The very special Halloween weekend episode of Tales Told When the Windows Rattle features my reading of Algernon Blackwood’s “A Case of Eavesdropping.” It’s the first of the author’s four Jim Shorthouse tales. Or, at least, what I think most folks would agree is the first story in terms of Shorthouse’s growth as an occult detective.
This one — and another Shorthouse story titled “The Empty House” — both focus on what seem to be cases of residual haunting. These are not ghosts who can be convinced to move on or who can be compelled to leave the haunted site for more suitable digs. Rather, they involve an emotionally charged scene that comes embedded in the actual physicality of the house itself. Back in 1912, Robert Hugh Benson described the phenomena as “like music in a phonograph” in that the original scene is replayed over and over and over, presumably whether or not there’s someone around to experience it. That fact puts an occult detective character in a tricky spot. What is one to do to end the haunting? In both of Blackwood’s stories, Shorthouse really doesn’t do much of anything. I mean — other than leave.
Vera Van Slyke faces something like this in “A Burden that Burns,” which is one of the interwoven chronicles in Help for the Haunted. Here, the haunting is ended, though. You see, back in the 1760s, a solider reluctantly decided to set a fire, following his conscience instead of following orders. Ever since, that distraught soldier’s spirit has been caught in a cycle of starting new fires on the same spot. This is compared to making a phone call over and over and over. All one needs to do, then, is pick up the receiver and let the ghost know he did right to defy orders all those years ago. As I say, not quite the same thing. After all, the Vera chronicles focus on how guilt can haunt us as horribly and as persistently as any ghost.
And this fits nicely with “At Ravenholme Junction,” which isn’t a piece of occult detection. Rather, it’s a more traditional ghost story, one I’ll be reading on Tales Told later in the season. In this 1876 tale, the scene of an overworked railway signalman making a mistake that led to a terrible train wreck is reenacted on every anniversary of that event. Like the soldier in “The Burden that Burns,” the railroad worker was tortured by guilt, giving a psychological twist to the haunting.
I hope to delve into the history of residual hauntings, since they appear to be fundamentally different from those involving the ghost/spirit of someone who has unfinished business or who otherwise clings to the material world. So far, I know that Benson did a great job of explaining the phenomena in 1912. In fact, for his efforts on this topic, he was recently granted Honorable Mention at the Ghost Hunter Hall of Fame. You can read about that here.
Meanwhile, Blackwood’s Jim Shorthouse series is included in From Eerie Cases to Early Graves: 5 Short-Lived Occult Detective Series, and you can discover more about that here. The page for Help for the Haunted: A Decade of Vera Van Slyke Ghostly Mysteries is here. “At Ravenholme Junction” is in After the End of the Line: Railroad Hauntings in Literature and Lore, the details of which are here. And it doesn’t have to be Halloween for you to enjoy these books!