Jilly: Victorian Tales of Terror

It’s that scary time of year.

The nights are getting shorter, darker and colder, at least for those of us in the Northern hemisphere. We just passed Halloween (previously the Celtic festival of Samhain), when the barrier between our world and the realm of ghosts and spirits melts away and supernatural types return from the grave to threaten our orderly existence.

In other words, ‘tis the season for ghost stories and terrible tales.

We dipped a toe into the icy water here recently with our tag-team Scottish flash fiction adventure featuring the restless ghosts of tragic Alanis McLeish and her twin baby daughters (go here for Kay’s fabulous final instalment and links to the rest of the tale).

That tempted me to re-read Jenny Crusie’s Maybe This Time, her smart, scary homage to Henry James’s influential 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, complete with isolated, crumbling gothic setting; orphaned children; sinister housekeeper; and murderous ghosts. Thank heavens for the Crusie-heroine-turned-temporary-governess.

Maybe This Time whetted my appetite for Victorian horror. Click here for an interesting feature in Atlas Obscura explaining why the Victorian era was such a boom time for scary stories. It seems to be linked to the rise of the periodical press which fuelled a demand for genre fiction, combined with a period of rapid technological advancement in which things which had previously seemed impossible suddenly became real and normal.

Then yesterday, with uncanny serendipity, I found Victorian Tales of Terror, a recently republished anthology of carefully curated period fiction edited by Hugh Lamb. There are sixteen spine-chilling stories by famous (Dickens, de Maupassant) and little-known authors, male and female, English, European and American.

A word about the editor, Hugh Lamb, from his biography on www.hughlamb.com:

The seventies were something of a renaissance for horror and supernatural fiction in Britain, including a new lease of life for the horror anthology. One of the foremost among the anthologists enjoying this output was Hugh Lamb, responsible for bringing more long-forgotten authors back into the light than any other editor of the time.

Weary of the constant reprinting of such well known stories as ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ and ‘The Signalman’ to satisfy the new desire for supernatural short stories, Hugh decided to gather the lesser-known stories and authors he had unearthed in his own quest for fresh reading material. Using the inter-library loan service and the Joint-Fiction Reserve of London libraries, Hugh had accumulated an impressive collection of tales. In fact, this turned out to be an inspired method for searching old editions and unearthing rare treasures ripe for republishing. He estimates that around 5,000 books crossed his path this way.

And a word about the 2019 edition of Victorian Tales of Terror. The anthology, which was first published in the 1970s but had fallen out of print, was re-published by Hugh Lamb’s son, Richard, as a memorial to his father who died earlier this year. I think that’s a wonderful and fitting tribute. I hope the anthology finds lots of new fans.

If you’d like to know more, you can check out Victorian Tales of Terror at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.

So…did you read or watch anything scary lately?

14 thoughts on “Jilly: Victorian Tales of Terror

  1. I grew up with the 70s horror revival over here! My parents had big books — three of them if I remember right — about 100 Ghost Stories, and 100 Tales of Terror and another one that was along the same lines. I can’t remember if they were written in the 70s, or collected from other times, but some of them “read” quite old.

    Of course, by the early 80s, that revival had translated into new works — Flowers in the Attic and all of its sequels, and then Stephen King. By the mid-80s, those works were being made into horror movies, and also direct-to-film stories like Spielberg’s Poltergeist (although there might have been a non-fiction book associated with that story).

    I loved all that stuff as a kid, but kind of grew away from it when I left home. Jordan Peele is doing some scary stuff — both in short-short form with Keegan Michael Key in their Key & Peele clips, and also longer form.

    I think it’s so interesting that you feel Oct. 31 marks the beginning of spooky season! I usually feel that it is the end of a month of ghostly tales (in Japan, their big ghost story season is in August). But I remember reading that Christmas is also quite a time for supernatural yarns (see: A Christmas Carol with its ghosts). So . . . does the lifting of the veil last from Samhain to Solstice, then?

    It still FEELS spooky outside. The trees are still losing their leaves, and it’s dark and dusky at 4:30 p.m. (as I write right now). Chilly and full of spiders!

    • Also, in the Christmas carol, The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” where they say, “There’ll be scary ghost stories/and tales of the glories/of Christmases long, long ago.”

      Except the only ghost story I know of that is associated with Christmas is A Christmas Carol..

      • I got curious and found this article about Christmas ghost stories — there’s a cheerfulness to the terror, it says, which is quite intriguing. Unfortunately, at least one of the links is defunct (but they should all be in public domain, so maybe I’ll try Gutenberg). https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/12/19/ghosts-on-the-nog/

        There is a horrible trend in our times where there’s a character who says, “I hate Christmas!” and it turns out that somebody died on Christmas, or even worse, got stuck in the chimney playing Santa . . . . Those downer tales of horror are often delivered very plainly, and I never know quite what to do with them as building blocks for a character.

    • Oct 31 definitely feels to me like the beginning of the spooky season. There’s Halloween, of course, but it’s also the end of official summer time and the weather gets noticeably colder and darker every day. Brrr!

      It also seems, at least for me, to be the dying time of year. Both my parents and all my grandparents died in the depths of winter (of natural causes, nothing Dickens-esque!), and I remember the funeral director commenting that it was his busy season.

      • It does seem like a lot of old folks just can’t face another winter, and then there are other things. Darkness that promotes traffic accidents, etc.

        We do “death-iversaries” in Japan, too, so we have a little thing where the priest comes in to pray on the day of Grandmother’s death (or around that time) — she died in late September. So, the memories are kept somewhat fresh. I don’t know if that helps allay the spookiness, or helps promote it, though.

    • Also…spiders! Our house seems to be full of them at the moment. We don’t have poisonous ones in the UK (at worst we have three species that can give you a nasty nip) but some of them run really fast, usually when I’m least expecting it (like the huge one that sprinted out from the sofa I was sitting on late one night).

      Spiders are great horror material. My husband recently read a space opera/sci-fi trilogy where spiders take over the earth (I think), and I noticed another one, The Hatching Trilogy by Ezekiel Boone, in a recent email from Gollancz. There’s Tolkien’s Shelob, of course, and as a kid I was terrified by the Dr Who storyline Planet of the Spiders. Brrrr!

      • OMG, yes. Spiders! I am actually pretty OK with spiders — I feel they eat the bad bugs, and then there’s the Ariadne thing. I can respect a creator of silk art. But that’s on an intellectual level. On a real level, cobwebs are just creepy! I hate walking through them, and never being able to clear away the last sticky string.

        We don’t have any poisonous spiders in Hokkaido either, but we’ve got some huge ones about the size of a US quarter, and they weave webs in the greenhouse, and in the garage. Every morning, there seems to be a little battle to get to the car without getting caught in a spider web.

  2. My mother loved Alfred Hitchcock—not just the movies, but the TV show that was so popular for a while. I could watch some of those episodes without trouble, but some of them were so creepy I remember them to this day. Of course, they weren’t based so much on ghosts and the supernatural as they were on the creepy actions of real life people, but some of them definitely had supernatural elements. Remember the one with the guy in the white suit by the side of the road? I never figured that one out, end it scared me half out of my wits. I can’t say that my early introduction to this spooky form of entertainment lead to any developments of my tastes, but I still really like Alfred Hitchcock.

    • And did you know that Richard Adams (of Watership Down fame) wrote a really scary horror tale, The Girl in a Swing? It was one of those books that starts with a small mystery and a few odd, unexplained moments, and then the tension mounts and mounts all the way to the end. It’s a seriously good book that scared me half out of my wits. It’s probably 40 years since I read it, but I remember it clearly. Now that’s powerful writing.

  3. Thank you so much for this post, Jilly. And for the interesting article on Atlas Obscura. The Victorian era was a fascinating time for the supernatural, a time when science and the paranormal were not considered mutually exclusive. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed in fairies!

    My father taught me the value of a good ghost story. The thrill of reading, or watching, a supernatural tale that gets under your skin and has you looking over your shoulder for the rest of the night. It’s not for everyone, but I love it!

    • You’re very welcome! The Victorian era was such an interesting time, full of innovation and rapid change. It feels as though we’re in another such period right now, and as we learn more about the untapped possibilities of the human brain I wonder if we might once again learn to come to terms with both science and the seemingly supernatural.

      I don’t much care for psychological thrillers or murder mysteries, but I do like a good ghost story, especially on a dark winter’s night with the wind whistling outside. Congratulations on republishing Victorian Tales of Terror. I hope it brings goosebumps to a whole new generation of readers!

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