Monday, October 17, 2011

"The Haunters and the Haunted," by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (he of "It was a dark and stormy night" fame) tells a variation on the classic ghost story form of the haunted house dare: a person (almost always a young man) tries to be the first to last out the night in a haunted house that has sent all previous residents screaming out the door within hours. In Bulwer-Lytton's version, the house is definitely of that caliber, but the decision to stay the night is less the usual dare--there's no counterparty and no prize--than a bit of ordinary Victorian English derring-do.

And its oh-so-late Victorian aspect is what brings out the story's best moment, as the narrator, having secured from the landlord the right to make the attempt, heads home:
Impatient for the experiment, as soon as I reached home I summoned my confidential servant--a young man of gay spirits, fearless temper, and as free from superstitious prejudice as anyone I could think of.

"F-----," said I, "you remember in Germany how disappointed we were at not finding a ghost in that old castle which was said to be haunted by a headless apparition? Well, I have heard of a house in London which, I have reason to hope, is decidedly haunted. I mean to sleep there to-night. From what I hear, there is no doubt that something will allow itself to be seen or to be heard--something perhaps excessively horrible. Do you think, if I take you with me, I may rely on your presence of mind, whatever may happen?"

"Oh, sir; pray trust me!" said he, grinning with delight.

"Very well then, here are the keys of the house; this is the address. Go now, select for me any bedroom you please; and since the house has not been inhabited for weeks, make up a good fire, air the bed well; see, of course, that there are candles as well as fuel. Take with you my revolver and my dagger--so much for my weapons--arm yourself equally well; and if we are not a match for a dozen ghosts, we shall be but a sorry couple of Englishmen."
Ah, for such a confidential servant! I know that life in service was not all ghost-hunts and Wooster-wrangling, that the power relations between master and servant could get ugly (and as a side note: if you've not read Alison Light's Mrs. Woolf and the Servants, you should seek it out immediately; it's one of the most impressive, insightful, and even moving works of social history and biography I know), but admit it: isn't that combination of decisiveness and enthusiasm alluring? When you add in that the narrator also takes his favorite dog--"an exceedingly sharp, bold, and vigilant bull-terrier, a dog fond of prowling about strange ghostly corners and passages at night in search of rats, a dog of dogs for a ghost"--and that of course he keeps his revolver and dagger close to hand . . . well, I at least find myself wishing I had a haunted house to explore and a gentleman's gentleman to lead the way.

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