In Horror Fiction 101, gothic literature was the main focus; haunted castles, far-away lands, powerful landscapes, and heroines running from evil villains. The Castle of Otranto marked the beginning of the genre, and Ann Radcliffe created a whole legacy. As time passed, literature changed. The haunted house remains, but with some alterations and additions, and the hunter’s domain to pursue its victim grows now that it is no longer confined to the four walls of a house. The boundaries between the rational and the supernatural are blurred; evil becomes attractive and impossible to escape, and the hunter and the prey seek each other. Victorian horror dawns.
Horror Fiction 102 will deal with Victorian horror and it will be divided into six different chapters:
Horror Fiction 102: The Phantom Coach by Amelia B. Edwards
The Phantom Coach by Amelia B. Edwards
If there was one thing that Victorians seemed to enjoy more than anything else, it was ghost stories. Gathering around the fire on a cold winter night, and telling stories of ghosts and apparitions under the dim light of gas lamps became a common occurrence in 19th-century England. Short, formulaic, and to the point, papers and magazines realized the genre’s popularity and began publishing many ghost stories, contributing to its success. Even though the most well-known stories were written by men (Charles Dickens, M. R. James, Oscar Wilde), the core body of the genre was most prolific among female writers, one of them being the peculiar Amelia B. Edwards who wrote the classic Victorian ghost tale: The Phantom Coach.
It may seem surprising that 19th-century England, a time for scientific advances and religious revival, became a sort of golden age for ghost stories. However, after a close analysis one would realize that it was almost unavoidable following the social and cultural environment of the time. Due to the arrival of the scientific method of analysis, religion was “held to similar standards and was required to demonstrate its compatibility with cutting-edge research” (Killeen, 2009, p. 177). To adapt to this new way of thinking, the religious discourse of the time had to adjust, and when the gap between science and religion became too great, the supernatural came to play. Science in Victorian England started to advance more rapidly than ever before, and it got to a point where the natural and the supernatural became so intertwined with each other that the line between them was just a blur. The profoundly religious and scientific Victorians became obsessed with the occult, mesmerism, spiritualism, and mediums.
Therefore, those scientific advances that took Victorian society to a whole new level could also be responsible for their interest in the occult and the supernatural. Photography, for example, was often used as proof of the existence of ghosts: people had to stand still for several minutes for a photo, but if someone were to walk slowly while the picture was being taken, it would look like a ghostly figure was passing by. Gas lamps were a new and better option than candles, however, if they were not properly taken care of, they would produce gases that provoked hallucinations. Even the telegraph became a subject for the supernatural because if it could help communication between two people on different sides of the Atlantic, the thought of the dead communicating with the living was not that big of a jump. In fact, in 1848, the sisters Katherine and Margaretta Fox claimed that a dead man was contacting them through a series of taps on the walls of their house (Killeen, 2009, p. 259). Even though the sisters turned out to be a fraud, this created the perfect breeding ground for mesmerism (or animal magnetism, the belief that invisible flows of power could be passed between bodies) and spiritualism (a social religious movement that believed in the possibility of communicating with the dead) (Luckhurst, 2014).
Ghost stories evolved from an element in the narration to a genre on their own. With folkloric origins, ghosts became popular in Elizabethan and Jacobean plays as a device to represent an individual’s guilt or to serve as moral examples, like in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. However, in the early 1900s, ghosts in Gothic fiction were no longer meant to teach any moral lessons; their purpose was to frighten and horrify, contributing to the eerie and supernatural atmosphere of the novels (Freeman, 2012, p. 94), like in Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. However, in the late 19th century, Victorians noticed the potential of a ghost story on its own and created a whole genre around it. They realized that it worked better as a short story, avoiding any unnecessary explanation that could diminish the effect of the story. The authors focused on a single event in the past so traumatic that its victims were trapped in an infinite loop, doomed to repeat the same action over and over again. For the Victorians, it meant that, in a world that moved too fast and away from their control, a single event of someone’s personal history could have “cosmic effects, that private betrayal can open up a chasm in the cosmic order that requires correction” (Killeen, 2009, p. 719).
In The Phantom Coach, published in 1864, Amelia B. Edwards tells the story of a man who gets lost in the Yorkshire moors and seeks refuge in the house of a scholar that has been marginalised by the scientific community due to his interest in the occult. While trying to get home to his wife, the protagonist catches the only coach, the Mail. However, he soon realizes that the coach is in fact the same one that crashed and fell over a precipice nine years prior. Following the typical Victorian formula for ghost tales, Edwards writes a story whose sole focus is the ghostly apparition with no extra scenes where the story could lose its momentum. However, as often happens in horror fiction, there is more to the story than just a scary ghost: scholars have made a connection between the marginalised scholar and the phantom coach plunging into darkness (Killeen, 2009, p. 194). The scholar makes a point in the story to explain how the scientific community rejected any mention of the occult in their circles. But if the Phantom Coach is a reality, then scientists are ignoring a whole area of study, and like the coach, they are doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
However, the personality of Amelia B. Edwards has prompted scholars to go a little further with the analysis of The Phantom Coach. Apart from her horror stories, Amelia B. Edwards was also a renowned expert on Ancient Egypt. She wrote the entry on “Egyptology” in the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. She was also known for preferring female companions in her travels, and for encouraging women authors to publish their work. Following these lines, the marginalisation of the occult scientist can be understood in a new light. The science of the occult in Victorian England was related to the female sphere, since women were believed to have certain abilities or a special sensibility towards the supernatural. Men, on the other hand, acted as sceptics arguing that the information extracted from ghosts was useless and of very little interest. Therefore, those female abilities contributed to the belief that women were not entitled to any social or political rights, not even a proper education. As feminist scholar Diana Basham explains, “if the ghosts speaking through mediums had nothing of significance to say, perhaps the women through whom they spoke or appeared had nothing important to add to society either.” (Killeen, 2009, p. 192). Femininity and marginalisation are connected in The Phantom Coach, Edwards is warning not just the scientific community but Victorian society in general of the deadly consequences of ignoring and denying space for the female discourse.
It was during the Victorian era that ghost stories were at their most prolific. The new scientific advances and the effect they had on the Christian religion created a gap in people's faith that needed to be covered, and the supernatural fitted perfectly. Spirits, mediums, energy flows, ghosts… the Victorians were weirdly obsessed with the occult and it was reflected in horror fiction. In plain sight, The Phantom Coach may seem like one of many Victorian ghost stories published at the time. However, a close analysis will reveal its importance as a social critique. The occult was relegated to the female sphere, where it could remain ignored by the male circles in society. Nonetheless, Amelia B. Edwards warned them that unless they wanted to follow the same path as the phantom coach, men cannot ignore the female discourse forever or the consequences would be grim.
Freeman, N. (2012). "The Victorian Ghost Story." The Victorian Gothic: An Edinburgh Companion. Edinburgh University Press. Edinburgh, United Kingdom.
Frye, L. T. (1998). "The Ghost Story and the Subjection of Women: The Example of Amelia Edwards, M. E. Braddon, and E. Nesbit." Victorians Institute Journal, 26, pp. 167–209. Penn State University Press. Pennsylvania, United States.
Killeen, J. (2009). Gothic Literature 1825-1914. Gothic Literary Studies. University of Wales Press. Cardiff. United Kingdom.
Luckhusrt, R. (2014). The Victorian Supernatural. British Library. https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-victorian-supernatural
Edwards, A. B. (2014). "The Phantom Coach." The Phantom Coach: A Connoisseur's Collection of the Best Victorian Ghost Stories. Bloomsbury. New York. United States.
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