A Book Report on Mark Rees’ Ghosts of Wales: Accounts from the Victorian Archives

About four miles from Fishguard, in a narrow valley called Cwm Gwaun, is an old church with a large burial grounds, with a footpath through the middle. Although it was . . . a haunted place [some fifty years ago], people would take the footpath in preference to the road. The spirits of the dead lying in that consecrated ground seem to claim the graveyard as their abode.

This is from an article published in the Pontypridd Chronicle on December 30, 1898. The report involves a man named Harri’r Cwman who, “under the influence of Sir John” — meaning he was intoxicated — wandered home along that footpath through the cemetery. Despite it being night-time, “he observed a funeral procession marching through the gateway. . . .” The drunk man sat on a tombstone, quickly sobered up, and realized he might be witnessing something supernatural. Yet he recognized the spirits to be his living neighbors, and he reasoned that the spectral figures were not those of what was but of what would be! Indeed, the reporter explains, “The person whose coffin appeared in an apparition was in a short time carried to the very grave where Harri had seen it laid, and the persons forming the procession appeared in the funeral as forseen by the farmer of Cwm Gwaun.”

Mark Rees includes this with a wide variety of other ghost reports in Ghosts of Wales: Accounts from the Victorian Archives (2017). Eerily, this book has remarkable similarities to my own Spectral Edition: Ghost Reports from U.S. Newspapers, 1865-1917. Both collect authentic reports about a variety of hauntings from newspaper archives. Both organize those reports into chapters on haunted houses, haunted grounds, and so forth. Both end with a chapter on hauntings that were revealed to have perfectly, if disappointingly, physical explanations. And, since both were released in 2017, it seems that both were being assembled simultaneously — more than an ocean apart from each other. Weird.

But there are differences, too. I have a detailed general Introduction and brief introductions to each chapter. I let the American articles stand on their own, reprinting them in full. While Rees quotes at length from the Welsh articles, he acts as more of a tour guide, inspersing those long quotations with his own summary and commentary. Ghosts of WalesAlong with the strange tale of Harri’r Cwman, readers will read about a two-headed ghost in Abersychen; the ghost wearing armor, spotted between Brecon and Builth; poltergeist activity experienced at Hafod; a phantom woman in white in Cardiff; and the spectral train that charged by a farmer in Carmarthenshire. This last encounter was another vision of coming events, but instead of a death, this one foretold the ground-tremors and whistle-shrieks that would be experienced by locals only after the South Wales Railway had laid tracks through the area.

Always pleased to extend my own knowledge of ghostlore, I was particularly fascinated by the book’s treatment of corpse candles — a cross between those portents of the future and will-o’-the-wisp — a banshee of sorts but without the irksome caterwauling. More indirectly, Rees’s book also led me to the National Library of Wales’ archive of newspapers, which is free to use online. I’ve already used it for researching ghosts and for investigating my Welsh heritage! (Buy me a beer sometime, and I’ll tell you about my Carmarthen ancestors who were born and raised on the same street and wound up getting married at the cathedral just up the way.)

Ghosts of Wales: Accounts from the Victorian Archives is quaintly creepy, enlightening, and fun. I highly recommend it (and, ahem, it fits especially cozily next to Spectral Edition, my own anthology of spooky news.)

— Tim

More of my “book reports” on works exploring the history of ghosts can be found here:

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