Victorian Ghost Stories Guaranteed to Haunt You


United By Pop received a free copy of ‘Ghostly Tales’ in exchange for an honest review, all opinions are our own.

Title: Ghostly Tales: Spine-Chilling Stories of the Victorian Age

Authors: M.R. James, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Amelia B. Edwards, and F. Mario Crawford

Purchase: Available in the UK and the US

Overall rating: 5/5

Great for: Fans of Victorian classics, Gothic fiction, and ghost stories.

Themes: Horror, mystery, supernatural, suspense, gothic, classics.

Review: This is a book to be adored! The physical beauty of the cover alone was enough to make me give this book 5/5 stars, but discovering the infamous authors whose work lines its interior made my heart palpitate with joy.

Seven chilling tales grace its pages and all are completely unique, although they are linked by their unsettling nature. Asides from being treated to snippets from some of the most masterful Victorian storytellers, each tale is also adorned with a beautiful full-page illustration which adds to the book’s physical appeal and wonderfully portrays the chilling nature of each story.

Of all seven tales, there is not one I didn’t enjoy. Each was delivered in the author’s own unique style of penmanship,  and yet they seemed to flow seamlessly from each other. This was until they combined into delivering a permeation of disquiet that enfolded the reader into its chilling caress.

These are stories to be absorbed slowly; to ponder at their ending and mull over the symbology in the text. They are also equally enjoyable when marathoned in one twenty-four sitting due to the unputdownable nature of their contents, just as I did!


Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad by M. R. James – 3.5/5 stars

Aside from hearing the clunky and in my opinion unappealing-sounding title, I had never previously read any M. R. James so I had no idea what to expect from this. What I did discover was that it begun with such a unique voice that I was immediately intrigued. Almost at the story’s very beginning did the narrative voice intrude into the tale to give a focused direction to the reader:

“It was, as you might suppose, a person of antiquarian pursuits that said this, but, since he merely appears in this prologue, there is no need to give his entitlements.”

This strong stylistic approach had me convinced in the teller of the tale if, not yet, the tale itself. Soon, however, the both combined to make unputdownable reading.

The story concerns Parkins and his prolonged stay at a seaside hotel to enjoy some uninterrupted writing and day-time golfing. During one such golfing excursions he discovers a curious whistle inside some ruins and what follows is a tale of growing suspense with an eerie close.

Little actual horror occurs in this tale, until the final pages, but this allows the slow creep of terror to slowly bind its chill hands over the reader’s heart until the concluding final squeeze. There is also little structure given to the unnamed horror that haunts the protagonist, which allows the reader’s imagination to run rife with its own conjured terrors and thus it became a far more chilling tale than it initially appeared. The eerie quality of this tale progresses slowly but closes fairly happily, which my macabre sensibilities would have preferred otherwise.

The Old Nurse’s Story by Elizabeth Gaskell – 5/5 stars

Before beginning this I was already well acquainted with and a huge fan of Gaskell’s writing so this was, perhaps, the tale I was most eager to read. It began with a direct narration to the reader, much as the last one did. The reader is placed in the position of the nurse’s young charges, as she relates the tale of their mother in her youth.

The young Rosamund, after her parent’s early demise, was sent to live in grand Furnivall Manor. Her nurse and one remaining friend, who tells this tale, was obliged to travel with her. Asides from two elderly spinsters and a handful of servants, the manor lies devoid of life. But, perhaps, not devoid of the afterlife…

The beginning was typical of a Gothic tale, where many of the protagonists are divorced from their protectors and most of the settings are in isolated yet grand locations. The many undiscovered corners to their new abode made for an eerie and exciting backdrop, full of much apprehension of what the shadows could contain.

If the last tale was stark with description this was much the opposite. The elderly inhabitants of the Manor and “the wildness of the house” were depicted for the reader in much detail, and this focused imagery proved to heighten the horrors described.

The nurse’s young charge provided an endearing aspect to the tale and these feelings of love soon conflicted with the growing horror that followed. I found this conflict to be powerful in relaying the terrors of the tale to the reader. The sense of dread was palpable and I turned the pages in double-quick time, anxious to see these beloved characters come to no harm. This was the most terrifying and, thus, my favourite read in this anthology.

The Signalman by Charles Dickens – 5/5 stars

Another renowned Victorian author graces the pages of this book but sadly one I have not had the pleasure of reading before.

This short story begins with no preamble and I was initially a little confused as to the placement of the piece. I soon grasped the simple concept of this, involving a man conversing with a signalman for the railway service over the particulars of his job. It also becomes quickly apparent that the nameless signalman’s livelihood and mental well-being is dogged by a distant spectre, warning him of a future danger. Both the figure and the possible danger haunts both characters until the story’s shocking close.

As in the narrator’s own words, I was initially “resisting the touch of a slow frozen fingers tracing out my spine.” This didn’t seem to hold as many early connotations of eeriness as the previous pieces but, perhaps due to this, had the most shocking and powerful of endings. I stared, open-mouthed, long after the story’s culmination at how cleverly Dickens had played his reader!

The Body-Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson – 4 stars

This is the only story in the collection that I had previously read before, although I remembered little about it. This involved the remembrances from a drunken Fettes, about his antics whilst at medical school. A bright student, he quickly rose to the top of his class and was engaged as the lab’s assistant. This involved procuring the good behaviour of the other students, overlooking the cleanliness and upkeep of the lab, and obtaining the bodies for daytime dissection from sinister midnight visitors. This last job was the most distasteful, but even more so upon his discovery of how exactly the bodies were provided for his fellow future doctors.

This was, for me, the least ghostly of all the tales, but that is not to say that it was not grisly. I found this thrilling rather than haunting, as Fettes past was dually recounted to the reader and the protagonist’s companions. I felt no creeping feelings of dread, however, but this may have been due to my reading this story before.

The ending I had guessed at but that didn’t take away from its skilful brilliance. The open-ended nature of the reasoning behind the conclusion allows the reader to feel dread after reading the story rather than during it. Left to our own interpretations, it is for the reader’s own imagination to decide whether the occurrence are merely coincidental, fate, or the supernatural at play.

The Captain of the Pole-Star by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – 4/5 stars

This story was formulated in journal style entries by another man of medicine, but this time one on board the ship, the Pole-Star. John M’Alister Ray lies on board a vessel stranded far out at sea within hills of ice. The crew are all struck by some unknowable fear, of which their captain seems the most distraught. John relays his disbelief to the reader and has concerns over the others’ soundness of mind. His fears for the captain’s sanity, especially, progress until the story’s final, awful close.

This was, again, another enjoyable narrative due to the prowess of the renowned storyteller who penned it. I expected nothing less, after having read numerous Sherlock Holmes stories, but it was still interesting to read Conan Doyle’s writing outside of the crime speciality and see how adept he was at other genres.

This story also provided a nice change of pace, in this anthology, as it was more of a slower-paced tale. It was still a wonderful story but was more of a mystery than a horror tale. The open-ended nature of the ending meant that the reader could defer their own conclusions to this fact.

The Phantom Coach by Amelia B. Edwards – 5/5 stars

Is there a more chilling premise than that of the midnight wanderer, making his lonely journey home through the blankets of snow that mask the surroundings into obscurity?

It was a given that I was going to fall in love with this story as its beginning bore such a stark resemblance to my favourite book, ‘Wuthering Heights’. This quickly altered into a dissection of belief vs. proof and was a fitting story to add towards the close of this anthology. All that had gone before, along with its modern-day readership, seemed discussed in a few well-penned phrases:

“The world, he said, “grows more and more sceptical of all that lies beyond its own narrow radius; and our men of science foster the fatal tendency. The condemn as fable all that resists experiment. They reject as false all that cannot be brought to the test of the laboratory or the dissecting-room. Against what superstition have they waged so long and obstinate a war, as against the belief in apparition? And yet what superstition has maintained its hold upon the minds of men so long and so firmly?”

The Screaming Skull by F. Mario Crawford – 5 stars

This begun with no preamble and chilling imagery that continued to haunt both the protagonist and myself. The skull from the story’s title did indeed scream for the entire duration of the piece and I found the premise of this almost too chilling to finish reading at 3am whilst home alone!

Repetition is used throughout the piece, which put the reader in place of the protagonist who feels the chill creep of impending doom looming ever closer, as the story goes on. Pages were turned, seconds ticked by, and the shadows around me took on sinister forms as the horrors of the page turned to terrors of my own mind’s making.

This almost felt like a satire of the ghost story, at times, as the author used clever narrative devices that pointed at flaws of the genre and provided the addition of hilarity to the horror it ultimately ended with. These surging emotions guaranteed the reader had experienced the full range of emotions throughout this entire anthology and that there truly is something for every reader inside these pages.

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