The Canterville Ghost

The Canterville Ghost is a wonderful example of the humorous ghost story. Written by Dublin-born author and satirist Oscar Wilde and first published in 1887, it’s an entertaining parody of the spooky story.

Summary: Traditional English Spook Meets Progressive American Family

The story begins when American Minister to England, Hiram B. Otis, and his family move into Canterville Chase, a grand old mansion, despite warnings the house is haunted. Mr. Otis doubts it, but figures he can buy the place, ghost and all, at a bargain price. The family includes Mr. and Mrs. Otis, their 15-year-old daughter Virginia, rambunctious twin boys, and older son Washington.

Indeed, after the family moves, they see bloodstains reappear on the carpet after being washed, and they witness other strange apparitions. But the Otis family just doesn’t find these things all that spooky. When the resident ghost, a theatrical 300-year-old fellow named Simon, tries to scare the family in a diligently traditional manner, Mr. Otis just responds with practical solutions, offering stain-removers, lubricants and other products to fix the problems of blood-stains, squeaky chains, etc.

Meanwhile, the rascally young twins set out to make things miserable for the poor ghost, laying trip wires, assaulting him with pea shooters, setting up butter slides and traps.

The Otis Twins Pester the Canterville Ghost
The bratty American twins of the Otis family lay a trap for the venerable British ghost of Canterville, in Oscar Wilde’s classic ghost story (1909 illustration by Wallace Goldsmith).

Here, for instance, in comparison to the scene in Charles Dicken’s 1843 novel, A Christmas Carol, in which ghost Jacob Marley scrapes his way down the hall to the quaking Ebenezer Scrooge’s bedroom, dragging his ghastly clanking chains . . . the Canterville ghost tries to pull off the same, with inferior results.

At eleven o’clock the family retired, and by half-past all the lights were out. Some time after, Mr. Otis was awakened by a curious noise in the corridor, outside his room. It sounded like the clank of metal, and seemed to be coming nearer every moment. He got up at once, struck a match, and looked at the time. It was exactly one o’clock.

He was quite calm, and felt his pulse, which was not at all feverish. The strange noise still continued, and with it he heard distinctly the sound of footsteps. He put on his slippers, took a small oblong phial out of his dressing-case, and opened the door.

Right in front of him he saw, in the wan moonlight, an old man of terrible aspect. His eyes were as red burning coals; long grey hair fell over his shoulders in matted coils; his garments, which were of antique cut, were soiled and ragged, and from his wrists and ankles hung heavy manacles and rusty gyves.

‘My dear sir,’ said Mr. Otis, ‘I really must insist on your oiling those chains, and have brought you for that purpose a small bottle of the Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator. It is said to be completely efficacious upon one application, and there are several testimonials to that effect on the wrapper from some of our most eminent native divines.

‘I shall leave it here for you by the bedroom candles, and will be happy to supply you with more should you require it.’

With these words the United States Minister laid the bottle down on a marble table, and, closing his door, retired to rest.

For a moment the Canterville ghost stood quite motionless in natural indignation; then, dashing the bottle violently upon the polished floor, he fled down the corridor, uttering hollow groans, and emitting a ghastly green light.

It’s a fun-to-read spooky tale. There’s a lovely little edition available from Candlewick Press, and The Canterville Ghost can also be found online (e.g., an illustrated version at Project Gutenberg).

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