Review: The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories Volume Five edited by Christopher Philippo

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Synopsis:

It’s the most wonderful time of the year – time for more rare ghostly tales of Yuletide terror from Victorian England!

For this fifth Valancourt volume of Christmas ghost stories, editor Christopher Philippo has dug deeper than ever before, delving into the archives of Victorian-era newspapers and magazines from throughout the British Isles to find twenty-one rare texts for the Christmas season – seventeen stories and four poems – most of them never before reprinted.

Featured here are gems by once-popular but now-forgotten 19th-century masters of the supernatural like Amelia Edwards, Barry Pain, and Florence Marryat, alongside contributions by totally obscure authors like James Skipp Borlase, a writer of penny dreadfuls who specialized in lurid Christmas horror stories, and Harry Grattan, who made history by writing the first ghost story recorded by Edison for the phonograph. Also included are an introduction and bonus materials, such as 19th-century news articles and advertisements related to Christmas ghosts.

“I endeavoured to call out; I could not utter a sound. As I gasped and panted, there stole into my nostrils a deadly, terrible, overpowering stench . . . It was the dread odour of decomposing mortality . . . I felt that I must break the spell, or die.” – John Pitman, “Ejected by a Ghost”

“It was a coach made of dead men’s bones . . . Behind the awful vehicle stood two fleshless skeletons in place of footmen, the driver was a horned and tailed fiend, and the six coal–black steeds that he drove had eyes of fire, and snorted flame from their nostrils as they tore madly along.” – James Skipp Borlase, “The Wicked Lady Howard”

Review:

Apparently in the 19th and early 20th century, one of the popular Christmas eve activities was to gather for parties. As the night grew late and the thought of going out into the cold seemed abysmal, people instead congregated around the fire for one more drink and told each other ghost stories. This became such a big part of the Christmas tradition that many newspapers ran contests for the best Christmas ghost stories. These were printed around Christmas so that people have stories to read aloud at these gatherings if they cannot make up a story on their own. Some of these stories have been lost for generations, but Valancourt has collected five volumes of these stories, poems, and snippets.

This collection has highs and lows. In the beginning, the stories do not do much for me. Many of them center around a character who is in love and a tragedy striking their relationship. Many are a ghost story in a sense that a person feels or sees the presence of a person while he or she is crossing over to the afterlife. The second half of the collection seems to have some of the better stories, and a few of them, like “The Dead Hand” by James Skipp Borlase and “The Undying Thing” by Barry Pain are pretty good. Many of the stories are short because they were in newspapers and were meant to be read aloud at parties so you kind of get that feeling from some of them. A few of the longer ones in the second half are much better than the first half. 

One of the things that I really love about this is the short histories of the authors that precedes their stories. Some of the biographies are insane. Here is the biography for Mabel Collins, who writes “A Tale of Mystery”.

An author of more than forty books, MINNA MABEL COLLINS COOK {1851-1927} had learned of Helena Blavatsky’s occult Theosophy religion in 1881, and met Blavatsky herself in 884. The same year, Mabel Collins began writing Light on the Path,  published in 1885, a book she claimed was dictated to her by some mystic source and moreover that it was “written in an astral cipher, and can therefore can only be deciphered by one who reads astrally.” It quickly became a Theosophical classic, and Collins would go on to be co-editor with Blavatsky of Lucifer: A Theosophical Magazine. One of her lovers was Robert Donston Stephenson, one of a number of men suspected of having been Jack the Ripper. She would also become an acquaintance of poet and occultist William Butler Yeats and the notorious Aleister Crowley. (pg. 97).

This is not the only biography in this collection that makes me feel like Victorian society was more interested in the occult and the devil than I ever knew, and the tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas time feels like something that needs to come back. The idea of ghost stories being a large part of Victorian Christmas culture is actually pretty alluring. If anything, this collection is more valuable as a primer for Victorian history and tradition than it is a collection of memorable stories.

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