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.)