of romantic bonds, the way that love can be a gateway to danger and dissolution if not handled with care, and the return of spirits (emotional or literal) to make their claims upon, or take advantage of, our humanity. These themes have been constants in the horror and ghost story traditions for at least two centuries.
Love, especially its more physical expression, has tended to be the preserve of the vampire in popular culture and literature. However, while the vampire desires our life force, the ghost desires us in our entirety. The vampire lover, like Le Fanu’s Carmilla or Stoker’s Dracula, comes either out of nowhere or from somewhere “out there”. Ghosts, on the other hand, come out of our past, from intimate spaces, or even out of our thoughts. They come to take us back with them, or at least to ensure that no one else can have us.
Like the ballad, the following stories urge us to know the difference between the ideal and the real, and to be careful with our hearts and with our promises. For “love” can cover a multitude of sins.
“The Adventure of the German Student” by Washington Irving (1824)
Irving frequently made use of folklore and folk-motif in his writings, from headless horsemen to protagonists lulled into long-lasting supernatural slumbers to landscapes, like Sleepy Hollow, signposted by legend. This tale is both timeless, in its treatment of the Demon Lover theme, and timely, in its commentary upon events that were, at time of writing, well within living memory.
Wolfgang is a young German student sent to France to recover from a “mental malady” which has convinced him that there is “an evil genius or spirit seeking to ensnare him and ensure his perdition.” Sadly he arrives on the eve of the French Revolution and, though he is at first an ardent supporter he is left disenchanted by the violence and slaughter of the Terror. Retreating into his studies, Wolfgang rejects the promise of the future for the moribund past, reading ancient tomes from the “charnel-house of decayed literature.” At the same time, he begins to live a rich fantasy life, musing on the imagined faces of beautiful women “surpassing the reality” of those real, living women in the streets of Paris. However, one night, in the shadow of the guillotine, he meets a woman who is the embodiment of all he has dreamed of.
To the modern reader, this story drips with classic gothic images – ancient buildings, dark chambers, thunder, lightning and, of course, a Demon Lover. Despite this, there is a dichotomy in this story that would have been thoroughly modern for 1824. Through the setting, the reminders of radical politics in an ancient city that make the personal political and the political personal, Irving sets up a tension between the ancient and the modern, the conservative and the progressive. This suggests that Irving is writing not only about the dangers of romantic passion but also about the dangers of uncontrolled passions in general.
Wolfgang comes from a “good family”, yet he is also a follower of the mystic philosopher Emmanuel Swedenborg, living with “an ideal world of his own around him.” He is clearly in the vanguard of the reaction against the Enlightenment values that later blossomed into Romanticism. There is a tension within his character; he lives “under the sway of the ‘Goddess of Reason'”, yet he believes in malign supernatural forces. Wolfgang is something of a freethinker, “tainted by the liberal doctrines of the day” according to Irving, yet he is also a “literary ghoul” who hides from the future amongst the decaying ideas of the past.
Like the protagonist, the brooding, morbid presence of Paris itself stands as a symbol of the inevitable failure of the ideal. The guillotine is referred to as an “engine”, a word that would have carried connotations of progress to readers living in the midst of the Industrial Revolution in 1824. However, this engine suggests that the future holds little promise.
How does all this relate to the Demon Lover? Just as the ideals of virtue lead to horror on the streets of Paris, Wolfgang’s dreams of the ideal lover lead to his own personal horror. Wolfgang and the revolutionaries are linked by “passion” justify their actions with “Reason” and condone them through “Social compacts”. In both cases, madness and death result.
“The Adventure of the German Student” is available for free online.
“John Charrington’s Wedding” by E. Nesbit (1891)
Nesbit is perhaps best remembered for her classic novels for young readers, The Railway Children and Five Children and It. As Naomi Alderman points out in her introduction to Penguin’s 2016 collection Horror Stories, even those books, patterned with cosy Edwardian nostalgia for the modern reader, have “something dark lurking within”, the ever-present threats of poverty, injustice and persecution. It is safe to suggest that Nesbit, a founding member of the socialist Fabian Society, had a keen social conscience. Married to an unfaithful husband, she had also experienced the darker side of romantic love.
“John Charrington’s Wedding” reads like a folktale, with its portents, premonitions and blunt, matter-of-fact ending. The narrator, known only as Geoffrey, tells the story of the courtship of his friend Charrington and May Foster, “the only pretty girl in our twenty-mile radius.” Previously rejected three times, Charrington wins over May and the two plan their wedding. Two days before the nuptials the prospective groom goes to see a wealthy relation who is on his deathbed. Despite his fiancé’s fear that “something will happen”, Charrington is certain that nothing can stop him from returning to marry the woman he loves.
In the small English village in which the characters live, love seems to be a spectacle or game. When asked how he managed to convince Miss Foster to marry him, Charrington credits “perseverance” and “luck”, making his courtship sound more like a sport than a relationship. The upcoming marriage is discussed and the lovers’ motives dissected at tea tables and in the narrator’s social club. If there is a consistent theme it is observation. On more than one occasion the narrator happens upon the lovers in intimate moments, such as when Charrington makes the portentous promise, “My dear, I believe I should come back from the dead, if you wanted me”, or when May is in tears as Charrington leaves to visit his sick benefactor. Each time the narrator makes the couple aware of his presence with an air of subtlety. When Charrington returns to marry May it is before a “double row of eager onlookers”, and much is made of what the witnesses saw and their reactions. The lovers are made to understand that the community is watching them, and expects to be a part of their story. This reflects the dual nature of marriage; it is both a private and a public institution, a bond between two people sanctioned by society and solemnised before the community. However, once the door has closed behind the “happy couple”, we are shut out and left to conjecture.
“John Charrington’s Wedding” is, on the surface, a simple tale of the dangers of unearthly promises made by foolish mortals in the throes of passion. Despite this, there is a contrast between the public nature of their courtship and May’s mysterious fate in the intimate space of the closed carriage. This, combined with the constant reminders of Charrington’s singular determination to get what he wants, makes us wonder at what may become of love, away from the scrutiny of third parties. As Nesbit sums up:
What had passed in that carriage on the homeward drive? No-one knows – no-one will ever know.
“John Charrington’s Wedding” is available for free online.
“Yuki-Onna” by Lafcadio Hearn (1904)
Born to an Irish father and a Greek mother, Hearn spent the first part of his life in Ireland and the USA, before moving to Japan, marrying a Japanese woman and taking citizenship. He went on to become one of the most influential early literary mediators between Japan and the West. Fans of horror should thank him for his two collections, In Ghostly Japan (1899) and Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904), which provide us with traditional Japanese ghost stories, some of which were told to Hearn orally. Thus Hearn’s stories are simultaneously part of Japanese folk tradition and English literary tradition.
“Yuki-Onna” means “Snow Woman”. Minokichi, a young woodcutter, is caught in a snowstorm with his older colleague Mosaku. Sheltering in a hut, they fall asleep. The younger man wakes in the middle of the night to find a beautiful woman, white as snow, freezing Mosaku to death with her chilly breath. Yuki-Onna decides to spare Minokichi, because he is “a pretty boy”, but warns him to keep their meeting a secret, on pain of death. The next year Minokichi meets a beautiful girl named O-Yuki, and they fall in love.
What follows, though predictable as folktales often are, is one of the most enduring stories in Japanese folklore, memorably and beautifully brought to life in the film Kwaidan (1965).
There is a kind of folktale, common in more than one part of the world, which shows spouses (usually husbands) the consequences of not keeping promises. As well as this, they reinforce the idea that there is a time to hold your tongue and that, if you do not, the relationship will no longer be the same. It is interesting to note the dichotomy between the human and demon lovers. Yuki-Onna is allied to the natural world, her appearance coinciding with the “roaring” of the river, “the awful wind, and the continual slashing of the snow against the door.” Minokichi is a woodcutter, one who relies on the natural world but also tries to bend it to his own will, leaving his mark on it. We are reminded early on of the comparative helplessness of human beings in the face of nature when the woodcutters are unable to cross the river and escape the storm:
Several times a bridge was built where the ferry is; but the bridge was each time carried away by a flood. No common bridge can resist the current there when the river rises.
Just as “no common bridge” can resist the force of the natural world, Minokichi, a common man, cannot resist the supernatural force that he encounters. However, love is the force which ultimately protects him, checking the awesome power of the Demon Lover.
It is notable that this is the only one of the five stories on this list which does not end with the downfall of the human lover. This is perhaps because his love has created new life, in the form of ten children, and an uncomplicated parental love that binds Minokichi and his Demon Lover together. This contrasts with the other stories, in which the love stands for an eternal uncertainty over what might have been. Stories such as “Yuki-Onna” show that love is not an end, but a process.
“The Beckoning Fair One” by Oliver Onions (1911)
Oliver Onions was a prolific writer and this story has been much anthologised. This is perhaps due to its being “one of the (possibly) six great masterpieces in the field” according to Robert Aickman in The 3rd Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories. Whether this is true or not, it is a story that rewards repeated readings with gradual revelation of its complex pattern of themes.
Paul Oleron is a middle-aged writer living a shabby-genteel life on the fringes of success. He moves into a “shunned house” in a working-class neighbourhood of London. Here he hopes to finish his magnum opus, Romilly. However the house and the echoes of a previous tenant begin to exert a strange influence on him that threatens not only his life but that of the only person who truly loves him.
One of the key themes in this story is the conflict between ideal love and real love. Oleron, a writer, clearly lives much of his life in his own head, convinced that “a life without nobility and generosity and disinterestedness was no life for him.” Despite this, as he ages, he is vaguely aware of moving towards a crisis in which he may have to “question whether it would not have profited him better to have ruled his life by less exigent ideals.”
Romilly, the heroine of his novel, is intended to be “the Woman all men desired”, a lofty ideal, yet she is based on his friend, the writer Elsie Bengough, an immensely practical “New Woman” who works for her living and whose physicality, from her “sudden and ample movements” to her “explosive utterances” anchors her to life and reality.
Elsie’s physicality is in direct contrast to her mysterious rival, the eponymous ghost of the title. For much of the story the ghost is distant and embodied by the house. Paul is bewitched by the intimate domestic space which first distracts him from his work and then turns him not only against Elsie, but against life. By the end it is Elsie who frightens Paul, who waits “in an agony of suspense for her tread on the stair” whilst he waits in near-ecstatic excitement for the appearance of the ghost, thinking of her as a coy lover and preparing for “A Marriage” to her. Oleron’s idealised heroine and the spirit that haunts him become inextricably linked:
On the morrow, he must set about the writing of a novel with a heroine so winsome, capricious, adorable, jealous, wicked, beautiful, inflaming, and altogether evil, that men should stand amazed. She was coming over him now; he knew by the alteration of the very air of the room when she was near him; and that soft thrill of bliss that had begun to stir in him never came unless she was beckoning, beckoning…
“The Beckoning Fair One” is available for free online.
“The Demon Lover” by Elizabeth Bowen (1941)
Elizabeth Bowen has been praised both for her ghost stories and for her depictions of daily life in wartime London. This tale melds the two.
It is the height of the Blitz and Mrs Drover’s family has moved to the countryside to escape the bombing. She returns to the city to pick up some belongings only to find a letter from her old fiancé. He was supposed to have died in the Great War, twenty-five years previously. The letter reminds her of her promise, and his intention, that they would reunite.
Sharing its name and mirroring its plot, Bowen’s story is the only one on this list which can be said to be directly linked to the ballad. However, there are some key differences between the two. In the song, the woman is tempted by the Demon Lover and ultimately goes with him of her own accord – not so with Mrs Drover. The ballad emphasises the strength of the Demon Lover’s feelings for his “old true love”, whereas Bowen’s tale seems to be more about the absence of love. When Mrs Drover thinks of her fiancé, she recalls:
He was never kind to me, not really. I don’t remember him kind at all. Mother said he never considered me. He was set on me, that was what it was – not love. Not meaning a person well.
Mrs Drover too seems to have had little in the way of fond feelings for the man she promised herself to. Though she “behaved well” when he was reported missing in action she now realises that she cannot even remember his face. Despite this, she does recall that “She could not have plighted a more sinister troth” than the promise made between them. Like “John Charrington’s Wedding”, then, “The Demon Lover” is in part a warning against rash promises made under the social guise of love.
The story is fogged by anxiety. The war has “silted up the streets” with an eerie calm, and boarded-up windows, broken chimneys and cracked walls provide mute reminders of the arbitrary and impersonal death that nightly rains down on the homes of civilians far from the front. Together with this, there is Mrs Drover’s anxiety over the consequences of her promise. It could be argued that Mrs Drover’s anxiety is a manifestation of the guilt of a generation of women who waved off their fathers, brothers and lovers as they walked very slowly towards the machine guns at Ypres, Passchendaele and the Somme. A famous recruiting poster of the time bore the slogan, “Women of Britain Say – GO!” Furthermore Virginia Woolf in her long essay “Three Guineas” notes how upper-class women (Mrs. Drover lives in Kensington) “used all their immense stores of charm, of sympathy, to persuade young men that to fight was heroic”. It is only once another conflict has drained away all the cosy domesticity of Mrs Drover’s life that the horrific consequences of the last war rush back in.
Stories of Demon Lovers are not only about love, but about guilt, fear and the claim of our past upon our present.
“The Demon Lover” is available in Collected Stories, published by Vintage.
Lewis Hurst blogs on horror and supernatural fiction at The Uncanny Man.