The Absurdity of The Canterville Ghost

The Canterville Ghost is a very silly Victorian Ghost story that Oscar Wilde released in two parts, in 1887. It was the prolific author’s first published story. It sets the tone for a huge swathe of horror comedies that feature a very ineffectual haunting. The humorous ghost story is a strange literary creature that subverts expectations and has become somewhat of a cliche. But in a time when the supernatural was given more mainstream credence this disarming use of humour would have had a very different effect on the reader.

Not only did Oscar Wilde release his first story during the final gasps of the romantic movement and at the birth of modernity, but he released the story during the rapid spread of the spiritualism movement. Ghostly spectres and powerful intangible phantoms were actively sought out by interested parties, and it was terribly fashionable to hold seances and be informed of the symbolism of the spiritual realm. It is a story that perfectly encapsulates the way in which Wilde’s work is transitional between the romantic and modern literary movements.

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“He met with a severe fall” – Illustration by Wallace Goldsmith of the effects of a butter slide set up by the twins as part of their campaign of practical jokes against the ghost.

Who is the Canterville Ghost?

The American Otis family are told upon buying Canterville Chase in England, that the estate is haunted. The ghost has terrified the Canterville family for decades and is often an omen that appears before the death of a member of the family. The Otis family refuse to believe that there is anything supernatural about their new home.

They are of course wrong.

Sir Simon, the former occupant of the house who killed his wife then disappeared makes his presence felt through a blood stain that will not fade and physical apparitions. He has a huge variety of haunting tools and visages at his disposal, such as representing himself as a headless spectre, he has also been previously known to physically injure his victims. Even scaring some to death.

But the new inhabitants of the chase, however, turn this terrifying phantom into a grumpy, exhausted and battered creature who no longer stalks the corridors, rather shuffles along in slippers and warm clothes to combat the chill from drafts.

I’m unsure as to whether Sir Simon is the first of his kind, in being a formerly formidable spectre who is rendered impotent by the materialism and pragmaticism of modernity.

What is different about the Otis family?

Through the oiling of noisy chains and the cleaning of ominous, reappearing “blood” stains, the Otis family undermines every artifice of haunting that the ghost has at his disposal. Even the hauntings that he manages to pull off are laughed at by the twins or entirely backfire due to the twin’s concerted efforts to torture the ghostly spectre of Sir Simon who has haunted generations of British nobility and their servants. It seems to be their dissociation from the realm of English folklore which grants them immunity from the ill effects of the spiritual realm.

Virginia is the only member of the family who comes even close to a classical gothic character of the human realm. She is vulnerable to the haunting similar to the British characters, however, her link to her modern American family seems to have kept her safe from the more horrific aspects of the haunting. Her strength of character and depth of understanding makes her the ultimate foil to Sir Simon’s legacy of terror. Sir Simon confides in the young girl, giving her the tools to stop the haunting and free the dead nobleman once and for all.

Perhaps the ghost realises that he is no longer relevant as he beholds the modern American family, which, let’s face it, Wilde portrays as grotesque in their own way. Is Wilde bemoaning the loss of gothic romanticism and folkloric tradition and the hands of the crude family? Or is he celebrating the modern thinking of the American people who are untethered to the restrictive tradition of the British Isles?

The_Canterville_Ghost_illustration

How on earth are you going to connect this one to Frankenstein?

I have had a bit of a think about this and maybe the strongest of the tangential threads that connect Frankenstein or the Modern Day Prometheus to the Canterville Ghost is the collision between the romanticism of the 19th-century horror story and the critical thinking and scientific reasoning that was emerging before Mary Shelley put pen to paper. Shelley’s narrative is still firmly entrenched in the lore of ages past, but her Doctor is a man of science and the spectre of her novel is a being of undead science. Conversely, Wilde’s spectre Sir Simon is still firmly placed in traditional gothic ideas of the ghost, but the narrative is a distinctly modern one.

In short, I’m going to go ahead and say that both narratives deal with the juxtaposition of the romantic gothic novel and an increasingly pragmatic and modern reality.

Where the Hell are We Going?

New-Mind-Map (1)

Whilst I know that I am largely doing this for my own benefit as our listenership is far from large I want to plot our meandering, rambling and somewhat overgrown path through the gothic, mystery and noir genres.

At this stage, there will be a new book/movie comparison with both Brent and I (Morgan) on the 13th of each month. Every Saturday that I can I will release a new mini (or not so mini) episode. These extra episodes offer extra information on the texts we are discussing and other topics that relate to Frankenstein and the Gothic genre.

At the moment I’m busy writing and recording the last of our Oscar Wilde episodes for the time being. Oscar Wilde has a unique place in the Gothic canon that we will probably revisit, but I think there are about 4-5 episodes in total featuring Mr. Wilde in this chunk of releases, with our second proper episode Decorative Sex 🌺 – The Picture of Dorian Gray due for release on the 13th of February. Once those are done our major focus will turn to more bloodthirsty creatures.

Our Frankenstein episodes are far from done. They will be peppered throughout the run of the podcast through perpetuity. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say the final word on Frankenstein, but I promise I’ll try to keep the additional episodes fresh and relevant.

As for our brief foray into true crime with The Body Snatchers, there will be a couple of crime and history related podcasts, but they will usually be collaborations and they will also be linked to a Gothic, mystery of noir text.

At the moment we are firmly entrenched in the 19th century legacy in the Gothic canon. We’ll probably be in this territory for a while, however, some of this may link directly with contemporary Gothic fiction. We want to explore a few more creatures of the monstrous kind before we delve into the world of the genius detective and the hostile city.

I’m banking up readings of gothic short stories as my life is going to get very busy again as I go back to uni. Hopefully, my readings aren’t too awful.

We’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with some lovely people and podcasts. At this stage, there are 3 released collaborations:

Nick and Vince’s Podcast – Frankenstein Part 1 with Morgan from The FrankenPod

Cult of Domesticity – FrankenCult; Mary Anne Cotton with Morgan from The FrankenPod

The FrankenPod – The Body Snatchers – It’s a Cult of Domesticity guest minisode feat Gallus Girls and Wayward Women

There are some other collaborations in the pipeline and hopefully many more to come. Please send me an email thefrankenpod@gmail.com if you want to collaborate in some way.

The Body Snatchers

We try to trace a line from a from our topic to Frankenstein and Gothic literature. This week it’s pretty simple. The gothic preoccupation with death and confronting the gruesome fate of the body after death is explored in a wide variety of texts vampire and zombie fiction explores ideas of the undead, corpses that come back to prey on the living and ghosts and spectres present a more ethereal threat which occurs when the soul or spirit is separated from the physical body at death. Relating our topic to Frankenstein is even simpler; How did Frankenstein get his corpses?

We’re going to talk about body snatchers, grave robbers and the Resurrectionists today. This post will have information from my research, for Courtney’s research I would highly recommend listening to the episode.

Courtney hosts a podcast with her best friend Ashley called The Cult of Domesticity. They explore intriguing, disturbing and entertaining stories of true crime, disaster and history.

Body Snatchers – A 19th-century Origin Story

In the early 1800s, surgery and anatomical study were flourishing. Hundreds of young doctors studied diligently in medical schools, and many I dare say substantially less diligently. Theoretical knowledge of what squidgy bit did what and which bits to cut was all well and good, but what they really `needed to hone their skills was an actual human body to dissect.

Today cadavers are often donors who give their bodies to science. But the people Regency and Victorian England were quite a bit more religious and superstitious. Donations were not forthcoming.

The only legitimate source of cadavers was from the gallows. Criminals sentenced to death would be sent to medical schools as subjects.

This had some drawbacks. For a start, all of the subjects died from the same cause. Second, the bodies had to be dissected very quickly as preservation techniques were pretty much non-existent. Third this influx of cadavers was not nearly enough to keep all the schools supplied.

As tends to happen when something is in high demand and heavily regulated, a black market sprung up to fill the need. Grave Robbers, Body Snatchers, The Resurrectionists, whatever you call them, they began making a tidy profit from digging up fresh graves and selling the cadavers to medical institutions and schools.

The need for fresh cadavers meant that thieves would often hover just out of sight while the funeral was still in progress.

Grieving families started alarming their loved one’s graves, or keeping vigil until the cadaver was useless to the body snatchers.

In summer medical schools undertook fewer dissections because the heat made it harder to store bodies. A fresh cadaver could fetch 8 pounds. In winter the schools conducted way more dissections so demand was higher and you could get 10 pounds a corpse. That is about one thousand  American dollars and one thousand and two hundred  Australian dollars at the time of recording.

But Robbing Graves was becoming a high-risk venture, and before long people started resorting to other means for obtaining a fresh corpse.

In England The anatomist William Harvey who was famous for discovering the circulatory system dissected his father and sister after their death. The London Burkers killed three boys and attempted to sell them to an anatomist who blew the whistle on them. At least one of the trio claimed to have robbed between 500- 1000 graves.

And in Edinburgh Scotland Burke and Hare had a system.

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William Burke

Scotland’s Fresh Cadaver Delivery Service

It all started in 1827 when a lodger called Donald died in the boarding house Hare ran. Having heard there was money to be made in selling fresh corpses they brought the guy from upstairs to a guy called Doctor Robert Knox who needed a supply of bodies for his anatomy lectures. Hare rationalized this by reminding himself and Burke that Donald owed him four pounds in unpaid rent.

Knox paid them seven pounds and 10 shillings. This was no small amount. And bolstered by the windfall they went back to their jobs.

When another lodger called Joseph contracted some sort of fever Hare became concerned she might deter lodgers.

So he called over his mate burke and they suffocated him with a pillow and sold his body to Knox.

The next victim is an unnamed Englishman selling tinder and matches who fell ill with jaundice while staying at the boarding house.

They developed a new method that they would use for most of the subsequent victims. Hare smothered the man’s face with his hand and Burke lay on top of him to prevent him from moving and flailing around noisily. Again Hare said he did it, for the good of this business…. Because you know the non-contagious condition of jaundice might scare away customers. In no way was it motivated by the 10 pounds they got for from Knox.

Abigail Simpson possibly next, accounts differ. She was a pensioner, who also sold salt and was travelling from the village of Gilmerton. They got her drunk and shoved her in a tea chest and sold her to Knox.

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William Hare

Maybe a month later Hare’s wife lured in an old lady and got her so drunk she passed out, Hare then covered her mouth and nose with a mattress cover and left her to slowly suffocate.  Again Knox took the body, no questions asked.

 

It was then Burke’s turn to lure Janet Brown and Mary Paterson with alcohol. They went on a bender together, eventually ending up at Burke’s brother’s house. His Brother went to work and Mary Paterson passed out. That left Janet Brown and Burke up talking when Burke’s girlfriend Helen McDougal burst in accusing Burke of cheating on her. Both women left, angry with Burke leaving Mary Paterson passed out. Alone.

Her friend Janet would later be told she ran off to Glasgow with a salesman.

Burke rushed out and grabbed his buddy, Hare. They went back to the house, Mary was still asleep. They suffocated her, and shoved her in the same tea chest as Abigail Simpson, selling her to Knox and keeping her petticoats for Helen,  Burke’s girlfriend.

Knox was delighted as the corpse was still warm.

People were going missing, and their relatives began to look for them. Mrs Haldane, who was smothered in an intoxicated slumber, had a daughter possibly called Peggy who came looking for her.

Burke listened to her story and they got talking., talking turned to drinking. Burke killed her without assistance for the first time, then shoved her in the tea chest and collected his 8 pounds.

There are 16 murders in total to get through. Including a range of unnamed intoxicated lodgers, a homeless salvager called Effy and even a visiting relative of Helen’s called Ann.

The tea chest got a lot of use and all the while Dr. Knox is not bothered by any of this.

At this point, Hare’s wife Margaret Hare suggests to her husband  that they should kill Helen because she was “Scotch”. The Hares and Burke were Irish. Thankfully he refused.

Their second last victim was unfortunately known as Daft Jimmy. Daft Jimmy preferred snuff to alcohol. So their usual trick just didn’t work. He fought back. But the murderers prevailed.

However, Daft Jimmy was a  familiar face on the streets of London, and Knox’s students recognised him at the initial inspection. So Knox presented Jimmy’s cadaver headless and without feet.

Other lodgers made the final murder very difficult for Burke and Hare.

The murder of Michelle Doherty was supposed to take place at the Broggan boarding house. Trusting a fellow person from Ireland she drank with the Hares. Everything went wrong. Fellow lodgers, Ann and James Gray, were so obstructive that they paid for them to stay at Hare’s lodging house. The Gray’s were witnesses to the drinking party and the next morning they came back and discovered the body in a pile of straw.

The police were called.

The two were arrested.

1920px-Execution_of_BurkeHare turned state’s witness and after the trial, he disappeared into the night. Margaret also turns states evidence

Helen and Margaret upon their separate releases were chased by mobs… I cannot believe Margaret and William Hare got off pretty much scot-free3.

Knox the doctor who …totally knew what was going on was found entirely without fault which was crazy, and that was because Burke said Knox knew nothing about it.

“docter Knox never incoreged him neither taught or incoregd him to murder any person”.

William Burke was found guilty sentenced to death and was hanged on the 28th of January 1829 in front of a crowd of over 20,000 people.

His body was sent for public dissection and students fought for tickets.

Professor Monro lead the dissection and dramatically dipped a quill in Burke’s blood

and wrote “This is written with the blood of Wm Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh. This blood was taken from his head”

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William Burke’s Skeleton

His death mask and a book supposedly bound with HIS TANNED SKIN are on display in the Surgeon’s Hall museum…

 

His skeleton on display at Edinburgh Medical School.

So that’s the story of William Burke and William Hare.

Up the close and doon the stair,
But and ben’ wi’ Burke and Hare.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox the boy that buys the beef.

— 19th century Edinburgh rhyme

Thank you to Courtney from Cult of Domesticity for joining me and contributing so much to the conversation!

And another huge thank you to Tom of Gallus Girls and Wayward Women for reading the Burke and Hare poem.

The Virtual FrankenPod Murder Board January 2018

Chronicling the links between potential tangents and my slow/rapid? descent into madness.The-FrankenPod

IT’S ALIVE! 💥 Frankenstein 

Listen via website or copy this link into your podcast app.

Listen via YouTube Maybe… If I can work out the bugs.

This is our pilot episode in which Brent and I stumble through the disparate plot points of the 1818 gothic novel Frankenstein or the Modern day Prometheus by Mary Shelley and the 1931 movie Frankenstein directed by James Whale and adapted by James L. Balderston.

The differences between the novel and the movie are so numerous that listing them in detail would take forever.

But here are the 10 most notable differences we touched on in our podcast.

10 Differences Between the Book and the Movie of Frankenstein 

Frankenstein_poster_19311. Victor vs. Henry

The 1931 movie changes the name of Doctor Frankenstein from Victor to Henry. Maybe in an effort to make him more appealing? They take other steps to redeem the mad scientist, Fritz, for example, is the manifestation of some of the traits that don’t make the transition from the Victor of the book to Henry of the film. Because he is animating his creature somewhat in the open in the film he doesn’t need to be as duplicitous as he is in the novel. He also doesn’t sully his hands with a lot of the more gruesome aspects of the creation of his creature and is thus, more acceptable, maybe?

He is, of course, still an awful human being.

2. The Creature vs. The Monster

The movie denies the Creature a voice and denies his the ability to be perceived as an innocent. Whilst the Creature of the novel is depicted sympathetically, with the capacity to learn and love, the Monster of the film still shows some of that potential but as he has no voice and basically no time to develop in any way.  The space and time afforded to the creature through his solitude is key to the relatability of Frankenstein’s creation in Shelley’s novel. But James Whale didn’t have the luxury of a whole novel to develop his Monster’s character, but you can see the humanity of Boris Karloff’s bumbling creature in his confusion, fear and desire to understand and explore the world around him.

 

3. The Fritz Situation

Fritz is the vehicle for all that is distasteful in the creation process. His absence in the novel means that Victor is reliant on his own resources. He also has a bitter and morose internal monologue that would have not translated to screen. An assistant allows him to neatly offload scientific exposition, with the added feature that Fritz is a dislikeable low stakes person for the monster’s first kill.

 

4. Bad Brains

The movie gives us the brain mix up as an easy out to the dilemma that Shelley sets up… to what extent does Frankenstein harbour responsibility for his creatures actions, and to what extent are the frightened humans of the story culpable for what the creature becomes? If we are to believe that a criminal brain is only capable of criminality as posited by Doctor Waldman then surely the monster was only capable of dangerous or criminal behaviour. In one neat action, Fritz dropping the brain gives us a scapegoat and an excuse for dispatching a creature that is problematic.

 

5. Elizabeth

Elizabeth still has a limited presence in the film, in the novel she is both an object to be desired and a person Victor can project his mother issues onto. In the movie, however, she is denied even that level of depth. Although Frankenstein does seem to value her more highly than his friend (Victor in the film, Henry in the novel) which is more than I can say for Victor’s respect for her in the novel. Mary Shelley is not unsympathetic to Elizabeth, she advocates for the innocent Justine, despite how deeply affected she is by William’s death. She is loyal, compassionate, intelligent and courageous, all of which seems to be lost on Victor.

 

Whale_and_Karloff
By Universal Studios – http://www.terrortrove.com/happy-birthday-to-james-whale/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42699714
6. The Crimes of the Creature

It takes the creature months to kill someone and a lot of awful things have happened to him, pushing him to the edge. The movie has the Creature killing Fritz within the first day of his existence, then Dr Waldman and then little Maria (the girl whose dad left her by the lake with a cat that is very clearly dead as her companion. There is also a slew of violent attacks including his weird predatory attack on Elizabeth and culminating in his attempt destroy his creator. He is painted as violent, but that violence springs from fear rather than hatred. The novel has the space to complicate and problematize the Creature’s crimes further. His first crime is arson as he attempts to gain some impotent vengeance on the DeLacy family who rejected him, this is the point at which the Creature snaps. From here on he carries out the brutal murder of little William Frankenstein, frames the unfortunate and noble Justine and fixates on bringing about a kind of exquisite suffering on Victor. There is a moment of hope, in which the Creature reaches out to Victor to end his isolation and lessen his suffering. He asks for a companion, why he thinks that introducing another creature to the level of suffering he experiences seems like a reasonable thing to him is one of the most unreasonable and illogical expectations the Creature has. But the destruction of his bride breaks this fraught truce and the Creature then kills those closest to Victor, his best friend Henry and his wife Elizabeth. This is his final crime, although Victor will attempt to blame the death of his father and his own suffering through the subsequent chase on the Creature.

 

7. The Missing Letters

The very effective framing narrative of Walton’s expedition, which sets the tone for the entire novel, is entirely missing from the movie. We come to the movie with only a few minutes of introduction from an announcer giving a monologue or prologue warning of the horror that is about to ensue. This change in framing redirects our attention somewhat away from the ethical dilemma of creation at play and onto the monstrosity of the creature itself. Walton’s doomed expedition primes us for Victor’s obsession, without this framing narrative the focus can be shifted slightly away from the dangerous ambition and self-centred hubris. That is to say that without Walton spend more time beholding the monstrous spectacle of the creature, than the monstrous spectacle of his creator.

 

8. The Outcome

In the movie, the audience can rest safely knowing that the town and the doctor are safe and that he might have learnt his lesson. The creature appears to be dead and everything seems to be tied up in a neat little bow. Shelley, on the other hand, leaves us with a tragic end. Everyone is dead, doomed or miserable. Walton’s men may get out of the icy wastelands alive but that is as close to a happy ending as we get. The creature remains alive but has no desire to stay that way.

 

9. The Swiss Landscape

The Switzerland of the film is villages, lakes and windmills. But the novel is able to give us a more complex look at the Swiss landscapes and their surrounds with the Creature and Victor undertaking vast treks, depicted through sweeping descriptive romantic prose. The Swiss are depicted as a noble society in the novel, but unfortunately, the movie only deals in villager stereotypes and class-based stereotypes.

 

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By Theodor von Holst – http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/gothicnightmares/rooms/room2_works.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6844740
10. The Moral of the Story

If I was to grossly simplify the message of each text into an easy to digest statement it would probably go thus:

The movie: Creation is dangerous, entities can be born evil and it takes a village and a hero to bring down a monster.

The novel: The cruelty and ambition of man are inherently dangerous and should not be left unchecked.

 

References

Shelley Wollstonecraft, Mary. “Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus.”

Different editions used listed below

  • Project Gutenberg: http://www. gutenberg. org/files/84/84-h/84-h. htm (2008).
  • Norton Critical Edition
  • Audible Audio book narrated by Dan Stevens
  • Gothic Treasury of the Supernatural
Frankenstein (1931), Universal Pictures. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0021884/
Hitchcock, Susan Tyler. Frankenstein: A cultural history. WW Norton & Company, 2007.

And a whole bunch of articles I didn’t write down. I promise I’ll do better