Haunted Houses by Charlotte Riddell – Review

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By Sarah Morgan

Some writers find a kind of immortality through their work. Generation after generation latches onto their stories, whether via film or TV adaptations or the books themselves. But others, no matter how popular they were in their heyday, drop out of the public’s consciousness.

Over the years, several publishers have sought to bring back various worthy works in a number of genres, the British Library being a case in point. Earlier this year it launched its ‘Tales of the Weird’ series, and the latest entry features two works by one of these largely forgotten authors, Charlotte Riddell.

haunted houses by charlotte riddell book review coverBorn in Ireland in 1832, she spent her married life in London and wrote 56 books, novels and short stories while acting as the editor of St James’s Magazine, which she co-owned.

Although Riddell wrote across many genres, it’s her supernatural tales that are of most interest; two of them – ‘The Uninhabited House’ and ‘Fairy Water’ – feature in this collection.

“Uneasy atmosphere”

Both are very short, more like novellas than novels, so never have a chance to outstay their welcome, which is important because in some ways it’s easy to see why Riddell has fallen out of favour – her flowery language and sentimentality is very much of its time and doesn’t sit easy with the supposedly spooky subject matter.

The stories are rather similar, each featuring a house that never stays occupied for long because of its uneasy atmosphere and unwanted guests.

Neither are going to scare their readers witless either, but Riddell does a decent job of building up tension and atmosphere through imagery rather than shock tactics. The author also displays a keen wit, adding a few amusing passages here and there to lighten the mood before matters get too heavy – ‘The Uninhabited House’ even contains courtroom drama as well as a ghost.

Riddell was certainly a skilful writer, but does she deserve to be reappraised by a new generation? The jury is still out on that one; these tales are curiosity pieces rather than works of un-put-downable genius and probably won’t appeal to anyone whose adolescent reading diet consisted of Stephen King, Guy N Smith and James Herbert.

However, if you happen to be a lover of Victoriana, they are entertaining asides; just don’t expect to be rushing down to your local secondhand bookshop in search of further tomes by Riddell once you’ve finished these.

‘Haunted Houses’ by Charlotte Riddell is published by The British Library, £8.99 paperback


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