In the shadow: Many legends of old houses and their spirits
Gilbert Chesterton proclaims his mysticism, so nobody ought to be surprised to find Katharine Tynan talking about haunted houses in his weekly, “The New Witness.”
“It may be stated as a broad fact that all houses once inhabited and standing empty are haunted houses, haunted by those who have lived in them and their deeds, and standing in the same relation to those who have gone out of them as the corpse does to the spirit which has left it. We are all afraid of emptiness at the core of us. You know the eeriness of echoing footsteps in an empty house. Nothing tenanted has so much power to daunt us unless it be a grave.
“In an empty house, we are in the midst of a void. In the fields or woods at night we are in the thick of life, and the heaven above us is populated with suns and worlds. Wherefore to spend a night out of doors is far from being as terrifying an experience even to the nervous as a night in an empty house.
“You will find that most haunted houses are houses that have long stood empty, and from the mere terrifying fact of their emptiness has sprung in time a whole mass of myth and legend.
“But apart from that, there are houses which affect one curiously, from which as soon as the door is opened a strange breath comes out to tell you, ‘This house is haunted.’ You may sometimes savor it in a red brick villa which could have had only one or two occupations. You will not savor it at all in certain old country houses of great age, where people have lived and loved and suffered and died, and sinned and repented for many generations. You will not savor something wholesome and sweet by which one conjectures that the house, if it has had the common lot and harbored sinners as well as saints, has been washed clean by many prayers.
“Sometimes a living personality will influence a house as much for the time as the dead folk who have gone out of it. Such a one died some years ago in an English manor house, an old lady well on in the eighties. She breathed all the enchanted fragrance of Shakespeare’s England, without the shadows and discords which are lost for us in the play of lights and the full chorus. She was descended from a great Elizabethan. While she lived in the beautiful old house, the garden with its pleached alleys and the fish pond were but her setting. The frame from which she stepped forth must be sadly changed today.
“Not so far away is a house giving on a riverside street, a house which was there when Shakespeare lived, under whose cedars, upon whose lawns the great Elizabethan procession laughed and talked and walked — a beautiful old house, and the gardens inviolate to this day; but as you enter its doors the thing that comes forth to meet you is evil. The house belonged to a king’s mistress, of a quite exceptional dissoluteness and cruelty. Her picture is fixed in the wall at the head of a staircase — a wild, laughing, beautiful thing with floating curls, decollete as only Sir Peter Lely’s sitters were. She had been so evil to all who loved her that the king who undertook her must have been as reckless as His Satanic Majesty. Kate the queen comes from her picture frame at times to glide by the young and whisper evil in their ears, and when that happens may the good angel of the one she whispers to be vigilant…
“Superstition is the shadow of religion, and where superstition is there must be something lacking in the religion, to say the least. Superstition is most terrifying and takes its grossest form among pagans. But, apart from that, when religion has left an empty house superstition rushes in to fill the void. I have known a bishop’s daughter, who had shuffled off Christianity as being unworthy an intelligent person’s consideration, turn pale at seeing the new moon through glass, and faint because the bells had rung without apparent cause. So, too, the table turning, the spirit rapping, planchette and all the rest of the things by which a foolish generation plays with the things of the other world.
“Yet among the Celtic peoples, side by side with religion, there is the belief in ghosts. Said a very wholesome specimen of an Irish priest to me the other day: ‘I met So-and-So the night he died. I was walking home up Gallows Hill, and I saw him coming along with his head down; and I said to him: “Tom, where are you going to this time of night? I heard you weren’t well. It’s in your bed you ought to be.” Not a word at all he said, but went by me. I said to Father John the next morning: “I met Tom So-and-So in the street last night and he wouldn’t speak to me. I wonder what at all I’ve done on him.” “Sure, the poor fellow’s dead,” said Father John. “His death’s in the paper this morning. He died in the night.”‘
“Such a tale as this is told very simply and with no suggestion of anything unusual.
“But to our haunted houses! In the town I know best there are many such.
“The haunted house which gives you due warning is one thing. The haunted house which hides itself under a drab, everyday exterior is in a sense more sinister. I know a little suburban two-storied house among cheerful commonplace neighbors, which has a weird ghost — a ghost that walks by daylight, and preferably in the early morning. A new servant going downstairs very early in the morning after her arrival will see going before her a lady in her nightgown, so palpable, so actual that she can describe the very lace which trims it. She thinks it is her mistress going down in the gray dusk of the morning for something she requires, when — somewhere in the lower regions the figure fades into mist — is gone.
“The house is stuccoed and rather sad of a summer evening when the rain streaks the walls like green tears; it is probably a hundred years old, and it is reputed to have a well fifty feet deep below the house. But in the companion houses, cheerful young clerks and shopmen and their wives and families live after their manner. In the dusk of the evening, as a man comes from town, he may see the lady of the nightgown, or the negligee, sitting by the window of an upper room, shadowy as the dusk itself.”