Two American Ghost Hunter Characters: Emerson Bennett’s Lance Walters and T.R. Sullivan’s Peter Van Voort

Unearthing the Unearthly“Would you like to see a ghost?” he inquired.
“If it is convenient,” said I.

— from “The Haunted House”

My roster of fictional ghost hunters, The Legacy of Ghost Hunter Fiction: A Chronological Bibliography, grew a bit longer over the last couple of weeks. I added two interesting tales: Emerson Bennett’s “The Haunted House” (1859) and T.R. Sullivan’s “Under Cover of the Darkness” (1893). Both stories use the common motif of spending a night in a place reputed to be haunted as a means to test a man’s courage — but the two male protagonists head in opposite directions as a result.

“The Haunted House” spotlights a frontiersman named Lance Walters. He has returned from the west and is now traveling through Alabama. (Remember, the story was published in 1859, and it’s set in the deep South. Expect some of the racist language and thinking of the pre-Civil War era.) Stopping at a plantation, the skeptical Walters is enticed by the prospect of spending the night in a room said to be haunted.

Emerson Bennett (1822-1905)

This has significance for the character because of his history of unflinching bravery. Bennett might go a bit too far in testing Walters’ courage with a parade of spooky, seemingly inexplicable experiences in that room, but the final result leaves Walters’ bravado bruised. I’m not saying too much by pointing out that the tough frontiersman is changed by his night of ghost hunting, if only a bit.

Peter Van Voort, the protagonist in Sullivan’s “Under Cover of the Darkness,” moves in the opposite direction. Sullivan opens with hints of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” setting the story in rural New York and introducing a love triangle. Miss Alice Thornton takes the place of Irving’s Katrina Van Tassel, Mr. Falconer stands in for Brom Bones, and Peter Van Voort begins as a sort of Icabod Crane. Significantly, Sullivan tells us that “there was in Peter’s nature a quaint dash of superstition, inherited, probably, from some credulous ancestor whose way of life had been regulated by stars and omens,” much as Crane’s superstitious nature leads him to assume that what ends up chasing him must be a headless horseman from the great beyond.

Thomas Russell Sullivan (1849-1916)

Unlike the lanky Crane, though, “little Van Voort, as he was usually called,” is about a foot shorter than his beloved Alice “and, were it not so, alas! that lover’s hair was red.” Jumping to another famous fictional trio, Peter is the story’s Ron Weasley. When Alice playfully challenges this ginger underdog to spend the night in the region’s weirdly shaped, allegedly haunted house, that challenge has the potential to make or break Peter.

While Sullivan might open his tale by winking at Washington Irving, he ends it by elbowing Edgar Allan Poe. All I’ll say is that that a macabre crime once occurred within that house, and reacting courageously and maturely to this dark secret becomes the test of Peter’s manhood.

This “test of manhood” (sometimes determining if a male is ready for marriage, as it does in Sullivan’s tale) underlies several ghost hunter stories, going as far back as Rebecca Edridge’s “The Haunted Castle” (1822) and the anonymous “The Silver Lady”(1831). J.H. Riddell’s “The Open Door” (1882) is one of the best of this kind, I think, because it’s less about a young male proving himself and more about that character finding himself. Links to all of these stories are provided on my bibliography.

That bibliography, by the way, has grown longer than I thought it would! Just when I think I’ve arrived at the final entry, I happen upon another ghost hunter. Your story suggestions are always welcome, but please remember that I’m focusing on characters who investigate ghosts specifically, who are not personally the haunted party, and whose adventure was published in or before 1925.


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