Guest US-based blogger DANIEL W CHEELY writes for Spooky Isles about how British books inspired his love for haunted houses…
Greetings Spooky Islets!
Please allow me to introduce myself. No I am not a man of wealth and taste. I am just an average guy from “The States” that has a passion for stories about ghosts and the houses they haunt. I self-publish books and novellas and run a web page that is dedicated to the study of haunted houses of film and literature. The page is called TheBooksofDaniel.com. I go by the name “Daniel” on paper, blog and book, ah but what the heck, you can just call be “Dan.” I have been invited to write an article for The Spooky Isles. So like a good neighbor, with only The Atlantic pond separating us, here I come swimming on over to the other side and… here I am! Sorry for waterlogging your front room carpets.
At my blog, I advertise my books and write reviews of films and literature that pertain to haunted houses. But I like to think that I do more than that. On the page, I experience. I analyze. I learn. Then I share this learning with my readers. I look for trends and themes in the materials that I review. I try to unearth truths that hide in symbolism. I examine literary histories and compare today’s “spirit” with the ghosts of yesterday. My interest has taken me to many places. But throughout my studies, I am always finding my way to Great Britain. All of my conclusions, my “unearthings,” have been surrounded by much of your soil. The paths I discover always unveil a trail that leads to the United Kingdom – at least from a literary perspective. And it is this perspective that will guide this article, which is appropriately titled, “Everything I Needed to Know about Haunted Houses I Learned from British Literature.”
The Mammoth Book of Haunted House Stories
In the early days of my blog, someone had suggested that I read Peter Haining’s “The Mammoth Book of Haunted House Stories”. I read it and wow, it was “mammoth” all right – 42 stories! The first thing I learned was that a good haunted house story need not be long. And sometimes the best stories are short. This book is a collection of short stories and novellas. While reading I encountered the greats – E Bulwer Lytton, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Algernon Blackwood, Charlotte Riddell, M.R. James and many more. All of the authors named in the last sentence are contributors to the cultural phenomenon that is now known as “The classic English ghost story”. As I read and enjoyed their stories, I didn’t realize that these authors had helped develop a movement. I would later read several more stories from these authors at greater depths.
My favorite story out of the bunch is “The Haunted and the Haunters” by E Bulwer Lytton. This former member of the British Parliament coined the phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night.” – the most classic opening line for the haunted house story. “The Haunted and the Haunters” is a story about a man that visits a house that is supposedly haunted. He hopes to witness some odd occurrences and he is not disappointed. He hears footsteps. He sees doors open on their own accord. He witnesses the formation of shadowy substances. Oh it is so delightfully creepy!
Here in the United States, we are proud of our classic horror authors. We love us some Poe and we dig our Lovecraft. But while researching haunted house themes, I have traced these two fellows back to English writers. Come with me to the paragraphs that follow and I will show you. Come along!
Two types of haunted houses
During my studies, I have delineated between two types of haunted houses. There is the house that serves up an eerie backdrop for the ghosts to do their thing. The props are all there and it’s up to the ghosts to use them. A spirit might cause the eyes of a portrait to shift, or a fire to spontaneously combust in the fireplace. In its wispy form, the spirit might traipse down the long staircase. In these cases, the house is a neutral agent and the ghosts manipulate the environment. While these houses do their job well, my favorite haunted house has a life of its own. It is its own entity and it can create the haunting, with or without ghosts. Sometimes this house is symbolic, representative of the ill-fated lineages of its current occupants or the overall misfortunes that have taken place inside its walls. There is no better example of such a house than the “House of Usher,” the subject of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” It is one of my favorites! The “House of Usher” stands for both The Usher family and the house they occupy. Brother and sister live in the house, and when the house dies, they die and visa-versa. At the story’s end…(SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!) …the house splits in two as brother and sister kill each other. Quite the original idea, right?
Poe borrows from Horace Walpole, author, art historian and like Lytton he was a member of the British Parliament. (BTW, what is it with British politicians becoming “horror” authors anyway?) But what Walpole is primarily known for is launching the Gothic literature movement. His novel “The Castle of Otranto,” published in 1764, is widely considered to be the first Gothic novel. The castle of this story is a crumbling fortress. It is symbolic of the reign of the Prince that occupies the castle. The obliteration of the fortress equates to the annihilation of the Prince’s lineage.
Just as the bricks and stones solidify a house or castle, the elements that came to define Gothic literature solidified the haunted house story. These elements include the allure of architectural relics from ancient and medieval times, themes involving curses and retribution for the sins of ancestors, and of course good ol’ fashion ghosts. Both British and American authors followed in this tradition and gave us works that featured haunted castles and gigantic manors that housed knight’s armors and stone passages. They gave us vengeful ghosts that rose from within the cracks in the stone to haunt the current occupants.
Now, as we all know, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. As my venturing down Haunted House lane led me to discover the themes of Gothic literature, it also led me to the concepts of “Cosmic Horror.” Cosmic Horror is associated with H.P. Lovecraft. His stories do away with the Gothic tropes. Away with the ghosts and in with the creatures of the Cosmos; weird beings from the sky, sea monsters, etc. When the strange happenings of his stories center on a house, they do so in unique ways. Mountaintop houses open to astral deities, gaseous entities rise up from the cellar. Quite often his houses harbor gateways to otherworldly dimensions.
Cosmic horror based on UK writer
It is said that Lovecraft coined the term “Cosmic Horror.” This may be so, but he was not referring to his own work when doing so! No siree Bob! He used the term to describe the works of William Hope Hodgson, an English author who inspired Lovecraft. Before Lovecraft was thinking up houses with otherworldly mathematical dimensions (Such as the house is his story “Dreams in the Witch House”), Hodgson offered readers, “The House on the Borderland”. This house takes its occupant on a mystic journey through time and space. From his chamber window, he watches as the celestial bodies of both morning and night cycle through at mind-boggling speeds. When he wants to take in some more “mundane horror”, he defends the abode against herds of monstrous, long-toothed swine.
So far I have covered the classic English ghost story, the house as a symbolic entity that points to other elements of the plot, and the characteristics of Gothic and Cosmic Horror; all of which have their roots in British literature. Are there any other themes that I have discovered that are worth mentioning? Sure! The Christmas Haunted House! Yes, you read that right. Family and friends gather in a house on Christmas Eve. They have had a fine meal. It’s cold outside but they are warm beside the fire. Or maybe the evening is over and the guests have left and the hosts have gone to bed. The last things on their mind are ghosts. This is when they are most vulnerable, most susceptible to a Christmas haunting.
Haunted houses for Christmas
The Christmas Haunted House was born out of the pastime of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. This is a British tradition dating back to the 19th century. Soon authors began to implement this tradition into their stories. English author M.R. James, master of the Christmas ghost story, wrote stories that he insisted should be read on Christmas Eve, even though the subject matter of these stories often had little to do with Christmas.
But many others incorporated the story-telling sessions into their books. The novel “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James begins with a host telling his guests a story. The story that is told, of course, surrounds the events that take place throughout most of the book. But my favorites are the stories of haunted houses where the action takes place on Christmas Eve during or after the holiday festivities. One favorite in particular is “Smee” by A.M. Burrage. Out of all my reviews on my blog, this one gets the most hits. Guests gather at a house on Christmas Eve and decide to play a type of hide-and-seek game in the dark. A mysterious player joins the game. It is a deliciously creepy tale!
All of the themes I have touched upon in this article are covered more extensively at my blog. There you can find other themes and analyses as well – most on the subject of haunted houses. I hope you will stop by and have a looksie! But of course you will and I thank you in advance! And I thank you as citizens/residents of the United Kingdom for being part of a culture that has laid the foundation for great ghost and haunted house stories. So what are you waiting for? Take a stroll across The Atlantic and stop on by. But please remove your waterlogged shoes before crossing the thresholds of my haunted houses. Even ghosts get annoyed with wet carpeting.