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Spirited Ghosts

January 15, 2016 | by

Elizabeth “Mrs.” Gaskell.

The other evening, my friend Patrick was telling me about his recent visit to Plymouth Grove, the Manchester home of the Victorian writer Mrs. Gaskell. The house was restored and reopened to the public in 2011; it contains many of the author’s personal effects, as well as period interiors. It’s now, he says, evocative and interesting and, appropriately, haunted. Or so the docents say.

In addition to her novels—socially conscious books like Ruth and North and South, or the beloved Cranford—Mrs. Gaskell wrote ghost stories. And she liked to tell them, too: an article written later in Putnam’s Monthly describes tales of “Scotch ghosts, historical ghosts, spirited ghosts with faded uniforms and nice old powdered queues.” Her Gothic Tales is a must for any aficionado of intricate Victorian ghost stories. 

Which brings me to my recommendation: The Poor Clare, released in Melville House’s Art of the Novella series. I’ll confess I was drawn at least as much to the book’s stark design and compact size as to its author; it’s the perfect trim and weight for slipping into a coat pocket, and it has flaps to mark your place. If such considerations seem shallow, you haven’t toted many books. Here’s how the publisher describes it:

The purposeful slaying of lonely Bridget’s beloved dog unleashes a torrent of rage that surges down through the generations. In her desire for revenge, Bridget utters a fearsome curse upon the dog’s killer: All that the murderer loves most, he will lose.

It’s short, of course—I dispatched it within two days of subway commutes, plus one solo dinner at a restaurant’s bar—but, despite a rather abrupt and slightly unsatisfying ending, it’s the kind of page-turner that only something written for serialization can be. There’s maximum drama and twists packed into the narrative, and it’s pleasantly creepy in a cozy, midwinter way. 

This being Mrs. Gaskell, the book is not without its topical aspects: in this case, England’s underlying anti-Catholic prejudice. Although she sets the book some hundred years earlier, in her day this would still have been an active issue. Now, it should be said that she does render one of the primary Catholic characters a witch—a literal witch—but she’s treated as quite sympathetic. Really, Bridget has no choice but to place a curse on the villain’s head. Or at any rate, generations of prejudice and suspicion have warped her beyond reason.

Whether you believe in ghosts or just compact books, do give it a try. 

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.