I used to avoid “funny” ghost stories. Humour seemed at odds with the effect I sought from reading about the supernatural. It dispelled the atmosphere, leaving the stories, and the reader, disenchanted. Later on, I learned that horror could be funny, and that funny things can be horrific.
The real turning point came when I read S.T. Joshi’s comments on “Herbert West–Reanimator” by H.P. Lovecraft. According to the preeminent scholar, here was both a darkly comic parody and an effective horror story together on the same page. This reading list was originally intended as a collection of parodies of the ghost story but, as I read, I found the selected works doing something subtly different from what I had expected. The stories in this list are not straightforward satires on the genre, though they may have fun with the more obvious tropes. Produced during the golden age of ghost fiction (roughly the mid-Victorian to interwar periods), these narratives use the themes and motifs of the genre to parody very human behaviours and concerns. The joke’s on us.
“A Ghost Story” by Mark Twain (1875)
I took a large room, far up Broadway, in a huge old building whose upper stories had been wholly unoccupied for years until I came. The place had long been given up to dust and cobwebs, to solitude and silence. I seemed groping among the tombs and invading the privacy of the dead.
So begins Twain’s tale, a classic gothic opening to a tale which drips (sometimes quite literally) with classic gothic imagery and tropes: cobwebs, rattling chains, clammy hands and “gouts of blood”. However, until the narrative “turns” it is hard not to be caught up in the horror and mystery of it all. This is an indication of Twain’s powers as a storyteller, on and off the page (like Oscar Wilde he made a successful living as a lecturer, entertaining live audiences). These ghastly touches may have been old-fashioned, even in 1875, but Twain shows that they cannot die if handled well. When the story does turn from ghastly gothic to ghostly comic, Twain is able to use the genre to write about themes often found in his fiction, fantastical or otherwise: doubles, imposters, identity and fraud in the rough-and-ready commercial world of 19th-century America.
The narrator is being haunted by the ghost of the “Cardiff Giant”, a three-metre tall “petrified man” found by well-diggers on a farm in upstate New York in 1869. It was, of course, a hoax, carved from a block of Iowa gypsum in 1868 and hidden on the farm by George Hull of Binghampton, NY. Despite its almost immediate exposure by palaeontologist Othniel C. Marsh the Giant did the rounds on the sideshow circuit and was used by some to support the stories of giants in the Old Testament. Twain’s poor giant, denied a decent resting place like many a ghost (a theme that pops up again in Wilde and Jerome, below), has been haunting the building opposite the museum in which his “remains” are on display, helped by “a legion of vagabond goblins”.
The word “museum” here is interesting. In the 19th century, the words “museum” and “aquarium”, words that we now associate with a certain degree of scholarly respectability, were also used by businesses which intended to draw crowds with the latest sensations. Places like the Egyptian Hall in London blurred the boundaries between historical education and spectacle, while the Royal Aquarium in Westminster provided many forms of entertainment besides exotic fish. The “museum’s” location on Broadway hints at its less than academic nature. Twain, then, gives us the forces of the supernatural fighting against the rampant commercialism of the 19th century (once again, see both Wilde and Jerome, below). It may be said to be a struggle between the individual and the organisation. Certainly, it is the non-corporeal against the corporate. However, the ghost’s efforts have been in vain, as the narrator reveals:
“Why you poor blundering old fossil, you have had all your trouble for nothing – you have been haunting a plaster cast of yourself – the real Cardiff Giant is in Albany!”
Twain often wrote of doubles, frauds and imposters, most notably in The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. In “A Ghost Story” he uses the genre to further explore these themes, suggesting that, in a 19th-century America where the “truth” can be bought and sold, even the great mysteries of the supernatural struggle to know fact from fiction. As the Giant says,
“The Petrified Man has sold everybody else, and now the mean fraud has ended by selling its own ghost!”
“A Ghost Story” is available to read for free online or look for his short story collection, Sketches New and Old.
“The Canterville Ghost” by Oscar Wilde (1887)
The comic ghost story by the most famous satirist in English literature makes some very on-point jokes at the expense of the genre, but underlying it all is the author’s comprehensive knowledge of and love for the folklore of ghosts. Wilde’s father was a dedicated folklorist, taking his family on collecting trips in the west of Ireland during the summer holidays. The young Oscar was steeped in myth and legend from an early age and readers of his fairy tales will appreciate his understanding of the compelling power of these forms that grew out of the oral tradition. In “The Canterville Ghost” Wilde does parody the form and tropes of the ghost story, but he also uses the genre to do what he sought to do throughout his writing career – to satirise human vanity and celebrate beauty and love. The Otis family, wealthy Americans, move into Canterville Chase, the ancestral seat of the Canterville family. Lord Canterville warns them of the family ghost, “well known for three centuries, since 1584 in fact”. Unperturbed, Mr Otis echoes the commercialism of “A Ghost Story” in his reply:
“My Lord […] I will take the furniture and the ghost at a valuation. I have come from a modern country, where we have everything that money can buy […] I reckon that if there were such a thing as a ghost in Europe, we’d have it at home in a very short time in one of our public museums, or on the road as a show.”
There is a tension in the story, between the modern and the traditional, the aesthetically pleasing and the functional, “the enervating influences of a pleasure-loving aristocracy” and American “Republican simplicity”. The indelible bloodstain in the hall, a classic folk motif which marks the spot where the wicked Sir Simon slew his wife, though “much admired by tourists” is forever washed away by “Pinkerton’s Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent” as applied by young Washington Otis. The history of the haunting of Canterville Chase is littered with aristocrats, killed or driven out of their minds by the ghost of Sir Simon. Yet the worst the ghost can do to the Americans is to keep them up at night with the clanking of his rusty chains (for which Mr. Otis offers him some Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator). The story references the newly formed Society for Psychical Research and even namechecks two of its leading lights, Frederic Myers and Frank Podmore. Wilde was living in a time when folklore and the supernatural were being cross-referenced and codified and this is reflected in the story.
While these mundane reactions to supernatural terrors are on the surface satires on the well-worn tropes of the traditional ghost story, Wilde is, in fact, using the clash of the traditional and the modern to satirise the latter. While the bloodstain is old, it is picturesque and aesthetically pleasing. The extreme practicality of the American character’s solution is effective, but it leaves the house a less interesting place. Wilde’s choice of names for the products is also telling. “Pinkerton’s” was a US detective agency, an industry then not associated with cleanliness. “Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator” echoes Tammany Hall, a political organisation that “greased the wheels” for members of the Democratic Party in 19th century New York (Mr Otis is writing a history of that party, while his daughter Virginia suggests to the ghost that he could get into America easily with Mr. Otis’s help since the Custom House officers are all Democrats). The ghost of Sir Simon frequently plays roles as part of his haunting, with high-gothic names such as “Red Rueben, or the Strangled Babe” and “Jonas the Graveless, or the Corpse-Snatcher of Chertsey Barn”. Wilde writes of him as being “dressed for the character” or giving his “celebrated impersonation”. There is a sense that the ghost, and his aristocratic English victims, were acting out their roles as per tradition, a tradition that the American characters cannot appreciate the aesthetics of, and therefore will not participate in.
For all his bombastic performance, there is a pride about Sir Simon, a ghost who reads books of chivalry and believes that “Death must be so beautiful.” It takes Virginia, a good and kind girl who appreciates beauty (she is an artist who cries when the ghost steals her paints) to unite the practicality of the new world with the nobility of the old.
“The Canterville Ghost” is available to read for free online.
Told After Supper by Jerome K. Jerome (1891)
[…] when you have been at one Christmas Eve party, and heard six people relate their adventures with spirits, you do not require to hear any more ghost stories. To listen to any further ghost stories after that would be like sitting out two farcical comedies, or taking in two comic journals; the repetition would become wearisome.
In A Natural History of Ghosts, Roger Clarke argues that, in Britain, ghosts are the preserve of either the upper or working classes. According to Clarke those in the middle tend to view aristocratic ghost-fanciers as hidebound and self-indulgent and proletarian ghost-believers as superstitious. It is fitting, then, that the most concentrated parody of the ghost story genre in this list was written by Jerome K Jerome, comic laureate of the Victorian middle classes.
Told After Supper purports to be a collection of stories told one Christmas Eve at a party in “No. 47 Laburnham Grove, Tooting”, a very suburban London address indicative of respectability and social aspiration. The gathering includes the local curate and doctor. Jerome opens with a very comprehensive essay on the nature of ghosts, particularly those that appear at Christmas. Quite apart from its humour, this section is useful and fascinating for anyone with an interest in folklore and literary ghost stories, as it gives a comprehensive cross-section of the types of ghosts and haunting that were foremost in the imagination of the Victorians. There are the ghosts of murderers and their victims, anniversary ghosts, prognosticating ghosts, ghosts with unfinished business and those ghosts who were improperly buried. As with Wilde, we are reminded that the 19th century was a time in which previously numinous subjects were being codified according to scientific methods.
He goes on to tell several ghost stories, using the classic motifs of tragic love, hidden treasure and wicked deeds. Like Sir Simon de Canterville, the ghosts here are playing roles. In “Johnson and Emily; or, the Faithful Ghost”, Johnson haunts “10 p.m. to 4 a.m.” and “10 to 2 on Saturdays.” Jerome carries on the opposition of folk tradition and commercialism that we find in both Twain and Wilde; as a result of Johnson’s ghost, the family receive a discount on their yearly rent. In “The Haunted Mill; or, The Ruined Home” the ghost, who causes the owner to knock down most of his house in search of hidden treasure, is assumed to have been a “deceased local plumber and glazier, who would naturally take an interest in seeing a house knocked about and spoilt.” The whole book is full of the concerns and bugbears of the aspirational Victorian middle classes, from spoiled card-parties to clumsy tradesmen to the noisy hawkers and street entertainers so gleefully murdered by the wicked man whose ghost haunts the Blue Room. Jerome may send-up the ghosts of folklore in the opening essay, but by the end of the story, as the narrator tries vainly to hold on to his respectability after several glasses of whisky punch and a very public conversation with a ghost, we see that it is the mortals who are the fools of the piece.
Told After Supper is available to read for free online.
“The Open Window” by Saki (1911)
Saki (the pen name of Hector Hugh Munro) is one of those writers (like Twain and Wilde) who united and combined the twin traditions of fantasy and satire in English literature. His first noted work was The Westminster Alice, a parody of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland which mocked the politicians of the early 1900s. However, he is best known for his sharp and sardonic short stories in which beasts and beastliness intrude into the neat and decorous society of pre-Great War Britain.
It is not surprising, then, that he also parodied the ghost story, a form that reached its height in the Edwardian era. Framton Nuttel has gone to the country for a “nerve cure”. A stranger to the area, his sister gives him several letters of introduction to local people, including Mrs. Sappleton. On visiting Mrs Sappleton’s house, however, he learns of her “great tragedy” and has a very frightening experience. The setting and set-up are familiar to fans of the classic ghost story; a solitary man (compare with the protagonists of M.R. James and E.F. Benson) goes to the country (the location of so many obscure horrors, waiting to be unearthed) and wanders into a house with a grim past. The story is exquisitely well-observed, so well-observed that it is frequently included in collections of ghost stories despite the last four paragraphs, which turn the tale completely on its head. When read beside Saki’s other works (a significant number of which are supernatural) the story continues the author’s preoccupation with the theme of grim intrusions into what Saki’s biographer Dominic Hibberd calls the “fragile and anaemic” world of Edwardian Britain, as Saki saw it. However, by using the form of the ghost story Saki surprises the reader and shows us that the real undesirable intruder is, like us, wholly flesh and blood.
“The Open Window” is available to read for free online.
“A.V. Laider” by Max Beerbohm (1916)
Though not a household name today Max Beerbohm was an acclaimed caricaturist, friend to Oscar Wilde and a favourite writer of Virginia Woolf’s. Despite straddling aestheticism and modernism, Beerbohm produced a book which seems to have anticipated the playfulness of post-modernism, Seven Men (1919), in which “A.V. Laider” was collected.
This work is fantasy masquerading as memoir, and its eponymous character is perhaps the ultimate in unreliable narrators. An unnamed character is holidaying in a British seaside town, recovering from influenza. Laider is a man staying in the same guest house and despite these two very English characters doing their best not to speak to each other, they fall into conversation. The title character then goes on to tell the narrator of a strange happening in his youth. As in all of these stories the author shows an implicit understanding of the ghost story’s tropes; a mysterious man with white hair, old before his time, a chance meeting, a fireside tale. However, it is Beerbohm’s willingness to play with form, to subvert it, that makes it memorable. If you trimmed the beginning and ending of the story from the main body, you would be left with an entertaining but forgettable anecdote, a relic of Victorian horror literature written too late. However, the author keeps the tape running (to use a slightly more up-to-date metaphor) and we end up seeing more of the story than we were meant to, at least from Laider’s point of view. Beerbohm called caricature “the delicious art of exaggerating […] for the mere sake of exaggeration”. “A.V. Laider” is a ghost story about telling ghost stories for the sake of telling ghost stories.
“A.V. Laider” is available to read for free online.
Lewis Hurst blogs on horror and supernatural fiction at The Uncanny Man.