Sabine Baring-Gould was a man of numerous talents. He was an Anglican priest, a respected archaeologist, a folklorist, and one of the most prolific writers of both fiction and non-fiction of the Victorian era. There are more than twelve hundred publications listed in his bibliography, and his works enjoyed a substantial readership during the second half of the nineteenth century; he was considered one of the top ten novelists of his day. A contemporary provincial newspaper said of him, 'There can hardly have been a moment of Baring-Gould's life which was not in one way or another turning itself into 'copy' of some kind, and occasionally into copy that is destined to a long popularity' (quoted in the Western Gazette, 8th of June 1906, in a premature obituary ~ but that's another story, and one which I'll come back to in a future post). Sadly, the newspaper was wrong. Nowadays most people have never heard of Baring-Gould or his books and articles, and if he is remembered at all it is usually for the hymns that he wrote, especially 'Onward, Christian Soldiers'.
A Book of Ghosts was published by Methuen in October 1904, one month before M. R. James' Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. It sold out almost straight away, and a second edition was put out in the December of the same year, just in time for the usual Christmas rush. The illustrations for the book were produced by the Scottish artist David Murray Smith (three of which I've included below). Extremely popular when it first appeared, A Book of Ghosts has been somewhat neglected ever since; before the appearance of the Ash-Tree Press limited edition in 1996, it had been republished in its entirety only once (in a limited run by Books for Libraries Press, in 1969).
The Spectator reviewed A Book of Ghosts in its issue of the 3rd of December 1904, but it was less than complimentary. It accused Baring-Gould of creating ghosts that were 'easy, familiar, and therefore disgusting'. According to the reviewer, 'Mr. Baring-Gould apparently takes an exceedingly low view of the human soul, and he shows it as concerned after death with the most trivial affairs, and as a slave to its place of burial.' The reviewer did not find the ghosts alarming, and reassured readers that A Book of Ghosts 'may be read even late at night without any unpleasant consequences'. It is true that the ghosts themselves aren't likely to frighten the life out of any modern reader, but some of the tales are quite creepy, and I find it hard to believe that the reverend intended to frighten anyone when writing several of his stories. His spooks are often very human, full of character, and very entertaining. His apparitions are not the malevolent spectres of M. R. James.
For example, in 'McAlister', the narrator, whilst taking a drop of whisky in a French churchyard, is confronted by the ghost of Captain Alister McAlister of Auchimachie, the upper half of whom is perched atop a wall (his legs having been interred in Scotland). The narrator tells us:
'Having somewhat recovered from my astonishment, I was able to take a further look at him, and could not restrain a laugh. He so much resembled Humpty Dumpty, who, as I had learned in childhood, did sit on a wall.'
Being confronted by an apparition in a graveyard doesn't appear to disturb the narrator in the slightest. As is generally the case in Baring-Gould's stories, spooks are quickly accepted as being spooks, they are conversed with as though such a thing is absolutely commonplace, and they rarely seem to incite fear in the narrator of the tale, so it's not surprising that they don't inspire any in the reader. As McAlister explains how his lower half came to be interred in Scotland, the narrator asks if his body was embalmed. McAlister responds:
'Embalmed! no. There was no one in Bayonne who knew how to do it. There was a bird-stuffer in the Rue Pannceau, but he had done nothing larger than a seagull.'
In 'H. P.', an archaeologist finds himself trapped in a cave with the ghost of a man killed eight thousand years earlier. 'H. P.', as the ghost is named by the narrator, 'stands for Homo Praehistoricus, not for House-Parlourmaid or Hardy Perennial'. H. P. objects to having his bones transferred to a museum on the grounds that spirits cannot travel far from their mortal remains and he is no great fan of museums. Being stuck inside one would be an insufferable torture. He prefers the conversation of commercial travellers to scientists, so he wants to remain buried beneath a tavern. The ghost, being determined to point out the unfair advantages afforded a man living in the modern age, proceeds to share details of prehistoric life. His description of the invention of butter is hilarious. On the subject or getting milk from a reindeer, H. P. tells the narrator, 'whenever we desired a fresh draught there was nothing for it but to lie flat on the ground under a doe reindeer and suck for all we were worth.' This is not dialogue intended to chill the reader's blood.
'Glámr' is a different matter. There'd be nothing to laugh about if you found yourself alone with him after dark. Glámr is actually a character from the Icelandic Grettis saga; a godless Swedish stranger who is killed, becomes undead, then wreaks havoc upon the household who once employed him. Baring-Gould refers to him as a vampire in the story, but he was actually a draugr, an animated corpse capable of swelling to an immense size.
I found 'A Dead Finger' to be very creepy for the most part. A man visiting the National Gallery takes home more than he expects and finds himself the victim of a dead, but very animated, finger. The tale lost its chill when the spectre began to speak, which it did right at the very end, but the descriptions of the finger itself, and what it did to its intended victim, were very chilling.
'The finger was attached to a hand that was curdling into matter and in process of acquiring solidity; attached to the hand was an arm in a very filmy condition, and this arm belonged to a human body in a still more vapourous, immaterial condition. This was being dragged along the floor by the finger, just as a silkworm might pull after it the tangle of its web.'
There are twenty-two tales in total, one of which, 'A Professional Secret', has nothing approaching a ghost in it, and some of the stories are more successful than others. The least successful of the lot is 'The Mother of Pansies', in which a young woman keen to avoid motherhood enlists the services of a witch and destroys her unborn children before they are even conceived. Whilst keeping watch over her husband's dead body, the woman, Anna Arler, is visited throughout the night by the ghosts of children who could have been, not unlike Scrooge's Christmas visitations but without the chance for redemption. There is too much moralising in the tale to make it enjoyable.
Left: "Mammy," said he. "Mammy, my violin cost three shillings and sixpence, and I can't make it play noways," from 'Little Joe Gander'. Right: "I believe that they are talking goody, goody," from 'A Happy Release'.
To my mind, the humorous tales are more successful than those intended to be serious. 'The Merewigs' is very funny. It includes a ghost who rips open his victim's nightclothes in order to hunt for moles, and the dialogue between the narrator and his boating companion is very entertaining. And the first story of the collection, 'Jean Bouchon', is also funny. In it, a long dead waiter makes a nuisance of himself at a Paris café by pilfering all the tips. If I had to choose a favourite, it would be a toss up between 'Jean Bouchon' and 'H. P.', and the caveman's description of prehistoric butter making might just swing it the latter's way.
Fine copies of the first edition of A Book of Ghosts appear to be going for anything between five and seven hundred pounds at the moment (that's about $850-1200). The Ash-Tree Press edition, which is long out of print, sells for £120-150 ($200-255) in fine condition; this includes two stories that were not in the original edition: 'A Dead Man's Teeth', which was published in Monsieur Pichelmere in 1905, and 'The Old Woman of Wesel', which was published in Cornhill magazine in June 1905. There are a few Kindle ebooks that cost up to a couple of pounds, but I can't recommend any one in particular, as I haven't road tested them. There's also The Collected Supernatural and Weird Fiction of Sabine Baring-Gould, which is published by Leonaur. It doesn't include 'Jean Bouchon', 'The Red-Haired Girl' and 'A Dead Finger', but it adds seven other stories (including Baring-Gould's vampire tale, 'Margery of Quether', which was first published in 1891).