The Victorian Ghost Hunter’s Casebook, the newest release from Brom Bones Books, is available for purchase at the mighty Amazons in the U.S., the UK, and Canada. I spent several years collecting the chronicles of actual ghost hunts that make up this book. There are fourteen cases in all. Most took place in Britain. However, there’s one Irish haunting — investigated when Ireland was still under the thumb of the United Kingdom — and the Appendix spotlights two American investigations from the mid-1800s.
Here’s the first paragraph of my Introduction:
What makes ghosts and the Victorian era (1837-1901) such fitting companions? It might be the elegant architecture of the houses—those fancy cornices and cupolas—that make them seem especially suitable for haunting. It might be that some of the greatest supernatural stories ever written—from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897)—are steeped in Victorian customs, costumes, and cultural concerns. Is it because photography arose during this period and those often-expressionless faces have crept into our twenty-first century consciousness as spectral visages of people long dead? Or was it all simply the mental effects of gas leaking from the lights?
I go on to discuss how, following a period of strong skepticism among intellectuals and the press, a more open-minded inquiry into the reality of ghosts emerged around 1840. At first, this movement was spurred by religious leaders who saw confirmation of ghostly visitations as a counterbalance to rampant materialism. With time, gusty scientists took up the baton. Mingling among them were fiction writers — ghost hunts conducted by Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle are included in the book — along with journalists, at least one travel writer, and at least two clairvoyants. Some of the cases involve investigators facing truly perplexing evidence of otherworldly phenomena. Others end with fairly convincing proof that the alleged haunting was much ado about nothing. In a few cases, a pair of ghost hunters disagree on exactly what they discovered.Here’s a quick outline of the Casebook’s contents:
- Case 1 offers an early account of two men brave enough to explore a room that casts an eerie, life-draining light.
- Case 2 presents two chronicles of an investigation of the famous haunted house at Willington, England. Here’s the first instance of two ghost hunters disagreeing about what they experienced.
- Case 3 reprints a narration of the only ghost hunt conducted by Catherine Crowe, author of The Night-Side of Nature, which is one of most important compendiums of “true” ghost stories ever written.
- Case 4 gives readers three interrelated chronicles about encounters with gnome-like spirits. These entities assist miners during the day and, wrapped in light, walk through walls to enjoy their company at night. I found this to be one of the most bizarre yet engaging chapters in the book.
- Case 5 is about a controversy inadvertently inflamed by Charles Dickens, after he attempted to locate a house alleged to be haunted. (Or was it inadvertent? Was it all a publicity stunt to promote his latest publication: The Haunted House?)
- Case 6 involves a poltergeist reputed to be plaguing in an Irish cottage.
- Case 7 displays how, back in the day, the Society for Psychical Research handled an examination of a potentially haunted house.
- Case 8 presents an essay that uses the writer’s investigation of haunted Hampton Court Palace as a touchstone to discuss prominent theories of ghosts. I was especially fascinated by the theory that ghosts are a product of telepathy — maybe between the living and the dead — instead of manifestations of earthbound spirits.
- Case 9 is similar to Case 2 in that it showcases two very different views of a ghost hunt. This time, though, one of the investigators if none other than Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes!
- Case 10 illustrates how journalists were occasionally called upon to act as ghost hunters. The article’s topic is a castle in Wales where, once upon a time, ghosts were reported to roam.
- Case 11 involves a travel writer journeying to a rural village to achieve his life-long goal: to witness a ghost!
- Case 12 is set in Torquay, England, and tells a captivating yet unsettling story about a probe into a haunted house there. The events of this chronicle occurred somewhat after the Victorian period, but the chronicle reveals how the practices and theories of that period survived into the 20th century.
- The Appendix offers two American ghost hunts, one near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the other close to Richmond, Virginia. Though neither leads to substantial discoveries, both captivating chronicles reveal the hurdles that thwarted ghost hunters of earlier years.
It’s become a cliché to look back at previous eras and say “it was a simpler time.” However, Victorian ghost hunters faced many of the very same challenges as those who conduct paranormal investigations today. In fact, those earlier efforts were made all the more complex without the handy gizmos used in our era. How many people would pursue this activity if — instead of EVP recorders, EMF meters, and night-vision cameras — their equipment was limited to a couple of candles, a lot of patience, a book to keep them awake, and perhaps a flask of brandy to steady their nerves?
Okay, probably quite a few people.
Just the same, whether one believes in or scoffs at the reality of ghosts, there’s a lot to admire about the dedication exhibited by the Victorians whose ghost hunts comprise this book. More details and links to buy your copy are available on the page for The Victorian Ghost Hunter’s Casebook.