Whilst better known for her novels such as North and South and Cranford, which are firmly rooted in the social reality of her time, Elizabeth Gaskell also dabbled in fiction of a more macabre and often supernatural hue, with often effective results. A contemporary of both Dickens and Wilkie Collins, she too was not averse to the penning of ghost stories, and was of a sufficiently confident and independent mind to refuse the Dickens’s suggested alternative ending to the opening story in this collection, The Old Nurse’s Story, the piece with which this anthology opens.
This first tale, set in an old manor house ‘at the foot of the Cumberland fells’, features a number of familiar gothic motifs and a haunting manifestation redolent of Catherine’s ghost in Wuthering Heights, and appears to have been prompted by a true story related to her by Charlotte Bronte, concerning the unfortunate fate of a young woman in Haworth. Set during the final quarter of the eighteenth century, the narrative is distanced in both time and setting from the normal world of her readers, thus allowing for the suspension of disbelief necessary for its supernatural elements to take a hold of the imagination. This is one of the few ghost stories in this volume, with most of the others constituting more straightforward forays into the gothic.
Lois the Witch is quite a lengthy piece, a novella, following the fate of the eponymous heroine who journeys from Warwickshire to New England subsequent to the death of her mother, who has enjoined her to travel overseas to seek a home with her paternal uncle’s family. Thus does the young woman find herself precipitated into the strange and alien world of Salem in the fateful year of 1691, the paranoid and febrile atmosphere of which Gaskell adeptly sketches. Although purportedly open to the idea of the reality of the supernatural, Gaskell, like most of her nineteenth-century contemporaries, possessed no truck with notions of witchcraft, and so the story she creates is an effective and evocative critique of the dangers of blind belief, and the surrender of the will to irrational fancies. Published a century before The Crucible, it makes for an interesting companion piece.
Deceptive appearances are a common theme in a number of these stories, such as The Squire’s Story, The Poor Clare, and The Ghost in the Garden Room, with the latter providing a rather heart-wrenching riff on the theme of the Prodigal Son. The Doom of the Griffiths serves up an engaging yarn concerning a familial curse, with the reader left wondering how it is that Gaskell will lead the tale to its implied climax. Fate, it seems, cannot be evaded.
The Grey Woman I found to possess something of a stuttering start, but once it got into its stride it became an engrossing gothic tale of deception, murder and pursuit, with its action unfolding against the turbulent lawlessness of revolutionary France and the adjacent region of Germany. This introduced me to another usage of the term Chauffeurs which proved to be both unexpected, and distinctly disturbing.
The closing two pieces I found to be the weakest of the set, with the reader becoming lost in the woods alongside the protagonist in Curious, if True, and then meeting – without them being named – a collection of characters from fairy tale gathered together in a French chateau in the dead of night. It seems that the writer was unsure where to take this whimsical conceit, and having started it brings it to an abrupt end by having the narrator wake at dawn. The last – Disappearances – consists of a number of ostensibly factual anecdotes relating to this phenomenon, and whilst interesting, is not, and was not intended to be, a story. Still, despite this somewhat subdued ending, I would recommend this collection to any reader with a taste for the nineteenth-century gothic.
Tales of Mystery and the Macabre by Elizabeth Gaskell, published by Wordsworth Editions, may be purchased here.
The following two collections may also be of interest: