Haunted by History: Grant Allen and the Incursion of the Gothic Past

by Erin Louttit 

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article. 

[page 77] Abstract: Grant Allen’s short stories “Pallinghurst Barrow” and “Wolverden Tower,” published in the 1890s, both feature the supernatural. Although better remembered as a writer of New Woman fiction and popular science than supernatural stories, in these works Allen examines some of the same themes and preoccupations evident in his “scientific” writing. In these ghost stories, Allen characteristically contrasts the scientific rationalism of the present with the ostensible superstition and ignorance of the past, but the triumph of progress in these stories is equivocal at best. The Gothic, paranormal forces with which the protagonists contend are not imagined or hallucinatory horrors but the return of a half-forgotten past that practiced human sacrifice. Despite the promise of scientifically founded progress evident elsewhere in Allen’s work, the ritual violence of this fictionalized history threatens and undermines the rational present, bringing to the surface the deeper anxieties that threaten the idea of civil and intellectual advancement. 

Keywords: Ghost story, Victorian, science, England, ritual sacrifice 

Grant Allen, the prolific late-Victorian man of letters, is probably best known now as a scientific journalist and author of scandalous New Woman novels. His talent as a writer of Gothic short fiction has, however, gone largely unappreciated.¹ “Pallinghurst Barrow” (1892) and “Wolverden Tower” (1896) both appeared first in Christmas numbers of the Illustrated London News and were subsequently republished in short story collections. Allen’s reputation as a fierce materialist notwithstanding, these stories feature a deep unease with a violent, Gothicized past that continually threatens to subsume the educated, seemingly civilized present. These tales disrupt a narrative of Victorian evolution and advancement not with scientific pessimism or ra-[page 78]tionalism, such as were used by Allen’s contemporary H. G. Wells, but with Gothic tropes. They deploy the unsettling and the unseen to question the idea of a stable and enlightened modernity and highlight anxieties of the fin-de-siècle Gothic.

The Reluctant Ghost Story Author

Allen’s body of work consisted of many short story collections, novels, and non-fiction contributions to 19th-century periodicals and book-length studies. In his New Woman fiction, his female protagonists push the boundaries of the possible, pursuing higher education or careers, or explicitly rejecting social conventions surrounding marriage and parenthood. His non-fiction encompassed, among other subjects, religion, natural science, and history, and he “endeavoured,” he claimed, “to write without favour or prejudice, animated by a single desire to discover the truth” (Allen, Evolution viii). His claims to a high-minded quest for truth aside, Allen’s own journalistic pieces demonstrate how fluidly his writing could move between genres, despite his somewhat self-conscious assertion that his true authorial vocation rested with rigorously scientific subjects. His articles show imaginative leaps and narrative hooks to intrigue his readers, exhibiting Allen’s “gift of exploiting his factual and speculative science essays in fictional counterparts” (Hughes 275). If Allen’s fiction was informed by his science, Allen himself admitted his scientific essays’ indebtedness to his fiction. In the semi-grudging preface to a collection of his “higher-minded” essays, he lamented public taste even as he acknowledged his concessions to it:

Some people complain that science is dry. That is, of course, a matter of taste. For my own part, I like my science and my champagne as dry as I can get them. But the public thinks otherwise. So I have ventured to sweeten accompanying samples as far as possible [page 79] to suit the demand, and trust they will meet with the approbation of consumers. (Allen, Falling n.p.)

Allen’s comments seem a decidedly odd, even perhaps slightly churlish, way of introducing his book, but they also show a more porous barrier between the factual and the fictional than even Allen was at times willing to concede. Allen scholar Peter Morton has stated that Allen’s first attempt at shifting from non-fiction to fiction was both unplanned and awkward, at least in the first short story, as Allen “stumbled into this new avenue by accident, after couching one of his articles, ‘Our Scientific Observations on a Ghost’ … in the form of a short story in order to get across the points he wanted to make” (“Grant” 411).² As time went on, any nominal distinction between the two genres grew more blurred. Allen was, by most accounts, not only driven to write fiction to survive, but also, by his own report, required by that same necessity to enliven his scientific work with borrowed techniques and flourishes.³ The perceived distinction between his more “serious” scientific work and his fiction that paid the bills—erroneous though such a distinction is—is one for which he himself is at least partly to blame and which has led some modern critics to take Allen at his most pessimistic, believing that “[a] conventional sensationalism was Allen’s bread and cheese” and by extension exposing much of Allen’s work to preconceptions about its significance as fiction and its place within the generic conventions in which it operates (Hughes 279).

What provides a more complete account, however, is that Allen varied his accounts of his career as an author. In some negative instances, Allen’s work is presented as a descent into the sordid realms of Grub Street, with Allen exercising “heroic” levels of “self-repression” in leaving behind his first love, “psychological and biological” science, and finding himself a man who “writes novels instead for Mudie’s young ladies” (Blathwayt 72). He distanced himself from his productions, claiming that “professional men of letters, who live by their pens, must be content to say, not what they will, [page 80] but what the public wants to hear” (74). Publishing more serious works would result only in disillusionment: “I took to sensationalism pure and simple, and found it pay a little better.… When a man is ill half his time, and has to work as hard as he can write for the remainder, he feels that a little less labour and a little more money might produce better results in the end” (73). As we shall see, the image of an intelligent man, grossly overworked, who has to pander to the lowest common denominator is a description not only applied by Allen to himself, but also one which will seem curiously familiar to readers of “Pallinghurst Barrow” when recalling the central character of the broken-down journalist and man of science Rudolph Reeve. In other words, the slippage between the factual, even autobiographical, and the fictional is evident even when Allen is at his most worldweary. More noteworthy still, a later account of Allen’s writing shows not a downward spiral, but something more akin to a lateral moveand, I would argue, ultimately a mutually beneficial and symbiotic relationship between the potboilers and the “serious” articles.

Allen also claimed that his career had initially been as the author of “scientific or quasi-scientific subjects” but, in his own account of his move into fiction, specifically said that it arose from his wish to write upon “the improbability of a man’s being able to recognize a ghost as such, even if he saw one, and the impossibility of his being able to apply any test of credibility to an apparition’s statements” (Allen, Twelve v). He somewhat disingenuously asserted: “I ventured for the better development of my subject to throw the argument into the form of a narrative. I did not regard this narrative as a story: I looked upon it merely as a convenient method of displaying a scientific truth. However, the gods and Mr. Chatto thought otherwise” (Allen, Twelve vi). His version of his authorial history manages to have it both ways. Allen never relinquished his claim upon serious scientific subjects whether writing ghost stories or factual essays, but if his publisher wished to confer upon him another title, [page 81] well, then he could hardly refuse. He drove his point home by stressing how occasionally he wrote short stories, how he did not regard them seriously, how he only wrote them at all through financial necessity. Most tellingly, in fashioning this self-image, he wrote of his concern that such stories “might stand in the way of such little scientific reputation as I possessed” and of his consequent adoption of pseudonymmous publication (Allen, Twelve vi). Of course, such disclaimers are not unique to Allen’s careful cultivation of a reputation. Nonetheless, they point to a particular strain in Allen’s writing that underpins much of his fiction—that is, his genuine engagement with the scientific theories of the 1880s and 1890s. Scholars such as Linda H. Peterson have written on his scholarly interests, particularly in Darwinism, as manifested in his writings, but I would argue for similar scientific underpinnings to his Gothic short stories.

This emphatic distinction between the nobler scientific pieces and the attitudes expressed in the frivolous works of fiction was not universal in Allen’s era. That is, Allen’s personal disdain for ghosts and certain questions of the spiritual life were not shared universally among his contemporaries. For various branches of science, the practitioners found no conflict between their interest in their research field and their curiosity about or belief in a world beyond the physical. As one scholar has noted, “many late Victorian physicists found science and religion wholly compatible with each other” (Wilson 34), and similarly, within the field of electrical engineering, “Victorians in the mid-nineteenth century often found it hard to distinguish between telegraphy and spiritualism” (Noakes 422). However, this ease with science and religion or the supernatural became increasingly fraught, with some scientists seeing opposition rather than harmony. Espousing this viewpoint, “some scientists–of whom [Thomas Henry] Huxley is the best example–went out of their way to present science as a source of knowledge that would supplant religious superstition” (Bowler 11). It was to this school of thought that Allen [page 82] belonged. Huxley explicitly contrasted the natural sciences and forms of faith or the supernatural:

Historically, indeed, there would seem to be an inverse relationship between supernatural and natural knowledge.… Men are growing to be seriously alive to the fact that the historical evolution of humanity, which is generally, and I venture to think not unreasonably, regarded as progress, has been, and is being, accompanied by a coordinate elimination of the supernatural from its originally large occupation of men’s thoughts. (Essays 5)

In Huxley’s case, the language that he used to depict this perceived clash could become strong, through which “he created a drama in which sharply delineated heroes and villains were jousting to the death” (Jensen 127). Writing bluntly in defense of science, Huxley stated that “between agnosticism and ecclesiasticism … there can be neither peace nor truce” (“Agnosticism” 198). Allen’s writings were not as combative as Huxley’s could be. Nevertheless, for Allen, these views on science and the supernatural were as irreconcilable as they were for Huxley. In practice, the effect on Allen’s writing was evident to others. The author and critic Andrew Lang recalled that Allen “detested” the supernatural, and that “[a]nything was better than ‘the supernatural,’ even a consciously false explanation” in a piece of writing (qtd. in Clodd 98). At the same time that Allen’s position on the subject was plain, over the course of his writing life, he developed a far more complex relationship between the oppositional stance he describes elsewhere in his works.

Allen’s friend and biographer Edward Clodd wrote in positive terms of Allen’s authorial versatility, acknowledging that “the first steps were taken with some little reluctance” but that Allen “was a better story-teller than he knew” (87- 88). He especially noted “Allen’s early predilection for narrative as vehicle for his views” and that “it would seem that Allen was driven into fiction much as a duck is driven [page 83] into water” (21). Allen’s contrary view that “professional men of letters, who live by their pens, must be content to say, not what they will, but what the public wants to hear,” and his dismissive references to fiction in preference for a theoretically purer form of writing elucidate the stance Allen wished to declare but do not necessarily reflect how his works were actually read and interpreted (Blathwayt 74). Clodd also commented particularly upon the elision between the educational contributions to the periodical press and the popular fiction, observing that “[i]n many of his scientific papers he slides into the familiar and the personal; trembling, as it were, on the edge of the dramatic presentment of things” (21). In spite of Allen’s early ostensible hesitation, this account of Allen’s expansion as a writer stresses that his attitude developed into an unfeigned regard for fiction’s ability to smuggle facts and opinions to readers consciously and deliberately: “He cared, however, more and more for it as time went on, taking a real pleasure in plot and construction, and finding that pleasure enhanced by the opportunity which the novel afforded as the vehicle whereby heedful ear might be gained for views and opinions which, otherwise, would obtain no hearing” (88). Most strikingly, not only was the line between fact and fiction being blurred on the page, it was also being blurred in Allen’s own conception of the boundary between the two. Clodd recounted that, “[i]n his judgement, all fiction was, to borrow a term from chemistry, allotropic” (88). In short, the scientific and informative was inextricably bound up with narrative and the scientifically impossible–even ghosts.

Factual Fiction and Ghosts

Both “Pallinghurst Barrow” and “Wolverden Tower” exemplify this duality in Allen’s work but show the unscientific gaining the upper hand. They are creepy Christmas horror stories, but they also engage with some of Allen’s preoccupations and draw on non-fiction articles that he had already [page 84] published. This background gives the imaginative fiction a greater air of veracity and plausibility, but the stories use their factual basis as a means of exploring ideas of evolution and the potential for degeneration.⁴ For Allen, ghost stories do not represent a comforting device “used to assert continuity” between the past and the present and “a sense of stability” (Briggs 111). The stories’ preternatural residents constitute true threats to the safety of the living protagonists, as well as sharp reminders that modern progress is as ephemeral as the ghosts that menace it.

The plots of these two stories show the incursion of the superstitious past into the modern, scientific, markedly better present day. In the process, they draw upon theories current in a number of scientific and ostensibly scientific branches of study, all positing a pessimistic view of whither the future tended. As one scholar has noted of the variously applied concept of degeneration, “Founded on the Darwinian revolution in biology, and harnessed to psychological medicine, the idea of degeneration spread to social science, to literature and art,” and “In its scientific and rational practices it offered to diagnose the agencies of the irrational component threatening the orderly progress of the society” (Greenslade 16). While there was not a singular consensus and “[e]ven within disciplines there were disagreements about what the term meant and how it ought to be studied,” it broadly indicated that evolution was not synonymous with improvement (Arata 15). Degeneration and regression, rather than inevitable progress, were seen as real possibilities at the time in numerous fields: “Physics and the concept of entropy made degeneration appear cosmic, while biology rendered even the immediate future uncertain, since all life engages in a dubious struggle between order and chaos, progress and degeneration, continued existence and extincttion” (Glendening 24). In viewing this grand scale, it was not just the sweep of mankind that was minimized, but also the life of the individual. Seen in this light, “the self could no longer be imagined as immutable.… Individuals were pal-[page 85]impsests, written over with the marks of ancestors near and remote” (Arata 22-23). As Kelly Hurley notes, in this sense “Degeneration theory … is a ‘gothic’ discourse, and as such is a crucial imaginative and narrative source for the fin-de-siècle Gothic” (65).

It is in this broader context of contemporary scientific fears that Allen sets his stories of the unevolved past and its threat to the modernized present. In “Pallinghurst Barrow,” the exhausted man of letters who tries to regain his strength visiting an English country house makes the mistake of being near an ancient burial mound at Michaelmas (29 September). He finds himself confronting the prehistoric ghosts of those inside the tomb, very much at risk physically despite his apparent cultural and linguistic superiority. He survives—just—but so too do the ghosts and the haunted site. In “Wolverden Tower,” the action occurs at a similarly significant time of year, at the turning of the season—in this instance, over the Christmas period at the beginning of the winter and change into a new year. In both cases, all of the trappings of modernity are powerless against the ancient natural rhythms of the other world. In this later story, the young female protagonist, also a house guest in a part of the country not her own, meets and speaks to ghosts though she is initially unaware of their true posthumous status. She does not experience the same fear for her own safety as the central character of “Pallinghurst Barrow,” but she is gradually and inexorably guided to a course of action that nearly culminates in her own death. Her ghosts, though superficially much friendlier and more benign than the terrifying barrow wights of the earlier story, are also disembodied survivors from a more brutal, more irrational past. In both stories, there is a perpetual threat “that history might repeat itself, that past horrors might remain or be repeated” (Thurgill 45). Any cultural or scientific progress in the Victorian era could give way at any moment to blood lust and human sacrifice, and Allen’s protagonists confront not [page 86] simply ghosts and the prospect of their own imminent demise, but the complete overthrow of the rational.

The central figure of “Pallinghurst Barrow,” Rudolph Reeve, is an ordinary man, “a journalist and a man of science” (67). He is very much of this world, and at the beginning of the story, he is very much the overtaxed brain worker of the fin-de-siècle city. Even this sensible man, however, feels the haunted past creep up on him when he finds himself out in the countryside near the fateful Old Long Barrow at sunset. Marion Gibson has observed that “the prehistoric fiction of the 1890s to 1950s created a dark, saddening literature of uncertainty and unanswered questions” (360), and it is very much in this environment that Reeve finds himself, questioning certainties that he had previously never considered. This logical, intelligent man, true to his profession, notices the unusual atmospherics and the violent underbelly of the beautiful natural world. Yet he is also simultaneously subtly aware of “the universe all teeming with strange secrets to unfold” and the gentle pull of an “overpowering sense of the mysterious and the marvelous in the dark depths of the barrow” (69). Even at this stage, his rational, scientifically trained mind begins to come under the influence of the supernatural, foreshadowing the hold this preternatural prehistoric world will have upon him later the same evening when he finds himself inside the barrow.

This apparent discrepancy is commented upon by another character, a doctor and materialist, who during the after-dinner conversation hints at the incompatibility of an intelligent, scientific mind and seeing spirits. He notes:

“One hears of lots of ghosts in eighteenth-century costumes, because everybody has a clear idea of wigs and small-clothes from pictures and fancy dresses. One hears of far fewer in Elizabethan dress, because the class most given to beholding ghosts are seldom acquainted with ruffs and farthingales; and one meets with none at all in Anglo-Saxon or Ancient British or Supernatural Studies 87 Roman costumes, because those are only known to a comparatively small class of learned people.… Millions of ghosts of remote antiquity must swarm about the world, though, after a hundred years or thereabouts, they retire into obscurity and cease to annoy people with their nasty cold shivers.” (76-77)

Such caustic comments on the different generations of specters not mentioned in ghost sightings apparently apply cold logic to the problem of any kind of supernatural existence and might even be taken for a subtle affirmation of Allen’s own beliefs as a man of science. And yet, despite acknowledging the truth of everything that can be said against a ghostly afterlife, our hero experiences just such an encounter with ancient souls. Ghosts, vicious and inexplicable, are present, and they attack someone very much like Allen himself.

That the influence of the savage past could exert such power over him is not seen as altogether surprising. Despite living in a rational age, not everyone shares Reeve’s views or the materialist’s healthy skepticism about the existence of an afterlife. One of the fellow guests at the house party is an “esoteric Buddhist and hostess of Mahatmas” (75), and she offers many opportunities for light comic relief and the opportunity to criticize fashionable but vacuous beliefs in the occult. Yet despite the stereotypical characterization of this credulous house guest, some of what she says proves true. She bores and amuses the other, much more skeptically inclined guests with her hybrid of Wordsworth’s poetry and generic Eastern mysticism when she tells them that “‘the child, bursting new upon the dim world of Karma, trails clouds of glory from the beatific vision’” (75). She believes, when the materialist does not, that a living person would “‘be just as likely to see the ghost of a Stone Age chief as the ghost of a Georgian or Elizabethan exquisite’” (78). This is, of course, exactly the spook that Reeve does meet. Nor is her comment that children “‘see more than we adults do’” (75) as naive as it seems, as it is the child in the house who foretells [page 88] Reeve’s supernatural encounter. In short, at every turn, ghosts and the Gothic undermine the scientific characters’ beliefs and disturb their complacency.

These extremes of different forms of knowledge, that of faith and that of modern science, are embodied in a young girl of the household. The preternaturally wise child Joyce, the daughter of the no-nonsense hostess who dismisses all mention of the supernatural, is “a frail and pretty little creature, just twelve years old, very light and fairylike” (72), and this “fairylike” quality extends beyond her physical appearance. She is fey, and it is Joyce who introduces to the narrative an old folk rhyme about the barrow and the supernatural at the turning of the season that is proved true during the events of the evening. What is more, it is the character of Joyce who, even more than Reeve, the man of science, blends modern advances with historical superstition. In explaining what the mysterious red light in the sky portends, she speaks “quietly, with the air of one who retails a wellknown scientific fact” (72). Her knowledge, for which her rationalist mother reprimands her, is both scientific and preternatural in nature. She represents a link between the two contending forces in the story, and she is the only person to whom Reeve can speak of his escape. For all of the attempts to explain away, dismiss, or classify and document otherworldly matters that the other house guests make, Joyce and Reeve’s experiences indicate that the modern world and the ghostly past coexist uneasily but irrefutably.

Gender Roles in Life and Death

This juxtaposition of the fin-de-siècle and extrasensory perception that harkens back to an altogether different society and era or eras is also evident in “Wolverden Tower.” The protagonist of this story possesses innate psychic abilities, much like the young girl Joyce in “Pallinghurst Barrow,” and this link to the otherworldly is once again manifested in the young woman’s physical appearance. She has “ethereal [page 89] features”: “Her eyes, in particular, had a lustrous depth that was almost superhuman, and her fingers and nails were strangely transparent in their waxen softness” (92). Her body’s beauty thus hints at her soul’s disembodiment: as attractive as she is, she already resembles the ghost that she almost becomes. It is worth noting that this physicality that suggests one foot on earth and one in heaven is restricted, at least in these two stories, to the female figures. Their feminine “qualities of receptivity and passivity” stress their connection to the spirit world but also serve to highlight that these very traits “can also bind women into a paradigm of weakness, instability, inferiority, and social powerlessness,” which proves true of the ease with which both Joyce and Maisie are guided or manipulated by others around them (Owen 242).⁵ By contrast, Reeve, though also sensitive to the supernatural, is not marked out by his body other than through observations about his fatigue.

Here, as elsewhere in Allen’s fiction, there is something of a gendered divide. Eva Chen has commented upon “Allen’s ambivalence toward the New Woman” (619), and Jessica Gray has similarly noticed that Allen “was, at times, a proponent of anti-feminist views” (490).⁶ Certainly, his New Women enjoy many freedoms denied to their ancestors, but this conservative streak is present in other short stories and novels, as becomes evident in “Wolverden Tower.” The reason for this may lie with Allen’s vision for society as a whole. Brooke Cameron has written of Allen’s late-Victorian scientific framework for women as figures who, however personally intelligent and interesting, have a fixed place within the larger whole. She remarks that “Women, or more specifically mothers, achieve individualism only after they willingly shoulder the burden of reproduction and thus enable the evolution of the social organism” (283). While this analysis most obviously links to a character such as Herminia Barton in Allen’s novel The Woman Who Did (1895), it also connects to the differences between the sexes of the cen-[page 90]tral characters in these two ghost stories and indicates gendered experiences of the supernatural within Allen’s Gothic.

Reeve’s experience in “Pallinghurst Barrow” is one of unadulterated terror. His ghostly hosts threaten his life for no greater purpose than the mere sacrifice to a bloodthirsty culture and a past in which he previously had not placed any faith. These “incorporeal pagan savages” seek his life to add to the legions of the dead whose spirits now dwell in the barrow with no clearly defined end other than the lust of blood and of adding to the number of souls who prostrate themselves before the barrow’s skeleton king (87). He is menaced by mob violence and the sharp flint knives wielded by these ghosts, neatly collapsing the threat of the irrational past and the rudiments of scientific advancement into a single horrifying danger.

By contrast, Maisie Llewelyn in “Wolverden Tower” does not experience the same fear that Reeve does; the only fright that she feels stems from an encounter with a living woman described as “‘a witch’” who has “‘the evil eye’” and is “‘a sort of modern ghoul, a degenerate vampire’” (96, 97). This woman does share a supernatural link to the dead in the churchyard, but those same dead characters prove far less intimidating than the living woman who haunts their environs. The ghosts’ appearance is much more akin to Maisie’s own unearthly beauty. In this story, the supernatural has become a natural part of life. While Maisie recognizes something alien about these female specters, there is nothing in them to alarm her, and she likes them from their first meeting. They are “not only beautiful in face and figure,” but “Maisie found them from the first extremely sympathetic” (101). With “Wolverden Tower,” Allen reverses the source of terror as well as the gender of his protagonist. Life is not assumed to be worth living, but rather, as the ghosts persuade Maisie, “‘so short, so vain, so transitory! And beyond it is peace—eternal peace—the calm of rest—the joy of the spirit’” (103). According to these persuasive spirits, there is nothing to fear from death, but rather, everything to fear [page 91] from life. At the point of dissolution, Maisie will shrink once more from the living woman who had frightened her earlier but will find comfort in one of the ghosts, moving closer to the spirit and remarking, “‘I’m not afraid of you, dear’” (120). The contrast between the death scenes of these two characters is astonishing; the protagonists fly from or enthuseastically embrace the prospect of their own corporeal deaths. The answer, perhaps, resides in their gendered roles, and hence, their different roles in helping society to function. There is no hint that Reeve’s contribution to the greater good should be anything other than what he already does in his profession as a scientific writer.

With Maisie, however, it is far otherwise. The ghosts stress her service to mankind, even before her service to the titular architecture for which she will constitute a foundation sacrifice.⁷ In Allen’s tale, the key point of foundation sacrifice, debated among folklorists, stressed that “the immuring of a human victim” greatly benefited the building for which the victim was sacrificed (Brewster 71), and “the structure erected was greatly strengthened and rendered capable of withstanding assault by attackers, or the weathering of the elements” (Ó Súilleabháin 50). For Maisie, she forms both a foundation sacrifice and a sacrificial victim who exceeds even such an extreme and sanguinary custom. At the final moment before she is to leap, one of the tower guardians directs her to “‘cast yourself down, a willing sacrifice, for the service of man, and the security of this tower against thunderbolt and lightning’” (122). Maisie’s life is required for the tower’s full protection, but it is the concept of service that is first stated and more highly valued.

This concept of service has, however, emerged from a more ambiguous depiction of not just service but sacrifice that exceeds the much older, atavistic concept of foundation sacrifice. Even before Maisie meets her ghostly companions, the stage is set, metaphorically and literally, for her own impending denial of self for the sake of the greater good. The [page 92] after-dinner entertainment includes “tableaux … designed and managed by a famous Royal Academician” in which house guests participate (98). The narrative comments caustically on “the sacrifice of three weeks’ time and several hundred pounds money” (98) in such frivolous displays for the benefit of society, but the sacrificial nature of the tableaux opens the entertainment to more than one reading. The four mentioned are “Jephthah’s Daughter,” the “Sacrifice of Iphigenia,” “The Martyrdom of St. Agnes,” and “The Death of Ophelia,” all very elegantly arranged and all very much removed from the present through their historic or artistic background (98, 99, 104). Yet even here, there is a sense of the distant past creeping forward into the much more recent past and almost touching the present. The classical might seem sufficiently and comfortably remote, just as the prehistoric did in “Pallinghurst Barrow,” but the deaths of a young women depicted in all four instances move forward into the Renaissance, with the fourth tableau, Ophelia’s tragic end, bringing the topic of virgin sacrifice into quite dangerous proximity with the nineteenth century. It hints at a trajectory or a continuation of this ritualized death of girls and young women rather than a safely and conveniently distant practice from which all of those present may readily think themselves removed. Moreover, as some of the house guests are involved, the implication is that the entertainment is their only connection to such scenes of death, yet the encroachment on the present that the tableaux represent has already hinted that the present, and its living inhabitants, may become closely involved in these grisly scenes.

The more personal circumstances of Maisie’s possible life, and death, involve the role she would have were she to live and go on to fulfill her role in society in a very different way. A possible romantic relationship is mentioned quite early in the story, suggesting by extension her future duties as a wife and mother. The ghosts channel this focus into a different path, suggesting that marriage and maternity will be filled with sorrow, but that death, rather than dividing [page 93] the lovers, will prove both happier and of greater benefit to society as a whole. In life, Maisie’s role is heavily gendered, serving the larger purpose of motherhood. Allen’s ghosts disrupt this purpose, offering her an even more useful role. That is, Maisie’s prospective earthly life is cast as superfluous to her greater purpose as a ghost. As a spirit, she will occupy a far more exalted position, filling a role that is a “‘glorious privilege’” (116). Moreover, she will not be alone as she imagines, but instead “‘our comrade’” (116). One ghost even stresses the community of this afterlife of service, telling Maisie “‘You will not be alone.… We will all go with you. We will help you and encourage you’” (116). This supernatural community is more tightly knit than any society of the living, and certainly more caring and mutually encouraging than the house party that Maisie has recently quitted, in which she knew very few of the guests and conversed most freely with the uninvited ghostly visitors. Much as Reeve’s certain knowledge of modern science had been dramatically negated, all that Maisie thinks she knows is undermined by the world of the past and the supernatural.

Their ghostly encounters unsettle and alter the stories’ protagonists. Maisie experiences a revulsion of feeling at her survival rather than a sense of relief. Having been prevented from self-sacrifice, she feels “[a] weird remorse” and believes “‘I have neglected my duty!’” (125). She explicitly wished and wishes to embrace the Gothic past, utterly denying the comfortable modern life that she has led. For Reeve, the man of science, his personal experience of the “weird and unearthly” lights and atmosphere “that positively fascinated him” has altered his skepticism into a form of something very like belief in the supernatural (“Pallinghurst” 67). All that the protagonists thought that they knew has been undermined. Straightforward distinctions have become impossible in spite of efforts to separate the two: “The dead had to cease to be a part of the present, and had to be relocated both spatially and in the past, placing them in a different kind of relations with the living” (Thomas 665). In these [page 94] stories, however, such a separation between the living and dead is much easier said than done. In fine ghost story tradition, Allen’s ghosts haunt his protagonists long after their encounters with the other world have ended. What is perhaps more remarkable is that, for all his disavowal of them, Allen’s ghosts also continued to haunt him and his writing.


1. While the body of scholarship on Allen has grown, the assessment that his controversial novel “The Woman Who Did … still dominates subsequent discussion of Allen” and that “[t]he result of such concentration of attention … has been to marginalise other aspects of Allen’s achievement” is only slowly changing (Greenslade and Rodgers 2). Allen’s Gothic, though a relatively small part of his oeuvre, constitutes a part of this reclamation of his position as a man of letters and his overall place within late-Victorian British Gothic.

2. For an acute and thorough treatment of the conflicting accounts of this first scientific essay-cum-ghost story and the different forces exerted on this narrative at this point in Allen’s career, see Mills 142-145. This story punctures the conventions of the traditional ghost story, with the titular apparition of Allen’s “Our Scientific Observations on a Ghost” (1878) cutting a pathetic figure next to the vigorous youth and scientific rigor of the skeptical Oxford undergraduates who examine him to determine whether or not he is indeed a spirit of the departed. The house he haunts has changed for the worse, “an Elizabethan manor” that “finally degenerated” into a “modern farmhouse”; it not imposing but is as much a ghost as the spectral tenant who inhabits it and who has similarly come down in the world from his former glory days (Allen, “Our” 322). The ghost himself died ignominiously, “beheaded under James II. for his participation, or rather his intention to participate, in Monmouth’s rebellion,” with no suggestion of unfinished [page 95] personal business compelling him to linger in the world of men or greater wrongs to set right (322). Allen’s first ghost is something of an ineffectual milksop rather than spooky: in life he failed to take part in a failed rebellion, marking him out less as a tragic figure or man caught up in great historical change and more as a figure who, through indecision or inertia, could not even bring himself to join an unsuccessful rising against the crown. He was in life, as he is now in the spirit realm, something of a nonentity and far from the Gothic tradition. By contrast, the ghosts who haunt “Wolverden Tower” and “Pallinghurst Barrow” belong to a much older, much less civilized, much less well-known history, and a far, far more violent past. They are degenerate and show both how far man has evolved and how easily regressing into violence and superstition can be. This shift from mockery to a fully Gothic form of storytelling highlights Allen’s development and ability to adapt as a writer.

3. Morton has also noted how important this popular writing was for Allen from a financial point of view, observing that “The production, first of short stories, then of novels and novellas, started to underpin his career quite early on, subsidizing all his other numerous activities and by itself earning him much of the income he thought was his due. But that did not stop him resenting it, or saying that he did” (Busiest 112). Allen’s quest for economic stability, his versatility as a writer, and the pressures of the Victorian literary marketplace all combined to make a fully objective history of this period of Allen’s life difficult.

4. In his depiction of this era, Allen drew upon current theories as well as giving them narrative shape in his nonfiction and fiction works. Ronald Hutton has noted that “the Victorian pioneers of modern archaeology mainly saw [‘the British Neolithic’] as a period of savagery and bloodshed,” and “Where the great scholars led, creative writers followed, such as the essayist Grant Allen” (77). [page 96] This growing slippage between the serious study of scientific subjects and creative license troubled the archaeologist and Member of Parliament John Lubbock, who observed that “if others, more hopefully, have endeavoured to reconstruct the story of the past, they have too often allowed imagination to usurp the place of research, and written rather in the spirit of the novelist, than in that of the philosopher” (1). The tension between Allen’s reading and its influence on his writing is a rich area for further study.

5. It should additionally be noted that Maisie and Joyce both conform to a highly specific model of Victorian gender roles, especially in their capacity as spiritually connected. As has been observed of ideals of women in the period, “Nineteenth-century prescriptive femininity ... both relied and insisted upon a particular understanding of womanliness, and this understanding related to the idea of middle-class ‘ladies’ as opposed to working-class women” (Owen 7). Allen’s characters are securely middle class, with Maisie’s status even more exalted as “a Llewelyn … of royal lineage,” who possesses “in her veins the blood of Arthur, of Ambrosius, and of Vortigern” (113).

6. More directly, Lyssa Randolph has observed of this complexity and contradictory nature of Allen’s writing that he “is worthy of our critical attention not because he was a progressive liberal with advanced views, but more precisely because his thought also reveals the eugenicism, racism and anti-feminism which was rife in the cultural and sexual politics of his day” (77). In these Gothic stories, Allen’s simultaneous exaltation and gendered dismissal of female characters provides a fascinating instance of his treatment of feminism beyond his New Woman novels.

7. The Victorian folklorist George Laurence Gomme, “one of the original historical thinkers of his time” and “a once influential follower of Edward Tylor” (de Caro 107) and a contemporary of Allen, appositely noted, “The [page 97] essential characteristic of folklore is that is consists of beliefs, customs, and traditions which are far behind civilisation in their intrinsic value to man, though they exist under the cover of a civilised nationality” (Gomme, Ethnology 2). The implication in Gomme’s description that an older, much less developed custom or ritual survives within but does not destabilize the ultimate superiority of modern society is particularly appropriate for Allen’s Gothic stories. Fittingly for “Wolverden Tower” and the narrative use of Maisie’s slightly mysticized Welsh heritage, Gomme also connected foundation sacrifice in the British Isles to a much older period. He wrote that “The sacrifice of human victims as a foundation sacrifice is related in our earliest chronicles, at a period of history, that is, when the state of society to which the custom really belongs might naturally be called savage with regard to England as well as to modern barbarism” and adds, strikingly, that “The first instance, too, is connected not with the church, but with a tower” (Folk-lore 31). For a more recent study of how foundation sacrifice, national biases in folklore studies, and the sex of the sacrificial victim intersect, see Alan Dundes (“How Indic Parallels to the Ballad of the ‘Walled-Up Wife’ Reveal the Pitfalls of Parochial Nationalistic Folkloristics.” Meaning of Folklore: The Analytical Essays of Alan Dundes, edited by Simon J. Bronner, Utah State UP, 2007, pp. 107–122).

Works Cited

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---. “Pallinghurst Barrow.” Ivan Greet’s Masterpiece, Chatto and Windus, 1893, pp. 67-89.

---. Twelve Tales, Grant Richards, 1899. [page 98]

---. “Wolverden Tower.” Twelve Tales, pp. 90-126.

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---. Folk-lore Relics of Early Village Life. Elliot Stock, 1883.

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--- and Terence Rodgers, editors. Grant Allen: Literature and Cultural Politics at the Fin de Siècle, Ashgate, 2005. [page 99]

--- and Rodgers. “Resituating Grant Allen: Writing, Radicalism and Modernity.” Greenslade and Rodgers, pp. 1-22.

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---. Essays upon Some Controverted Questions. D. Appleton and Co., 1893.

Jensen, J. Vernon. Thomas Henry Huxley: Communicating for Science. U of Delaware P, 1991.

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Morton, Peter. “The Busiest Man in England”: Grant Allen and the Writing Trade, 1875-1900. Palgrave, 2005.

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Owen, Alex. The Darkened Room, Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England. Virago, 1989.

Peterson, Linda. H. “Writing Nature at the Fin de Siècle: Grant Allen, Alice Meynell, and the Split Legacy of Gilbert White.” Victorian Review, vol. 36, no. 2, 2010, pp. 80-91.

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Thomas, Julian. “Death, Identity and the Body in Neolithic Britain.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 6, no. 4, 2000, pp. 653-668.

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Erin Louttit is an independent scholar. Her research interests include the supernatural, the literature and culture of the long 19th century, and cultural interpretations of faith. 

MLA citation (print):

Louttit, Erin. "Haunted by History: Grant Allen and the Incursion of the Gothic Past." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 8, no. 2, 2022, pp. 77-100.