The “Victorian Ghost Stories” project arose out of our team leader, Gabi Keane’s, interest in supernatural Victorian literature garnered from previous research performed at the University of Pittsburgh. Our basic goal was to explore short ghost stories written by female English authors during the Victorian Era and uncover some unique insight or claim about how they used language to build suspense. After concluding that the stories shared structural and thematic elements, we became curious as to what “scary words” were used to build suspense and how, if at all, the class or education level of the audience impacted the type of vocabulary these authors used to communicate.

Academic Context and Narrative

Many of the assumptions we make about these texts are based on Professor Twyning's observations, discussions, and ever-evolving ideas on the Victorian short story. After reading and discussing the stories in her class, she developed a five part formula for the short ghost story. The five parts were: introduction, protagonist, haunting, history, and resolve. The introduction set the stage for the haunting, often with a physical description or lengthy exposition. The protagonist section introduces a hero; almost always a middle class man who believes the ghost is a problem he can solve. The haunting is self-explanatory, but we should note that it often involves an unresolved issue of justice. It could be wrongful inheritance or a lifetime of neglect, but essentially the ghost is seeking some kind of retribution or resolution. History is generally part of the protagonist's desire to solve the mystery. In order to move forward, he must understand what went wrong in the life of the ghost. The resolve can be an actual resolution, or merely a resignation that the ghost will be tormented forever. The narrative structure of Victorian literature we used to form these ideas are based mostly on Colin MacCabe’s “Realism and the Cinema: Notes on Some Brechtian Theses,” Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious: or Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, and (of course) the venerable Raymond Williams. When Professor Twyning inevitably writes an article explaining these tropes and theories in all their glory, we will gladly link to it here.

Choosing the Texts

For our readings, we selected five short stories from four different authors: Walnut-Tree House and The Old House in Vauxhall Walk by Charlotte Riddell; The Old Nurse’s Story by Elizabeth Gaskell; The Shadow in the Corner by Mary Elizabeth Braddon; and John Charrington’s Wedding by Edith Nesbitt. We chose multiple authors to measure for consistency across genres as opposed to one particular artist’s breadth of work. We are using this group as representative of the genre. While the tropes present in these stories cannot be applied to all supernatural fiction of the period, we believe they do represent the trends. Note that popular canon writers like Dickens often subvert these tropes (and often to great effect).

Acknowledgements and Citations

Stories by Charlotte Riddell and Elizabeth Gaskell were republished thanks to John Charrington’s Wedding by Edith Nesbitt was available for free via Project Gutenberg. The Shadow in the Corner was republished with permission from

We would like to extend a special thanks to our project mentor, Shannen Davis, as well as Professor David Birnbaum from the University of Pittsburgh for teaching us the tricks of the trade.

Princeton University "About WordNet." WordNet. Princeton University. 2010. <>

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Creative Commons License Victorian Ghost Stories by Abigail Drabick, David Wade, Gabi Keane, Kaylen Sanders is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommericial 3.0 United States