I thought I would get into the Halloween spirit and spend a lazy Sunday reading a spooky book, all wrapped up indoors against the October elements. I can’t say that The Haunted House, originally published for the weekly periodical All the Year Round as one of Dickens’ Christmas stories, really spooked me, but it was an entertaining read nonetheless.
In this short novella, the main character rents an allegedly haunted house, and invites a group of friends to test for evidence of ghosts and ghoulies. All at Christmas time. As you do. I mean, even Yvette Fielding and the Most Haunted team take a break at Christmas! Anyway, these friends agree to wait until Twelfth Night before they each recount their creepy experiences in the house, and the book is basically a set of these accounts, written by five different writers alongside Dickens, who tops and tails the collection as well as contributing one of the stories.
I was expecting tales of damsels imprisoned in the cellar and forever haunting the house with their woeful cries, ghostly dogs scratching at doors…you know, Some Proper Gothic Stuff. The problem is, none of the stories relate to the ‘haunted’ house itself, and none of them are actually scary – instead, they are tales of injustice, regret, and fear. Unpleasant, indeed, but not enough to make me have to sleep with the lights on (the one true measure of a scary tale). Bear in mind that I am someone who was freaked out by the 90s Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts adverts where everyone turned into Bertie Bassett (see below), and you get a measure of how non-scary this book was.
However, there is still much to enjoy here. Gaskell’s tale of inter-family class war with wayward sons and neglected parents could have been expanded into a full novel. I found the observation of the mother pining for her ambitious son who has gone to ‘Lunnon’ (London) very touching:
When once her child was placed by her side, and she had got possession of his hand, the old woman kept stroking it, and murmuring long unused words of endearment, such as she had spoken to him while he was yet a little child. But all this was wearisome to him.
As is the description of the semi-literate parents taking solace in the Bible:
He could not read fluently, and often hesitated long over a word….but the very fact of opening the book seemed to soothe those old bereaved parents.
The story of the young bridegroom who was accused of being a drunkard when he was quite sure that he had the ‘dreadful ague’ (by George Augustus Sala) was extremely funny until I recalled the injustice of all those times that my stories of food poisoning have been debunked as over-indulgence of the alcoholic kind. Finally I thought Collins’ tale, of an old sailor who trembled at the sight of a lit candle due to a traumatic wartime experience, was rather modern in describing what was essentially an episode of PTSD. So, don’t expect to get the creeps, but enjoy a few well-crafted tales that make for a nice afternoon’s reading. Happy Halloween! Please recommend some scary tales for me to tremble over!