Review: The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories

The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories by Tara Moore

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thoughts as I first read through this collection:
Boy, modern English is so dumbed down. I love to read and read voraciously and still found it so laborious to read some of these short stories. Everyone speaks in purple prose and it takes a bit to figure out what each sentence is saying. (And that’s before even considering the words that have morphed since then)

Thoughts after finishing it:
Eventually my brain acclimated to the Victorian style or maybe the earlier works were just a bit harder to get through. Overall, most of these are pretty tame scares compared to modern horror. There were a few there could be modern stories if the settings were transposed, but most of them left me thinking, “this is what scared people back then?” Also, as the introduction to the collection stated, British views of class (and the type of person who should enjoy/believe in ghosts) meant that a lot of the stories ended up being “Scooby-Doo mysteries”. In other words, the point of the story is that it wasn’t a ghost, it was someone pulling a prank.

Here are my reviews per story:

The tapestried Chamber (Sir Walter Scott) – Our main character has returned to England after fighting in “the American War” (our American Revolution or the French and Indian War?) and ends up visiting his childhood friend at a new castle he’s inherited. Turns out the room he stays in is haunted. As a horror or scary story it has no teeth. There’s nothing scary about it other than the guy seeing a ghost that has the features of a corpse. It doesn’t do anything to him or do anything scary other than look at him.

The Old Nurse’s Story (Elizabeth Gaskell) – Unlike the previous story this one holds up to modern horror standards. It’s cruel and horrific and quite well written. With a change to some of the vocabulary (which is a bit old-fashioned), I could see this in a modern horror collection.

Horror: A True Story (John Berwick Harwood) – At the end of the story I’m left wondering if something “magical” has happened or if it’s something that would have been considered possible back then. Since this is one of those stories where you know the outcome at the beginning, I’ll not consider it a spoiler – was she scared into looking old or was there some kind of magic involved?

Bring Me A Light (anonymous?) – This was a good one. The only thing I didn’t like (and have never liked it anywhere I’ve seen it – old or modern novels) is that early on it has some lower class folks and mutates the text to convey how they sound phonetically. Combined with the older speech patterns of the 1800s this makes it exceptionally annoying to read. But this fades relatively early and we get a pretty nice ghost story. It could easily be translated to a modern story if the setting and speech patterns were changed.

Old hooker’s ghost (anonymous) – The introduction to this collection mentioned (although not in these words) that some of the ghost stories of the Victorian Era were more of a “Scooby-Doo” sort. That is to say, they make sure at the end that you know there wasn’t actually a ghost, but rather, it was some folks playing a prank. This is one of those stories. Like Scooby-Doo, the fact that it wasn’t actually a real ghost doesn’t detract from the fun of the story. It’s definitely a story of its time as evidenced by the way people are described and the way the whole prologue of a first chapter goes. However, it’s still told in a pretty merry way. I enjoyed it.

The Ghost Summons (Aada Buisson) – I’m not going to say that the prose is anywhere near as elegant as Lovecraft, but this story was definitely in the same Weird Horror tradition as that Cthulhu author. With only a few tweaks, this could appear in a modern horror short story collection.

Jack Layford’s Friend (anonymous) – another scooby-doo

How Peter Parley Laid a Ghost (anonymous) – A digression into how to distinguish Norman from Gothic architecture? I guess we know the author’s pet peeve! (lol) “Superstition is almost invariably the result of the want of education; or, in plain English, the ignorant are almost always credulous.” I used to think this, but recent times have proven otherwise. Another Scooby-Doo style story, but this one more geared towards kids and teaching them good morals.

A Mysterious Visitor (Ellen Wood) – although they didn’t have the terminology back then, it appears that anxiety is not some modern disease, but one that has always existed under different names. A pretty gruesome tale for Christmastime, but not bad.

The Haunted Rock (W.W. Fenn) – This story is a great example of why the introductory paragraphs on what are otherwise Public Domain stories at this point are so valuable. The introduction lets us know that the story takes place during the American Spiritualism crazy that came about after the Civil War (and didn’t truly die down until the 1930s – or at least had a resurgence in the 20s post The Great War (aka World War 1)). This helps us better enjoy the story of a British guy who just got back from America and so it slightly more likely to believe in ghosts. This story had me wondering the whole time where it was going to be another “Scooby Doo” story or a real ghost story. The reveal at the end was pretty satisfying in this light.

The Lady’s Walk (Margarat Oliphan) – A novella-length story about a guy who gets invited out to Scotland, yet it’s a much more generally upbeat story than you’d think from that description. I enjoyed it.

The Captain of the “Pole-Star” (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) – I didn’t necessarily find it all that great as a ghost or horror story, but I did like it as a Victorian-Era exploration story. Every time I read about sea travel back then (and before) I wonder at the fact that anyone would ever do it voluntarily.

The Doll’s Ghost (F. Marion Crawford) – The idea was well executed and I pictured Gerry (From Pixar’s Gerry’s Game and Toy Story 2) when he was fixing Woody. That said, they didn’t go the scary place I expected them to. I gues that makes sense since it’s Victorian and so they have lamer things that scare them, not having been inured to scary things like modern audiences. But I was expecting the doll to go all Chuckie on the girl that caused it to break.

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