‘… there were no more mysterious occurrences … no rings on the bells, no raps, no footsteps, no more curious incidences of any kind. The house continued to … “behave itself” ‘. (The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters, p. 386)
After a lapse of a few weeks, I have finally been able to return to the literary country house. My last post on this topic is here, and concerned the country house poem. Here the focus is how the country house can play host to something more supernatural and chilling, and ultimately more claustrophobic.
In an article for The New Statesman (2011), John O’Connell identified the country house genre as two distinct groups; the Gothic (the focus here) and the social. This article is now exclusively for subscribers, but the overview is given by John Lucas in The Guardian from February 2011. Lucas himself states, ‘It’s dramatically useful to be able to force characters together in a physical space where they have little choice but to interact with each other. In this sense, the country house functions in much the same way as a pub in a soap opera.’ Yet the Gothic and the social country house did not just appear from nothing. There is certainly something which links the steady move towards privacy for landowners and their families, Acts of Enclosure, and extensive landscaping which suggests that the house itself became ever more remote and mysterious during the eighteenth century.
Of course the Gothic setting may not even be a country house. Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1765), Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron (1778), and Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) all play out within murky castle walls. Indeed Gothic originally implied medieval, but by the end of the eighteenth century its meaning had altered to incorporate the purely macabre, eerie and supernatural. The medieval element was not always important.
How the country house setting fits into the Gothic model is complex, and is as much the backdrop as it is a character. This is not about whether ghosts or the supernatural are real, but often about social commentary and the psychological and physical threats posed by others. For example the artificial relationships set out by the class system and patriarchal dominance, the paranoia of rightful inheritance, tyrannical masters seeking sexual deviance, or the consequences of inbreeding. Add to these the architectural decay of a world that once thrived or the intrigue of an ill-fated inhabitant brought to an early demise through murder or suicide and the scene is set for monsters and ghouls stepping forth to tell their tales.
The haunted house may simply be the desolate detached thing at the end of the road. Yet the country house (big or small) provides the writer with a greater variety of space, of past opulence, of dysfunctional families and their struggle to uphold pride and lineage. The dark corners, damp basement passageways and dusty attics are all places for secreting horrifyingly disfigured relations, ancestral sins, or discarded womenfolk.
Key authors of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would certainly include the following: Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1839), Charles Dickens et al., The Haunted House (1859), J. S. Le Fanu, ‘Madam Crowl’s Ghost’ (1870), Charlotte Riddell, The Haunted House at Latchford (1872), Henry James, ‘The Turn of the Screw’ (1898), and M. R. James, ‘The Ash Tree’ (1904). All of these have different tales to tell, but the techniques are similar wherever you look. Ultimately, the haunted house is the static setting into which one or more characters are introduced in order to relate the tale to us as the readers. The madness and hysteria may have already existed before their mediation like in H. P. Lovecraft’s, The Rats in the Walls (1924). On the other hand this new character or characters may or may not be the trigger for the haunting as in the genre’s present day revival like Sarah Waters’s, The Little Stranger (2009).
M. R. James does not use this technique in ‘The Ash Tree’, but instead has his narrator pass on the tale as though it were stuff of legend or folklore. Yet, this too is common, especially in short stories. The period setting is therefore important and may be familiar to the reader. Supernatural suspense in the protagonist’s own present or recent past for example might be provided by a tortured spirit, often with a message from the grave like in the late James Herbert’s The Secret of Crickley Hall (2006) or even Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (1983). Also common is the retelling by the main character of their version of events (usually by firelight) to a contemporary audience.
The role of the haunted house has never really changed dramatically in literature over time, but it has seen a handful of revivals. The country house as haunted house however does not fit obviously into the social changes occurring simultaneously. The interwar years see little production of ghostly tales, as the country house at that time became the social house model as noted by John O’Connell. Presumably this might have more to do with a dismissal of all things Victorian rather than a severe dislike of the supernatural tale itself. Moreover, demolition of the country house in the UK during the 1950s and 1960s does not seem to impact too heavily on the genre.
As a child I was probably reading haunted house stories produced during a wave of interest in Victoriana and past opulence in children’s literature. Many of my favourite authors like Robert Westall, Philippa Pearce and Helen Cresswell knew how to twist the fate of an old mansion. Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958) for one, is as much about a fantasy world as it is about the dismantling of a golden era. Today’s revival has been a few years in the making, but there is a wealth of novels and short stories to examine further. Perhaps the accessibility of the country house has aided this fascination; the layers of history witnessed in the blocked up doorways and windows, glistening mirrors that once held someone’s reflection, creaking floorboards, the maze of passageways, empty beds, and unnamed portraits…
References and further reading:
E. J. Clery, The Rise of Supernatural Fiction (1995)
J. S. Le Fanu, In a Glass Darkly (1872)
Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (2000)
Peter Haining, The Mammoth Book of Haunted House Stories (2005)
James Herbert, Haunted (1988)
Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House (1959)
P. J. Keating, The Haunted Study: A Social History of the English Novel 1875-1914 (2012 ?)
The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural (1986)
John Sullivan, Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story From Le Fanu To Blackwood (1978) and Lost Souls: A Collection of English Ghost Stories (1983)
Robert Westall, Ghost Abbey (new edition 2011)
Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost (first published 1887)
The Ghost Story on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_story
The Gothic literary genre on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gothic_fiction
Haunted Country Houses in Country Life Magazine http://www.countrylife.co.uk/countryside/pursuits/article/153019/Top-10-haunted-country-houses.html
And last but not least, Horror Film Haunted Houses http://cinefantastiqueonline.com/2009/03/sense-of-wonder-hollywoods-most-haunted-houses/