When I started Wuthering Expectations I had wondered what kind of schedule I could keep. But I always knew I could just write about short stories, just read one and get writin’. I swore, though, that I would only resort to such desperate measures when – no, I thought I would do it all the time. I don’t know why I don’t do it more. I had been planning to spend much of this week writing about Walter Pater, for pity's sake. Random English short stories: much easier.
So I am still in A. S. Byatt’s Oxford Book of English Short Stories. Long ago, I wrote a little post wondering about the dearth of famous 19th century English short stories. Compared to U.S. literature at the same time, I mean – Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, James, those folks. Or Russian, French, or German literature. The English, like the Americans, had magazines, and those magazine published fictional stories of various lengths and qualities. They published such stories by famous writers, famous then, or now, or both. Yet the British stories have always had a lower status, kept off in the margins as if they are second-rate compared to the best novels, which, in my experience, they mostly are until Stevenson and especially Kipling came along in the 1880s. I have read more of the relevant pool of stories since I wrote that old post, but I have not solved the puzzle.
I do not know if it is coincidence, but I believe Kipling’s “’Wireless’” is the most famous or studied story that Byatt, who is deliberately on the lookout for oddities and obscurities, includes in the Oxford book, unless “The Haunted House” (1859) by Charles Dickens counts. “Today, ‘The Haunted House of 1859’ is one of the attractions at Dickens World in Chatham in Kent” – if that’s not fame, what is.
One of the bedrooms is haunted by the ghost of young Master B., who was done in because he rang the bell while the owl hooted (the house is also haunted by an “’ooded woman with a howl”). The sensible narrator, assigned to that room, is “uneasy” about the initial.
I also carried the mysterious letter into the appearance and pursuits of the deceased; wondering whether he dressed in Blue, wore Boots (he couldn’t have been Bald), was a boy of Brains, liked Books, was good at Bowling, had any skill as a Boxer, even in his Buoyant Boyhood Bathed from a Bathing-machine at Bognor, Bangor, Bournemouth, Brighton, or Broadstairs, like a Bounding Billiard Ball?
So, from the first, I was haunted by the letter B. (34)
The ghost story, as readers of Wuthering Expectations are well aware, is an inherently comic genre. This one takes a strange turn, though, into a genuinely sentimental childhood story, in which an elaborate schoolchild game based on The Arabian Nights is shattered by the intrusion of real death and poverty. At the new (“cold, bare”) school
I never whispered in that wretched place that I had been Haroun or had had a Seraglio: for, I knew that if I mentioned my reverses, I should be so worried, that I should have to drown myself in the muddy pond near the playground, which looked like the beer. (42)
“The Haunted House” is part of a frame story for a separate anthology with contributions by Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell and others, at least one of whom may have written a story more appealing to true fans of ghost stories, in which the ghost is not just a metaphor for the losses we all suffer, but surely less appealing to me, so I will not check.