Like an unfamiliar side dish at Christmas dinner, the ghost stories of Charles Dickens have been largely overlooked, with the notable exception of A Christmas Carol. Consequently, faced with the infinite variety and incomparable quality of Dickens’ better known writings, from The Pickwick Papers to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, few people have explored these unfamiliar pieces in any great depth. This is, in my view, not only unfortunate but unfair, given that in his short supernatural fiction Dickens, liberated from the more formal and sustained demands of the novel format, experimented with a diverse range of fictional techniques. In his ghost stories, Dickens created frighteningly believable, spine-tingling stories of prophetic dreams and visions, as well as more fantastical adventures with goblins and apparitions. More importantly, these short works display the imagination of a master storyteller given free rein.
2012 is the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, who was born in Portsmouth in 1812, the second of 8 children. Dickens had a childhood littered with tragedy – his father was imprisoned for debt and he was sent to the workhouse at the age of 12. The memories of this period were to haunt him until his death and coloured much of his fictional output. His first novel, The Pickwick Papers, was published in 1836 and after a slow start became a publishing phenomenon. Following this, with the publication of numerous other bestselling novels, Dickens entered the public consciousness in a way that no other English author has done before or since. He possessed the common touch, able to craft stories that covered universal human themes and to present them in impeccable prose. In particular, Dickens’ gift was the ability to create original, memorable characters and there are few people in the English-speaking world who have not heard of characters such as Mr Pickwick, Oliver Twist, Mr Micawber, David Copperfield, Pip, Scrooge and Tiny Tim. Unlike many authors, Dickens’ powers as a writer never waned and his later novels such as Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend are among his very best.
Even Dickens’ more conventional writings contain supernatural allusions. In Great Expectations, there is Magwich, terrifying young Pip with his ghastly appearance in a moonlit graveyard, and the wraith-like Mrs Havisham, ensconced in her sepulchral bedchamber seemingly for all time. In Oliver Twist there is the mock-villainous Fagin, who is given a demonic aura when we first encounter him, and the truly terrifying Bill Sykes, whose psychotic tendencies are indulged to the full later in the novel. Many of Dickens’ other books are similarly full of memorable villains and frightening situations which would seem more suited to a gothic horror rather than literary fiction. This is not surprising because, as a writer and an editor, Dickens spared no pains upon occasion to produce the right involuntary shiver. For Dickens, as for numerous other writers in the gothic tradition, tales could legitimately transcend the limits of ordinary physical reality. In other words, in Dickens’ time there was no stigma – as there perhaps is now – attached to being both a writer of ghost stories and of mainstream fiction and he made the most of this with his short tales of the supernatural.
For Dickens, ghost stories were particularly appropriate for telling around the fire at Christmas. I’ll consider A Christmas Carol in more detail in a post nearer to Christmas Day, but this was by no means Dickens’ only festive contribution to the supernatural genre. A Christmas Tree and The Story of the Goblins who stole a Sexton contain similar seasonal elements and festive good humour, as do the other stories which make up Dickens’ collection of spooky Yuletide tales, Christmas Books. Wholly different in character are the more skilful and mature To be Read at Dusk and To be Taken with a Grain of Salt, in which events move imperceptibly and disturbingly from the ordinary to the extraordinary world and which both leave a chilling sensation on the reader’s spine. No less an authority than Edgar Allan Poe cited one of Dickens’ other ghost stories, A Confession Found in a Prison, as ‘a paper of remarkable power’ – proof if any were needed of the quality of Dickens as a writer of supernatural as well as mainstream fiction. The piece that I will leave you with is The Signalman (click to read!), a ghost story which is widely accepted as ranking alongside the masterpieces in this vein by writers such as Poe, H P Lovecraft, J S Le Fanu and M R James.