The Haunted Crossroads

Gothic Stories to Amuse and Terrify

Who Was William Hope Hodgson?

William Hope Hodgson lived an adventurous life.  He was a sailor, a noted athlete, a soldier, and, of course, a celebrated writer of weird fiction. 

As a boy, Hodgson ran away from home several times and headed for the sea. Each time he was caught. However, he eventually secured an apprenticeship aboard an ocean going ship and began a long career in the merchant marine. As a sailor, he developed tremendous physical strength and eventually, after many challenges and hardships, won honors and promotions. The dangers of life on the water (Hope, as his family called him, once rescued a fellow sailor who had fallen into shark-filled waters) and its strangeness furnished him with the raw material for weird and terrifying sea-going tales.

Once his feet were again firmly planted on dry land, Hodgson’s imaginative nature propelled him into a career writing fantastic fiction. His most famous works eerily blend elements of mystery, science fiction, adventure, the supernatural and, very often, the sea. H. P. Lovecraft admiringly wrote, “Few can equal him in adumbrating the nearness of nameless forces and monstrous besieging entities through casual hints and insignificant details . . . .” His most enduring novels are The Night Land, The Ghost Pirates, and The House on the Borderland.

Lovecraft thought The Night Land was “one of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written.” With regard to The Ghost Pirates, he wrote, “With its command of maritime knowledge, and its clever selection of hints and incidents suggestive of latent horrors in nature, this book at times reaches enviable peaks of power.” And he did not hide his enthusiasm for The House on the Borderland: “everywhere there is manifest the author’s power to suggest vague, ambushed horrors in natural scenery.”

Hodgson also wrote numerous short stories including the often-anthologized “The Voice in the Night.” It was through this medium that he introduced his readers to his most beloved character: Thomas Carnacki, a sort of supernatural sleuth. Lovecraft described Carnacki, slightly dismissively, as “the progeny of M. Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, and the close kin of Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence.” Nevertheless, Carnacki was enormously popular among Hodgson’s readers and even Lovecraft acknowledged that the Carnacki stories “afford[ed] glimpses of the peculiar genius characteristic of the author.” David Barnett, writing for the Guardian, has provided an excellent introduction to Carnacki.

In The Whistling Room, perhaps the most popular of these stories, a young American invites Carnacki to Ireland to investigate a mysterious and unnerving noise that frequently emanates from a room of his newly acquired castle. The American, who’s eager to impress his beautiful Irish bride-to-be, suspects local hooligans may be behind the disturbances, but he can’t help sensing “there is something beastly and dangerous about this thing.” Carnacki’s investigation reveals the horrible truth.

William Hope Hodgson’s writing career was interrupted by World War I. He had hoped to write a book about his experiences. Sadly, his life was cut short by a German artillery barrage. Not long ago, the arts and culture blog published an entertaining and concise summary of Hodgson’s life. And, as you might expect (or at least hope) there’s at least one interesting blog dedicated to the author.

Stories by William Hope Hodgson

Nathaniel Hawthorne On Guilt

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts, the city made famous – or infamous, depending upon your perspective – by the witch trials that occurred there during 1692 and 1693.

In fact, Hawthorne’s great-great grandfather, Judge John Hathorne, had played a significant role in those trials. You may have noticed there is no “w” in John’s surname. It’s said that Nathaniel added that letter to his own name in order to sever ties with an ancestor whose guilt he felt was both personal and communal.

One of Hawthorne’s most famous works, the Gothic novel The House of the Seven Gables, derives its force primarily from that same notion of communal guilt. That story also has its origins in the Witch Trials.  And though Hawthorn asserted that he had sought to avoid overt moralizing, he nevertheless wrote the following in his preface to the work: “the author has provided himself with a moral,—the truth, namely, that the wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones, and, divesting itself of every temporary advantage, becomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief; and he would feel it a singular gratification if this romance might effectually convince mankind—or, indeed, any one man—of the folly of tumbling down an avalanche of ill-gotten gold, or real estate, on the heads of an unfortunate posterity, thereby to maim and crush them, until the accumulated mass shall be scattered abroad in its original atoms.”

The origins of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s feelings about guilt are well-known. He had absorbed the earnest moral convictions of the Puritan tradition that surrounded him as a young man. And he had devoted himself to exploring the interplay of freewill, sin, consequence, and identity through his fiction. Alfred Kazin, the Atlantic’s literary critic, wrote, “As the background and unifying theme of Hawthorne’s stories is the human obsession with guilt, so the central character in all these stories is the inward man, the human soul trying to represent itself.” Indeed, the author rose to prominence (perhaps preeminence) among early American authors due to his allegorical tales in which supernatural episodes facilitated the development of such psychological themes.

The inevitability of the inwardly hidden being manifesting itself is the subject of Hawthorne’s short story The Prophetic Pictures. His tale is centered on an extraordinary painter who has an uncanny knack for revealing tantalizing hints about his subjects’ souls and their destinies. But who is this painter? Is he merely an exceptionally talented artist? Is he a prophet of some sort? Is he fate itself? Or is he something else entirely? And what exactly precipitates the sudden and shocking emergence of one character’s true self? Hawthorne leaves his readers wrestling with these mysteries.

Stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne

An Introduction to Amelia B. Edwards and a Summary of The Phantom Coach

Was Amelia B. Edwards really “the most learned lady in the world?” The editor of Edinburgh’s “Christian Leader” said as much during her 1888-89 speaking tour of Scotland. By that time, she was an accomplished travel writer and novelist. Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys, her account of her adventures in the Dolomites, was a dramatic departure from travel narratives of the period. Edwards, traveling with only a female companion and guides and servants they hired along the way, explored remote and sometimes treacherous territory that was largely uncharted. Her groundbreaking telling of that story, which is still read by visitors to the Dolomites, made her reputation as a travel writer. Her standing in that role grew enormously with the publication of A Thousand Miles Up the Nile, which told of her travels through Egypt – a land whose ancient and mysterious tombs and artifacts fascinated Victorians of all classes. Though the book was rigorously scholarly, it was written for the enjoyment of a general audience and had broad appeal. Her own attractive watercolor illustrations contributed to its immense popularity. In fact, she was a fine artist and might have risen to fame on that basis alone had she pursued that course.

Edwards’ firsthand experience of the wonders of Egypt, and the great success of her initial book on the subject, dramatically altered the trajectory of her life and her career. Driven by an intense fascination with Egyptian antiquities, she became one of her generation’s foremost authorities on the subject despite having no formal training. In fact, a professorship in Egyptology at an English university still bears her name. It was primarily because of her desire to promote this new field of study that she embarked on lengthy and well-attended lecture tours of the United Kingdom (including Edinburgh, of course) and the United States. Roberta Muñoz of the Wilbour Library of Egyptology at the Brooklyn Museum has written a thought-provoking paper about Edwards’ triumphant American tour, the opposition she encountered as a woman breaking into an area that was dominated by male egos, and her unlikely influence on the practice and promulgation of archaeology science.

Naturally, the audiences that filled the halls where she lectured were also drawn by her fame as an acclaimed novelist and short story writer. “Barbara’s History”, a romantic novel featuring a strong heroine and dramatic settings around Europe, wasn’t her first novel, but it made her first great impression on the literary world. Several popular books followed.

Of course, here at The Haunted Crossroads, we’re primarily interested in Edwards’ excellent, short supernatural fiction.  In The Phantom Coach, Edwards’ best-known and most-anthologized story, a newly-married barrister loses his way during a day of hunting on the moors of northern England.  As he trudges across the moor in a vain attempt to find his bearings, night falls and a dangerous snow storm blows in.  His situation is becoming desperate when he has a stroke of apparent good fortune: he meets an old servant who is making his way home through the night.  The old man’s gruff replies put the intrepid barrister on notice that his master does not receive guests gladly.  Nevertheless, the barrister insists on accompanying him.  To do otherwise would almost certainly mean a cold and lonely death under a heavy blanket of snow.

The master’s house proves to be an extraordinary place, full of strange scientific instruments, ancient tomes, and jars full of mysterious chemicals.  Its most prominent characteristic is a telescope of enormous size and strange design.  Bizarre diagrams cover its walls, and maps and papers are strewn about. It’s the sort of environment in which Edwards’ hero can expect to find a half-mad scientist or an alchemist steeped in arcana.

And, as we might expect, the home’s most striking feature truly is its owner.  He’s an enormous man with white hair and an imposing and curt manner.  Initially, it’s clear that he’s inclined to turn the intruding barrister out into the night.  But when he finds that a terrible snow storm has indeed blown in, he relents.  And after a dinner eaten in chilly silence, he begins to press his guest for news – principally scientific – from the world beyond his estate.  A fire burns brightly in the hearth.  And as the old scientist – for there’s no longer any doubt that the man is both a scientist and a philosopher – warms to the conversation, his exposition moves seamlessly from explanation of the natural sciences to discussion of supernatural powers and events.  Ultimately, he reveals that he held a prominent place in the scientific community before his investigations into supernatural forces was met with scorn and derision.  Ostracized, he retreated to his isolated estate where, apparently, he carried on his work, unrecognized but unhindered.  Yet he bitterly laments the fact that his peers have refused to accept his findings.

Their conversation ends with the snowstorm.  The young barrister expresses his urgent desire to return to the village where his new wife must be spending a restless night worrying about him.  To his great surprise and joy, his host tells him of a mail coach that will pass through the area that very night.  But before quitting the warmth of the strange house, the barrister accepts a fiery drink the old scientist says is whiskey, but which comes from a bottle stored among his mysterious chemicals.

As the young barrister sets out across the frozen moor with the old servant as his guide, we sense that perhaps the estate’s hard, old master has settled upon a less than scrupulous means of converting his unsuspecting guest to a belief in otherworldly powers.

Stories by Amelia B. Edwards

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Lot No. 249

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle owed much of his success to the reclusive and brilliant private eye, Sherlock Holmes. No doubt he had once loved him. But that didn’t stop Sir Arthur from plotting his shocking demise.

As in so many tragic relationships, the author felt he had outgrown his creation and he was bored. Truth be told, he felt positively stifled and confined by Sherlock’s enormous popularity. Sir Arthur craved freedom to meet – well, to create – new people. He wanted to try new things that Sherlock simply wasn’t up for. Their relationship was irretrievably broken.

And so Sir Arthur hurled his great benefactor over Reichenbach Falls to his death. As he left the scene of the crime (it cannot be said that he fled or that he made any effort to conceal his guilt), he was overheard rejoicing, “Thank God, I’ve killed the brute!” When Sherlock’s devoted admirers confronted Sir Arthur with the details of the slaying, he tartly replied, “I hold that it was not murder, but justifiable homicide in self-defence, since, if I had not killed him, he would certainly have killed me.”

With Sherlock out of the picture, Doyle was free to embrace his new love: historical fiction. He went on to write a number of excellent historical works and, eventually, revived Holmes. But that’s a story for another blog. (Incidentally, if you’d like to learn some interesting facts about how Doyle created Holmes, check out Graham Moore’s review of Michael Sims book on the subject.)

For our current purposes, the important thing to note is that although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known for his short stories about Sherlock Holmes, his active and intelligent mind drove him to explore a wide variety of genres beyond detective fiction. In addition to historical fiction, he also produced novels, adventure tales, plays, military history, and poetry. And – surely you saw this coming – stories about the supernatural. In fact, several of Doyle’ works rank among the best Victorian gothic tales.

Among our favorites here at the Haunted Crossroads is Lot No. 249 in which an Oxford medical student comes to suspect that nefarious purposes underlie his “reptilian” neighbor’s strange obsession with a particular Egyptian artifact. Doyle provides a suitably ancient and eerie setting for his tale; a secluded and “lichen-blotched” corner of campus. And he uses the eccentric neighbor’s apparent fearfulness, and certain strange occurrences (for example, who is it that walks about in the neighbor’s rooms when he’s away?), to inspire suspicion and foreboding. It’s an excellent story for a dark and lonely night – one we don’t hesitate to recommend.

Stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A New Interpretation of The Signal-Man, Charles Dicken’s Gothic Story

Everyone knows Charles Dickens. People are familiar with his novels Great Expectations, David Copperfield and a Tale of Two Cities – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . .” They remember the extraordinary characters he brought to life: Ebenezer Scrooge, Miss Havisham, Pip, the Artful Dodger, Estella, Uriah Heep, Fagin, Jacob Marley, Tiny Tim and many others. All who’ve read his work know he sympathized with the poor and that he harshly criticized the English institutions that failed them or oppressed them with, as George Orwell wrote, “a ferocity that has never been approached.” A few are familiar with his plays. And virtually every literate English-speaking person has read, or had read to them, A Christmas Carol. Those who haven’t will have seen it at the theater or on television. So, everyone knows that Dickens wrote at least one fantastic ghost story.

A far smaller number realizes that he wrote many other chilling stories. Though Dickens was skeptical of ghostly tales, he nevertheless loved to share them. John Forster, Dickens’ friend and biographer, wrote that “[a]mong his good things should not be omitted his telling of a ghost story. He had something of a hankering after them . . . .” A few years ago, the British Library created an exhibit about Dickens’ interest in otherworldly stories which, according to the Telegraph, “deftly demonstrate[d] how Dickens stimulated Victorian interest in the supernatural even as he sought rational explanations for it.”

To be sure, not all of Dickens’ spirits were as benevolent as those he conjured up in A Christmas Carol. In The Signal-Man, a railway worker also receives three visions, but they ultimately portend disaster, rather than redemption.

On its surface, this is a story about a lonely man that is oppressed by foreboding visions of doom.  One of those visions seems particularly personal.  In the hands of a master like Dickens, that’s material from which many chilling moments can be manufactured.  To be sure, there are genuinely spooky episodes in the story. But close attention reveals something deeper – an affecting allegory about the consequences of misspent youth and opportunity.  Of course, I can’t be certain that Dickens intended this interpretation of The Signal-Man.  But it arises so naturally from the story, that I think he must have had something like it in mind.

“Halloa!  Below there!”  At the story’s outset, we learn the Signal-Man endures life within the depths of a physical space that is dark, cold and confined.  The narrator first notices him standing within a railroad cutting that is “extremely deep, and unusually precipitate.”  It was, the narrator tells us, “[A]s solitary and dismal a place as ever I saw.”  And, at the end of this gloomy trench is the still “gloomier entrance to a black tunnel, in whose massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air.”

Obviously, this is an ideal setting for a story about phantoms, but I believe it’s also a metaphor for Signal-Man’s place in life.  It is, as Dickens tells us, his “lonely post” where, the narrator speculates, a visitor must have been a “rarity.”  Indeed, the Signal-Man concedes that “long and lonely hours” had become the “routine of his life.”  That routine is dominated by his duties to the railroad and the pursuit of hobbies that consume his remaining time without contributing to his advancement.

So, how did the Signal-Man end up utterly alone and marooned in this bleak place?  Dickens tells us that he had received a good education. “[B]ut he had run wild, misused his opportunities, gone down, and never risen again.”  This is why the cutting is so deep and cold.  This is why he spends long, solitary, and often sunless days within a cramped “box.”  And this is why each day he stares with fearful apprehension into the black depths of the tunnel from which his terrible fate ultimately will emerge.  These are the fruits of squandered youth and opportunity.  Thus the setting is not merely physical; it’s also social and profoundly psychological.  When the narrator tells us the Signal-Man appears “foreshortened and shadowed, down in the deep trench,” we see the individual’s life and his psyche, not merely his body.

Further metaphorical phrases reveal the extent of the psychological damage the man has suffered.  The narrator asks, “Was it necessary for him . . . always to remain in that channel of damp air, and could he never rise into the sunshine from between those high stone walls?”  These Signal-Man responds that “he did choose occasions for getting a little above these lower shadows; but . . . the relief was less than I would suppose.”

So, why does the strange vision repeatedly appear to a man that apparently has no power to prevent impending disaster?  “Lord help me!” he cries, “A mere poor signal-man on this solitary station!  Why not go to somebody with credit to be believed, and power to act?”  Here we find the lesson I believe Dickens intended to teach.  Had the Signal-Man applied himself during his youth, or even during his maturity, he might have fulfilled his potential and thereby avoided personal disaster.  In other words, he could have had “power to act” had he chosen to develop it.

In a revealing moment, the Signal-Man tells the narrator “that what troubles [him] so dreadfully is the question, What does the spectre mean?”  I believe Dickens meant this to be a question for his readers.  And by now we know that the phantom’s call “Halloa!  Below there!  Look out!” is both a rebuke to those who thoughtlessly squandered opportunities and a warning of impending punishment.  Nothing about this interpretation of The Signal-Man detracts from it’s power to chill readers.  In fact, I think it makes the story more meaningful and consequently more haunting.

For more about Dickens’ gothic fiction, check out Historic UK.

Stories by Charles Dickens


Wilkie Collins and Miss Jéromette and the Clergyman

In the middle of the nineteenth century, English speaking audiences were captivated by the appearance of sensation fiction. Tales of mystery, scandal, crime and, of course, the supernatural tested the bounds of acceptable Victorian entertainment. Wilkie Collins was among the genre’s principle architects. And in some significant ways, his life resembled his fiction.

Collins studied law, but followed his passion: writing. In 1851, after he had written a few unremarkable works, he had an incredible stroke of good luck: he was invited to join Charles Dickens’ amateur production of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s play, “Not So Bad as We Seem.” The two were introduced by a mutual acquaintance, a prominent artist that went by the extraordinary name Augustus Egg. The authors hit it off and embarked on a nearly life-long friendship. They traveled together and collaborated in writing both short stories and plays. In addition, Dickens published many of Collin’s works including his masterful novels “The Woman in White” and “The Moonstone.” Some have suggested that Dickens’ criticism of the latter work contributed to an eventual falling out. But other issues probably worsened to their troubles, including Collins’ opium addiction and his bewildering domestic arrangements.

In 1858, Collins started a relationship with Caroline Graves. The two never married, but Collins treated Graves and her daughter from a previous relationship as his family. However, ten years later he started a second family with Martha Rudd. She bore him three children. In a twist worthy of his own sensation novels, his second family lived under an assumed last name in order to evade prying Victorian eyes. Only a few of Collins’ close friends knew the unusual details of his family life. Dickens knew. And apparently he didn’t approve.

Though Collins never matched Dickens’ evocative prose, he proved to be a master at creating irresistible suspense. It’s Collins’ ability to inspire nail-biting apprehension through meticulous plotting that carries “Miss Jéromette and the Clergyman”. There’s little action in the story.  Instead, Collins uses mystery to capture and hold his readers’ attention. What is poor Jéromette’s history? How can she be devoted to her former lover and yet dread his return? Will her new beau be put off by her mysterious past? And what role will his inscrutable new student play in the drama?

If you’d like to take a more in-depth look at Wilkie Collins and his sensation fiction, consider reading Jonathan Rosen’s excellent article in the New Yorker.

Stories by Wilkie Collins

Edward Bulwer-Lytton and the Haunted and the Haunters

Though a reserved man, Bulwer-Lytton led a diverse and significant life. He set fashion trends, served as a Member of Parliament, was offered the lordship of the British admiralty, and even turned down the Greek throne. During his lifetime, however, and even today, he is best remembered as an author.

At its height, Edward Bulwer-Lytton popularity among readers rivaled that of Charles Dickens. And the variety of his writing certainly exceeded that of his friend. Justin McCarthy, the Irish author and politician, wrote that “[i]n one peculiarity, at least, Bulwer-Lytton the novelist surpassed all his rivals and contemporaries. His range was so wide as to take in all circles and classes of English readers. He wrote fashionable novels, historical novels, political novels, metaphysical novels, psychological novels, moral-purpose novels, immoral purpose novels. . . . One might divide his novels into at least half a dozen classes, each class quite distinct and different from all the rest, and yet the one author, the one Bulwer-Lytton, showing and shining through them all.”

His works were products of his vast and varied experience. According to his relative Victor Alexander George Robert Bulwer-Lytton,“one might almost say that he emptied his mind into his books as fast as he filled it. A careful reader of all his writings would probably be able to find amongst them some expression of nearly every idea which his mind received.”

One of his favorite subjects, happily for lovers of gothic tales, was the supernatural. According to Harvard history professor Robert Lee Wolff, “Bulwer’s active studies of the occult began in the early 1830s, and became increasingly important to him as the years went by. Astrology, alchemy, mesmerism, clairvoyance, hypnotism, spiritualism, and magic: he investigated them all at first hand, and wrote about them all.” His careful exploration of these subjects led to doubt about their veracity and usefulness. Nevertheless, his enthusiasm for the subject, as well as his good humor, shone through in a brief note he sent to Lord Walpole in 1853. “I have been pursuing science into strange mysteries since we parted, and gone far into a spiritual world, which suffices to destroy all existing metaphysics and to startle the strongest reason. Of this when we meet, O poor materialist!”

In his well-known supernatural tale, “The Haunted and the Haunters”, Bulwer-Lytton’s daring narrator sets out to discover the secrets of a haunted house. He proceeds based on the assumption “that the supernatural is the impossible, and that what is called supernatural is only a something in the laws of Nature of which we have been hitherto ignorant. . . . [A]nd indeed in all the wonders which the amateurs of mystery . . . record as facts, a material living agency is always required.” And so, though he expects to encounter strange phenomena, he also believes that there will necessarily be some human agent behind it. The question is whether such beliefs will steel the narrator’s nerves against the horrors he will surely encounter in the house? And will those horrors actually be traceable to an explanation, no matter how strange, that is rooted in the natural world?

The bloggers at have written interesting and lighthearted commentary about “The Haunted and the Haunters.” For general information about the author’s life, check out Brigham Young University’s short biography.

Stories by Bulwer-Lytton

Mary Elizabeth Braddon and At Chrighton Abbey

Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s unconventional life appears to have been excellent preparation for pushing Victorian boundaries in her inventive fiction. She was the product of a broken English home and, at the age of seventeen, she turned to acting as a means of providing some support for her family – a potentially scandalous decision in her day. She achieved some success, adopting a pseudonym and earning a few leading roles. But her star quickly faded and she turned to writing. It was then that she met and started an affair with John Maxwell, a somewhat disreputable publisher who announced their marriage despite the fact that his first wife, though insane, was still very much alive.

It was during this time that Braddon wrote her most enduring novel, “Lady Audley’s Secret”. This high society narrative, which featured bigamy and insanity (sound familiar?), as well as murder and other crimes, quickly became a bestseller. Braddon had found her calling, one that ultimately would make her quite wealthy, and she set about writing novels in earnest. She produced more than seventy of them! And yet, Braddon somehow found time to produce some genuinely chilling short stories.

In one of her best, “At Chrighton Abbey”, Braddon tells of a curse that stalks the heirs of an ancient estate – a common enough theme. But her approach to telling the tale sets it apart. Braddon gives us an overview of the action and propels the narrative forward to its climax through a clever plotting device: she haunts the narrator, a close family friend and visitor to the estate, rather than those who ultimately suffer the dire effects of the haunting. Moreover, the narrator is inclined to dismiss such visions as those she sees at Chrighton Abbey. “I was fortunately of a matter-of-fact disposition, utterly skeptical upon the ghost subject . . . .” And so, when supernatural forces appear, as they must, the narrator proves a reluctant and ineffectual prophet and the action moves inevitably toward its climax. At the same time, Braddon skillfully weaves her narrator into the social fabric of the estate so that the details she shares about various players in the drama contribute to a growing sense of foreboding.

Literary journalist Lucasta Miller wrote an insightful article for the Guardian about Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s life and its influence over “Lady Audley’s Secret”. And the Mary Elizabeth Braddon Association’s website contains a wealth of information about the author.

Stories by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Who Was F. Marion Crawford?

Francis Marion Crawford was born into a wealthy and accomplished American family. His father was a talented sculptor and his sister an author of historical novels.  Julia Ward Howe, the famous abolitionist, suffragette, and poet, was his aunt.  At some point during your life, you’ve probably sung (or at least heard) a few lines of her most famous work, The Battle Hymn of the Republic. She wrote that patriotic song during America’s deeply traumatic Civil War and it has been popular ever since. Crawford himself was highly educated, having studied at prestigious universities in England, Germany, Rome and the United States. Among other things, he studied Sanskrit, an ancient and challenging language of India. Moreover, he was a talented vocalist. His sonorous voice nearly led to a career in music. That dream, which his mother shared, ended in deep disappointment when renowned singer and conductor George Henschel told him that he lacked a professional singer’s command of tone.

This episode precipitated a minor crisis.  At the time Henschel offered his professional opinion, Crawford apparently was frittering away his time at his Aunt Julia’s home.  No obvious course lay before him.  And his family was concerned about his future

A nonchalant comment by his uncle, made at this critical time when Crawford himself apparently had no firm ideas regarding what he should do next, set him on the path to lasting fame. “Why don’t you write down that little story you told me some time ago of that strange experience you had in India – don’t you know?” That “little story”, which Crawford titled “Mr. Issacs”, was instantly and enormously successful. He went on to write forty-six more novels as well as dramas, articles and short stories – including some of the English-speaking world’s best-loved ghost stories.

“The Upper Berth” is one of Crawford’s finest short thrillers. His stout-hearted protagonist, Brisbane, books passage for an Atlantic crossing. Brisbane’s many voyages have left him feeling jaded about his trip. Even the prospect of observing whales and spotting icebergs has lost its appeal. And he’s thoroughly unimpressed by, though entirely accustomed to, his bland accommodations. His only consolation is that it appears he’ll have his cabin to himself. So, he can look forward to an uneventful crossing. Of course, we know he can’t be left alone. Brisbane will share his cabin with a bunkmate who will mysteriously disappear and a terrifying, uninvited guest from . . . well, you really should read the story and find out for yourself. For further insight into this creepy, sea-soaked tale, read what the bloggers at, the online fantasy magazine, have to say.

“The Screaming Skull”, F. Marion Crawford’s most anthologized story, is a monologue delivered by a sea captain that moves into a home previously owned by his deceased friend.  The sea winds often moan and howl around this old house by the sea, but there’s something more sinister that disturbs the sailor’s nerves. It seems he’s not alone.  Someone – or something – fills the house with unhallowed wailing. As the captain tells his tale, we begin to wonder whether it will end with a mere haunting or in bloody retribution. There are good reasons for this story’s enduring popularity. Younger readers will find straightforward terrors here. But there’s also depth to satisfy more mature audiences.  For proof, consider that Phyllis Cerf Wagner and Herbert Wise included this story in their wide-ranging anthology, Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural.

Another of F. Marion Crawford’s stories, “For the Blood is the Life”, is particularly interesting because he set it within the walls of his own Italian home!  Although he was an American citizen, Crawford was born in Italy and spent much of his life there.  His extensive knowledge of Italian society served as the basis for no less than twenty of his novels and a number of scholarly nonfiction works.  One of Crawford’s Italian homes was a hulking, square watchtower that still stands on a rocky outcropping of the country’s remote, southwestern coast – the perfect setting for a tale of treasure, unrequited love, murder and vampirism.

The tower where Crawford wrote his vampire tale bears his name as do other locations in Italy.  And he left us scores of novels – some of very high quality. Yet, he best remembered for his Gothic tales.  This is a testament to their lasting power to captivate and terrify.

Stories by F. Marion Crawford

Algernon Blackwood, Author of Ancient Lights and The Willows

“My fundamental interest, I suppose,” wrote Algernon Blackwood, “is signs and proofs of other powers that lie hidden in us all; the extension, in other words, of human faculty. Blackwood’s exploration of these “signs and proofs” in his gothic tales and weird fiction won the admiration of his contemporaries and the praise of modern critics. H. P. Lovecraft wrote, “Of the quality of Mr. Blackwood’s genius there can be no dispute; for no one has even approached the skill, seriousness, and minute fidelity with which he records the overtones of strangeness in ordinary things and experiences, or the preternatural insight with which he builds up detail by detail the complete sensations and perceptions leading from reality into supernormal life or vision.” More recently, Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Dirda, writing for the New York Review of Books, stated that “Blackwood himself is, arguably, the central figure in the British supernatural literature of the twentieth century.”

Though Blackwood would enjoy critical acclaim and rise to worldwide fame, little of his genius was evident in his early life. He was a middling student, a failed dairy farmer and businessman, and a journalist of no great reputation. Blackwood took his first steps on the path to fame when his fascination with the supernatural inspired the publication of a collection of short stories entitled “The Empty House and other Ghost Stories.” His skillful interweaving of nature and the supernatural, and his refined prose found a large, receptive audience.

Blackwood spent much of his free time hiking, skiing, mountain climbing or boating. So it isn’t at all surprising that natural settings figure prominently in his weird fiction. At the opening of “Ancient Lights”, my favorite of his stories, we join a middle-aged clerk in his exuberant walk to a wood that he’ll survey for a client. “He took his hat off and walked rapidly, breathing great draughts of air with delight and exhilaration.” His “heart rose up to meet the mood of Nature.” Of course, nature’s moods are notoriously changeable. And once the intrepid clerk enters the wood, nature conspires with the supernatural to bewilder and disorient.

Blackwood’s most anthologized story is The Willows, a much darker tale. Travelers stranded on a willow-covered island along a remote stretch of the Danube River are beset by malevolent, otherworldly forces and must fight to preserve both their sanity and their lives. The power of the text lies in Blackwood’s skillful and relentless building up of tension.

The beginning of the narrative actually reads like a particularly enchanting nineteenth century travel journal.  The vivid imagery Blackwood uses to evoke the river and surrounding lands must rival the best descriptive travel writing of the period.  Moreover, the characters are so joyful in their journey, that we’re happy to be swept down the river with them, forgetting for a moment that we’ll inevitably encounter unknown terrors.  But once we find ourselves stranded on the island, a vague sense that we have more to worry about than a wild river and a violent storm gives way, little-by-little, to feelings of raw anxiety.  And when Blackwood makes it clear that we’re not alone, we (both Blackwood’s protagonists and his readers) are gradually and deliberately swamped by a visceral mixture of awe and of dread.  All of this is accomplished through meticulous plotting and wonderful story telling.  Which undoubtedly is why many fans of the genre believe The Willows is Blackwood’s most effective short story.

Of course, Blackwood dreamed up many other interesting stories.  But if you set out to read everything this celebrated author wrote, you’ll have your work cut out for you.  To describe him as prolific would somewhat understate his output.  He wrote more than two-hundred short stories, plays and novels! Reading all of that material would take a very long time indeed.  But you’d also face a second, potentially more daunting and less pleasurable task: finding and acquiring it.  After Blackwood’s death, his fame faded, demand for his works fell, and publishers had less incentive to print his stories.  As a result, a lot of his work is out-of-print.  Fortunately, when an author has been as famous (at one point he was well known not only as an author, but also as a radio personality) and as productive as Blackwood, some of his work is bound to survive.  Many of Blackwood’s stories are still published in collections and anthologies and, as you can see, others are scattered about the internet on sites like this one.

You can learn more about Algernon Blackwood in an excellent article written by novelist and short story writer Kate Mosse for the Guardian.

Stories by Algernon Blackwood

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