I don’t know if it’s a Vitamin deficiency, a lack of decent sleep or a morbid fascination for the weird and bizarre, but out of the blue I can be struck by an insane craving for real ghost stories. The craving demands stories I’ve never heard before; preferably weird ones that make me shiver and feel glad to live in my boring unhaunted house. (How do I know it’s unhaunted? That! is another story.) This last year I had the ghost story craving hit hard and I ended up having to buy (and borrow from the library) quite a few books before it was satiated. In my quest for stories I accidentally discovered ghost story treasure. The title, ‘The Night Side of Nature’ doesn’t sound like treasure. It makes one think of worms gasping for air on drenched sidewalks glistening in the moonlight. Treasure comes in all shapes and sizes! The author, Catherine Crowe, was not only a woman, she was the first person to attempt to scientific study (and then publish a book) on ghostly phenomenon. There had been earlier books on ghosts, but as she notes they were all written by men who’d already made up their mind that there was no such thing as ghosts. She felt such a well documented phenomenon found in every culture and every age deserved closer inspection.
Born in 1800, Crowe was an educated English woman fluent in German and German philosophy. A very logical person, she had an open curious mind. Published in 1848, this book is much more than a collection of 18th and 19th century ghost stories. Because Crowe is retelling stories that have been recounted as taking place in ordinary life the reader gets a detailed glimpse into the past one rarely finds in biographies or personal letters. As a social history this book is solid gold. As story-fodder (stuff that feeds the story factory in any writer’s brain) it is platinum. As a collection of ghost stories it is an Aladdin’s Cave! I loved this book and highly recommend it. The author’s introduction and the first chapter or two are rather thick going, but once she starts sharing ghost stories I found it hard to put down. I highly recommend it. I can’t believe I’d never come across it before I bought it though maybe I wasn’t ready for it… To give you a sample of what I mean I have to share my favorite ghost story from the book…
From page 232 using Crowe’s spelling and punctuation:
…The facts are as follows. ‘Sir James, my mother, with myself and my brother Charles, went abroad towards the end of the year 1786. After trying several different places, we determined to settle at Lille, where we found the masters particularly good, and where we had also letters of introduction to several of the best French families. There Sir James left us, and, after passing a few days in an uncomfortable lodging, we engaged a nice, large family house, which we liked very much, and which we obtained at a very low rent, even for that part of the world.
About three weeks after we were established in our new residence, I walked one day with my mother to the bankers, for the purpose of delivering our letter of credit from Sir Robert Herries, and drawing some money, which being paid in heavy five-franc pieces, we found we could not carry, and therefore requested the banker to send, saying, ‘We live in the Place du Lion D’or.’ Whereupon he looked surprised, and observed that he knew of no house there fit for us, ‘except, indeed,’ he added, ‘the one that has been long uninhabited, on account of the revenant that walks about it.’ He said this quite seriously, and in a natural tone of voice, in spite of which we laughed, and were quite entertained at the idea of a ghost; but at the same time we begged him not to mention the thing to our servants, lest they should take any fancies into their heads; and my mother and I resolved to say nothing about the matter to anyone. ‘I suppose it is the ghost,’ said my mother laughing.’ that wakes us so often by walking over our heads.’ We had, in fact, been awakened several nights by a heavy foot, which we supposed to be that of one of the men-servants, of whom we had three English and four French; of women-servants we had five English and all the rest were French. The English ones, men and women, every one of them, returned ultimately to England with us.
A night or two afterwards, being again awakened by the step, my mother asked Creswell, ‘Who slept in the room above us?’ ‘No one, my Lady’ she replied. ‘It is a large, empty garret.’
About a week or ten days after this, Creswell came to my mother, one morning, and told her that all the French servants talked of going away, because there was a revenant in the house; adding that there seemed to be a strange story attached to the place, which was said, together with some other property, to have belonged to a young man whose guardian, who was also his uncle, had treated him cruelly and confined him in an iron cage; and as he had subsequently disappeared, it was conjectured he had been murdered. This uncle, after inheriting the property, had suddenly quitted the house and sold it to the father of the man of whom we had hired it. Since that period, though it had been several times let, nobody had ever stayed in it above a week or two, and for a considerable time past it had had no tenant at all.
‘And do you really believe all this nonsense, Creswell?’ Said my mother.
‘Well, I don’t know, my Lady,’ answered she, ‘but there’s an iron cage in the garret over your bedroom, where you may see it, if you please.’
‘Of course we rose to go; and as just at that moment an old officer, with his Croix de St Louis, called on us, we incited him ot accompany us and we ascended together. We found, as Creswell had said, a large empty garret with bare brick walls; and in the farthest corner of it stood an iron cage, such as wild beasts are kept in, only higher; it was about four feet square, and eight in height, and there was an iron ring in the wall at the back, to which was attached an old rusty chain with a collar fixed to the end of it. I confess it made my blood creep when I thought of the possibility of any human being having inhabited it! And our old friend expressed as much horror as ourselves, assuring us that it must certainly have been constructed for some such dreadful purpose. As, however, we were no believers in ghosts, we all agreed that the noises must proceed from somebody who had an interest in keeping the house empty; and since it was very disagreeable to imagine that there were secret means of entering it at night we resolved, as soon as possible, to look out for another residence, and in the mean time say nothing about the matter to anybody.
About ten days after this determination, my mother, observing one morning that Creswell, when she came to dress her, looked exceedingly pale and ill, inquired if anything was the matter with her. ‘Indeed, my Lady,’ she answered, ‘we have been frightened to death, and neither I nor Mrs Marsh can sleep again in the room we are now in.’
‘Well,’ returned my mother, ‘you shall both come and sleep in the little spare room next to us; but what has alarmed you?’
‘Someone my Lady, went through our room in the night; we both saw the figure, but we covered our heads with the bedclothes, and lay in a dreadful fright till morning.’
On hearing this I could not help laughing, upon which Creswell burst into tears; and seeing how nervous she was, we comforted her by saying we had heard of a good house, and that we should very soon abandon our present habitation.
A few nights afterwards, my mother requested me and Charles to go to her bedroom and fetch her frame, that she might prepare her work for the next day. It was after supper, and we were ascending the stairs by the light of a lamp which was always kept burning, when we saw going up before us a tall, thin figure, with hair flowing down his back, and wearing a loose powdering gown. We both at once concluded it was my sister Hannah, and called out, ‘It won’t do Hannah – you cannot frighten us!’ Upon which the figure turned into a recess in the wall; but, as there was nobody there when we passed, we concluded that Hannah had contrived, somehow or other, to slip away and make her escape by the back stairs. On telling this to my mother, she said, ‘It is very odd, for Hannah went to bed with a headache before you came in from your walk,’ and sure enough, on going to her room, there we found her fast asleep; and Alice, who was at work there, assured us that she had been so for more than an hour. On mentioning this circumstance to Creswell, she turned quite pale and exclaimed that that was precisely the figure she and Marsh had seen in their bedroom.
About this time, my brother Harry, came to spend a few days with us, and we gave him a room up another pair of stairs, at the opposite end of the house. A morning or two after his arrival when he came down to breakfast, he asked my mother angrily whether she thought he went to bed drunk and could not put out his own candle, that she sent those French rascals to watch him. My mother assured him that she never thought of doing such a thing; but he persisted in the accusation, adding, ‘Last night I jumped up and opened the door, and by the light of the moon through the skylight, I saw the fellow in his loose gown at the bottom of the stairs. If I had not been in my shirt, I would have gone after him and made him remember coming to watch me.’
We were now preparing to quit the house, having secured another belonging to a gentleman who was going to spend some time in Italy; but, a few days before our removal, it happened that Mr and Mrs Atkyns, some English friends of ours, called, to whom we mentioned these circumstances, observing how extremely unpleasant it was to live in a house that somebody found means of getting into, though how they contrived it we could not discover, nor what their motive could be except it was to frighten us; adding, that nobody could sleep in the room Marsh and Creswell had been obliged to give up. Upon this Mrs Atkyns laughed heartily, and said she should like, of all things, to sleep there, if my mother would allow her, adding, that with her little terrier she should not be afraid of any ghost that ever appeared. As my mother had, of course, no objection to this fancy of hers, she requested Mrs Atkyns ride home with the groom, in order that the latter might bring her night-things before the gates of the town would be shut, as they were then residing a little way in the country. Mr Atkyns smiled and said she was very bold; but he made no difficulties, and sent the things – and his wife retired with her dog to her room when we returned to ours, apparently without the least apprehension.
When she came down in the morning, we were immediately struck at seeing her look very ill; and on inquiring if she, too, had been frightened, she said she had been awakened in the night by something moving in her room, and that by the light of the night-lamp, she saw most distinctly a figure, and that the dog, which was spirited and flew at everything, never stirred, although she had endeavored to make him. We saw clearly that she had been much alarmed; and when Mr Atkyns came, and tried to dissipate the feeling by persuading her that she might have dreamed it, she got quite angry. We could not help thinking she’d actually seen something; and my mother said, after she was gone, that though she could not bring herself to believe it was really a ghost, still she earnestly hoped that she might get out of the house without seeing this figure which frightened people so much.
We were now within three days of the one fixed for our removal. I had been taking a long ride, and, being tired, had fallen asleep the moment I lay down; but, in the middle of the night, I was suddenly awakened – I cannot tell by what, for the steps over our heads we had become so used to that it no longer disturbed us. Well, I awoke. I had been lying with my face toward my mother, who was asleep beside me, and, as one usually does on awaking, I turned to the other side, where, the weather being warm, the curtain of the bed was undrawn, as it was, also, at the foot; and I saw standing by a chest of drawers, which were betwixt me and the window, a thin, tall figure, in a loose powdering gown, one arm resting on the drawers, and the face turned towards me. I saw it quite distinctly by the night-light, which burned clearly. It was a long, thin, pale, young face, with, oh, such a melancholy expression as can never be effaced from my memory!
I was, certainly, very much frightened; but my great horror was lest my mother should awake and see the figure. I turned my head gently towards her, and heard her breathing high in a sound sleep. Just then the clock on the stairs struck four. I dare say it was nearly an hour before I ventured to look again, and when I did take courage to turn my eyes towards the drawers, there was nothing; yet I had not heard the slightest sound, though I had been listening with the greatest intensity.
As you may suppose, I never closed my eyes again; and glad I was when Creswell knocked at the door, as she did every morning, for we always locked it, and it was my business to get out of bed and let her in; but on this occasion, instead of doing so, I called out, ‘Come in; the door is not fastened.’ upon which she answered that it was, and I was obliged to get out of bed and admit her as usual.
When I told my mother what had happened, she was very grateful to me for not waking her, and commended me much for my resolution; but as she was always my first object, that was not to be wondered at. She, however, resolved not to risk another night in the house; and we got out it that very day, after instituting, with the aid of the servants, a thorough search, with a view to ascertain if there was any possible means of getting into the rooms except by the usual modes of ingress; but our search was vain – none could be discovered.
This story haunts me…the image of the thin young ghostly Frenchman wandering the large house he was meant to inherit in his dressing gown…and that woman waking to find him watching her as she slept…as he casually leaned against a chest of drawers. Did he know he was dead or was he stuck in a world of his own where his space was being haunted by ghostly strangers?
Even if the house is no longer there, does he still wander the rooms he knew as a boy? If we were to happen to visit the house…might we turn to find a thin young man in a patched powdering gown watching us with sad eyes? If he spoke (and we spoke French and could understand his 18th century accent) would he tell us a story of betrayal and murder by an evil uncle or reveal some other sad tale that ended with his lonely death? Would he tell us he’s looking for his family or just aimlessly wandering because he sees no escape from his own personal hell? That is why I love ghost stories…it’s that wondering what really happened…wondering the rest of the story!