During the Regency era, you were bad ton if you saw a ghost. You were queer in the attic if you admitted you had.
For example, Monk Lewis’ wildly popular play, The Castle Spectre, was still being criticized after years of successful productions for the “nonsense and absurdity” of its supernatural theme. The play’s “special effects” were deplored–the “spectre” condemned as a public nuisance for attracting large crowds of boisterous, lower class patrons clamoring to see it.
Works of fiction aside, efforts to prove the existence of ghosts met with even stronger disapprobation. However well-intentioned, Reverend C.C. Colton’s publicised investigation into the Sampford ghost was considered no more than an exercise in chicanery. To dignify such paranormal experiences only encouraged more of the sightings, which were:
“..the growth of a species of superstition at once so disgraceful to the character of the age in which we live, so injurious to society in its probable effects on the minds of ignorant persons and young persons..”
— “A Full Account of the Conspiracy at Sampford Peverell, near Tiverton, containing the Particulars of the pretended Visitation of the Monster, etc.” Taunton Courier, 1810
When an account entitled “Starcross Apparition” appeared in the New Monthly Magazine, it was not surprising that the witness to it would not risk revealing his full identity. Instead, “H” risked a (tedious) exposition on the frailty of human senses–a plea for the Reader’s sympathy:
“Imposter and visionary, knave and fool, these are the alternate horns of the dilemma on which I shall be tossed with sneers of contempt or smiles of derision.”
— Account of an Apparition, New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, Vol. VIII, 1823
H’s account takes place in the Devonshire village of Starcross, beside the Exe estuary. Starcross is just south of Powderham Caste, seat of the Courtenay family, Dukes of Devon since the 14th century.
That summer had been especially stormy, beating into a swamp the leaves and flowers not yet ready to be cast aside for winter. He denied he was blue-devilled by the weather, that summer evening, but he did feel sufficient melancholy to send a written invitation to a friend for dinner, on account of Mr. Staples’ “contagion of laughter.”
The next day, sitting in an outdoor alcove to await Staples’ arrival, H perceived the sound of a death-watch, “that little insect of inauspicious augery.” He thought nothing of it, dismissing it just as he had the sudden shriek of a screech-owl. On his return to the house, however, he had reason to recollect these portents, for his servant handed him a black-sealed letter.
Mr. Staples was dead.
Sadly, H made his way to his library, accompanied by a faithful spaniel. Once in the chamber, however, the dog let out a horrified wail, peering with fright toward the back of the room. There was Staples, sitting motionless, upright, in a chair.
H beat a hasty retreat from the library:
“..astonishment and terror so far mastered all my faculties, that, without daring to cast a second glance toward the vision, I walked rapidly back into the garden, followed by the dog, who still testified the same agitation and alarm.”
It was the spaniel’s fault, H reasoned, for causing his master to quit the chamber in unseemly haste. Why else would the spaniel be in terror unless it was due to the supernatural, the beast having no such knowledge of ghosts and such? Nevertheless, H’s good sense finally prevailed and he returned to his library, only to find the image of Staples was still there, seated with his eyes closed.
H tried to dignify the situation by screwing himself up to speak with the ghost. (See the method for addressing specters as related in an earlier post here). Demanding the reason for its presence, H was rewarded by the following response:
The figure, slowly rising up, opening its eyes and stretching out its arms, replied, ‘A leg of mutton and caper-sauce, with a bottle of old prime port, such as you promised me.’
The devil! (Actually, H swore that other innocuous Regency oath, ‘Good God!’)
One can only imagine H’s chagrin when Staples, in high good humor, assured his friend he was not a ghost. Indeed, it was a namesake of his, living in Castle-street, who had died. Unfortunately, some “loud-mouthed fool” had spread the false news to Staples’ clerk, who then conveyed the misinformation to H.
Imagining his friend’s turmoil upon receiving such a bag of moonshine, Staples made haste to Starcross to rectify the error. He let himself in the side door of the house and sat down in the library to await his host with the good news he was very much alive. His motionless appearance was explained by reason he’d fallen asleep.
The dog’s reaction was simply a case of dislike for Staples, who had strongly chastised him on an earlier visit for killing a chicken.
The Author wisely refrains from commenting further on his own reaction, and leaves it to us to contemplate ours.
“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real, too. They live inside us, and sometimes they win.” — Stephen King