The Absurdity of The Canterville Ghost

The Canterville Ghost is a very silly Victorian Ghost story that Oscar Wilde released in two parts, in 1887. It was the prolific author’s first published story. It sets the tone for a huge swathe of horror comedies that feature a very ineffectual haunting. The humorous ghost story is a strange literary creature that subverts expectations and has become somewhat of a cliche. But in a time when the supernatural was given more mainstream credence this disarming use of humour would have had a very different effect on the reader.

Not only did Oscar Wilde release his first story during the final gasps of the romantic movement and at the birth of modernity, but he released the story during the rapid spread of the spiritualism movement. Ghostly spectres and powerful intangible phantoms were actively sought out by interested parties, and it was terribly fashionable to hold seances and be informed of the symbolism of the spiritual realm. It is a story that perfectly encapsulates the way in which Wilde’s work is transitional between the romantic and modern literary movements.

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“He met with a severe fall” – Illustration by Wallace Goldsmith of the effects of a butter slide set up by the twins as part of their campaign of practical jokes against the ghost.

Who is the Canterville Ghost?

The American Otis family are told upon buying Canterville Chase in England, that the estate is haunted. The ghost has terrified the Canterville family for decades and is often an omen that appears before the death of a member of the family. The Otis family refuse to believe that there is anything supernatural about their new home.

They are of course wrong.

Sir Simon, the former occupant of the house who killed his wife then disappeared makes his presence felt through a blood stain that will not fade and physical apparitions. He has a huge variety of haunting tools and visages at his disposal, such as representing himself as a headless spectre, he has also been previously known to physically injure his victims. Even scaring some to death.

But the new inhabitants of the chase, however, turn this terrifying phantom into a grumpy, exhausted and battered creature who no longer stalks the corridors, rather shuffles along in slippers and warm clothes to combat the chill from drafts.

I’m unsure as to whether Sir Simon is the first of his kind, in being a formerly formidable spectre who is rendered impotent by the materialism and pragmaticism of modernity.

What is different about the Otis family?

Through the oiling of noisy chains and the cleaning of ominous, reappearing “blood” stains, the Otis family undermines every artifice of haunting that the ghost has at his disposal. Even the hauntings that he manages to pull off are laughed at by the twins or entirely backfire due to the twin’s concerted efforts to torture the ghostly spectre of Sir Simon who has haunted generations of British nobility and their servants. It seems to be their dissociation from the realm of English folklore which grants them immunity from the ill effects of the spiritual realm.

Virginia is the only member of the family who comes even close to a classical gothic character of the human realm. She is vulnerable to the haunting similar to the British characters, however, her link to her modern American family seems to have kept her safe from the more horrific aspects of the haunting. Her strength of character and depth of understanding makes her the ultimate foil to Sir Simon’s legacy of terror. Sir Simon confides in the young girl, giving her the tools to stop the haunting and free the dead nobleman once and for all.

Perhaps the ghost realises that he is no longer relevant as he beholds the modern American family, which, let’s face it, Wilde portrays as grotesque in their own way. Is Wilde bemoaning the loss of gothic romanticism and folkloric tradition and the hands of the crude family? Or is he celebrating the modern thinking of the American people who are untethered to the restrictive tradition of the British Isles?

The_Canterville_Ghost_illustration

How on earth are you going to connect this one to Frankenstein?

I have had a bit of a think about this and maybe the strongest of the tangential threads that connect Frankenstein or the Modern Day Prometheus to the Canterville Ghost is the collision between the romanticism of the 19th-century horror story and the critical thinking and scientific reasoning that was emerging before Mary Shelley put pen to paper. Shelley’s narrative is still firmly entrenched in the lore of ages past, but her Doctor is a man of science and the spectre of her novel is a being of undead science. Conversely, Wilde’s spectre Sir Simon is still firmly placed in traditional gothic ideas of the ghost, but the narrative is a distinctly modern one.

In short, I’m going to go ahead and say that both narratives deal with the juxtaposition of the romantic gothic novel and an increasingly pragmatic and modern reality.

Clearing

The night was muggy; hot, with the tantalizing idea of rain in the air. The quiet of the forest was punctuated by frog calls and the faint trickle of a nearby creek. The air smelled of musty earth and the surrounding  eucalypts whose spindly branches rustled occasionally in the slight breeze. By dawn  the clearing would be abuzz with activity and birdsong as the local wildlife ventured out for their early morning sabbaticals. Magpies would warble, cockatoos would fuzz and wrens would titter and carry out elaborate dances, but for now the space was still, apart from the occasional wombat or possum casually going about their evening. 
Suddenly the tranquillity was broken by the rustling undergrowth and snapping of twigs that signified human footsteps fast approaching the clearing.

Twigs caught in his bootlaces as he ran. Branches dragged across his ankles and legs, scratching and drawing blood. He felt nothing. Terror and survival pushed him onwards.  Looking over his shoulder every few steps, nearly stumbling as he did so. The moon barely shone, smothered by clouds. The sky was almost totally obscured by the slight outline of the trees. The forest seemed to stretch on forever without relief.  

He could hear his own breathing, raspy and panicked. He swallowed trying to calm himself. His heartbeat pulsed in his ears. He continued to run as fast as his legs would carry him, they felt limp and useless as he dragged himself along. His chest was on fire. He couldn’t run anymore.

He came to a clearing and stopped, whirling around, shining his ineffective torch into the scrub. He stopped spinning and tried to breathe more slowly, but his body wouldn’t let him. He bent over, his free hand resting on his knee, letting his guard down for a moment, when a crunching sound came from just outside the clearing.

He fumbled, dropping his torch, it smacked against a rock and went out. He dropped to the ground, scrambling at the dusty earth until he found it. Carefully touching the familiar barrel and running his finger along the plastic thread he tried to work out if it was fixable. Relief washed over him, it had just come apart. Vainly looking around the blackness of his surroundings he managed to screw it back together. The light flickered back on and he frantically moved torchlight along the tree line. He backed towards a sturdy looking tree, staring intently at the direction from which he had come. Slumping against the thick trunk he took another gulp of air. His mind raced as he tried to figure out what the hell he was going to do next. As he scanned the horizon his breathing began to slow and his heart rate began to gradually return to normal. Time passed, it seemed like hours. He couldn’t tell if it was getting closer to dawn or if his eyesight was just adjusting to the dark, but he could see the trees outside of the torch light. There was no sign of his pursuer. His eyelids drooped and he finally allowed his eyes to close.

He awoke to the bright noon sunlight blasting down upon him, the surrounding trees had shaded him from the early rays of the sun and it was just starting to heat up to the point of being uncomfortable. The torch had rolled out of his hand, the battery long since dead. He squinted into the light, and tested his limbs, assessing the damage. His legs hurt, they felt like they had been cut to ribbons and they were caked in blood and dirt. His arms ached He felt the back of his head for the wound, it was bloody and more swollen than he had anticipated, the realisation of the severity of the injury made his stomach lurch. He felt faint and had a slight flash of recollection of the night before. His stomach lurched and changed his train of thought. He scratched at one of the many insect bites that dotted his body. Mosquito bite maybe, hopefully not a spider, possibly ants. There were a few small ants determinedly making their way over the leaves beside his left foot, completely uninterested in this huge interloper, they carried on their day as planned. In fact for the most part the forest seemed completely underwhelmed by the presence of this obvious outsider. A magpie examined him for a few minutes before summarily dismissing is presence as a less than interesting anomaly and hopping away.  

He struggled to his feet and tried to gauge how far he was from the nearest road. How far had he run? It felt like forever, but the forest was a finite space, less than 50kms in diameter, so surely a road had to be less than 25kms in one direction or another. He had spent some time here as a kid but he never went in this far. Hopefully he would stumble across something familiar, a rocky outcrop he’d  traversed as a kid or a bike trail. He used to blaze along the bumpy tracks in his old dirt bike. He and Ryan would cut school, stock up on supplies and race through the trees until school was over then head back looking suspiciously scruffy for kids who had been at school all day. Ryan? Shit he hadn’t thought about him in years, he was probably his first real crush, and most gentle and ultimately crushing rejection. He smiled sadly as he recalled  afternoon spent poking bull ant nests and nearly running over hikers. One particularly disgruntled hiker who was nearly flattened by the boy’s bikes while following a shared trail made signs warning “Bike Riders GIVE WAY TO HIKERS” out of ply wood nailed to trees. Signs that the boys spent a gloriously sunny afternoon defacing with thick permanent marker.

What he wouldn’t give to see one of those signs right now.

He shielded his face and squinted in the direction of the sun, he wished he’d paid more attention to the basic stuff, the stuff that would have aided his survival. He knew that the placid magpies near the entrance to the forest wouldn’t swoop because they had been fed by regular visitors and that the point where the two creeks met was the best place for finding frogs but he couldn’t even remember which direction the sun set in relation to the forest. He patted his pockets vainly, he wasn’t sure what he expected to find, but the content were still disappointing; all he found was a receipt, a phone card a substantial quantity of pocket lint. Useless. At least he could call someone if he reached a payphone.

He decided to set out in the opposite direction to the sun, so that he could at least see where he was going, flawed logic, he knew that, but he was grasping at any semblance of strategy he could think of.  Tightening and retying the laces on his boots he briefly examined the wounds on his legs, they weren’t too bad, he could still walk at a reasonable pace, but he would definitely need to go to a hospital or see a doctor. A doctor? Oh no, a sudden wave of recollection and regret washed over him. He was supposed to meet Henry last night. He would be worried or worse angry. Henry would believe him, he would have to, he could show him the scrapes and scratches. Maybe even get him to have a look at his head. If he could convince the young doctor to meet him again, which might be easier said than done, especially if Henry thought this was just another lame excuse. 

At least work would be fine, he could file a police report and that documentation would be enough. He tried to arrange the events of the night before into a comprehendible storyline. He knew he drove home from work, or at least he started to. So how did he end up here and where the fuck was his car? He had pulled over, he remembered that much, something happened. He had hit something, or something hit him. The rest was a dizzying blur. He wasn’t sure who, or what had attacked him, a man, he thought. There was the vague memory of a white four wheel drive and a gravelly voice on the edge of his consciousness but he wasn’t sure what was real and what was his traumatized memory filling in the blanks. He had run for ages but surely he couldn’t be that far away from the rest area he had stopped in, if he could just find a road or trail he was sure he could find his way out, hopefully before nightfall.

He vainly tried to wipe some of the grime off his forehead and began to trudge between the close growing gum trees towards to gradually growing sound of trickling water, if he found the creek he could follow it, and maybe splash some water on his face. He was pretty sure it would lead to a road in either direction, though it could be quite a trek. As he walked past a thick gum tree laden with deep red oozing sap he was too distracted to notice the figure leaning against it. 

From behind him a familiar gravelly voice boomed “Sleep well?”

He spun around just in time to see the dark metal of the shovel come down on his head.

***

Kit homes and hard plastic playgrounds had popped up like mushrooms along the peaks and ridges of the valley. A battered and contorted creek ran into a manufactured lake, with cheaply constructed viewing platforms that had little view to offer. Fat contented ducks paddled listlessly through the reeds awaiting the next unsuspecting picnic or enthusiastic toddler with an old loaf of bread. A deliberately rustic path, lined with strips of metal lest the dirt mingle with the lawn, wound through the park. The compacted trail was impossible for scooters and bikes during the muddy winters but luckily for the local kids the summer heat had solidified the path into a smooth , albeit inconsistent  surface on which determined children could achieve a satisfyingly terrifying amount of speed.

 Stevie and Kate flew past benches awaiting graffiti on scooters that were well worn and well loved, they rattled and squeaked as they bumped over rocks and crevices. Stevie’s scooter was new at Christmas and it was already covered in scratches and stickers. The hastily assembled plastic had gone through it’s share of punishment, but Stevie was unrelenting, testing the very limits of the safety warnings. As they approached Kate’s house their scuffed shoes dragged along the steep curb almost in unison, coming to an abrupt halt just beyond the brick pillar mailbox of the toy strewn yard. 

“See you tomorrow” Kate yelled over her shoulder as she walked  her scooter up the driveway. Stevie waved and nodded, walking her own scooter past the scaffolding that signalled the impending urbanization of the forest that remained past the estate. Her house was on the very edge of the forest, in fact it had still been forest when her mum and dad bought it. Stevie and her much older brother had collected stick insects and climbed the trees on the block before the foundation had been laid. He was the one who had taught her how to carve worlds into logs and where to find the most interesting bugs. He was her rock, her hero. But now her brother had left her for uni, left her to deal with the full focus of her parents on her own and only a few lonely trees remained. She stopped and walked her scooter across her rocky, dusty backyard. Earlier that week the excavator had dragged away the grassy top soil to flatten out the backyard and the dirt was in piles waiting to be dragged away.

Stevie kicked through the rubble, her mum would flip if she knew she was out here messing around near the tiles and building supplies. She grinned a gap tooth grin, she’d been busting to check out the debris and climb the dirt mounds. As she traversed the lumpy dunes and slid down the steep inclines, coating her school shorts in thick red dirt, a flash of colour caught her eye. She attempted to dust off her hands on the front of her shirt and stooped to pick up the faded plastic artefact. Stevie examined the flaky red plastic, smoothed down through years of weathering, she ran her finger across the slight ripple of where the thread used to be. A tube maybe? Like a container or something, She shook it a corroded battery slid slowly out. 

Unbeknownst to the grubby school kid with skun knees her mother had caught sight of her from the laundry window and was not pleased with what she saw. Little did she know how unimpressed she was soon to be when, a few hours from now the local police and forensic services would descend on their already torn apart yard  She waited for a moment, intently watching Stevie fumble with whatever gross scavenged item she had found this time. The mother sighed deeply, It was great that the girl was curious and fearless but a slight sense of self preservation would be nice. She reluctantly open the screen door and bellowed in her best mum voice “Stevie put that down and get in here NOW!” 

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Mary

“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils…” 
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, 1816

The young man sat hunched over his work, occasionally lifting his head and darting about the room in a flurry of activity. The workshop had been brightly lit when darkness first fell, but the illumination  of the all but extinguished candles had dwindled and the young doctor was too preoccupied to tend to such tedious practicalities. His project and the focus of his mania lay dormant on the table. Inanimate for the moment, a state of affairs the young man was hoping to rectify. 

There was no divine clap of thunder, no maniacal laugh, no subservient assistant, just a young doctor obsessively and frantically tending to his work, alone. He was about to reach the culmination of his efforts, the proof of concept, a concept so ground-breaking. An act of pure creation, an act that would raise man to the realm of God.

The cold  pallid  eyelids fluttered gently opening for the first time, the pupils shrank, the dead eyes focused sharply in on its surroundings, suddenly the beast realized it’s own consciousness. It’s muscles twitched, his fingers curled, his sutured skin stretched and contorted as he moved. The young doctor had very deftly and brilliantly applied his keen surgical skills to the task but instead of a work of beauty he had made a being so hideous he could not bear to look at it.  The doctor stood aghast, struck with terror, he looked almost as pale as his creature, what had he unleashed?

The beast crawled at first, dragging his semi limp form across the ground, then as he gained awareness of his extremities and their potential he rose and ambled awkwardly towards the doctor, he walked with the uncertainty of a newborn foal, vulnerable and innocent despite his grotesque appearance. Reaching out for his creator, he could not know how vain his search for affection would be. The doctor shrunk away in horror, as his creation opened his wretched mouth and letting out an agonised wail.

She woke with a start, looking about her to be sure that her subconscious had not conjured the monster into being. She saw nothing of the kind, the only spectre to be seen was the very embodiment of self centeredness that was sprawled across the bed. The pretend husband she adored, but whose indifference in the face of her pain was devastating, she sighed, wiping away the few stray tears trickling down her cheek. The night was still in it’s infancy and faced with the grim prospect of spending the hours next to the apathetic form peacefully snoring beside her, she sat up, carefully patting the dresser in search of the candlestick and placing her feet on the gentle ripples of the hardwood floor. The rain continued to beat solidly against the glass panes. Reaching out again she sought out the flimsy, worn matchbox that had travelled to Lake Geneva with them. Striking the match and shielding the flame from any subtle breeze. Armed with the dim glow of the candle she made her way into the hallway and down to the tiny, temporary nursery.

Despite enlisting the help of a local girl she sought to reassure herself of the wellbeing of her little boy who was recovering well despite the unseasonable cold. Like his father the little boy slept peacefully, utterly unaware of her anguish and fear. She lightly placed her hand upon his chest feeling his little chest rise and fall. 

Earlier that week, in the evening, bored and listless from yet another day of dark and idleness, the occupants of the house were surprised when the dashing romantic, inspired by his own genius burst through the door. The excited and smug smirk that played across Byron’s face seemed out of place in the glum tedium that had been the unending sunless summer. He proceeded to enthusiastically read from a book of ghost stories, but his enthusiasm dwindled as he realised that his brilliant idea was falling short of delighting his audience. After blaming his source material he threw down the book and slumped into a chair, raising the attention, momentarily of the lazy hound that had settled at the foot of the chair.

“What a lot of rot! I could write a better ghostly tale than that, hell Polodory here, wet as he is, could do better” 

He gestured to his long suffering doctor, who looked up pitifully from his current occupation, pretending not to be gazing at Mary. She was painfully aware of his attentions, she often shifted awkwardly under the intensity of his gaze, praying that his attentions be drawn elsewhere, perhaps to the neglected note book in his lap that he barely feigned writing in when caught staring by the others. Claire, Mary’s half sister, leant against the mantle, trying vainly to catch the eye of the young Lord who was deliberately avoiding acknowledging her. The dashing and flighty young poet had made the mistake of encouraging her in London and now here she was having attached herself to Mary and Percy in order to get closer to him. Mary had trouble understanding the fuss that was made over Byron; he was a dear friend but only a fool would become romantically entangled with him. Everyone fawned over him, even as she sat next to him, elbow to elbow, Percy was utterly bewitched by his presence. Despite finding her husband’s infatuation with Byron vaguely annoying, the doctor’s attentions unnerving and her half sister’s impositions barely tolerable, she was glad they had come. The grey, ashy summer by the lake was not what she had in mind, but it was better than sitting idle in London, wallowing in her grief.

“We should all write the most ghastly story we can and see whose is best!” proposed Byron, an idea that was met with enthusiasm by more than one of the party, but the prospect filled Mary with dread. The poets were assured success, they always were. Even when they were dissatisfied with their own work and moped around like intolerable children, there was always someone to praise their genius. She had always wrote, how could she not as immersed in literature as she was, but her aspirations were always dragged back to earth by the weighty legacy of her mother and father. 

She sat, distracted, trying desperately to be attentive to the presentations of the others. These were not their best work but it was still far in excess of her own failure to contribute. The mortifying lack of progress in her writing constantly vexed her. 

She shook herself awake again, she still stood by the little bassinet, she must have drifted off. This was familiar to her as she hadn’t experienced a single solid night’s sleep since the loss of her first baby and now she was fearing that little William would not make it through this year without summer. Even her mother managed to deliver a child safely into the world, it killed her, but she did it, and now Mary, the daughter of literary royalty could not nurture a child or write anything more than an extensive collection of love-struck letters. The value placed on her existence by the process of exchanging her mother’s life, who had given so much to the world and meant so much to so many, for her own had placed a great burden on her shoulders, how was she ever going to be able to do something worthy of this exchange?

Even the horrifying man in her dream managed creation, and what hell did he unleash? What hell… what creation… she paused. Struck for a moment by a lingering thought. She became fixed on her purpose. She turned making her way back down the hallway, trying desperately not to let her rapid footsteps betray her excitement, willing the floorboards not to creak and her nightgown not to shuffle.

 Padding down the hallway and then cautiously creeping into the room she headed for the writing desk across from the room where Percy laid. 

Settling down at the slightly wonky Writing desk she decided to try to fill a page, just one page for the story of the doctor and the creature. If it was terrible she could burn it and it would never have to see the light of day, or more importantly the scrutiny of her friends. She did not invest much hope in this endeavour. At least she would have something to show her companions if nothing else. She would at the very least show it to Percy, he was determined to find her genius, he expected great things from her, great lofty things that she felt unable to provide. He was both her harshest critic and greatest advocate. They were allies, they were radicals, swept up in a youthful haze of exuberance and ideology. Death, tragedy and scandal had already marred their imperfect union, but surely the universe would not have more harm to inflict on their little family. She looked back to the paper lying in front of her, dipped her nib in the ink and began industriously fill page after page until the light of dawn creeped the through the half drawn curtains.

The rain pelted down on the window, a window that did not look out over the serenity of Lake Geneva, rather the grim bustle of the London streetscape. The occupants of the lake house had left many years ago, most of them had died not long after that dark, cold year. Even little William had succumbed to his sickly nature. Mary sat quietly eternally grieving her children, husband and friends. She held a scrappy, dishevelled manuscript. Carefully opening the pages she gazed upon the scrawled text, she didn’t read it, she didn’t need to, she knew every word, every letter, every tiny blot of ink. The careworn pages were yellowing and the corners were curled and torn.

A story stitched together, a story with a life all its own.

She had lovingly assembled this book, worked tirelessly and pursued its publication. Her own handwriting lined the pages ranging from frantic to slow and careful. She tenderly touched the words written by another hand, Percy, he had a hand in all her creations, but the he would leave her to face the reality of unleashing them on the world.

Rejected and bewildered the creature roamed the earth purposeless and confused. He did not know what to do with the heavy weight of his existence. He had long since seen the demise of his wretched unfeeling creator, spurred on by causing his destruction he was adrift in the world. Alone. What use was an existence without a purpose? What use was a creature without a peer of any kind? A creature standing on an ending plain of ice. Cold and alone. 



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