Good day weary popcorn snacks, I’m so close to completing a third novella/connected short story collection/thing I can almost see it in my hand.
Recently I made a post on my favourite crime/creepy info YouTube channels but was unaware of the hidden gem of Obsolete Oddity. Serial killers, creepy twins, old ladies locked in rooms for decades… if you have a spare ten minutes visit his channel and give one of his videos a watch, there’s plenty more where these came from.
The Strange Case of Emilie Sagée & her Ghostly Twin
The French Socialite Locked in her Attic for 25 Years – Blanche Monnier
The Pickled Human Flesh Seller – Karl Denke
The Booby Trapped Hoarders Mansion – The Collyer Brothers Documentary
True Unsolved Crime – The Locked Room Mystery – 1929
“The Story of a Ghost”
From a “Letter to Sura”
Pliny, the Younger*, ca. 70s AD
Our leisure furnishes me with the opportunity of learning from you, and you with that of instructing me. Accordingly, I particularly wish to know whether you think there exist such things as phantoms, possessing an appearance peculiar to themselves, and a certain supernatural power, or that mere empty delusions receive a shape from our fears. For my part, I am led to believe in their existence, especially by what I hear happened to Curtius Rufus.
While still in humble circumstances and obscure, Curtius Rufus was a hanger-on in the suit of the Governor of Africa. While pacing the colonnade one afternoon, there appeared to him a female form of superhuman size and beauty. She informed the terrified man that she was “Africa,” and had come to foretell future events; for that he would go to Rome, would fill offices of state there, and would even return to that same province with the highest powers, and die in it. All which things were fulfilled. Moreover, as he touched at Carthage, and was disembarking from his ship, the same form is said to have presented itself to him on the shore.
It is certain that, being seized with illness, and auguring the future from the past and misfortune from his previous prosperity, he himself abandoned all hope of life, though none of those about him despaired.
Is not the following story again still more appalling and not less marvellous?
I will relate it as it was received by me:
‘There was at Athens a mansion, spacious and commodious, but of evil repute and dangerous to health. In the dead of night there was a noise as of iron, and, if you listened more closely, a clanking of chains was heard, first of all from a distance, and afterward hard by. Presently a spectre used to appear, an ancient man sinking with emaciation and squalor, with a long beard and bristly hair, wearing shackles on his legs and fetters on his hands, and shaking them. Hence the inmates, by reason of their fears, passed miserable and horrible nights in sleeplessness. This want of sleep was followed by disease, and, their terrors increasing, by death. For in the daytime as well, though the apparition had departed, yet a reminiscence of it flitted before their eyes, and their dread outlived its cause. The mansion was accordingly deserted, and condemned to solitude, was entirely abandoned to the dreadful ghost. However, it was advertised, on the chance of someone, ignorant of the fearful curse attached to it, being willing to buy or to rent it. Athenodorus, the philosopher, came to Athens and read the advertisement. When he had been informed of the terms, which were so low as to appear suspicious, he made inquiries, and learned the whole of the particulars. Yet none the less on that account, nay, all the more readily, did he rent the house.
‘As evening began to draw on, he ordered a sofa to be set for himself in the front part of the house, and called for his notebooks, writing implements, and a light. The whole of his servants he dismissed to the interior apartments, and for himself applied his soul, eyes, and hand to composition, that his mind might not, from want of occupation, picture to itself the phantoms of which he had heard, or any empty terrors. At the commencement there was the universal silence of night. Soon the shaking of irons and the clanking of chains was heard, yet he never raised his eyes nor slackened his pen, but hardened his soul and deadened his ears by its help. The noise grew and approached: now it seemed to be heard at the door, and next inside the door. He looked round, beheld and recognized the figure he had been told of. It was standing and signaling to him with its finger, as though inviting him. He, in reply, made a sign with his hand that it should wait a moment, and applied himself afresh to his tablets and pen. Upon this the figure kept rattling its chains over his head as he wrote. On looking round again, he saw it making the same signal as before, and without delay took up a light and followed it. It moved with a slow step, as though oppressed by its chains, and, after turning into the courtyard of the house, vanished suddenly and left his company. On being thus left to himself, he marked the spot with some grass and leaves which he plucked.
‘Next day he applied to the magistrates, and urged them to have the spot in question dug up. There were found there some bones attached to and intermingled with fetters; the body to which they had belonged, rotted away by time and the soil, had abandoned them thus naked and corroded to the chains. They were collected and interred at the public expense, and the house was ever afterward free from the spirit, which had obtained due sepulture.’
The above story I believe on the strength of those who affirm it. What follows I am myself in a position to affirm to others. I have a freedman, who is not without some knowledge of letters. A younger brother of his was sleeping with him in the same bed. The latter dreamed he saw someone sitting on the couch, who approached a pair of scissors to his head, and even cut the hair from the crown of it. When day dawned he was found to be cropped round the crown, and his locks were discovered lying about.
A very short time afterward a fresh occurrence of the same kind confirmed the truth of the former one. A lad of mine was sleeping, in company with several others, in the pages’ apartment. There came through the windows (so he tells the story) two figures in white tunics, who cut his hair as he lay, and departed the way they came. In his case, too, daylight exhibited him shorn, and his locks scattered around.
Nothing remarkable followed, except, perhaps, this, that I was not brought under accusation, as I should have been, if Domitian (in whose reign these events happened) had lived longer. For in his desk was found an information against me which had been presented by Carus; from which circumstance may be conjectured—inasmuch as it is the custom of accused persons to let their hair grow—that the cutting off of my slaves’ hair was a sign of the danger which threatened me being averted.
I beg, then, that you will apply your great learning to this subject. The matter is one which deserves long and deep consideration on your part; nor am I, for my part, undeserving of having the fruits of your wisdom imparted to me. You may even argue on both sides (as your way is), provided you argue more forcibly on one side than the other, so as not to dismiss me in suspense and anxiety, when the very cause of my consulting you has been to have my doubts put an end to.
(*Translated from the Latin by John Delaware Lewis and William Melmoth)
(Image: Pinterest, uncredited.)
About the Author
Greeks, Ghost Hunts, & the First Haunted House Story
“From ghoulies and ghosties And long-leggedy beasties And things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us!” ~ Old Scottish Saying
‘Stories of ghosts, the spirit world, and things “that go bump in the night” are common threads found deeply woven into the historical and cultural fabric of most nations and people of the world. The earliest recorded story involving the supernatural is the Epic of Gilgamesh, a 4,000-year-old Sumerian saga describing the journey to the spirit world by a Mesopotamian Priest-King of the city of Uruk in his quest for immortality. To his despair, he finds that the gods retain this gift beyond price for themselves. This epic first set forth the notion that the gods shaped humankind from clay, then breathed into their nostrils the breath of life. In time, that “breath of life” has become the thing that survives corporeal death: the spirit.
However, it’s Greeks that hold the prize for the first recorded tale that has all the trappings of the modern haunted house ghost story. Set down in a letter by Pliny the Younger (lawyer, an author and a natural philosopher of Ancient Rome) sometime during the last century B.C., the story takes place in Athens in a stately, deserted house with a “reputation for being unhealthy.” Hmm, sounds familiar…
As the story goes, residents of the house were tormented night after night by the clamor of clanking chains. The unsettling din would grow louder and louder until the ghost of an emaciated, disheveled old man—shackled and chained—appeared. Eventually no one would stay in the house, and it was abandoned.
One day, the Greek philosopher Athenodorus, intrigued by the story, rented the dwelling, determined to wait for the ghost’s appearance and to discover its purpose. I suppose he might be considered the original ghost hunter and this the first official ghost hunt. At any rate, late that night, as hoped, the clatter of chains began to sound throughout the house, growing ever closer until it filled the room where he waited. Then the decrepit apparition materialized … and beckoned.
Stoically, Athenodorus followed. As the ghost reached an open area in the house, it suddenly disappeared. Quickly, Athenodorus marked the spot with a clump of grass. The following day, under the supervision of a local magistrate, the spot was dug up, revealing the shackled and chained skeletal remains of a man.
So, as you can see, the concept of spirits that walk the Earth and interact with the living has a very old and well-established foundation. Humankind, since earliest antiquity, has believed in the existence of the unseen. Thousands of years of belief have been woven in our collective psyche, allowing for the acceptance (at the very least) of the possibility of ghosts and hauntings. Even the staunchest skeptic carries the seeds of belief. As Mark Twain reportedly once said, “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I am afraid of them.”’
Some time ago I wrote a blog about the effect that cleaning up old buildings has on our understanding of history. I felt that in some way it erases the past, giving us a different picture of what has gone before, allowing us to effectively airbrush history. What about historical reconstructions of building destroyed by wars, commercial redevelopment or overzealous town planning? Take for example the Frauenkirche in Dresden…
The original Frauenkirche was built between 1726 and 1743 as a Lutheran parish church, despite the predominance of the Catholic faith in the region. George Bähr, Dresden’s city architect, designed the church and its most unique feature, the high dome (called the Stenerne Glocke or stone bell.) For the next two hundred years, the Frauenkirche dominated the skyline of Dresden.
On February 13, 1945, Anglo-American forces began firebombing the city. The
Frauenkirche withstood two days of the attacks before the dome collapsed on the morning of February 15th. In 1966, the…
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Born in Carrickfergus, near Belfast, into an Anglo-Irish family, Charlotte Riddell (1832-1906), name pronounced “Riddle”, grew up in Ireland, but moved to London in 1855, after her father’s death, to pursue a literary career. Initially battling against poverty and the difficulties of breaking into the publishing market as an unknown woman writer, she was later to enjoy success as a novelist and editor, producing a long list of popular novels between the 1860s and 1880s. In a bid to ensure respectability, she published under her married name of Mrs. J. H. Riddell up until The mid-1860s.
Riddell’s first novel to achieve contemporary recognition, George Geith of Fen Court published in three volumes (the fashion of the day) in 1864, is a tale of commerce set in the City of London; the novel was very successful, and was soon followed by others, such as Home, Sweet Home (1873), Mortomley’s Estate (1874) and The Head of the Firm (1892), whose titles suggest her ongoing interest in property, inheritance and the world of business, aligning her with her contemporary novelist Anthony Trollope.
She worked as the editor of Home Magazine and St. James’s Magazine in the 1860s, at a time when women editors and journalists, once seen as anomalous, were growing in numbers. Like other professional women writers of her day, she remained reliant on the income from her writing to support herself and her family; she remained childless, anew had a less-than-successful husband, an inventor, whose debts she was often obliged to pay.
Although Charlotte Riddell is not a familiar name to modern readers, having been rather unjustly neglected in some histories of Victorian women’s writing, her work deserves to be considered along-side the more well-known, popular authors of her day, such as Wilkie Collins, Sheridan Le Fanu, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Mrs Henry Wood. Such novelists wrote primarily in the “sensational” genre, which satisfied the public appetite for crime, violence, and sensationalism at mid-century; and there are certainly elements of this in her supernatural stories, which borrow from sensation fiction in their emphasis.
Nineteenth-century readers were captivated by the supernatural, and the demand for the ghost story only increased as the century progressed. Riddell is notable amongst Victorian writers for her longer supernatural fiction and for producing one of the first collections of ghost stories, “Weird Tales” which were only beginning to appear in collected form by the 1870s and 1880s. She published four supernatural novels, all of which appeared in Routledge’s Christmas annuals, Fairy Water (1873), The Uninhabited House (1874), The Haunted River (1877) and The Disappearance of Mr Jeremiah Redworth (1878).
The English association of ghost stories with Christmas in the nineteenth century, attributable no doubt to Charles Dickens who published supernatural tales in the Christmas supplements to his popular journals, All the Year Round and Household Words in the 1850s and 1860s, was well established by the time Riddell was producing her fiction, and the public demand for the much loved annuals continued apace.
Supernatural novels were something of an innovation in a period which seemed to prefer the shorter, more intense ghost story, and certainly some of Riddell’s short stories are a lot longer than those of her contemporaries; this allowed for greater commentary on social mores and more details about a wider range of characters, whilst building up tension behind the ostensible realism.
Although she certainly contributed regularly to mainstream journals such as Temple Bar, London Society, and Once a Week, which were important showcases for contemporary fiction, it is not known whether the six ghost stories which make up Weird Stories (1882) had been previously published in periodicals, or were written specifically as a new collection, though critics have tended to assume the latter. The sensation novelist, Rhoda Broughton (1840-1920), whose tales bear some similarities to those of Riddell in both style and subject matter, had been one of the first Victorian authors to publish a ghost story collection, though the five tales which comprise Broughton’s Tales for Christmas Eve (1873), later republished as Twilight Stories in 1879, had all previously appeared in Temple Bar in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Perhaps Riddell’s Weird Stories collection was an attempt to try something new, at a time when the author or her publisher may have felt that her more realist style of fiction was going out of fashion.
The majority of Riddell’s stories are haunted house narratives, drawing on and contributing to a very popular sub-genre of the ghost story prominent throughout the nineteenth century. Other notable examples of this sub genre are stories such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Old Nurse’s Story” (1853), Bram Stoker’s “The Judge’s House” (1891), Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Green Tea” (1871), and Rhoda Broughton’s “The Truth, the Whole Truth’ and Nothing but the Truth” (1868).
Weird Stories was published the year that saw the formation of the Society for Psychical Research in Britain, which set out to investigate and classify paranormal phenomena and, amongst other things, invited readers of the periodicals to report instances of haunting and hallucinations; this the haunted house narrative acquired a new resonance. These types of stories conventionally open with the narrator buying or renting a suspiciously cheap house and living there despite mysterious warnings of the locals; and they usually conclude with revelations of unavenged murders and acts of violence, lost or stolen wills, or buried family traumas. The desolation of these neglected houses, some of which have been lying empty for years, is often banished by “laying” the ghosts to rest, marriage and family reconciliations, or the discovery of hidden money (the narratives were known to emphasise the difficulties of maintaining well-managed households, or of finding suitable new homes). The stories also allowed authors to explore issues around the acquisition and loss of property, inheritance, and material possessions; as well as women’s financial dependency; and their positions as wives, mothers, and daughters—matters of great personal interest to popular women writers (and their readers).
Riddell’s haunted house narratives are particularly striking for their varied portrayal of female ghosts and strange monstrous women. Comparing Riddell with fellow writers Margaret Oliphant and Florence Marryat, Vanessa D. Dickerson notes that all three women “probed the nature of women’s special relation to the spiritual and the material” at a time when new legislation was only just addressing women’s rights to their own earnings and property (the second Married Women’s Property Act, extending rights granted in the original Act of 1870, was passed in the same year as Riddell’s collection, Weird Stories, 1882.) Sometimes RIddell’s ghosts are miserly figures, like the pitiful old hag in ‘The Old House in Vauxhall Walk’, who counts her sovereigns in the middle of the night, taunted by her poor and wretched family members whom she could have supported whike alive, durging her “lost life”. The female murderer in “The Open Door’”, who comes to search for a lost will, has become a fierce, devilish figure who fights against the young clerk staying at the haunted Ladlow Hall: “the desire for money…transformed the demure angel into a fury the male can barely control”. In “Nut Bush Farm”, the “mannish” landlady, Miss Gostock, who drives a hard bargain but looks like “some monstrous figure in a story of giants and hobgoblins”, is much scarier than the actual ghost of the previous tenant, perhaps inviting the reader to consider the strangeness of women in charge of their own finances.
The no-nonsense new owners or tenants of the properties signalled in the titles of RIddell’s ghost stories are determined not to hend the advice of local superstitions, adopting, rather, the stance more commonly found in the conventional male narrator of the ghost story at that time, concerning the “impossibility of the paranormal”—though succeeding events do end up shattering sugh bravado.
The narratives often include meditations on the values and pleasures of property. The son and heir in “The Old House in Vauxhall Walk”, originally describing himself as “houseless – homeless – hopeless!” after a quarrel with his father, finds that his encounter with the miserly ghost makes him reappraise his attitude toward money, particularly as the miser’s hoarded gold, (SPOILER ALERT!!) discovered behind the smashed mirror at the end of the story, will guarantee his inheritance. ‘Walnut-Tree House’ offers a variation on this theme with its figure of the uncanny ghost of a neglected child, who died young, that follows the owner around the newly inherited property. Perhaps acting as a reminder of the responsibilities of fatherhood and inheritance, the young ghost’s presence, more benign than malevolent, eventually serves to facilitate the owner’s marriage to the dead boy’s long-lost sister, who will produce children to enliven the once “desolate and deserted” Walnut-Tree House.
As Jenny Uglow has pointed out in her discussion of Victorian women’s ghost stories: “Although—perhaps because—they were written as unpretentious entertainments, ghost stories seemed to give their writers a licence to experiment, to push the boundaries of fiction a little further”. Whilst publishers often had control over the endings of Victorian novels, which also had to be fit to appear in public “lending libraries”, the author could conclude her short stories in alternative, ambiguous ways; or obliquely address themes such as female sexuality or racial otherness that might be considered too risqué or shocking for polite readers of the novel.
In Riddell’s story “Old Mrs Jones”, the ghostly figure of the title (SPOILER ALERT!!!) is the murdered wife of the dissolute and disreputable Dr Jones, who, it is revealed, has fallen into ‘evil habits’ of drinking, gambling, and promiscuity. With his preference for “bold, flaunting women’”, his choice of wife cannot fail to give the locals something to gossip about. The “new” Mrs Jones turns out to be small, old, and ugly; she is also of a different race, “not black but exceedingly brown”, at a time when “it would be most undesirable to introduce foreigners of no respectable color into the bosom of British families who had made their money in the City”. In this story, Riddell taps into contemporary fears of the foreigner, whose wealth has the potential to be “contaminated”, highlighting a common hypocrisy in respectable British society during a period of patriotic imperialism. Those who recoil in horror from the apparition of the witch-like Mrs Jones, who haunts the house now being rented by Mr. and Mrs. Tippens, are also recoilin from her “otherness”, her threatening “dark face and fierce black eyes”, so out of place in the traditional British homestead. The ending of the story has the house going up in flames, a distressed figure with streaming grey hair standing on the parapet, described as “the witch the doctor married, and fire alone can destroy her!” As Dr. Jones has been discovered living under another name (SPOILER ALERT!!!) with the remains of an embalmed body hidden in his laboratory, we may assume this is the ghost of the first Mrs. Jones, the one who must be destroyed in this way—perhaps as a punishment for her “ferocity”.
These tropes draw heavily on Charlotte Brontë’s widely-read Gothic tale, Jane Eyre (1847), which similarly features a fierce and angry woman of another race who Jane believes to be a ghost, but is actually Mr Rochester’s mad Jamaican wife, who has been imprisoner in the attic for fifteen years. She, too, is destroyed in a fire, visible in her death throes on the rooftop, like old Mrs Jones. Both Brontë and Riddell use these Gothic elements to great effect in their narratives to draw attention to the plight of the foreign woman and the racial prejudices of the British. The supernatural encounters, their matter-of-fact description only serving to increase the tension, produce what one nervous tenant calls “this terror of the unseen”, which continues to disturb both characters and readers lomg after the troubling histories of the unquiet ghosts have been revealed and their spirits laid to rest.
Like other ghost stories of the period, these tales show a fascination for the psychological, another arena of the unknown, soon to be explored by Sigmund Freud (see his essay “The Uncanny”) and a new generation of psycho-analysts at the turn of the century. In “Old Mrs Jones”‘ for instance, the prudent and sensible Anne Jane cannot sleep for dreaming of the ghostly figure of Mrs. Jones; Jane ultimately leads the police to Mr. Jones’s hideout while sleepwalking (guided, of course, by Mrs. Jones’ ghost). The causes of sleepwalking, hallucinations, and visions of the future—all very topical—were actively discussed in exciting new journals in the burgeoning areas of psychology and medicine in the 1890s. Freud would go on to investigate These and other relevant topics in his The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, further contribuing to the wide appeal of the supernatural in fiction—namely the ghost story, during the end of the fin de siecle.
With their monstrous women, uncanny children, dissolution, greed, and murder all existing behind the façade of the “splendid manor house”‘ Charlotte Riddell’s weird stories continue to appeal to the modern reader, a fact she would no doubt be pleased to know.
The Legend of Bluebeard is a centuries-old folk tale made popular in 1697 by fairy-tale author Charles Perrault. A classic example of psychological and serial-killer horror tropes, Bluebeard tells the tale of a rich nobleman who is also a violent killer, recognized, feared, and hated due in part to his blue beard—that, and, perhaps, the unnatural, rather macabre habit he has of brutally murdering and saving the corpses of his wives. Wife #8, though, is still alive when we come to the story.
One day, Bluebeard sets out on a little trip, leaving Wife #8 the keys to all the rooms in the castle—including the one room which he insists she never enter. We learn that Bluebeard subjected each of his former wives to the very same “key-to-the-forbidden-room test”. Wife #8, being unable to resist the temptation, becomes curious; so, she unlocks the door to the forbidden room.
The Horror! Inside, she discovers the tortured, mutilated corpses of Bluebeard’s former wives—some crumpled, some hanging, but all extremely dead. Wife #8 drops the key in her haste to leave the horrible room. When Bluebeard returns home, early, and discovers the key, he confronts Wife #8 about it and makes a promise to her that she will suffer the same fate as all of his previous wives.
(Art by Sae Jung Choi)
These are good stories. Rare now. But worth the read. They can be found in anthology collections too. Just Google “T. E. Klein on isfdb” and it will list his fiction. Click a name of a story and it brings up every book it’s been published in. Enjoy!
#14: Dark Gods – T.E.D. Klein (Bantam, 1986)
A paramount collection that is a necessity to the horror reader’s top shelves. I remember finding this paperback at the bottom of a dusty column of old paperbacks in a local pharmacy. Hands down, the best $1.99 I’ve ever spent.