WIHM: Two Victorian Women in Horror
Two Victorian Women in Horror
The nineteenth century produced some top-notch women horror writers. Today I want to draw attention to two of my favorites: Amelia B. Edwards (1831-1892) and Bithia Mary Croker (1849-1920.)
Edwards resembled one of those supremely capable Victorian women who occasionally appear in works of fiction. A poet, composer, journalist, and Egyptologist she excelled at pistol-shooting and horseback riding. She traveled extensively and was an active supporter of women’s suffrage. Her self-illustrated 1877 travelogue, A Thousand Miles Up the Nile, became an immediate best-seller.
Edwards also wrote horror stories. Her 1881 short story, “Was it an Illusion?” appears in the Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories, edited by Michael Cox and R.A. Gilbert, 1991, Oxford University Press.
Another of her stories, “The Phantom Coach,” was published in 1864. Like “Was it an Illusion?” it takes place in a harsh, wintery landscape, creating an atmosphere of terror and death. It tells of James Murray, a young lawyer who gets lost in a snowstorm while hunting on the English moors. He stumbles onto a farmhouse, apparently the home of an elderly recluse, a scientist who grudgingly allows him to come in and get warm.
I say ‘apparently’ because it’s unclear whether the old man is real or a hallucination.
Murray says he has to get back to his wife. She must be frantic with worry. His host tries to talk him out of going back out, but he insists on leaving. In that case, the old man says, he can catch the coach that carries the night mail. It’s a three-mile hike to the crossroads where it will pass by, but if he hurries he can make it.
Murray sets off in the company of a servant. It’s snowing like crazy. The servant tells him about a terrible coach accident that took place in the vicinity nine years previously. Then he leaves him to meet up with the night mail.
The stage is set. We know something spooky is about to happen.
Through the snow dim lights appear. It’s the coach! It’s freezing cold and snow is blowing down in sheets. Murray waves for the coach to stop. He’s relieved to climb inside and take a seat. But he’s not relieved for long. Something’s funny about the coach. It’s falling apart and it smells bad and there’s something wrong with the other passengers.
I won’t give away the ending, but it’s worth reading.
The second of the two female Victorian horror writers who merits mention is Bithia Mary Croker (1849-1920.) She wrote novels and short stories based on her 14 years in India and Burma, from 1877 to 1892.
Her short story, “To Let,” tells of a family driven from their vacation rental by the sounds of a fatal accident that happened there years earlier.
It’s an early example of the trope of the house that at first seems too good to be true but is gradually revealed to hide a dark secret.
The house is called Briarwood. It’s in Shimla, in the foothills of the Himalayas. The accident that triggered the haunting involved a horse and rider falling from the verandah and sliding down the mountainside. Everything’s fine while the weather’s good. Then on rainy evenings the terrified occupants of the house start to hear a series of sounds. First there’s the clip-clop of hooves as a rider approaches. Then a man’s voice calls out a greeting from the verandah, followed by a splintering crash and a woman’s scream. Nothing is seen, only heard, but hearing is bad enough. Finally the family can stand it no more, and flees.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Rudyard Kipling’s short story, “The Phantom Rickshaw,” is also set in Shimla. In it, Kipling casually mentions various local hauntings. He states, ‘Dalhousie says that one of her houses “repeats” on autumn evenings all the incidents of a horrible horse-and-precipice accident.’
The town of Dalhousie is spread out over five hills in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Shimla is its capital. It was also the summer capital of British India. It is famous for its spectacular mountain scenery. Its houses and roads cling to the mountainsides, with sheer drops to the gorges below. It seems evident that Kipling and Croker were describing the same haunting. The question is, was Briarwood a real house that experienced a “repeat” haunting, or was it just a rumor?
Several of Croker’s horror stories set in India were written from the viewpoint of a woman driven from her home. Her descriptions of life in the “hill stations” seem enviable at first. The transplanted English residents enjoy a social whirl of teas and concerts and excursions to points of interest, made possible by numerous Indian servants.
The sense of unease slowly builds, as it becomes evident that the narrators are outsiders in a land where their presence is tolerated but not welcome. The ghosts they encounter serve both as a warning to those who venture into places where they’re not wanted and as a symbol of the negative effects of empire. It is especially appropriate to us from a twenty-first-century viewpoint. But even simply taken at face value they’re enjoyable horror stories.
Jill Hand is a member of the Horror Writers Association and International Thriller Writers. Her short stories have appeared in Test Patterns, Test Patterns: Creature Features, and Caravans Awry, from Planet X Publications. Her literary criticism of the work of Shirley Jackson appeared in Vastarien: Vol. 1, Issue 2. Her Southern Gothic thriller, White Oaks, will be released in May by Black Rose Writing.
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