This much-anthologised ghost story was but one of many works of fiction penned by the accomplished Amelia Edwards (1831-1892), who also enjoyed success with two novels now largely forgotten by the reading public: Barbara’s History (1864), and Lord Brackenbury (1880). As to their merits, I cannot comment, for I have not read them. She was, however, to abandon her literary pursuits in favour of Egyptology, co-founding the Egypt Exploration Fund with Reginald Stuart Poole in 1882, subsequent to a voyage along the Nile described in her travelogue A Thousand Miles up the Nile (1877).
But let us not dwell upon the heat and dust of Egypt, and turn rather to the chilly setting of the grouse moors of the north of England, where her most famous story unfolds. Written in 1864, its narrator – a young man who has recently married – informs the reader that he has hitherto divulged this experience to one other person only. An air of confidentiality is thus immediately established, as he outlines the unsettling events of some twenty years earlier. We are informed that these took place towards the end of the grouse-shooting season, which is fixed as 10th December.
The narrator, having finished the day’s shooting, finds himself inexplicably alone, and caught out by an unexpected snowstorm as dusk is falling. This induces a not unreasonable sense of alarm, for it transpires that he is some twenty miles distant from the inn in the village of Dwolding where his young wife awaits him. His prospects for reaching this accommodation appear grim, but to his great relief he makes out a light glimmering in the distance that proves to be a lantern carried by an old stranger. The latter is a tetchy fellow, a servant by occupation, and after much badgering by the distraught narrator, agrees to take him to his master’s house, which contains ‘a great raftered hall’ that doubles up as an agricultural store, with hams and herbs hanging from its ceiling. The owner, a hoary-haired old gentleman who has voluntarily cut himself off from society, proves to be a reluctant and, at least at first, unwelcoming host, but after a while warms to his unbidden guest.
It transpires that he has ‘lived in retirement’ for almost a quarter of a century, dwelling alone with his servant in a house filled with a curious miscellany of volumes on matters scientific, philosophical and occult, and scientific instruments alongside ‘painted carvings of mediaeval saints and devils.’ Since taking leave of society, he has not troubled himself with the reading of newspapers, and asks of his guest only of developments in the world of science. It is then that this character, whose beliefs combine elements of both the rational and the supernatural, reveals how he came to be in his situation:
‘I, sir, paused, investigated, believed, and was branded as a visionary, held up to ridicule by my contemporaries, and hooted from that field of science in which I had laboured with honour during all the best years of my life.’
In short, his willingness to entertain the possibility of the supernatural had blighted his professional reputation. However, it is not in his company, or in his house, that the reader encounters anything of an otherworldly nature. It is only once his young visitor has taken his refreshment, and enjoyed the warmth of his host’s hearth, that his desire to return to his young wife overrides his rational faculties, and spurs him to request that the servant leads him to where the night mail passes on a road some five miles distant. This, he is informed, might take him to Dwolding.
It is once the two men have left the safety of the house, and headed out into the cold and snow of the night in search of the old coach-road, that the servant mentions an accident with the night mail which almost a decade earlier had left all aboard dead. He makes no mention of any haunting, but this is what the narrator then experiences. At first, he takes the phantom coach for the physical conveyance that is to take him to the safety of the inn – after all, it halts for him, and he climbs aboard as if all were normal – but the realisation that is not what he believes it to be, only gradually begins to dawn on him. Despite his best efforts, his three fellow passengers remain in a state of morose silence, the carriage pervaded by a strange, nauseating smell, which, it transpires, emanates from the putrefaction of the bodies of the unspeaking trio, ‘their clothes earth-stained and dropping to pieces.’ Edwards here atmospherically conveys the mouldering, decayed state of the carriage and its occupants with great aplomb, but as to what then happens, I shall not mention here, for that would spoil the story for those who have yet to read it.
The Phantom Coach is a classic Victorian ghost story, written at a time when the railways had consigned the long-distance mail coach to history, and the public appetite for tales of the supernatural was at its height. In its theme, it partly brings to mind one of Dickens’s early forays into the ghostly – The Story of the Bagman’s Uncle, or, The Ghosts of the Mail – which appeared in The Pickwick Papers. This earlier piece likewise deals with a dilapidated spectral coach and an unintentional journey by night, but is of a far more light-hearted nature, and may be adjudged to be more an exercise in comedy, than in ‘horror’.
Tomorrow we’ll consider another supernatural story from an author whose name will need no introduction for those who appreciate a ‘pleasing terror’, but if you’re looking for a collection of ghost stories for Christmas written in the classic vein, then you might find the following to your taste: A Ghost Story Omnibus Volume Two.