That’s how I came across Elliott O’Donnell’s classic horror volume, Scottish Ghost Stories. Turns out that O’Donnell was a turn-of-the-last-century ghost hunter, and quite a celebrity in his time. He even had a radio show about paranormal phenomenon at one point. The R.I.P. VI Challenge, hosted by Carl V. at Stainless Steel Droppings, was looming, and I wanted to include something aside from mysteries in my list this year, so I downloaded it on impulse. It wound up being an enjoyable read, but probably not for the reasons that O’Donnell intended.
Scottish Ghost Stories purports to be a collection of true hauntings, either experienced by O’Donnell himself or relayed to him by reliable sources, all taking place in Scotland. The book was written in 1911, and has a real Victorian sensibility, very descriptive and melodramatic:
And soon there stole upon me a sensation to which I had been hitherto an utter stranger – I became afraid. An irrepressible tremor pervaded my frame, my teeth chattered, my blood froze. Obeying an impulse – an impulse I could not resist, I lifted myself up from the pillows, and, peering fearfully into the shadowy glow that lay directly in front of me – listened. Why I listened I do not know, saving that an instinctive spirit prompted me. At first I could hear nothing, and then, from a direction I could not define, there came a noise, low, instinctive, uninterpretative…Dreading to think what it might be, and seized with a wild sentiment of self-preservation, I made frantic endeavours to get out of bed and barricade my door. My limbs, however, refused to move. I was paralysed.Kindle Location 1775 of 1905It suddenly struck me while reading it that O’Donnell’s book represents the Victorian equivalent of reality TV! Like the producers of shows like “Paranormal State,” O’Donnell’s narrative makes it clear that ghosts can be found in the most unlikely places – and the reader may well be the next victim! There are some great period touches in that regard. For example, in most cases O’Donnell only gives the neighborhood of the occurrences he’s detailing, not the actual addresses of them, presumably to protect the current property owners who may be trying to foist their ghostly tenants on some other unsuspecting homebuyers – quite an interesting touch, I thought. There are also routines associated with the haunting, such as the forcing of the haunted to act against their will, and paralysis of victims that make it impossible to flee the terrifying apparitions they describe later, that recur in the stories.
From the standpoint of the challenge, the book did provide a couple of mildly perilous moments. But the truth is I found it most interesting as an artifact of its time – and a sort of verification that the current fascination with “true crime” and other “reality” genres has historical antecedents. I think lovers of Victorian literature should really consider taking a look at this book, as it represents a very popular genre in its time that we now commonly overlook – non-fiction. But it would also be of interest to those who are interested in the evolution of the horror genre, especially “true horror.” And if you’re kind of wimpy about horror, this is a good introduction – this is definitely not a book of the Stephen King, nightmare inducing kind! I’m certainly glad I happened upon it, and that I finally got to read a ghost story for this year’s R.I.P. VI Challenge. So thanks again to Carl V. for hosting – this is my second R.I.P. Challenge, and I can already see why it’s a highlight of autumn for so many book bloggers!