November 17, 2008

The Haunted House by Charles Dickens

I haven't read any Dickens since I re-read A Christmas Carol several years ago, and, upon finishing The Haunted House, I was once again reminded of why I like him so much. Dickens is really funny. Really, I'm serious. Dickens can actually be funny enough to make up for the lachrymose moralizing that sneaks into some of his longer works (see Oliver Twist, or, god help you, Little Dorrit). Granted, Dickens wields the lachrymose as a means of social commentary and even of reform so it's hard to complain. Still, his sly, almost biting humor, does help the medicine go down. 

That said, the medicine in The Haunted House is already pretty sweet, if a little pious and saccharine at times. The haunted house of the title is engagingly drawn, complete with cataleptic maids and panicky cooks - people that are as whimsically ridiculous as anyone Edward Gorey could create. But the house isn't really haunted - at least not by rattling spirits. The only ghosts that haunt the denizens of the house are their own. Their memories, pasts and experiences comprise the 'haunting' stories named for each of the occupied rooms. 

Ultimately, the set-up is a fairly Dickensian exercise in catharsis, redemption and acceptance, although Dickens did not write all of the stories himself. He orchestrated the frame tale, entitled "The Mortals of the House," and contributed two other stories, but the rest were commissioned for the Christmas 1859 edition of All the Year Round. Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell and Hesba Stretton, among others, contributed, each writing a story set in one of the 'haunted' rooms. Sadly, most are negligible, though pleasant reads. There are exceptions in Collins' tale of the terrors of a candlestick, and Stretton's melancholy story of nearly lost love, but, for the most part, Dickens initial frame tale, "The Mortals of the House," is the only must read. 

So, here's my recommendation: 
Should you be interested in trying The Haunted House, borrow it, read the frame, and cherry pick the rest. Then go read Great Expectations for a full dose of the good stuff.


Laura Essendine said...

I haven't read Little Dorrit but I know what you mean about moralising. The BBC are serialising it at the moment and it does tend to labour the point about wastrels and debtors.

Despite being from the BBC and by the wonderful Andrew Davies, and despite a stellar cast putting in stunning performances, the story hasn't really "grabbed" me six episodes in. I'll stick with it but, by this time with Bleak House, I was on the edge of my seat.

Laura Essendine
Author – The Accidental Guru
The Books Limited Blog

ps. Wilkie Collins is much underrated and very little read these days. He's a great source of inspiration if producers are looking for classic books to adapt.

Madeleine said...

To be honest, reading Little Dorrit was just about as laborious as I imagine watching it would be. I barely managed to finish it and it took months of picking it up and putting it down to do it.

But I couldn't agree more about Wilkie Collins - I read The Woman in White last year and thought it was wonderful. I don't know why he isn't read more, or taught more for that matter. Odd that, with so many other classics being tapped for TV and film, no one has found his work.

As for Bleak House, I've heard the adaptation was excellent, but I haven't seen it yet. I'll bump it to the top of my list...