Victorian ghost stories on a chilly Yuletide eve are the literary equivalent to a plate of mince pies and a steamy mug of spiced mulled wine; in that you can technically indulge in them out of season, but they somehow, magically, come into their own once the Christmas tree is up and there’s fairy lights and gaudy tinsel all around the living room.
I came across To Be Read at Dusk – a Penguin Little Black Classics release including three Charles Dickens ghost stories – while out gift shopping (for myself apparently). I picked it up expecting spectral tales of a similar ilk to A Christmas Carol – albeit significantly briefer and less overtly Christmassy. What I was to find instead, were three bizarre pieces of fiction that on first impressions I found frustrating, incomplete, and dare I say, not particularly good.
And yet, and yet, while I didn’t find any of the three tales – To Be Read at Dusk, The Signal-Man, and The Trial for Murder – particularly enjoyable, or frightening for that matter, they haunted me again and again over the following days after reading. It wasn’t their subject matter, but their ambiguity and fractural nature that disturbed me.
I am by no means a Dickens expert, having read only four (Great Expectations, Hard Times, Oliver Twist, and the aforementioned A Christmas Carol) and a half (David Copperfield proved to be the rare tome that broke me) novels of the master storyteller’s gargantuan oeuvre. That said, when I think of Dickens, the word that comes to mind is “traditional”. I think of lengthy linear narrative arcs and a cast of unforgettable characters. The Dickens brand of storytelling bends over backwards to grip audiences from all walks of life and, by Jove, leave them thoroughly entertained. And while the opening chapters may detail bleak circumstances, a Dickens story is ultimately comforting with their neat resolutions and a smattering of heart-warming moralistic life lessons to boot.
One adjective that never sprung to mind when considering Dickens is “experimental.” As such, I was extremely surprised to find To Be Read at Dusk’s tales to be atypical, peculiar, and, simply put, untraditional compared to the Dickens style I am used to.
Take the titular To Be Read at Dusk (1852) as an example. It is an off-kilter piece of storytelling consisting of two separate, not particularly chilling “supernatural” tales told within a Chinese box narrative relayed to the reader by an eavesdropping narrator.
Set fittingly at dusk in a travellers’ parlour on the snowy summit of the Great St Bernard road pass in Switzerland, our narrator overhears a group of five multinational couriers discussing inexplicable phenomena, such as premonitions and precognitions, which they insist have nothing to do with ghosts or spirits despite their often including seemingly supernatural qualities. To illustrate their point, two of the couriers share their own disturbing (un)supernatural tales. The first story, told by an Italian courier, concerns an English bride who is haunted by a repeated dream of a dark man who eventually materialises while she is honeymooning in Genoa with her husband, and later abducts her to never to be seen again. The husband, the maid, and the courier realise all too late that the dreams portended the bride’s oncoming doom.
Regarding this mysterious case, the German courier insists ‘“Ghosts! There are no ghosts there! What do you call this, that I am going to tell you? Ghosts! There are no ghosts here!’” Thus, he goes on to tell the second framed story concerning a set of twins, James and John. One night, James is visited by his brother’s phantom who warns him of John’s impending death. Rushing to his ailing brother’s bedside, John greets his brother with an enigmatic ‘“James, you have seen me before, to-night—and you know it!’”, before dying there and then in his bed right before his brother’s eyes. As the second tale concludes, the narrator waits to hear something said of the strange story, only to turn around and find the five couriers have vanished ‘so noiselessly that that ghostly mountain might have absorbed them into its eternal snows.’
At the end of To Be Read at Dusk the reader is left with a litany of questions. Why do the couriers insist their anecdotes are not supernatural tales when they seem to go out of their way to convey them as if they were with the mention of phantoms and dreamlike omens? Are the couriers implying that such illusory premonitions are in fact unexplained cognitive phenomena? If so, why do they not elucidate the facts and pick apart the superstitious elements? And finally, with their elusive disappearance at the end, are the couriers themselves insinuated to be ghosts?
No clear answers are provided, and it is perhaps this lack of clarity, these mysteries that shroud an already disjointed unsettling story, that evoke a sense of the uncanny. The reader is told again and again that these are not ghost tales. Therefore, if they are not ghost stories but still feature the trappings and tropes commonly associated with the ghost story (ill omens, psychically bound twins, phantoms), then what actually are these mysterious events? As the German courier states: ‘If I knew of what then … I should probably know a great deal more.’ The implied answer seems to be they are something beyond our faculties of comprehension, entirely more insidious, and thus in their unknowable quality, even more horrific.
It is this ambiguity that seems to be the real connective tissue between the three tales included in this collection. The Trial for Murder (1865) is a story of a juror who is haunted by the ghost of a murder victim bent on attaining reparation against his killer through the judicial system. The Signal-Man (1866) follows a railway worker experiencing supernatural premonitions of train accidents that come to pass.
With their tendency to not explain, to leave the reader in the dark, it could be argued that these three tales are progenitors of the “weird fiction” story. In his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, H.P. Lovecraft, the quintessential weird fiction writer, described the weird tale as being:
“… something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the dæmons of unplumbed space.”
Lovecraft defines the weird as being indefinable, elusive. It is that unknowable, ungraspable element that does not allow us to come to grips with the mind-boggling mysteries of the world around us. The weird tale wants to leave you scratching your head, mouthing “But, I don’t understand,” like some gold fish that has been plucked out of the comforts of its fish bowl and is now gasping for watery air.
The three stories contained within To Be Read at Dusk certainly do possess some of these disquieting qualities. Whether it was Dickens’ intention to unsettle the reader quite in this manner is probably difficult to prove. Yet it seems that with such a proficient storyteller as is Dickens, little could be accidental.
While I wouldn’t personally consider any of To Be Read at Dusk’s tales to be must-reads, they are intriguing curiosities. Consider them to be the experimental B-sides to Dickens’ stadium filling hits, and you’ll find just enough to enjoy here.