Introduction: The Haunted Text

Decorated initial T

he supernatural or ‘ghost story’ was popular throughout the nineteenth century, and constituted a distinctive genre. Usually limited to a few thousand words, typically published in periodicals aimed at middle-class audiences and often issued in time for Christmas – when it was customary to recount tall tales by the fireside – the literary chiller unsettled generations of Victorian readers.

The familiar ghost of Marley in
A Christmas Carol by Fred Barnard,
for the Household edition of Dickens's works.

Some critics regard the texts of this period as the finest of their type, and it is instructive to note that unlike their modern equivalents many of them were written by the most important authors of the age. Foremost was Dickens, who published several distinguished contributions in his periodical, All the Year Round; others included J. S. Le Fanu, Margaret Oliphant, Elizabeth Gaskell and Henry James. These canonical writers were matched by lesser practitioners, and the form was notably adopted by female authors such as Charlotte Riddell, Amelia Edwards, M. E. Braddon and Rhoda Broughton, who between them created a corpus of work expressing a female approach.

Critical evaluation has developed in several ways, not all of them predictable. Ghost stories were often regarded in their own time as a form of escapist entertainment, and one that was routinely overworked. As Mary Louisa Molesworth remarks in the opening page of ‘The Story of the Rippling Train’, one ‘hears of nothing else nowadays’ (319). In an age dominated by the lengthy novels of Dickens, W. M. Thackeray and George Eliot, the supernatural story seemed an interesting by-line, a self-contained tale to frame and accompany the instalments of more ‘serious’ work as it explored the social complexities of the ‘modern age’. However, the idiom’s prevalence suggests that it had a much deeper resonance than detractors would admit; without doubt, the original audiences demanded a regular supply of eerie tales and the haunted text was as popular at the end of the nineteenth century as it was at the beginning.

Contemporary criticism, for the most part, was piecemeal and limited to generalizations. The project of modern scholarship, on the other hand, has been one of recovery in which commentators have attempted to explain the texts’ function and significance. Significant ground was cleared by Jack Sullivan’s study of 1978 and in recent years there has been a proliferation of interpretive monographs. Approaches to the work have varied, with methodologies ranging from Marxist interpretations to Freudian psychoanalysis, and from gender analysis and Queer Theory to Post-Colonialism and broader explorations of the relationship between the stories and their zeitgeist.

Recent criticism by Simon Hay (2011), Luke Thurston (2012) and Andrew Smith (2010) has explored all of these avenues, and other readings, notably Jen Cadwallader’s analysis of Spirits and Spirituality (2016), have added a series of nuanced interpretations. Shane McCorristine’s Spectres of the Self (2010) underpins all of these studies, and important new perspectives have been offered in the collections of essays, Irish Gothics (2014) and The Ghost Story from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century (2010). Generally benefitting from an enhanced interest in Gothic and ‘weird literature’, supernatural fiction has been considered in more detail in recent years than at any previous time.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to arrive at a final ‘explanation’. Designedly ambiguous and textually open-ended, the ghost story postulates an epistemological challenge, a conceptual evasiveness and unwillingness to surrender its secrets. It is a mystery in which the solution remains at the edge of understanding, and there is always the risk, as Luke Thurston observes, of regarding ‘Theory’ as the fail-safe way to ‘decipher and thus explain away’ the unknown, as if the critic were a ‘semiotic ghost-buster’ (5). Here, more than ever, criticism is a limited tool. It is possible, however, to provide a series of starting points – ways in which the reader can withdraw the veil of obfuscation by focusing on a number of key concerns.

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Created 1 June 2021