REVIEW: “The Shadowy Third” by Ellen Glasgow

Review of Ellen Glasgow, “The Shadowy Third,” in Minor Hauntings: Chilling Tales of Spectral Youth, edited by Jen Baker (British Library, 2021): 219-249 — Order here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Margaret Randolph, is a young nurse, newly arrived in New York, who has been selected by the eminent Doctor Roland Maradick to care for his invalid wife, who suffers from mental distress brought on by the hallucination that her husband has killed her daughter. That Mrs. Maradick suffers from hallucinations or delusions Margaret is quite convinced because she has seen the child herself, wandering through the house, playing with her toys, doing all the ordinary things a child does.

But of course, this is a story of ghosts and not of madness and so what Margaret sees is perhaps not all that it appears to be. What I find fascinating in this story, and indeed in many of the ones in this anthology, is how little self-reflection there is about why it is that some people see ghosts, and others do not. There is never any doubt in Margaret’s mind that what she sees — phantasms included — is real.

(Originally published in Scribner’s Magazine, 1916.)

REVIEW: “The Lost Ghost” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

Review of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, “The Lost Ghost,” in Minor Hauntings: Chilling Tales of Spectral Youth, edited by Jen Baker (British Library, 2021): 201-217 — Order here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The horror in this story comes not from the ghost that haunts the house, but from the desperation of a child who, despite the cruelty she faced from her, wants nothing more than have her mother again.

(This version first published in Everybody’s Magazine, 1903.)

REVIEW: “The Doll’s Ghost” by F. Marion Crawford

Review of F. Marion Crawford, “The Doll’s Ghost,” in Minor Hauntings: Chilling Tales of Spectral Youth, edited by Jen Baker (British Library, 2021): 183-199 — Order here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This was a mesmeric story — it drew me in and gripped me with the gentleness and the strength of its emotions and the realness of its characters. Lady Gwendolen Lancaster-Douglas-Scroop is utterly unconcerned when she falls down the stairs and breaks her doll Nina, as only an imperious six year old can be. Mr. Puckler the doll repairer is kind and caring, and the love he has for his 12-year-old daughter Else shines through — as does his fear when Else goes out to deliver the doll to Lady Gwendolen and does not return. Sitting with Mr. Puckler all night as he waits for her to come back, we feel his pain and anxiety as he does, and when the ghost appears, it is just as unsettling for the reader as it is for him. Despite the seemingly happy ending of this story, this is, in my opinion, one of the more chilling in this book.

(First published in Illustrated London News, 1896.)

REVIEW: “Lost Hearts” by M. R. James

Review of M. R. James, “Lost Hearts,” in Minor Hauntings: Chilling Tales of Spectral Youth, edited by Jen Baker (British Library, 2021): 167-180 — Order here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Many — but not all — of the stories in this collection are first-person recollections of events experienced first-hand, all told to a present audience who is clearly expecting to receive something extraordinary. James’s narrator is recounting his tale in a similar fashion, but unlike some of the other narrators he doesn’t claim to have witnessed the events himself: In fact, the most perplexing part of the story is how it is that the unnamed narrator actually knows any of these events to recount in the first place, if he did not see them first-hand. In particular, we are given insight into the actions and experiences of Stephen Elliot, an 11yo orphan who has come to live with a distant cousin Mr. Abney, that by rights no one but Elliot himself should have had. So: Who is the narrator, and how does he know the story he is narrating? That’s the mystery I want solved!

(First published in The Pall Mall Magazine, 1895.)

REVIEW: “Was it an Illusion?: A Parson’s Story” by Amelia B. Edwards

Review of Amelia B. Edwards, “Was it an Illusion?: A Parson’s Story,” in Minor Hauntings: Chilling Tales of Spectral Youth, edited by Jen Baker (British Library, 2021): 139-164 — Order here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Something that is incredibly interesting about reading an anthology like Baker’s is the way it allows you to compare styles of horror stories over time. Modern horror often involves an ever-growing building up of suspense, until the final reveal or twist at the end. Many of the 19th-century stories in this volume, however, are less horrorful and more horribly mundane, and Edwards’s is a perfect example of this: The parson’s retelling of his tale has little of suspense in it, and even less of building tension. Much of his report is taken up with the trivialities of being a Schools Inspector in the north of England, who passes his time examining grammar schools and being hosted by curates and squires. The few supernatural events that fill the story are deal with in such a cursory manner that even if the reader wanted to find them scare, they’re so mundanely told that it’s almost impossible.

(First published in Arrowsmith Magazine, 1881.)

REVIEW: “Walnut-Tree House: A Ghost Story” by Charlotte Riddell

Review of Charlotte Riddell, “Walnut-Tree House: A Ghost Story,” in Minor Hauntings: Chilling Tales of Spectral Youth, edited by Jen Baker (British Library, 2021): 113-136 — Order here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Riddell’s story of Walnut-Tree House, haunted by the spectral grandson of a previous owner, seems in many respects to be a fairly tame, ordinary sort of ghost story: The house lies vacant for many years before a new owner takes it up; he sees the ghostly child; he seeks out the story of the child. What Mr. Stainton finds out about all seems perfectly ordinary, full of all the familiar tropes of 19th-century society: an imprudent marriage, an orphaned brother and sister, a dour grandfather who wants to be rid of them. The story was also strangely unscary, despite the haunting child — the ghost gets a happy ending, the missing will turns up, and the orphan girl, now grown up, becomes an heiress and a bride. It’s almost too many tropes to bear.

(Originally published in Illustrated London News, 1878.)

REVIEW: “Kentucky’s Ghost” by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

Review of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, “Kentucky’s Ghost”, in Minor Hauntings: Chilling Tales of Spectral Youth, edited by Jen Baker (British Library, 2021): 87-108 — Order here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: Graphic child abuse.

What’s the 19th-century equivalent of “No shit, there I was”? It’s the opening line of Phelps’s story: “True? Every syllable.” (p. 89), and a cracking line it is.

Phelps’s story is a departure from the earlier ones. For one, it’s the first story of the anthology that has a male narrator, Jake, a seasoned sailor who is swapping tales with a compatriot. Indeed, the entire story is thoroughgoingly masculine: At sea, the only lady is the ship Madonna; women intersect with the story only when the ship intersects with land. For another, the doomed child is quite a bit older than the ones met so far (nearly 15), and while there is a mother to mourn him, she is far away and would never have known of her son’s demise were it not for Jake. Finally, it’s not often that a ghost is seen by so many people.

What was most interesting, to me, was the very small discussion at the end when Jake recounts how he’d told the tale to his parson recently, and the parson speculates on wether the boy’s soul is in heaven or hell. It provided an interesting insight into the 19th-century theology of ghosts.

(First published in Atlantic Monthly in 1868.)

REVIEW: “The Ghost of Little Jacques” by Ann M. Hoyt

Review of Ann M. Hoyt, “The Ghost of Little Jacques”, in Minor Hauntings: Chilling Tales of Spectral Youth, edited by Jen Baker (British Library, 2021): 55-84 — Order here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

There was very little in this story to arouse sympathy in the reader. Christine is a serving woman for a loveless family where “the death of a child was no very solemn or very uncommon thing” (p. 58), where death was “the very best thing that could have happened” (p. 59) to a child. Though she likes to think of herself a philosopher, her actions throughout the book are pragmatic, aimed at preserving herself at the expense of the truth. There are two theories as to how little Jacques came to die (for if his death were not in some way unnatural there would have been no reason for him to return in ghostly form) and both of them are distasteful.

Baker in her introduction to the story quotes a contemporaneous review of it, which was not especially favorable, and attempts to provide a different account of it. I, alas, come down on the side of the anonymous New York Times reviewer: This is a story the reader may very well question why they read it.

(First published in Atlantic Monthly, 1863).

REVIEW: “The Old Nurse’s Story” by Elizabeth Gaskell

Review of Elizabeth Gaskell, “The Old Nurse’s Story”, in Minor Hauntings: Chilling Tales of Spectral Youth, edited by Jen Baker (British Library, 2021): 25-52 — Order here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The old nurse of the title narrates to her young charges a story of their mother, whose upbringing she also had in her care. Through Gaskell’s deft facility with language we are given a clear picture of the nurse’s class and character; her voice is extremely vivid. The story she tells is one of prejudice, bitterness, and hatred — and, of course, a ghostly child –, and pretty much all of the major characters come across as thoroughly unsympathetic — no mean feat!

(First published in Household Words in 1852.)

REVIEW: “The Dead Daughter: A Tale” by Henry Glassford Bell

Review of Henry Glassford Bell, “The Dead Daughter: A Tale”, in Minor Hauntings: Chilling Tales of Spectral Youth, edited by Jen Baker (British Library, 2021): 13-23 — Order here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Baker chose this story as the one to kick off the collection because it is “one of the first literary sources in English to utilise the ghostly revenant child as the source of terror and grief” (p. 13).

This isn’t the only distinct characteristic of the story. It is also told in beautiful prose that is extremely effective at evoking all required emotions, not just terror and horror. In the opening when we are introduce to Adolphus Walstein and his young daughter Paulina, it only takes Bell a few paragraphs to draw the reader into deep sadness with the awareness that Paulina will eventually die — the outrageous sadness that a child should ever not outlive their parent. The rest of the story capitalizes on this sadness, and turns it to horror with brilliant deftness. An absolutely smashing story, would easily fit into any 21st C horror canon.

(Originally published in The Edinburgh Literary Journal, 1831.)