I’m Haunted by the Dickens – Howitt Ghost Debate

Ghostology 101a

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a feisty exchange between Charles Dickens and William Howitt that was intermingled with Dickens’s far-from-productive ghost hunt. Although it’s really no more than a footnote in Dickens’s life, I’ve become fascinated by trying to document what led up to the public skirmish. Here’s what I’ve found.

It seem that the trouble began in 1859, when Dickens published a series of anonymous articles in All the Year Round, his new journal following Household Words. That series was titled “A Physician’s Ghosts,” and Parts I and II appeared on August 6, Part III on August 13, and Part IV on August 27. Previously, Dickens had had a cordial relationship with Howitt, having published his writing in Household Worlds. Howitt was not pleased with “A Physician’s Ghosts,” however.

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Charles Dickens, Ghost Hunter? Well…

Ghostology 101a

From A Christmas Carol to “The Signal-Man” and beyond, several gripping ghost stories came from the pen of Charles Dickens. Though a steadfast skeptic when it came to real hauntings, he maintained an interest in the possibility. At one point, he even attempted to become a bona fide ghost hunter. Sadly, the adventure was disappointing and short lived.

It seems that, as 1859 came to a close, Dickens had gotten into a public debate over ghosts with a more confirmed ghost hunter named William Howitt. Previously, the two had had a friendly working relationship. Dickens, editor of Household Words, had accepted stories and other kinds of writing by Howitt, but none of this material was related to the supernatural. Their more heated exchange about ghosts took place in a journal called The Critic, which I haven’t been able to locate online. It would be interesting stuff to read, sort of a precursor to the squabbles between Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle about fifty years later — and Agents Scully and Mulder long after that. One can find a hint of the debate, though, in an article in The Spiritualist Magazine, published in early 1860. This journal upholds the believers’ position, first challenging Dickens’s skepticism by referring to some of his fiction and ending by reprinting one of Howitt’s letters from The Critic.

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William Howitt and the Intriguing Haunting of Clamps-in-the-Wood

Ghostology 101a

When Charles Dickens wanted to locate a haunted house not too far from London, he contacted William Howitt (1792-1879). Apparently, Howitt was something of an expert on haunted places. I’ve run into his name a couple of times in my historical research. He’s the author of “The Haunted House in Charnwood Forest” (1850), which is listed on my bibliography The Legacy of Ghost Hunter Fiction. He also did some follow-up investigation into the haunting at Willington, a case I discuss in an earlier Ghostology 101 post.

This week, I came across a ghost hunt that Howitt appears to have initiated. He chronicles it in an 1862 article titled “Berg-Geister — Clamps-in-the-Wood.” The first part of this curious title means “mountain spirits” in German. The second part is the name of a farmhouse, one that that used to belong to a man named Clamps and that was in the woodlands near Thorpe in the East Midlands of England.

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Dr. Edward Drury: Humble(d) Ghost Hunter

Ghostology 101aIn the mid-1800s, an ordinary-looking house in the village of Willington became one of England’s most famous haunted sites. The first published record of it appears to be a pamphlet titled “Authentic Account of a Visit to the Haunted House at Willington near Newcastle-Upon-Tyne” (Newcastle: Richardson, 1842), but within the year, the same publisher reprinted that account in a volume called The Local Historian’s Table Book. Told mostly through letters, the narrative spotlights an overnight ghost hunt of the house conducted by Edward Drury, a local doctor.

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Hunting for Ghost Hunter Fiction

Unearthing the UnearthlyI know there are more pre-1940 occult detective characters out there than are on my Chronological Bibliography. There must be. However, it’s been quite a while since I’ve discovered one. And so I’ve taken a new tactic to locate more while, at the same time, starting a new branch of literary research.

I’m now interested in something I’m calling “ghost hunter fiction.” In fact, exploring it is one of the reasons I’ve started The Merry Ghost Hunter website — to give myself a place to record and share my findings and thoughts.

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