Hugh Walpole (1884-1941) was a prolific and hugely popular writer who wrote in many genres, and whose early realist novels were nurtured by a friendship with Henry James. He also wrote popular fiction for a juvenile readership, along with historical romances for older readers. His career as a writer was a refuge from an emotionally traumatic youth and young manhood, in which he grappled with an unhappy school life, latent homosexuality (including an early and powerful crush on fellow ghost-story writer and mentor A.C. Benson) and a waning religious faith that put paid to his father’s ambitions for his son to join him in a clerical career. Walpole earned critical and commercial success as a professional writer, but this was only one aspect of an eventful, if tragically short life – so much so that it’s hard to summarise here. His Wikipedia page is worth a look for his wartime activities alone, and I shall certainly be reading more by Walpole in the future, beyond the supernatural stories, which were the only part of his life and work I had so far been familiar with.
Since his death, Walpole has come to be recognised as a master of the supernatural tale and a staple of ghost story anthologies. His 1933 collection All Souls’ Night contains sixteen examples – including such well-known stories as ‘The Little Ghost’, ‘The Silver Mask’ and the werewolf narrative ‘Tarnhelm’.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Unfortunately, this work is not in the public domain in the U.S.A. – in order to comply with United States copyright legislation, readers in that country should not download the ebook. The book is available to purchase from Valancourt Books, in an edition which includes a scholarly introduction by John Howard.
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.
Mary E. Penn is an enigmatic figure – nothing whatsoever is known about her other than the fact that she wrote several stories for late-Victorian periodicals, most notably The Argosy, a monthly miscellany associated with the sensation novelist Ellen Wood (not to be confused with the American periodical of the same name). Penn’s fiction encompassed supernatural and criminal themes and the last story definitely attributed to her appeared in 1897. More details about Penn and her stories can be found here.
In 1999, Richard Dalby resurrected Penn’s ghost stories for inclusion in his Mistresses of the Macabre series, published by Sarob Press. In the Dark and Other Ghost Stories (the second in the series) featured seven stories definitely attributed to Penn, and one which was published anonymously, but which Dalby ascribes to Penn on stylistic grounds. For this edition I’ve used the texts as published in The Argosy, most issues of which are available online. A linked index to each volume can be found here and is well worth having a browse for more hidden gems of Victorian genre fiction.
Guy Boothby (1867-1905) was born in Australia but spent most of his career in England. A professional writer, his most famous work is the Dr Nikola series – a sequence of five novels about a criminal mastermind determined to take over the world with the help of the occult. Boothby was tremendously prolific. His writing career took up only the last decade of his tragically short life, but during this time he produced over fifty novels.
Presented here is one of a handful of overtly supernatural novels written by Boothby. First published in 1899, it is typically late-Victorian in its concerns about contamination by a foreign other from the fringes of occidental Empire – in this case the eponymous Pharos, a grotesque Egyptian with a talent for mesmerism, who harbours an astonishing and deadly secret. Also included are three of Boothby’s best-known ghost stories, taken from his collection The Lady of the Island (1904).
Best known for The Beetle (1897), Richard Marsh was a hugely prolific fin de siècle writer whose output includes several highly entertaining works characteristic of the late-Victorian mode of the Gothic. This novel, first published in 1901, begins with a haunted house and ends with a truly bizarre story of an Englishman’s transformation or, as the subtitle has it, his ‘reversion’. The nature of this horror is revealed gradually through multiple narrators, initially focussing on Mary Blyth, whose unfair dismissal from her job as a draper’s assistant turns out to be one of the least terrible events in what transpires to be the most horrific week of her life!
The novel deals in typical fashion with characteristic late-Victorian fears about racial degeneration and contamination by a foreign other. The setting too is highly characteristic, depicting London as a labyrinthine metropolis at the heart of Empire, in which mystery lurks behind the façade of every building and down every dark alley – the London of Bram Stoker, Arthur Machen, Conan Doyle and Stevenson – and is a must-read for any fans of the period’s Gothic tales.
Vernon Lee was the pseudonym of Violet Paget (1856-1935). She is best remembered today for her ghost stories and her essays on aestheticism. Indeed, the latter heavily informs the former, and her celebrated supernatural fiction is highly wrought, unashamedly decadent and dripping with the atmosphere of Renaissance Europe, which she so successfully captured in her non-fictional work. Born to expatriate parents, Paget spent most of her life on the continent, mainly in Italy where she lived for most of her life in a villa just outside Florence. She was a pacifist, a New Woman, an advocate of female same-sex passion, a democrat and an aesthete who developed a theory of aesthetics founded upon the idea that to consume a work of art is to develop an an intensely empathic connection with it. Her ideas were thus at the forefront of fin de siècle thinking – and make for a unique and memorable collection of stories.
The increasing interest in Paget’s supernatural fiction in recent in recent years is evidenced by the long-overdue publication of her complete supernatural tales (Ash Tree Press, 2002) and a scholarly edition of Hauntings (Broadview Press, 2006). The latter remains her best-known collection and is presented here as perfect reading for Hallowe’en!