Fantasy Reads is back from its holidays and ready to celebrate Ghost Month. I’m going to break my own rule about featuring a different author in every post so that I can recommend my favourite ghost story – “The Canterville Ghost” by Oscar Wilde. This novella was first published in 1887 and has been in print ever since. Cheap paperback or ebook editions are easy to find or you could download the text for free. You may have seen one of the numerous film or TV adaptions but nothing compares with reading Wilde’s original prose. “The Canterville Ghost” is the funniest ghost story I know but also one of the most poignant.
The tale is set in the English countryside and begins when wealthy American, Hiram B.Otis decides to buy Canterville Chase, the ancestral home of the aristocratic Canterville family. Lord Canterville, “who was a man of the most punctilious honour” feels obliged to warn Mr Otis that the house is severely haunted. Mr Otis doesn’t believe in ghosts so he moves to Canterville Chase with his family – wife Lucretia, elder son, Washington, fifteen year-old daughter, Virginia, and the twin boys known as “The Stars and Stripes”.
On their first evening, Mrs Otis notices an unpleasant stain on the library floor. The housekeeper explains that this was the very spot where Sir Simon de Canterville murdered his wife in 1575. Sir Simon disappeared a few years later but the bloodstain has always proved impossible to remove. That is until Washington cleans it off with “Pinkerton’s Champion Stain Remover”. The next morning the stain is back. It keeps on reappearing in the locked library everytime Washington removes it – though not always in the same colour. The family won’t listen to the housekeeper’s warnings about the ghost but soon they have all seen and heard him – “an old man of terrible aspect” with red eyes, matted hair and clanking chains.
The Canterville Ghost is proud to have terrified generations of the house’s inhabitants in ghastly guises such as “the Suicide’s Skeleton”, “Martin the Maniac” or “The Headless Earl” but he has no luck with the Otis family. The adults refuse to be frightened by him and the twins delight in ambushing and persecuting him. Only kind Virginia shows the distressed ghost any sympathy. On the library window is painted a prophecy about how peace will come to Canterville “When a golden girl can win, Prayer from out the lips of sin”. In order to help Sir Simon, Virginia must discover the gruesome secret behind his disappearance and risk her own life to plead with the Angel of Death…
“The Canterville Ghost” was one of Oscar Wilde’s first published works. Enduringly popular, it has inspired two operas and been turned into a graphic novel, a stage play, a musical, live-action and animated films, and radio and television dramas. Among the famous actors who have played Sir Simon de Canterville are Charles Laughton, David Niven, John Gielgud, Ian Richardson and Patrick Stewart. These adaptations tend to emphasize the humorous aspects of the story and many of them fail to do justice to the subtle shifts of mood in the original novella.
Parts of “The Canterville Ghost” do read like a spoof of a Gothic Horror story. The Otis family display robust common sense – a quality rarely found in characters in Horror stories. Mr Otis’s first confrontation with the ghost descends into farce when he offers Sir Simon some lubricating oil for his noisy chains. The ghost’s previous haunting triumphs are narrated in a deliciously heartless manner. We are told, for example, that pretty Lady Barbara broke off her engagement to a Lord Canterville after seeing the hideous phantom at twilight and eloped with handsome Jack Castleton. “Poor Jack was afterwards shot in a duel by Lord Canterville on Wandsworth Common and Lady Barbara died of a broken heart at Tunbridge Wells before the year was out, so, in every way, it had been a great success.”
The stately homes of Britain are famous for their ghosts. One near to where I live boasts a phantom hearse with a headless driver (Chavenage House). Wilde clearly enjoyed creating a “Horrible History” of hauntings for the Cantervilles in which generations of the family and their guests are scared in inventive ways. Some of these incidents, such as the experience of the French lady “who having wakened up one morning early and seen a skeleton seated in an arm-chair by the fire reading her diary, had been been confined to her bed for six weeks with an attack of brain fever” manage to be both funny and chilling. Finding anyone reading your private diary would be disturbing but a skeleton… That’s truly creepy.
Wilde didn’t label his novella as a ghost story but as a “Hylo-Idealistic Romance”. The Romance part is easy enough to understand. This isn’t meant to be a realistic tale and there is a charming inset love story – courageous golden girl Virginia deservedly wins the heart of a young Duke. I must confess that I had to look up Hylo-Idealism, which turns out to be the concept that reality only exists by virtue of our belief in it. At the start of “The Canterville Ghost” it looks as if Wilde is mocking nouveau riche Americans who know nothing about European culture. He isn’t – or only in the most affectionate way. Mr Otis may be wrong in thinking that “there is no such thing as a ghost” but he and his family prove to be smart and adaptable when faced with new experiences. Centuries of local belief have kept the Canterville Ghost going but because these free-thinking, forward-looking Americans aren’t chained to the past, Sir Simon has no power over them.
For a ghost, Simon de Canterville is a surprisingly nuanced character. Wilde doesn’t allow him to be a romanticized villain – Sir Simon didn’t murder his wife in some great fit of passion but because she “never had my ruffs properly starched and knew nothing about cookery.” He is vain, cowardly and insecure but puts real artistry into his hauntings. Like any creative artist he is devastated when his performances are jeered at. Wilde gradually makes you feel sorry for lonely Sir Simon, who longs to sleep for the first time in three hundred years. In my post on the collected Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde (November 2013) I praised Wilde’s poetic use of language and the way that his stories blend comedy and tragedy. The same is true of “The Canterville Ghost”. There are wonderful descriptions of the idyllic grounds of Canterville Chase and the quiet beauty of the Garden of Death. I know that this story will make you laugh but it may also cause you to shed a tear at the fate of the Canterville Ghost. Until next time…