Sarah Johnson reviews Minor Hauntings: Chilling Tales of Spectral Youth (ed. Jen Baker), the latest in the British Library’s excellent Tales of the Weird series.
Parents and guardians are often wicked and cruel in Minor Hauntings: Chilling Tales of Spectral Youth; while the stories may focus on child cruelty and neglect, inevitably they are as much about adult attitudes to children as to the ghosts themselves. Another publication in the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series, this volume contains thirteen stories published between 1831 and 1925. Featuring authors such as M. R. James (1862-1936) and Charlotte Riddell (1832-1906), several have been published elsewhere and will be familiar to readers of Victorian ghost stories. Gathered together, however, they provide a unique perspective on the topic of child spirits in literature, and Jen Baker’s Introduction and accompanying notes also provide a useful guide.
‘Lost Hearts’ by James is, for me, a highlight of the collection: regardless of how many times I’ve read it, each is a pleasure. Ancient rituals and dead children haunt Aswarby Hall where the ‘austere recluse’ Mr Abney lives. Abney maintains a philanthropic façade as supposed benefactor to orphan Stephen Elliott, but with rumours of dark whisperings in the wine-cellar and glimpses of wraithlike children, Stephen Elliott’s feelings of unease grow the longer he stays at Aswarby Hall. The spirit children are particularly gruesome, and the description of what Stephen sees in the disused bathroom always strikes me as chilling. Abney stands out amongst these stories as a unique character, with his matter-of-fact attitude to the murder of a child: he considers it a matter of necessity in the pursuit of knowledge. This lack of emotion marks Abney as a different kind of villain to the typically cruel and sadistic parents or guardians which feature in several of the other tales.
Whether for money, convenience, or simply jealousy, the children in these stories are neglected, poisoned, or beaten to death. I found the description of the beating in ‘Two Little Red Shoes’ by Bessie Kyffin-Taylor particularly gruesome, although the perpetrator is eventually punished for his actions. This is a theme that runs throughout the tales, with children (in spirit form) exacting revenge on their murderers and tormentors. Of particular interest is ‘The Ghost of Little Jacques’ by Ann M. Hoyt and the attitudes to child mortality it explores. As Jen Baker writes: ‘the story is rich in detail and its attempts to grapple with the philosophy and ethics of child death’. The narrator states of a bereaved father:
‘The necessity of providing for his little living family had quite disenthralled Monsieur C from any weak sentimentality in regard to his little dead family.’
Monsieur C is business-like about the demise of his children – who die with alarming regularity – and he is ‘arrested by a Higher Power’ for his actions.
By contrast, several characters in Minor Hauntings counteract this callous attitude. Mr. Bernard Puckler, a doll doctor, is notable for the love of his daughter Else in F. Marion Crawford’s story ‘The Doll’s Ghost’. From the start, Crawford creates an uneasy atmosphere with the introduction of a doll (Nina) which is a little too human:
‘She had been a very beautiful doll, very large, and fair, and healthy, with real yellow hair, and eyelids that would open and shut over very grown-up dark eyes. Moreover, when you moved her right arm up and down she said “Pa-pa”, and when she moved the left she said “Ma-ma,” very distinctly.’
Puckler treats his doll ‘patients’ like children, saying: ‘You must be gentle with them. It costs nothing to be kind to the little beings, and perhaps it makes a difference to them.’ With doll Nina bearing a resemblance to daughter Else, the narrative develops striking elements of the uncanny doppelgänger. The ‘small pattering, as of tiny feet on the boards’, might belong either to a child or a doll come to life. I enjoy aspects of the Freudian uncanny in my horror literature, and (although overly sentimental in parts) this story is unique in the collection as it does not involve the death of a child.
Dealing with family matters as most of the stories do, they are ripe for analysis. Internal repression and external oppression abound, with children often cast as ‘other’. Reading ‘Anne’s Little Ghost’ by H.D. Everett, the question is whether the little ghost is real, or a product of Anne locking ‘inner feelings… tender regrets and constant thoughts’ in a ‘secret chamber in her mind, the door of which is shut and barred’. The real fascination of the stories in Minor Hauntings lies in the representation of children and the family. There are some chilling moments and some of horror, but these are more likely to be caused by the behaviour of adults than by the ghosts of children.
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