Chris Woodyard (Editor), The Victorian Book of the Dead. Kestrel Publications.
‘Soon it will be dusk. I have the dark lantern, the shovel, the hook, the sack. Let us go into the graveyard together.’ So declares Chris Woodyard, the selector and editor of the ghostly – nay, ‘ghastly’ – tales presented in The Ghost Wore Black. Should one have the nerve to accompany him, then clearly he’s the perfect companion and leader.
This book is a delight on many levels, mainly for the Fortean, for the author is unashamedly a fan of that ultimate collector of the anomalous, the great Charles Fort. True Forteans – thin on the ground though they are – may express wonder and indeed opinions, as long as no hard-and-fast conclusion is reached. Certainly, explanations are regarded as antithetical to an intimate knowledge of the world of the weird. (Fort wrote: ‘there was never an explanation that did not in itself require an explanation.’)
Woodyard does his best to be a good Fortean, presenting the cases culled from the ‘morgues’ (somewhat appropriately) of newspaper archives from perhaps a century ago, with some carefully-worded notes that, while they might offer some rational explanation for individual cases, remain resolutely Fortean and never dismiss stories just because they’re anecdotal. Indeed, one of the main points of this highly readable anthology is that it is anecdotal. We all love ghost stories, after all, but few of us are equally enamoured of the dry statistics and even drier evaluations of the more sceptical parapsychologists of today. Mercifully they are conspicuous by their absence in these pages.
One of the joys of these old newspaper stories is simply the wording of some of the original headlines. A random selection includes: ‘MAY BE SAME OLD GHOST’; ‘OWL HOOTED: SISTER DIED’; ‘SPOOK BEES IN A GROVE’; ‘A DOG IN A BARN DIES AND TURNS TO STONE’; ‘IMPERSONATOR OR WIZARD APPEARS AGAIN IN MEXICO’; ‘VERY LIKE A WHALE’; ‘GIRL’S SPIRIT IN A PARTRIDGE: Bird’s Queer Action Excites Awe in All’ and ‘GHOST OF A NUN WAS HIS STRANGE PASSENGER’. These are the cream of a crop that includes more predictable ghosty headlines, such as: ‘PURSUED BY A DEMON’; ‘HIS BONY FINGER’ and ‘KILLED BY A SPECTER’, though the stories themselves are still worth perusing. Some, however, are perhaps self-evidently not worth it, if one is looking for a Halloweenesque thrill or two, such as one entitled: ‘THE BLACK GHOST A DISAPPOINTMENT: A Boy on Stilts, with a Sheet, Was Impersonating the Powers of Darkness’. Or maybe it’s worth a quick peek anyway…
Woodyard is an old hand at ghost stories, having selected and edited – and, indeed, commented upon – many books’-worth along similar lines. Concentrating mainly on American stories, his selection is rich and strange, and his comments admirably knowledgeable, pithy and perhaps oddly for such a subject, light in tone without being glib.
He deals even-handedly with both the sensational and the disappointing, and – excellent value for other Forteans – does a sound job of tying individual cases to local tradition or other contexts.
One particular Woman in Black that he singles out was allegedly a ‘vampire’. She featured in a newspaper report from Tyrone, Pennsylvania in 1903, though the article was vague and the tone fashionably sneery. It begins: ‘Tyrone is having the “woman in black” scare just now. This lady has a habit of wandering from town to town, frightening inoffensive men… she is thought to be a vampire…’ The writer then goes on to define the term, apparently drawing heavily from Bram Stoker’s classic novel – but does this make the story itself more or less believable? Woodyard wisely sticks to his Fortean guns. Basically, it was whatever it was, but some bits have a sociological interest: he points out that it was unusual at that time and place for ‘vampire’ to be defined as the undead. He says: ‘It is surprising to find only one Woman in Black described as a vampire. While the concept would have been understood by Eastern Europeans and New Englanders, to the general public, the term usually had the connotation of ‘homewrecker’ or ‘seducer’. A vampire – male or female – lured spouses away from their unhappy homes.’
He leads us through reports about a huge number of ghosts, banshees, apparitions, bloody handprints, angels of death and fiery devils, and most of us who love a good tale are very grateful to him for it. But whether we’re quite so grateful for the details in his second book being reviewed here – The Victorian Book of the Dead, is another matter entirely…
While tales of ghosts and ghoulies might reasonably be categorised as good clean fun, the facts of physical death are – hopefully to most people – considerably less so. In a culture where our deceased loved ones are immediately swept away to be sanitised by professionals and where most people have the good sense to die when decently old, the whole business of viewing corpses rarely happens and is often seen as bad taste, to put it mildly. (And if at least one major British court case is anything to go by, children who were forced, in previous decades, to see dead bodies were unequivocally victims of child abuse.)
|The New York City Morgue Viewing Room|
Harper's Weekly, 1866.
The Victorians, on the other hand, were surrounded by death – of babies, children and adults from a host of infections and diseases that are no longer life-threatening in the twenty-first century. Not only that, but their lifestyle, even their fashions, brought about terrible accidents, as in the epidemic of appalling deaths from fire caused by crinolines swooshing too close to open fires.
Death was also all around them in another sense. It was the done thing for corpses to lie on show in open coffins for many days, even at the height of summer. In any case, the poor who were crammed together in one room were compelled to share their living quarters with their dead until the parish officers took them away to a pauper’s funeral.
Woodyard explains this background context while presenting reports of exploding and runaway coffins, premature burials, weird murders (including one by a parrot), fashions in mourning attire and so on while being careful to point out that some were undoubtedly exaggerated and some little more than urban myths. But one aspect of the Victorians’ bizarre romance with death is certainly true, and to some of us – not normally squeamish – its after-image has caused some uncomfortable moments before sleep comes.
This is the apparently curious – some today would say ‘sick’ – practice of taking photographs of the dead. Perhaps fine so far (if they must, they must), but this wasn’t a case of nicely laid out dead people in bed or in their coffins. These loved ones were dressed, spruced up and set upright as if alive. Sometimes their eyelids were painted to look like open eyes. Worse by far to modern sensibilities is the fact that many of these corpses were included in family groups – everyone else, including young children, being very much alive. Some little ones even have their arms round their dead sibling, partly at least to keep him or her vertical. They all stare in that unnerving Victorian fashion at the camera, one of them more sightlessly, and much more unnervingly, than the others.
The rationale, heartbreaking in itself, is that in those days when death came early and suddenly many families had not had either the opportunity or the funds to secure photographs of their family members in life. When death came they had one last chance to get an image they could keep. (One can imagine the desperate running around friends and family to cobble together the photographer’s fee.) Some photographers specialised in such pictures.
(Woodyard gives details of web sites where many more examples of this can be seen. Some of us tend to wish he hadn’t.)
This book is indeed, as it claims, an anthology of ‘long-lost tales of the morbid, mournful and macabre from the Victorian era’. An excellent job of research, true, but definitely not for the faint-hearted! – Lynn Picknett.