[Thanks to James Heffernan, founder and editor-in-chief of Review 19 for sharing this review with readers of the Victorian Web. Thackeray created the illuminated “T” for Vanity Fair —  Katherine Miller Weber]

Illuminated initial T

he ghost story is too often forgotten. Sandwiched uncomfortably between the Gothic excesses of the eighteenth century and the psychological subtleties of the twentieth century supernatural, it is surprisingly often overlooked, seen only as a brief postscript or preface to its chronological companions. This is surprising not merely because the Victorians produced thousands of ghost stories seldom reprinted in modern anthologies, but also because of their wealth and substance, their glimpses into the Victorian soul. The ghosts of Victorian as well as modern fiction deserve more from us than a passing glance.

Luke Thurston's book revives these ghosts. Through his compelling account, we follow them in their ambiguous roles (both guest and host, both other and self) along a journey from Dickens to Joyce, a journey rich with intertextual —  and intratextual —  significance. Thurston's book is broad but not overly ambitious, and in threading its way from Dickens to Deleuze, Freud, James, and Joyce, it weaves a persuasive tapestry of the ghost as an element of ontological conflict revived and restaged by the Modernists.

In the epigraph for this book — taken from Poe's "The Imp of the Perverse" —  we peer with the narrator into the abyss of horrific possibility until "by slow degrees our sickness and dizziness and horror become merged in a cloud of unnamable feeling." The abyss itself could symbolize any one of the gaps to be discussed here —  between life and death, between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, between genres or texts. But Thurston is chiefly occupied with something altogether richer and more promising: the cloud of unnamable feeling.

Commencing with Dickens, but not with the familiar clanking chains of Jacob Marley, the prologue summons a Victorian "ghost" from something other than a ghost story: Rogue Riderhood, the irredeemable villain of Our Mutual Friend, whose flickering spark of life after a near-drowning both is and is not the same thing as the man himself. For Deleuze, Riderhood illustrates ontology as applied to mortality, as telling us "what a life is" (qtd. 12). Though he agrees, Thurston wants to make ghosts a part of this life. If the laws of reality and the relationship between signifier and signified are suspended in this moment of the text, why are they not likewise suspended by the introduction of a ghost, a figure by definition poised between death and life? And why should we stop with symbolic ghostliness, when the Victorians provide us with so many literal ghosts?

In this light, Part I of the book —  "Literary Hospitality" —  examines the ambiguous eeriness of Dickens's "The Signalman." Since this strange story resists easy categorization and conclusive answers, Thurston does not try to make it fit either. Rather than simplifying the complexity of the relationship between ghost, narrator, and signalman, he shows how easily they shift roles and perspectives in a story revelling in doubles and intervals. Unafraid to explore the visual landscape of the story, Thurston tracks it through the form of the text itself, as zig-zag paths and railway cuttings are mimed by the shapes of words. A ridiculous proposition, he asks? Perhaps, for to see such miming is "to look at a text, like a young child, a mad person, or someone who does not know the language [...], to approach discourse, that is, as a sensory thing and not a semiotic matrix" (37). But this is where the ghost leaves us, in a space outside the semiotic system of language, and while most ghost stories bring us back from that space with a clean narrative resolution, "The Signalman" does not.

Linking ghosts to guests, Part II ranges from the 1860s to the start of the twentieth century. Is the ghost a guest in the stories of M. R. James, invited politely in from the Victorian era? In terms of subject matter, perhaps, but it is worth remembering that James — himself a scholar of English medievalism — derived his ghosts from a much older precursor, the ghoulish medieval revenant. Still, Thurston cares far less for the pedigree of the ghost than for its purpose, which — he compellingly argues — is disruptive. Exemplified by the strangely animated apparition who crawls across a lawn carrying a stolen infant in "The Mezzotint," James's horrific ghosts are threatening, and made more so by James's tantalizing hints towards resolution. If only, we believe, we could understand the inscription on the whistle in "O Whistle, And I'll Come To You, My Lad," the ghost would become understandable and even predictable; but as Thurston goes on to argue, even translating the four Latinesque syllables ("FUR/FLA/FLE/BIS" ) into English verbs brings us no closer to such a meaning. The inscription, he concludes, "should be seen as radically alien to the discursive regime of everyday life," as disturbing to our structures of reality as the depiction of a child-snatching ghost.

After exploring ego-as-identity in the disastrous 1895 staging of Henry James's Guy Domville and reading May Sinclair in light of the Psychical Research Society and the quantified supernatural, Thurston turns to Joyce and Woolf. In the inspiring section on Joyce, Thurston argues that Joyce makes song both ghostly and liminal, not merely in Stephen Dedalus's recollections of his mother but wherever song takes flight from the limitations of spoken discourse. In the even more powerful section on Mrs. Dalloway, Thurston cites Clarissa's theory that the unseen part of us may one day survive "attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places, after death" (qtd. 137) . This resonates perfectly with Thurston's initial reading of the spectral figure of identity in Our Mutual Friend.

In a final section aptly titled "Hosts of the Living," Thurston considers the ghosts wrought by Elizabeth Bowen. To end with Bowen rather than Joyce or Woolf is an intriguing choice; while their kind of modernism makes ghosts metaphorical, Bowen makes them literally disrupt the reality of her narratives. But the choice is justified. Questioning the cold rationality of their characters, Bowen's stories reinforce the idea of the ghost as disruptor of both discourse and self. Just as Bowen herself, as an Anglo-Irish "exemplary artist of non-belonging" (p. 147), lives between two worlds, her work proves ambiguous and fluid, resistant to classification and conclusion. And in Bowen, too, we see the modernist model of the spectral. "For the essential early modernist protagonist," argues Thurston, "there is a definitive restless dissatisfaction with the everyday self, a sense of that self as non-original or alienated, ontologically trivial or superficial" (p. 167). If the self implies a ghost, there could be no self without one.

Literary Ghosts is a courageous book, unafraid to make room for the voices of capital-T Theory without allowing them to shout down the voices of fiction. Though Thurston's preface rousingly defends the value of theory in studies of the literary ghost, his well-crafted and expert application of theory proves its own justification — even for readers who may feel at first disoriented by the challenge of heuristic layers: Thurston reading Agamben reading Deleuze reading Dickens.

Nevertheless, this book is less courageous than it might have been in its inclusion of texts. Can we really draw conclusions about the early- and mid-Victorian literary ghost from a single author, even — especially — an author as well-known and influential as Dickens? Could we reach the same conclusions from the ghosts of all those lesser or forgotten authors of stories published by the hundreds in periodicals? How much of an aberration is the psychological complexity of "The Signalman"? While the Victorian ghost was of course strongly influenced by Dickens in both his editorial and authorial roles, we scarcely know the ghosts of the literary country stretching out between the landmarks of Dickens and James and Sinclair, and they deserve some attention.

But Thurston writes with circumspection. While closely analyzing the stories of just a few authors, his arguments touch upon many, including — among others — Homer, Freud, the Brontës, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allen Poe, Walter Scott, Thomas Hardy, and Alfred Hitchcock. Rather than treating intertextuality as a subject for detached examination, Thurston wholeheartedly embraces it by tracking complex webs of allusion. Likewise, the doubling, haunting, and liminality that Thurston finds in Victorian and modern fiction become part of his book as a haunted text in its own right, with Bowen's struck-out name as a chapter heading and the haunting voice of theorist echoing author echoing theorist. If the ghostly voice is worth discussing, Thurston implies, then it is worth listening to, echoing (as it echoes us), and making it our own. Given such a compelling account, I agree with him.

Related Material


Luke Thurston. Literary Ghosts from the Victorians to Modernism: The Haunting Interval. Routledge, 2012. xiv + 186 pp.

Last modified 4 July 2014