Fairy Tale Friday: Ghosts!
This week, let’s take a moment and look at that often utterly un-scary literary phenomenon: the Victorian ghost story compendium. These remind me most of our modern-day Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (which my fifth grade English teacher insistently read to us and put the fear of God and spiders in my little 10-year-old heart) and involve a lot of “But Jenny’s been dead for 15 years!” endings.
Specifically, I’m talking about the ghost stories and other (not so) creepy tales of Amelia Edwards. As some of you may know, Amelia Edwards was the first female Egyptologist and a first-rate travel writer who lived at the end of the nineteenth century. But before becoming an amazing Egyptologist (and receiving an honorary law degree from my beloved alma mater for said Egyptological prowess), Edwards was first a musician. And then a painter. And then a novelist. And while she was a novelist, Edwards wrote a whole slew of short ghost stories and mysteries, the most famous of which is “The Phantom Coach”. Whilst perusing the Strand’s Wordsworth Classics section recently, I happened upon All Saint’s Eve and other stories, which is the Wordsworth/Amelia Edwards answer to Scary Stories to Read in the Dark. I have no doubts that if I were still a 10-year-old with a low tolerance for horror films, I would have been similarly terrified by the Edwards book as I was with the Schwartz. As it was, I ended up smirking a lot.
Rather than harping on about how all the stories seemed to end with something like “I’ll never be sure what I really saw that night…” or “And that was the last time anyone saw Vicar Stevens alive…”, I’ll cut to the chase and tell you what I did like: Edwards’ style. She has a great tone and style of writing that is enjoyable even if the stories have not aged particularly well in the “strike terror into your audience” department. Helpfully, All Saint’s Eve and other stories is a compendium and thus the stories are much more varied than a volume of all ghost stories or all mysteries would be. The ghost stories were by far more ridiculous, but Edwards’ mysteries were quite enjoyable most of the time. (And only one of them ended abruptly by finding the culprit in the form of a lunatic priest who accidentally confessed during a sermon.)
That said, were I not already a fan of Edwards (adoring fangirl, more like), I doubt I would have picked up this book, read it all the way through, or even particularly enjoyed it. Style only gets you so far as a writer and these stories were lacking in any real substance or narrative flow to really entice me. In fact, they reminded me a lot of the Father Brown stories. Edwards had the set-up and the mystery part down pat, it was just the endings that were often abrupt and confusing. This suggests to me more a failing of the mid-19th century mystery genre at large and less a specifically Edwards flaw. Or at least that’s what I’ll tell my little fangirl heart.