Thirteen rare tales by the most prolific Victorian Christmas ghost story author, collected and republished for the first time!
Move over, Charles Dickens! The author of "A Christmas Carol" may be the most famous Victorian author of Christmas ghost stories, but the king of the genre was James Skipp Borlase (1839-1909), who published dozens of them in obscure British and Australian periodicals during a nearly fifty-year span. Now for the first time, thirteen of Borlase's best tales have been unearthed from newspaper archives and compiled in a single volume for modern readers.
In "A Weird Wooing" (1898) an impecunious suitor braves a house haunted by the ghosts of plague victims in search of a legendary treasure. "The Steel-Bound Valise" (1875) tells of a horrid murder and a spectral vision that reveals the truth behind the awful deed. In "A Bride from the Dead" (1899), a man races against time on horseback to save his beloved from a forced marriage-but arrives too late to prevent an even more horrible and macabre fate. This volume showcases Borlase's wide range, featuring macabre and bone-chilling stories alongside more lighthearted pieces, all of them just as entertaining to read on a winter's night as they were more than a century ago.
Release date: November 29, 2022
Publisher: Valancourt Books
Print pages: 222
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The Shrieking Skull and other Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories
James Skipp Borlase
The Christmas season is the most often selected for relating by the fireside stories of ghosts and extraordinary adventures. If they have a local association, so much the greater is the interest evinced in them.
Shepton Mallet Journal [South-West England], Dec. 23, 1887, 3.
A country parson “dealing out strange accounts of the popular superstitions and legends of the surrounding country, with which he had become acquainted in the course of his antiquarian researches” acquaints the protagonist (and reading audience) of Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819) with the ghost-telling tradition of an old English Christmas. In “The Christmas Dinner” section of that work, the parson’s host likewise is “a great reader of old legends and romances,” and the women in attendance maintain oral traditions of “all kinds of ghosts, goblins, and fairies.”
James Skipp Borlase (1839-1909), born in Truro, in southwest England, would be similarly attracted in the early years of his writing career to the surrounding country and legends for his subject matter. Early pieces included the poem “My Native Bay,” virtually a list of Cornish locations, and “Flora de Melville; or, The May Queen: A Legend of Goodrich Castle,” a serial appearing in part in the Christmas Number of Counsell’s Miscellany.1 Besides the general historical inclinations of Victorian times, notable antiquarians in the family, including ancestor Dr. William Borlase (1696-1772) and distant cousin William Copeland Borlase (1848-1899), may have amplified Borlase’s own historical interests.
Borlase was admitted as a solicitor in February 1862, but steadily continued writing poems, stories, and serials. At the same time, he was an agent for a life insurance company and also lent money at interest. On September 1, 1863 he was married, and by October he had retired from law in Plymouth, the announcement coming so abruptly that his clients had to be left letters regarding their cases—not even posted but simply left at the former office.2
The couple departed for Australia in March 1864.3 Borlase was admitted as a lawyer there in November, but by January 1865 he was arrested in Tasmania and brought back to Melbourne for deserting his wife. Reconciliation avoided a trial, though the marriage still didn’t last. The scandal could have been a career-destroyer, but ultimately it was just a small news item that didn’t make the front page. He grandiosely advertised his legal services in 1866-68, represented at least one insolvent debtor, and obtained admission in other Australian states.4
A couple of the stories in the present volume didn’t have a Christmas association on their original publication but had Christmas elements added later, apparently to help ensure their republication. Retooling his own work was common throughout Borlase’s career. The aforementioned “My Native Bay” would have its Cornish locations swapped out for Tasmanian ones a decade later, for example: any real native feeling giving way to ensure the poem’s continued viability for print.5 In looking for venues for his work, he was also adept at self-syndication or working with early networks in Australia and Great Britain.6
Borlase’s Christmas ghost stories vary as to setting (Great Britain, continental Europe, Australia); the presence, allegation, or absence of the supernatural; suspense or comedy; happy endings or tragic. For this volume, some attempt has been made to mix them up from their chronological order for more variation. The Victorian reader might have read only two Borlase stories in a single Christmas season and fewer than ten Christmas ghost stories by any author. Relatively few years produced anthologies of them; rather they were scattered across multiple publications. Even the most patient and persistent habitué of newsstands and libraries might have found it challenging to find as many as twelve new ones in a single December. The modern reader might take a cue from that and consider spacing them out over the days of the Advent calendar and Christmastide, ideally letting each one linger individually awhile, hauntingly.
Melodrama, Gothics, Sensation Novels, and City Mysteries
The first example of Borlase entering the Christmas ghost story market was in 1867 for the Albury Banner and Wodonga Express of New South Wales, Australia. In this instance, he repurposed a story of his own from The Odd-Fellows’ Magazine, the “Quarterly Magazine of the Independent Order of Odd-Fellows, Manchester Unity Friendly Society.” Several of his works were published by the IOOF, and it stands to reason he would have been a member. Rituals involved skeletons as memento mori and ceremonial admonitions; somewhat notoriously, former IOOF lodges have required investigations when remains are found in them.7
The protagonist of Borlase’s earliest Christmas ghost story was a law student, and given that Borlase himself studied law it is tempting to view some of the elements as semi-autobiographical. The unnamed character professes his admiration for “all the glorious romances of Scott and Bulwer.” Walter Scott’s “The Tapestried Chamber” (1829), reprinted in The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, Volume One, is an early example of a printed Christmas ghost story and features what would become a trope common to many such stories, that of a traveler being given a room of last resort in an old castle, a strange echo of Luke 2:7’s story of there being no room at the inn and having to resort to a manger, curiously (and gothically) depicted in some crèches as set in a stone ruin. Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s occult romance Zanoni (1842) mentions a variation on the holiday tradition, comparing tricks of alchemists and necromancers to how “the showman enchants some trembling children on a Christmas Eve with his lantern and phantasmagoria.”
Victorian readers’ concept of “ghost stories” generally and “Christmas ghost stories” in particular was broader than the conception of some readers today. Mary Shelley, in her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, released for the Christmas market, noted the novel’s origin in a writing challenge following a reading of Fantasmagoriana, ou Recueil d’histoires d’apparitions de spectres at Lake Geneva in Switzerland. “ ‘We will each write a ghost story,’ said Lord Byron; and his proposition was acceded to.” She went on to refer to her work as a “ghost story,” and that description was widely reprinted in British newspapers at the time, perhaps one influence among many on Victorian readers’ broad concept of “ghost stories” generally if not also “Christmas ghost stories” specifically. (A number of stage adaptations of the novel over the years were “conceived of as Christmas entertainment.”8) The alchemical studies of Hermes Trismegistus and the admonition to the student in “The Fiery Skull” recall Victor Frankenstein and the warning about concentrating on Albertus Magnus and Paracelsus as he had done, suggesting a familiarity with the work.
Aside from Scott, Borlase had an admiration for Edgar Allan Poe—a number of whose works were first published in the annual The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present9—that he enthusiastically shared by doing multiple public readings of the author’s work in both England and Australia.10 Borlase also admired Mary Elizabeth Braddon,11 a prolific writer and editor of ghost stories, something for which she was occasionally criticized:
[W]hy fill Christmas books with ghost stories, and devil-hunts, and all that is superstitious, and silly, and absolutely bad? Will Miss Braddon or her publishers answer this?12
Borlase was also known to have a considerable familiarity with the “city mysteries” genre, having reportedly written a Mysteries of Melbourne and attempted to syndicate a Mysteries of Sydney by Adam Lindsay Gordon while in Australia.13 In later years the New York Mercury would advertise across the United States that “a new and original series of THE MYSTERIES OF PARIS, covering the time of the second empire and the commune and revealing as with a master hand the follies of fair Paris, will be contributed by JAMES S. BORLASE.”14 The original Mysteries of Paris had a passage involving the truth of what happened to a well-dressed traveler who had stopped at a house on Christmas Eve for supper and a bed.15 It seems as though it may have inspired Erckmann-Chatrian’s Le Juif polonais (The Polish Jew) and one of the stories in the present volume, as well as having generally encouraged events of Christmas horror in other city mysteries, for example:
“On Christmas Eve, at the hour of sunset—” shrieked the Astrologer, his features convulsed with anger, and his voice wild and piercing in its tones—“One of you will die by the other’s hand! The winding sheet is woven, and the coffin made—you are rushing madly on your doom!”
George Lippard, Dora Livingstone, the Adulteress: or, The Quaker City (London: G. Purkiss, 1848), 12.16
During this early period, Borlase also began making periodic use of the pseudonym J. J. G. Bradley, his father’s real first initials, the surname just invention. “The Steel-Bound Valise” appeared under that name, while for all the others included here Borlase used his own upon initial publication (or republication if originally anonymous.)
Christmas Supplements and an Australian Gothic Interlude
In an anonymous story later republished in a revised form,17 Borlase commented on the Australian’s relation to British Christmas ghosts:
when December comes, which is our midsummer, and blazing hot, I can tell you, we look out for “Peter Parley’s Annual,” and, dear me, how strange some of the stories do seem, and the pictures as well, to lads who have never seen ice or snow, and so can only guess what fun sliding, and skating, and snowballing must be. And then as to the ghost stories in some of the Christmas Supplements. Why, though our country is as big as the whole of Europe, and dotted all over with towns and cities, we haven’t got a haunted house in one of them, that I ever heard tell of. Now that is an odd thing, isn’t it?18
Aside from international periodical distribution, Australian papers occasionally reprinted British stories, or Australian authors chose to set Christmas ghost stories in the old home country. Nonetheless, others found ways to make Australia’s characteristics work. “[R]ural isolation […] nature itself, harsh and unforgiving […] there’s an unheimlich quality to this country’s wilderness, which makes it clear that most characters—human or otherwise—are unwelcome. Leave, they seem to say. You don’t belong here.”19Whether Borlase conceived it that way or not, it fits the bill—and tips the billycock hat to German tradition as well.
Christmas supplements and characteristically Australian ghost stories for them were uncommon during 1864-1869 when he lived there, however. For the most part he mined that part of his life for adventure and crime stories to be published in other seasons, and his efforts in actively marketing his speaking and writing there helped prepare for the more competitive market back in England. The only specifically Christmas writing he did while in Australia was a sunny, religious poem.
Folk Horror Made to Order
Borlase’s earliest Christmas ghost stories, all written in the first person, suggested the influences of his reading and the publication market. However, in a self-publicity piece (written in third person), he remarked that starting in 1880 “he attempted a new style of writing, and with such signal success that he has worked the same profitable mine ever since.”20 Post-1880, his procedure seems to have primarily involved identifying short passages regarding ghosts, witches, deals with the devil, and so on from works of local history and folklore, then writing a longer story of his own from that germ of an idea and resetting the events around Christmas. In some ways this practice is similar to the story of Christmas itself: the actual Biblical story of Christmas is quite brief; much of the story as we know it today is the result of Christians’ choice to expand on it in art and apocrypha, some of the latter coincidentally translated by the scholar (and Christmas ghost story teller) M.R. James.21
Potential sources for the title story of this collection are many;22the shrieking skull is a British tradition and also found its way into F. Marion Crawford’s 1908 “The Screaming Skull.” Another Borlase tale drawn from historical sources, “The Black Cat,” quotes details related to a 1661 witch trial that had been infrequently reprinted and thus could only have been found in a limited number of places:
It was also decreed that “persones jmprisoned for witchcraft shall have no watch with them jn ther prisones, nor fyre nor candle, but that sex men nightly and dayly attend and watch them jn the vper tolbooth, and that the quarter-master shall order the watchmen to visit them at every three houres end night and day.” James Cargill Guthrie, The Vale of Strathmore: Its Scenes and Legends(Edinburgh: William Paterson, 1875), 495.
Newspapers appear to have liked the idea of local stories; Borlase’s (and other writers’) would often be teased to readers prior to publication. Some papers repeatedly returned to him year after year for more. Additionally, a number of the stories would have details and even their titles altered if it helped sales in other markets. “The Witch Branks” could be of Loughborough, or Forfar, or Stoke-Upon-Trent, or whatever was needed.
Borlase’s Skeleton in the Closet: Victorian Re-Origination
In 1843, Charles Dickens sued regarding what was felt to be a particularly egregious violation of his copyright, a work actually titled “A Christmas Ghost Story. Re-Originated from the Original by Charles Dickens, Esq., and Analytically Condensed Expressly for This Work.” It was one of only several instances of copyright violations occurring just within the subgenre.
Borlase, for his own part, was never sued regarding his writing. However, after he had returned from Australia to England an anonymous writer in the Australian Journal accused “Mr. Skiplace” of having “furnish[ed] certain literary contributions” that “bore more than a mere ‘family likeness’ to ‘Ivanhoe’ ” and to have been “lactating freely at Sir Walter’s dairy.” If the complaint referred to published works, it’s clear Borlase owed inspiration to Walter Scott, but not direct plagiarism.23
Evidence of borrowings from elsewhere was published in the Bulletin of the Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand in 1997, with some stories conclusively found to contain fragments from nonfiction, and with the analysis of an anonymously contributed story in the Australian Journal that was also later republished in revised form under Borlase’s name. The analysis determined that the two versions contained writing characteristic of both James Skipp Borlase and Mary Fortune, with the greater share belonging to the latter.
But why is it that Mary Fortune seems never to have offered any protest? It may be that, having seen her story in print and having (presumably) been paid for it, she never learned of its after-history. It may be that she came to know but could see no prospect of effective redress. Or it may even be that she regarded Borlase’s use of one story as a fitting recompense for his editorial labours on her apprentice-work. […]
Whatever his motive, his part in this anonymous story was to be his last publication in the Australian Journal and may be the last legitimate product of an unacknowledged but fruitful literary partnership with Mary Fortune.
Lucy Sussex and John Burrows, “Whodunit?: Literary Forensics and the Crime Writing of James Skipp Borlase and Mary Fortune,” Bulletin 21, 2 (1997): 73–106.24
The editor has found instances of Borlase republishing revised versions of stories that had originally specifically been credited to “Waif Wander” (Fortune). “Surly Dick’s Big Nugget” had been twice acknowledged as a work by her, published anonymously, then republished as Borlase’s. “Kirsty Oglevie” had been credited to Waif Wander, then republished as Borlase’s.25
There are asterisks to a couple of the stories in this volume that had originally appeared anonymously. “The Fiery Skull” had originally appeared under the title “The Student’s Tale.” In title and style, it bears resemblance to Borlase's “Sketch from a Law-Student’s Diary,” but that first appearance had credited its authorship to “Muta.” The name Muta was attached to other contributions both accepted and rejected by the journal.26 Unless it had been an elaborate ruse by Borlase to make the publishers or readers think the journal had more authors than in actuality, perhaps he only had a hand in editing it, if that.
“Bored to Death,” before being credited to Borlase in 1875 and having the mention of Boxing Night added, among other changes, had appeared in the Australian Journal, and even before that in the New York City periodical Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Its reference to “Chapter One Hundred and Twelve of the ‘Hobgoblin Husband’ ” seems like self-satire, given Borlase’s career-long association with serials. He did have a gift for humor, one review of readings he delivered at a Mechanic’s Institute in Tasmania observing, “As to the comic afterpiece, in ‘The adventures of Mr. Timothy Tiggs on Salt Pan Plains,’ (an old poem we take it, localised for the occasion) Mr. Borlase kept his audience in a roar of laughter for a quarter of an hour.”27 Borlase would even become the editor of Fun, or, The Tasmanian Charivari for a time.28 He was published in New York papers a number of times over the decades, but a foreign acceptance so early in his career does give one pause, especially with there being another instance of an anonymous, humorous, Harper’s publication being anonymously republished in Australia, then being credited to Borlase’s pseudonym in the following decade.29 Further research and analysis is clearly required.
Still, Borlase clearly wrote much that was his own. He estimated that he had “produced more than a hundred 60,000 to 90,000 words serials, and short tales ad infinitum,”30 and that rings true when searching databases of newspapers and journals. Moreover, the fact that he set so many of his ghost stories during the season, ...
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