There is nothing like a good ghost story. The forms of fiction are few that can compete with the proverbial dark and stormy night; with skeletal trees, rattling chains, groaning houses, flitting phantoms, and moldy crypts. The only thing that can, perhaps, outstrip a ghost story is a ghost’s story. Leave it to the contrary genius of Oscar Wilde to concoct a tale of the grave that is not in the least grave, but rather a high-spirited burlesque about a spirit beset with the most frightening thing imaginable in an ancient English manor: a modern American family.
The Canterville Ghost must be revered among the eerie archives because it is such an irreverent gem of gothic clichés. Though all of the serious trappings are well represented—the haunted mansion, the indelible bloodstain, the howling specter, the secret passage, the dungeon, the torturous history—none of them are represented seriously. Oscar Wilde once said, “Life is too important to be taken seriously,” and judging from The Canterville Ghost, it seems that he applied the same assertion to the afterlife. Written in 1887, and being Mr. Wilde’s first published story, The Canterville Ghost recounts the doleful mishaps of a dolefully hapless ghost whose ancestral haunt is appropriated by people that fill him with terror because they are not terrified of ghosts.
The United States Minister, Mr. Hiram B. Otis, did not mind the ominous warnings that Canterville Chase was haunted. He bought it all the same because he was a United States Minister who placed no stock in ghosts. “I reckon that if there were such a thing as a ghost,” he pontificated, “we’d have it… in one of our public museums, or on the road as a show.” He drove up the avenue of Canterville Chase with his family in a waggonette and a bright mood, while overhead the sky grew moodily dark, and carrion birds wheeled, and a cold rain began to patter, and an austere old woman dressed in the black-and-white livery of a housekeeper stood at the door and uttered, “I bid you welcome to Canterville Chase.”
Upon entering their severe and stately new domicile, Mrs. Otis noticed a ghastly stain on the sitting-room floor. “It is the blood of Lady Eleanore de Canterville,” the housekeeper said with mysterious smile and hollow voice, “who was murdered upon that very spot by her own husband, Sir Simon de Canterville in 1575… and cannot be removed.” Mrs. Otis shrugged. She did not care for bloodstains in the sitting-room and her son, Washington, produced a bar of Pinkerton’s Champion Stain Remover and, rolling up his sleeves, scrubbed out the old English blood with young American vigor as the lightning flashed and the thunder crashed.
The ghost of Sir Simon was greatly displeased.
He shackled his trusty, tarnished chains to his withered wrists and dragged them expertly through the upper hall in the dead of night. Never had this time-honored expedient of horror failed to reduce his victims into hysterics of fear. Before long Mr. Otis appeared from his chamber, beheld the specter without reaction, and, with a neighborly word, proffered a vial of Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator as an oiling agent for the rusty and raucous gyves. A pillow launched by one of the young Otis twins whizzed by and the Canterville Ghost fled the scene in a glowing green rage.
Thus began the campaign between the Otis’s and their household haunter. Like a great morbid artist, Sir Simon assumed all of the grotesque and gruesome guises in his repertoire, but only faced further mortification as they failed one after another in striking terror in the hearts of the pragmatic Otis’s. From the Suicide’s Skeleton to the Bloodless Benedictine, Jonas the Graveless, the Corpse-Snatcher of Chertsey Barn, even Reckless Rupert the Headless Earl and Martin the Maniac; each and every one of his celebrated and successful character rôles and impersonations—that had driven generations of sensible English aristocrats to distraction and death—fell flat upon the insensitive American immigrants. After centuries of fulfilling the conditions of his punishment for the murder of his wife, the ghost of Sir Simon de Canterville had met his match and was utterly frustrated in his condemnation, realizing a level of gloom that was extraordinary even for a sorrowing shade. In desperation and depression, He looked with longing to the mysterious prophecy set in stained glass in the library window:
When a golden girl can win
Prayer from out the lips of sin,
When the barren almond bears,
And a little child gives away its tears,
Then shall all the house be still
And peace come to Canterville.
The Ghost of Canterville yearned for relief from his curse and for rest in the tranquil Garden of Death—if only he could find recourse to the Love that is stronger than Death. If only he could secure the pity and prayers of the golden girl and find mercy from the Angel of Death, “for against the purity of a little child the powers of Hell cannot prevail.” If only he could see that she stood is his midst, ready to be his handmaiden and his savior, and bring the prophecy to fruition.
The moral and mystic theme floating through The Canterville Ghost provides a skeleton for much of Wilde’s writings. The dark and disrespectful humor is not, therefore, without noble purpose. Though Wilde made himself very free mocking American culture as he contrasted it to English culture, poking fun at the deep solemnities of Poe with his supernatural slapstick, his merriment was only a flamboyant cloak that he, as an artist, enjoyed dressing morality up in to keep it from appearing moral. “Of all poses the moral pose is the most offensive,” he wrote, and so made it his purpose to drape morals in mirth and melodrama that was well written. “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”
Although the ghost story genre seeks to repulse readers, in satirizing it, The Canterville Ghost becomes one of Wilde’s most endearing works. The pace rollicks with poise that is indicative of a writer who has complete control over material that he finds exquisitely delightful. Though some may imagine the pages of The Picture of Dorian Gray as the quintessential echo of the delicious, dizzying speech Wilde was famous for in the dining-rooms and parlors of blue-blooded London society, The Canterville Ghost is no less regaling or witty or charming. In fact, its levity and laughter may even render its language a closer resemblance to that Master of Monologue that, like another Yorick, was wont to set the table on a roar.
Alas, poor Oscar! Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment? The Canterville Ghost is a worthy spot to begin exhuming. Enjoy.