“It was a solitary house, standing in a sadly neglected garden: a pretty even square of some two acres. It was a house of about the time of George II – as stiff, as cold, as formal, and in as bad taste as could possibly be desired by the most loyal admirer of the whole quartet of Georges. It was uninhabited, but had, within a year or two, been cheaply repaired to render it habitable; I say cheaply, because the work had been done in a surface manner, and was already decaying as to the paint and plaster, though the colours were fresh. A lopsided board drooped over the garden wall, announcing that it was ‘to let on very reasonable terms, well furnished’. It was much too closely and heavily shadowed by trees, and, in particular, there were six tall poplars before the front windows, which were excessively melancholy, and the site of which had been extremely ill chosen.”
Dickens’ Christmas publications began with “A Christmas Carol” in 1842 and soon became a national institution. “The Haunted House” was his 1862 offering, first published in his weekly periodical “All The Year Round” and now republished by the Hesperus Press.
It is a portmanteau novel. Dickens writes the opening and closing stories, framing stories by Dickens himself and five other authors, including Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell.
The opening story by Dickens is the strongest of the collection and demonstrates his mastery of storytelling and characterisation. When the narrator espies a deserted house from his railway carriage, he determines to take up residence. But the house is reputed to be haunted and the household staff gradually become more and more agitated. With his patience wearing thin, the narrator sends them away and invites a group of like-minded friends to stay with him and fend for themselves. They all agree to keep silent about any ghostly experiences until Twelfth Night, when they will gather to share their stories with the group.
The tales that follow are all very different but each one has an element of the strange and scary. Some of the house guests have heard stories from ghosts while other have had out-of-body experiences.
Hesba Stretton’s tale is sentimental and romantic in tone. The story is slight but the prose is lovely.
George Augustus Sala tells and entertaing story of a young man with aspirations.
Adelaide Anne Procter provides another romantic story, entirely in verse narrative. Again the story is slight but the prose is lovely.
Wilkie Collins’ offers a seafaring story of Spanish pirates and the torment of a candle that, as it burns, takes the narrator ever closer to explosion and death. It isn’t his best writing but the fun he is having with his story shines through.
Dickens himself contributes a very peculiar tale of the ghost of innocence that hints at the author’s own feelings of melancholy. Interesting, but not as strong as his introduction and conclusion.
Elizabeth Gaskell ends the collection with a strong story of working people in the north of England.
And then Dickens wraps things up nicely with a short concluding story.
This was a fun read over a couple of dark winter evenings and, though it isn’t Dickens at his best, it is still a lovely Victorian curio.