The Haunted and the Haunters

19 Dec

With Christmas fast approaching and the ghost story season with it, this is perhaps a useful time to ask where the phenomenon of the Haunted House story first came from. For some, what effectively launched the genre of Haunted House stories was The Haunted and the Haunters, described by H P Lovecraft himself as “one of the best short haunted house tales ever written.” It is based on reports the writer, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, had heard about a building in the heart of London’s Mayfair, but it is also perhaps based on his own real life experiences. Lytton was born in London in 1803 and, despite his noble birth, was forced to earn his living as a writer, until he inherited the title of Lord Lytton in 1866. In the interim, he had become popular with readers for his historical novels – notably The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) – and a number of stories of the occult and supernatural. Highly regarded among these are his novel A Strange Story (1861) and short story Glenallan. The family seat of Lord Lytton was Knebworth House, a notable Tudor mansion, with a beautiful Jacobean banqueting hall, overlain with a 19th century Victorian Gothic exterior. Knebworth House has been the home of the Lytton family since 1490 and boasts some hauntings of a deeply personal nature. For example, the family is warned of an impending death by the sound and occasional sighting of a girl named Jenny, spinning. Other phenomena include a presence in the rooms once frequented by Edward Bulwer-Lytton himself, who died in 1873, and some believe he may have decided to remain there. “The pen is mightier than the sword” – an iconic proverb coined by Lytton in 1839 – is a phrase which makes regular appearances to this very day; just like its creator, the ghost of whom is said to haunt the gothic stately home where he once lived.

Knebworth House is a striking sight at night and hearing grisly tales associated with the mansion, such as that of Jenny Spinner, who is said to have been incarcerated behind a wall in a wing of the house, only add to its chilling atmosphere. Though once the home to Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, there has been talk of spooky goings on at Knebworth House throughout its 500 year history. Lytton was a famed novelist during the 19th century and was a pioneer of the science fiction genre but also wrote in other genres including romance, horror and the occult. He had a strong interest in the occult and supposedly interacted with perpetrators of this way of thinking such as infamous occultist Éliphas Lévi. It was at Knebworth House that a séance took place involving Lytton and, supposedly, Lévi which led to supernatural goings on. It is perhaps because of this that Lytton’s spirit is said to still roam some rooms of Knebworth, much like a character from one of his horror stories. The ghost of Sir Bulwer Lytton himself is often felt in the property, most often in the study and the drawing room. He has never actually been seen, but a lot of the staff say that they can feel him and somehow just know that he is around.

There is also a much older spirit linked to Knebworth House. This ghost is one said to be attached to the Lytton Family. He takes the form of a little boy who has been described as ‘radiant’ or ‘yellow’. The legend was that If the boy appeared it was not only a symbol of a rise to power, but also a violent death as well. The last member of the family to see him is said to have been Lord Castlereagh. The story goes that the boy appeared to Castlereagh and drew his fingers across his throat. In 1822 Lord Castlereagh died of suicide – he had cut his own throat just as the boy had foretold. Other ghosts have been sighted as well. A guest sleeping in the Queen Elizabeth Room once reported being awoken by a mystery girl with long, blonde hair leaning over the bed and another unknown female has been sighted in the Picture Gallery. Of course, the house today is known mostly for quite different reasons. As of 2021, its residents are Henry Lytton-Cobbold and his family. He had a career in the film industry, living for some years in Los Angeles, and so the house and gardens are frequently used for filming. They are also open to the public. The grounds include tourist attractions such as an adventure playground and dinosaur park and host various events including classic car rallies. Since 1974, the Knebworth Music Festival has featured the likes of Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Queen (their 1986 concert at the venue was the last with Freddie Mercury), Paul McCartney, Genesis, Mike Oldfield, The Beach Boys, Deep Purple, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Dire Straits, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Iron Maiden, Robbie Williams and Oasis. Lord Cobbold, who established Knebworth’s tradition of hosting rock concerts, has said: “It’s the spirit of the house. You just feel that this is a rather special place to be.”

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