Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is best known for his classic novels like Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities. But he is also fondly remembered for writing quite a few ghost stories. His most famous ghost story of all, of course, is A Christmas Carol (1843), featuring the tale of miserly old Ebenezer Scrooge, who is chastened towards a more benevolent nature by the visitation of three ghosts on Christmas Eve.
Unlike his more lengthy works, Dickens’s ghost stories – often written quite swiftly – tend to be less hyperbolic and hardly meticulously plotted, but more limited in style, and less enriched with dramatic detail. He frequently published his ghost stories in Households Words and All The Year Round.
Dickens always regarded ghost stories as especially suitable for telling around the Christmas period. We all know how hugely successful – and so unforgettable – A Christmas Carol was. His other outstanding ghost story, “The Haunted Man and The Ghost’s Bargain” (1848), is a fascinating piece of work. In this tale, a ghost bestows the gift of forgetting all past grievances, and those affected find their memory loss makes them inhuman, without limits to other people and without ability to forgive. Dickens was always keen to encourage other writers to produce stories of the supernatural for the yuletide season.
Dickens’s usual type of ghost story – devoid of all humour and any great concentration on moral reasoning – were written for the Christmas extra issues of 1865 and 1866. In “The Trial for Murder”, the spirit of a murdered man appears to one of the jurors to ensure that the killer is punished. In “The Signal Man” (which is a popular Dickens tale in the “A Ghost Story for Christmas” TV series, often shown at Christmas time), a railway worker in a desolate station keeps seeing a phantom warning him of fatal accidents which are about to occur on the line.
Dickens had always held a strong fascination for the supernatural, although he did have some scepticism. A few of his stories actually ridiculed the paranormal. For instance, in “The Lawyer and The Ghost”, a story that runs through The Pickwick Papers (1836-1837), a ghost is asked why he haunts a place that makes him so depressed when he could go somewhere more comfortable with better weather. And in “The Haunted House” (1859), a man who receives spirit messages is sent misspelt homilies. And in “Well Authenticated Rappings”, incredible visitations are traced to hangovers and heartburn. Yet despite this touch of cynicism, Dickens claimed to have seen his dead mother and beloved sister-in-law, Mary, in a night vision that was something much than just a dream. He also wrote about seeing an apparition of his father (who was then still alive) standing by his bed early in the morning. When he reached out to touch his father’s shoulder, the apparition vanished.
Dickens published the “Four Ghost Stories” in 1861, and one of them was the story of an artist who paints a dead girl’s portrait after seeing her ghost. Dickens then received a letter from a painter who claimed that the incident had actually happened to him. Dickens then published the man’s own story in the next issue of his magazine. In letters that Dickens subsequently wrote to his acquaintances, it was quite clear that he believed the painter’s story.
In “The Uncommercial Traveller” (1860), Dickens wrote that the spooky stories related to him in childhood by his nurse had had a lasting effect. Certain critics have recognised a direct link between Dickens’s later work and the stories told by the nurse. Dickens himself also stated that these tales “acquired an air of authentication that impaired my digestive powers for life.”
Despite Dickens’s reservations about the actual existence of ghosts, there is no doubt that when it came to telling a real good ghost story – especially those centred around a snowy Christmas atmosphere – he certainly knew how to entertain, and spook, his readers.