Vernon Lee’s 1890 collection Hauntings brought together four novella-length short stories about ghosts. The problem with many ghostly tales is that ghosts (compared to other creatures of nightmare) don’t really do all that much, so some ghost stories (even by much-admired practitioners of the form like M. R. James) end up being a little flat and uninteresting. A truly interesting and successful ghost story (in my view) has to focus on the people being haunted, on the effects that ghosts or the belief in ghosts have on the living. These four stories by Vernon Lee are perfect examples of the right way to do the ghost story. In fact they’re among the best I’ve ever read.
Amour Dure concerns a Polish historian in Italy researching the life of an infamous and wicked woman, a lady who brought about the destruction of every man who loved her, including a succession of princely husbands and lovers. The historian becomes obsessed with this woman who had died three hundred years earlier, and convinces himself he is to be her latest lover, and her latest victim.
Dionea is a mysterious girl found washed ashore after a shipwreck. Brought up by nuns, she seems to have the power to command love. Not to make people love her, but to drive them insane with their love for the objects of their desires.
In Oke of Okehampton; Or, The Phantom Lover a painter is staying at a wonderful old house in Kent, a house that appears to be straight out of a period of history several centuries in the past. The lady of the house bears an uncanny resemblance to an ancestress, a woman involved in a scandalous love affair with a dashing Cavalier poet, a love affair culminating in murder. Her husband is consumed by jealousy, jealousy of a man who lived three centuries ago.
A Wicked Voice is the tale of a composer haunted by the music of the eighteenth century, and by the exquisite voice of a singer of that period who reputedly sang so beautifully his songs could (quite literally) kill with their beauty.
Vernon Lee’s ghosts are ambiguous. They have the power to cause death or madness, but whether they actually exist or nor remains uncertain. This type of ambiguous ghost story is certainly not unique to Vernon Lee, but I don’t think anybody else has employed this formula with so much skill and subtlety, so much atmosphere, and so much psychological insight.
There’s a gothic tinge to these tales, but there’s also more than a hint of decadence. Her characters are over-civilised and over-sensitive. They are peculiarly vulnerable to emotional vibrations from the past, to the sense of history in old places, to the emanations of old houses, old books, old pictures. Vernon Lee has now displaced Sheridan le Fanu as my favourite 19th century teller of uncanny tales.
I urge you to seek out her stories, most of which are now public domain and fairly easily found online.