Wilhelmina FitzClarence (1830-1906), Countess of Munster lived a fairly standard peeress’s life – despite being an illegitimate granddaughter to William IV of England. As a young girl she travelled widely in Europe, eventually marrying her first cousin William in 1855. The couple lived in Brighton and had nine children.Wilhelmina’s first novel, Dorinda (1889), about a female art-thief, was praised by Oscar Wilde for its characterisation, although her second novel, social satire A Scotch Earl (1891), was less well-received. She also wrote numerous short stories and articles for periodicals, and published an autobiography in 1904.
Ghostly Tales (1896) consists of stories in a supernatural and/or Gothic vein and some (as in Isabella Banks’ Through the Night, which it in many ways resembles) are supposed to be drawn from stories recounted by its author’s family and friends. This is reflected in the milieu of the tales’ protagonists – the grand European tour, the marriage market and aristocratic country and town life. Although the collection contains several stories which fit easily into the traditional Victorian ghost story genre (most notably ‘The Ghost of My Dead Friend’) the volume contains a wide breadth of ‘weird’ or uncanny phenomena – from religious visions and animal telepathy to the narrator’s unsettling encounter with a mentally disturbed young man.
This is an anthology of stories and poetry published as T. Fisher Unwin’s Christmas annual for 1885. It was edited by Sir Henry Norman, a politician, journalist and author, who also edited Tales in Mid-Ocean the following year (available to read here). As the title implies, the collection features pieces appropriate for the twilight of the year, with most featuring prominent Gothic or supernatural elements. Highlights include Anne Crawford’s Vampire story, “A Mystery of the Campagna” (published under the pseudonym “Von Degen”); the humorous ‘explained supernatural’ tale, “The Spectre of Strathannan”- and an unusual foray into the Gothic from American realist William Archer.
Fergus Hume is best known for his first novel, the Melbourne-set detective story The Mystery of the Hansom Cab (1886). He was, however, an extremely prolific writer, churning out more than fifty books of detective and fantastic fiction over the next few decades. Although none of these achieved anything like as great a success as his first book, which became a publishing phenomenon, he remained fairly popular and is still a favourite with many modern-day devotees of detection, his reputation having benefited from several cheap electronic reissues and the advent of Project Gutenberg.
Hume followed up Hansom Cab with a Gothic shocker, Professor Brankel’s Secret (1886). This short novel was first published in Melbourne in an edition specifically produced for sale at railway bookstalls. It’s a fairly obvious rip-off of elements of Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but it also foreshadows some of the Edwardian weird fiction of Edward Heron-Allen, with its story of a German professor who becomes obsessed with finding the missing ingredient for a potion which he believes will grant him mystical abilities.
The original edition is extremely rare – but Hume later included the novella as a sort of ‘B feature’ to his murder mystery The Lone Inn (1894) which is, if not widely available, then at least not quite as scarce!
Bernard Cape (1854-1918) was a prolific writer in various genres, but is best remembered today for his highly effective supernatural fiction. Capes took full advantage of the boom in periodical literature which made it possible, for the first time on a large scale, for people to become full-time professional writers – an occupation that had previously been, on the whole, an avocation for those already possessing a private income. He died in the 1918 influenza epidemic. Largely forgotten in the following decades, his ghost stories were rediscovered by anthologists in the 1970s.
Wikipedia has interesting bibliographical information on Capes and many of his works are available via the Internet Archive. The always useful Supernatural Fiction Database has information on Capes’s supernatural fiction. His complete supernatural fiction was published by Ash Tree Press in 1998 as The Black Reaper ed. Hugh Lamb. This is long out of print in physical form, but can be bought on Kindle and at other e-bookstores. Below are formatted texts of Capes’s most famous anthology, At a Winter’s Fire (1899). Enjoy, and have a merry Christmas!
This intriguing, but little-known ‘imperial Gothic’ novel begins in dramatic fashion when an anglo-Indian infant is made a votary of Kalee, vengeful goddess of the Thugs. Years later, the baby has grown into beautiful Olga Trevelyan. But it soon transpires that Kalee’s nefarious influence still lurks in Olga’s unconscious mind, waiting to be reawakened.
As with many an ‘imperial Gothic’ novel, the theme of reverse colonisation – the fear that England’s subjugated realms might possess the strength to fight back and overthrow the imperial centre – looms large. For me, the theme of mesmerism, an ancient supernatural force embodied in a threatening foreign other, and a peaceful English seaside setting is also heavily redolent of Dracula. I don’t know if Stoker had read Allen’s novel, but it wouldn’t surprise me! Unlike Stoker, however, Allen’s staunch sense of the rational (he had begun life as an evolutionary biologist) leads him to obfuscate the supernatural element, inventing a number of pseudo-scientific explanations that cast doubt on the paranormal elements of the book. Even so, the tale ends on an unsettling note of ambiguity, which implies that even if modern science is strong enough to combat effects of supernatural evil, it may not be able to explain it away.
Nothing is known of ‘May Cotes’, beyond the fact that she was the young woman (possibly Anglo-Indian) who first came up with the original idea for the story. She contacted the folklorist and historian Andrew Lang, who suggested she collaborate with Grant Allen. Allen himself was a prolific author of fiction, particularly famous for his New Woman novel The Woman Who Did (1895) and for speculative works like The British Barbarians (1895) – both of which appeared as part of John Lane’s infamous ‘Keynotes’ series of 1890s fiction. Kalee’s Shrine (1886) is little-read today, but deserves to be rediscovered – especially by readers interested in late-Victorian or imperial forms of the Gothic.
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was a Russian occultist, best known for forming the Theosophical Society in 1875. Theosophy is an esoteric religion, albeit one that shares several ideas with Hinduism and Buddhism. Still practised today, its central tenet posits the notion of a universal spiritual humanity based on a shared reclamation of ancient wisdom – an ur-knowledge once widely known but long-since lost. The society lasted until as recently as 2011, when it split into several smaller organisations. Blavatsky’s ideas were set forth in her densely written treatise The Secret Doctrine (1888).
Blavatsky’s Theosiophical outlook underlies her one collection of fictional writing, Nightmare Tales (1892), which foreshadows the ‘weird fiction’ tradition of horror in its hints that not all ancient knowledge is beneficial – some strands might be best left to lie.
The Theosophical society’s HTML edition gives the estimated dates of the stories’ original composition and the website also contains information about Blavatsky’s life and work. Paganini’s ‘Dance of the Witches’, which features prominently in ‘The Ensouled Violin’ can be heard (for free) at the excellent Classical Music Online.
Amyas Northcote’s collection of ghost stories, his only published fictional work, was published by John Lane in 1921 (although the first edition is dated 1922). Northcote was the son of a wealthy Tory politician, Sir Stafford Northcote. After emigrating to America and marrying, he returned to England in the early 1900s and became a Justice of the Peace in Buckinghamshire. He died suddenly in 1923.
Despite producing only a handful of stories, his single collection is strikingly varied – ‘The House in the Woods’ and ‘The Young Lady in Black’ evoke the sentimental Victorian ghost stories of Margaret Oliphant and Isabella Banks, while the similarly titled ‘In the Woods’ is firmly in the tradition of the Pan-worship fashionable in the early twentieth century; ‘Mr Mortimer’s Diary’ might have come from the antiquarian mind of M.R. James, while the longest tale in the collection, ‘Mr Oliver Carmichel’ resembles a retelling of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde along theosophical lines. My personal favourite is ‘The Late Mrs Fowke’ – an unusual and highly effective werewolf story.