a singular air of reluctance or compulsion

Three Ghost Stories, by Charles Dickens

I’ve always had a rather mixed view of Charles Dickens. He can create memorable characters, make a story rattle along, bring scenes to vivid life, but he’s also frequently maudlin and I’ve read more than one book by him that could have used a severe editorial pruning. When I reviewed Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger I described it as Dickensian, that wasn’t wholly a compliment.

A little while back though Sarah at A Rat in the Book Pile reviewed Dickens’ short story The Signal Man. It’s a story I already knew from a BBC Christmas adaptation, but Sarah made a good case for the original and I’m a sucker for a good ghost story. And after all, was there ever a better time and place for spooks than Victorian England?

One of the advantages of owning a kindle is easy access to classic fiction. I downloaded Three Ghost Stories, and recently wanting a lighter read thought it the perfect time to indulge in these frock-coated frights.

There are (as the title rather suggests) three stories in this collection. The Signal Man, The Haunted House and finally The Trial for Murder. Sarah was right. The Signal Man is a great short story.

The Signal Man draws on a classic piece of folklore, the premonitory haunting: a spirit which brings forewarning of death or calamity. A retired traveller comes across a railway cutting, “as solitary and dismal a place as ever I saw”, and shouts a greeting to the signal man working down below. The signal man starts in fear, but eventually calls his visitor down to join him where he explains what it was that made him so frightened by a cheery greeting.

Here the visitor descends almost literally into the underworld:

On either side a dripping wet wall of jagged stone, excluding all view but a strip of sky: the perspective one way only a crooked prolongation of this great dungeon; the shorter perspective in the other direction terminating in a gloomy red light, and the gloomier entrance to a black tunnel, in which massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air. So little sunlight ever found its way to this spot, that it had an earthy, deadly smell; and so much cold wind rushed through it, that it struck chill to me, as if I had left the natural world.

I won’t give too much away. The signal man thinks himself haunted by a figure that appears to him presaging disaster on his line – a rail crash, a terrible accident. Only he can see this figure, and so only he receives these dire and useless portents. What can you do with the knowledge that something awful will happen, but no knowledge of what exactly it will be?

Dickens leaves open the possibility of psychological explanation, but for me this worked best in a more literal fashion. Premonitory apparitions are a big feature of the folklore of the British isles. One example that springs to mind are washer women seen by travellers, who on greeting are discovered to be washing blood out of clothes and the sighting of whom foretells a death in the traveller’s own family. The signal man is cursed with valueless prophecy.

Of course the figure reappears. What disaster is it foretelling this time? For that you’ll need to read the story, and it’s worth reading because it’s an absolute gem and I agree with Sarah entirely that it shows none of the faults of Dickens’ longer works.

Where The Signal Man showed all Dickens’ strengths and none of his weaknesses, The Haunted House balanced the books by showing him at his worst. It starts promisingly enough, with a narrator whose “health required a temporary residence in the country” – doesn’t it always in these tales? There’s a nice bit of satire as the narrator travels by train to the house where the mystery will unfold and while travelling meets a spiritualist who boasts of his high connections in the unseen world:

There are seventeen thousand four hundred and seventy-nine spirits here, but you cannot see them. Pythagoras is here. He is not at liberty to mention it, but hopes you like travelling.” Galileo likewise had dropped in, with this scientific intelligence. “I am glad to see you, amico. Come sta? Water will freeze when it is cold enough. Addio!” In the course of the night, also, the following phenomena had occurred. Bishop Butler had insisted on spelling his name, “Bubler,” for which offence against orthography and good manners he had been dismissed as out of temper. John Milton (suspected of wilful mystification) had repudiated the authorship of Paradise Lost, and had introduced, as joint authors of that poem, two Unknown gentlemen, respectively named Grungers and Scadgingtone. And Prince Arthur, nephew of King John of England, had described himself as tolerably comfortable in the seventh circle, where he was learning to paint on velvet, under the direction of Mrs. Trimmer and Mary Queen of Scots.

When the story gets to the actual haunted house though it wanders off in endless and very laboured comic digressions, ultimately sputtering out in a dismally sentimental conclusion. One of the other advantages of the kindle is you can make notes directly against the text. At the end of this one I wrote “flabby and dull”, after deleting my initial comment which was a lot ruder.

Finally comes The Murder Trial, which is a predictable and uninteresting story of how a jury foreman finds himself the only man at a trial who can see the murder victim’s ghost, attending and influencing events. I don’t have any quotes from this one, the whole thing was too dull for any to stand out.

So, three ghost stories. The second story is terrible, the third just utterly mediocre, but the first wouldn’t be out of place in an MR James collection and when it comes to supernatural short stories there simply isn’t higher praise.

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10 Comments

Filed under 19th Century Literature, Horror Fiction

10 responses to “a singular air of reluctance or compulsion

  1. So many books I haven’t read. I mean, this makes it at least, what, 10, 11? :)

    Great review. I really struggle with Dickens – I’ve read a few, but mostly find myself thinking I DON’T CARE. Of course, culturally and historically I think he’s massively important, and he can be very funny. But, I dunno, there’s some obstacle that stops me from really relaxing into his work. I think I feel some sort of big, cosmic, readerly pressure weighing down on me to really ‘get’ and enjoy Dickens, and when I don’t, I just feel guilty.

    Also – I ALWAYS pick the more fantastical interpretation of any text over any psychologically sober (albeit more realistic) alternative.

  2. We’re in the same place on this one Tomcat, though the first story here is worth it and is short.

    I know what you mean about the guilt factor, but if you don’t like someone you just plain don’t like them.

    The psychological interpretation isn’t always more interesting certainly, and can even be a bit of a cliche. In the case of at least one story, MR James’ Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad! I’ve seen attempts at psychological interpretations which I think are flatly wrong. MR James wrote ghost stories, with ghosts. He was fairly straight that way.

    Turn of the Screw on the other hand, that definitely bears a psyhological explanation, but brilliantly it bears the fantastic one just as well.

    Which reminds me, if you dig around here you’ll find a review of a book called The Jinx by Theophile Gautier. Check it out, I think you’d like it.

  3. I too have my problems with Dickens–some of it I’ll blame on having it shoved at us constantly in school. But that said, Bleak House is one of my all-time top novels.

    I think this is the collection that’s free for the kindle (3 Ghost stories). Must be because one of the reviews I read made the same observations about the quality of the three stories.

    For some reason, I’ve been leaning towards ghost stories lately. Not that I’ve actually read one recently. Perhaps it’s the whole Woman in Black thing.

  4. Max, I am delighted that you found The Signal Man worthy of your attention, and thank you for the track-back. It is fascinating that while we both rate the tale highly our requirements are slightly different. It needs the psychological explanation to work for me, but then I am not familiar with this aspect of folklore. Your review gives me a greater appreciation of Dickens’ achievement.

    I do not think I would seek out The Murder Trial, but your remarks have made me curious to read The Haunted House. I love your review which does describe a very recognisable Dickens, but finding the parts that don’t work is (arguably) part of the fun. I agree with Guy that Bleak House is a great novel, it is a favourite of mine too, but it is by no means flawless.

    Earlier today I finished Edwin Drood, and enjoyed it, but again cannot feel that it is as polished as The Signal Man. (Although it is much harder to draw conclusions about a novel which was never finished.)

  5. Interesting review but I’m not that tempted to try these short stories.

    I read Great Expectation and David Copperfield a long time ago. I’m not sure I’d like them as much right now.

    Your response to Dickens reminds me of mine to Hugo. I thought Notre Dame de Paris boring and the characters ridiculous, unreal.

  6. Sorry for the slow replies folks.

    Guy, it’s precisely that collection, I should have said. It’s worth downloading for the first story, then delete I’d say. I saw The Woman in Black in the theatre and rather loved it.

    Sarah, thanks for flagging it to me. I’d never have read it otherwise. Thanks also for putting something on my TBR pile that was free – usually my heart says yes but my bank manager says must you?

    There’s fun to be had in The Haunted House, but I thought it ultimately became flabby. My favourite Dickens, which is itself flawed, is Hard Times.

    Emma, if you’re going to dip into Victorian ghost fiction then MR James is your man. He’s a master of the form, and his short stories are genuinely short. Good Christmas reads.

    The first review on this blog, I think, is Notre Dame de Paris. It’s the book that inspired me to start blogging – I liked it so much I wanted to find a way to explore it further. Funny how books can strike people so differently.

  7. Max: I’ve yet to see the Woman in Black but will rent the DVD

  8. Sorry Guy, I was thinking of the play which has been running so long in London I suspect it was contemporary horror when it started. I’ve no idea what the film’s like. Hard to imagine actually, the play leaves a lot to the imagination.

  9. You decided to create a blog after reading Notre Dame de Paris ?!! I’m really surprised, I wouldn’t have thought this was your kind of book. Perhaps it’s less bombastic in translation.
    But in French, brr!! In French, Hugo is too much.

  10. You should go back and read the original post, I’d be interested to hear your disagreement on it.

    I even liked the architecture chapters by the way. In fact, I particularly liked the architecture chapters.

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