The Haunted River and three other ghostly novellas
by Mrs JH Riddell, edited by R Dalby
(Sarob Press, £32.00 UK/Europe, US$55, XIII + 336 pages, limited edition hardback; published 2001.)
It has always been my belief that the ideal literary form for ghostly tales is the short story. A chilling atmosphere, a creepy feeling can last only for a certain duration of time; if the tale is carried on at length, such as in novellas or novels, the suspense and the thrill become much diluted within the frame of a more complex plot. Hence the reader gets either bored or distracted. Having said this, I don't mean that I regret having spent my time on the 336 pages of this remarkable book.
Simply, in my opinion, Mrs Riddell's ghost stories are far better than her ghostly novellas. Not her fault, mind you, because I could say the same thing of LeFanu's production or even of Conan Doyle's Sherlockian output.
Charlotte Riddell was a famous Victorian novelist, and rightly so. At her best, her writing is very entertaining and the plots, although conventional, are well constructed. This also applies to this fine collection of her four ghostly novellas, all of which originally appeared in Routledge's Christmas Annuals. Two novellas ("The haunted river" and "The disappearance of Mr Jeremiah Redworth") have been out of print for an entire century. Praise to Richard Dalby and Sarob Press for making them available once again to the modern reader. For those fond of Victorian literature the whole volume is a veritable feast. All the classical elements of Victorian novels are included: cruel wills, lost inheritances, secret marriages, hopeless love stories, etc.
For the ghost story lover the attractions are much more limited, the ghostly appearances being somehow lost in the middle of more mundane matters and frankly unable to elicit any shiver along the spine. But, again, I think this is only due to the fact that a novella is too long to maintain an adequate degree of unease in the reader's mind. By far the best of the four novellas remains "The uninhabited house", already reprinted twenty-five years ago by EF Bleirer. "The haunted river" is certainly worth reading while "The disappearance of Mr Jeremiah Redworth" is very weak as a ghostly tale, but very nice as a Victorian "whodunit".
The remaining novella "Fairy water" is quite forgettable, except for the first chapter ("Mr H.Stafford Trevor, Barrister-at-law, introduced by himself") which to me is the most boring piece of literature I ever encountered in my whole life.
At any rate, I'm the proud owner of one of the 300 copies of this rare collection and I'm happy for the opportunity I had to read those long-forgotten novellas. Richard Dalby must be congratulated once again for his excellent work and Robert Morgan's Sarob Press did another great job: the book's production is superb and the original illustrations, included in this volume, are fascinating indeed.
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© Mario Guslandi 2 March 2002