The 19th Century Ghost Story

Whether or not you believe in the supernatural, ghost stories have figured in oral and written folklore for hundreds of years with one of the first written records dating to the Roman author Pliny the Younger. Most importantly, ghost stories make ripping yarns, possibly best demonstrated by the Victorian authors. So for our current callout we aim to celebrate the 19th century ghost story through a new collection of tales of mystery, suspense and terror!

The Victorian ghost story evolved from the genre of Gothic fiction/horror, pioneered in the 18th century by Horace Walpole with his novel ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (1764). Where Gothic horror is fiction fusing horror and romanticism, ghost stories have progressively evolved into any form of scary tale containing supernatural elements. However, 19th century ghost stories such as those by Montague Rhodes James (M. R. James) and Sheridan Le Fanu have proven the most enduring. And so with this blog, we aim to briefly examine what features from Gothic fiction and 19th century ghost stories may have been responsible for their persistent popularity.

Generation of Gothic fiction by Horace Walpole was a deliberate attempt to resolve limitations imposed by the modern novel and the medieval romance during the Enlightenment, whilst retaining features from both. The result incorporated many features which evolved into staples of Gothic fiction. Similarly, there are a number of aspects commonly employed by M. R. James when composing his ghost stories. Unsurprisingly, these attributes intersect with key elements commonly defined as required for writing a good tale; e.g. setting, plot, character, point of view, conflict and tone.

Critically, a hallmark feature for both Gothic fiction and the ghost story is the setting. Remnants of history left writers of European Gothic spoiled for choice of settings, with castles, churches, and machinery of the inquisition littering the landscape. Further, having established the setting, the terror from Gothic fiction evolves from introduction of the supernatural. Lacking similar historical remnants, North American Gothic writers adapted the open wilderness and natural landscape to similar effect, such as Charles Brockden Brown who used subterranean caves to establish a Gothic setting in ‘Edgar Huntley’ (1799). Progressing to the 19th century ghost story, M. R. James often drew upon his antiquarian background and building upon the mood established by the Gothic setting, his tales would frequently include discovery of a long lost item which becomes the focus of the story; e.g. ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook’ (1894). This identifies another feature typical of M. R. James, plot development.

Another technique commonly employed by M. R. James is subtle manipulation of the plot. By employing a more protracted narrative development, M. R. James is able to draw the reader further into the story before exposing the critical details required to fully understand the interplay of events. ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook’ (1894), employs a typically Jamesian technique of gently drawing in the reader through innocent detail of characters engaged in mundane tasks, with supernatural malevolence manifesting later into the story. This acts to enhance the effect of the climax of the tale by allowing the reader to develop a deeper bond with the protagonist before the conflict is revealed. Another common feature of Gothic fiction was to employ foreshadowing omens which offer indication of likely future events, although this can equally be employed in a deceptive manner to keep the reader guessing.

M. R. James also claimed that fictional ghosts should be threatening or of ill-intent. While Charles Dickens ‘A Christmas Carol’ (1843) may well be the most widely known ghost story ever written, it’s hardly one to put chills down your spine when told around a campfire. So on this point, we definitely concur with M. R. James as we are aiming for a collection of tales to inspire a pleasant terror in the reader. Supernatural components of the tales we’re looking for should be odious and malignant.

The role of character can offer another crucial element to help develop tension within a tale by ensuring the protagonist seems real to the reader. Convincing character development helps to establish a bond between the reader and the protagonist such that the reader increasingly becomes involved in the events involving the character. One strategy which can be employed to enhance this effect involves the point of view of the narrator. First person point of view limits the scope of the narrative being recounted, drawing the reader further into the story. This strategy can also act to add a layer of mystery to a story when the reader may find themselves questioning the objectivity of the narrator. Both of which are employed to great effect by Edgar Allen Poe in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ (1843).

Additionally, the choice of vocabulary used in the narrative can help to establish the tone for a tale. Careful selection of descriptive words can help to establish the Gothic nature of a tale, boosting and embellishing the sense of foreboding mystery or suspense. e.g. ‘Prising open the dusty cover of the arcane tome’ sets a considerably different tone than ‘opening the cover of the book’.

Finally, perhaps the best manner in which to achieve maximum impact from a ghost story is through a short story format to ensure the building tension reaches climax within a single reading session. As 19th century ghost stories were often written in this format, this may in part help to explain their enduring popularity. Whichever is the case, we await your submissions with anxious intent!

Further reading:

For more detail regarding the development of Gothic fiction, please refer to the following sites:

For those interested in M. R. James, some links for further reading:

Those interested in Sheridan Le Fanu may find the following sites of interest:

Finally, those interested in further exploration of nineteenth century ghost story authors:

 Submit a short story to Chuffed Buff Books

Next Post
Comments are closed.