The House of Silence by Edith Nesbit

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Reviewed by Harriet

Here at Shiny, I’m proud to say, we have now covered every aspect of Edith Nesbit’s wonderful fiction writing. Best known to most people as a writer for children – I was introduced to her at a very early age by my mother who had also loved her as a child, and I’ve reviewed The Railway Children on here – she also wrote novels for adults, such as the delightful The Lark [here], and, though I wasn’t aware of it for many years, she was also a highly regarded writer of ghost stories. Many of these have been anthologised, including one which appeared in British Weird [here]. That volume was published by Handheld Press, who have now produced this collection of all her best ghost stories. I was looking forward to reading it but also slightly apprehensive as I’m quite easily scared and hoped it wouldn’t keep me awake at night. Luckily it didn’t, though some of the stories are definitely unsettling. 

In some stories, the supposed ghost turns out not to be a ghost at all, memorably in ‘The White Lady’, in which generations of  women in the same family have contrived the appearance of a ghost in order to overcome an obstacle to marriage, and in ‘The Haunted Inheritance’, where a false ghost is instrumental in securing a happy ending. Both these stories have what one critic called ‘a feminist orientation’, and both deal with love and marriage. Here the outcome is a positive one, but, as another academic has written, ‘many of the stories centre around the deep sadness of unrequited love between a man and a woman, a sadness that manifests itself in psychologically disturbing ways’. In ‘The Detective’, a young man overhears a conversation between a couple tragically separated by circumstances which, as it turns out, could not possibly have happened as one of the protagonists is dead. Death sometimes keeps people apart, as in ‘The Ebony Frame’, where a woman returns from the grave to seek her lost lover, or, in ‘John Charrington’s Wedding’, spookily enables a marriage to take place when the groom has just been killed in an accident. In ‘From the Dead’, a husband rejects his wife when he discovers he has been tricked into the marriage, and is filled with terrible regret when she returns from the dead to beg his forgiveness. 

Frequently, the supernatural appearances are never explained and become more frightening as a result. In the title story, ‘The House of Silence’, a burglar breaks into an empty house and is terrified by the brooding silence which pervades the building, though its cause is never known. In one of the scariest stories, ‘The Shadow’, the narrator describes a terrifying moment when, standing by her dead friend’s coffin,

It seemed to us we heard a sigh. He would have sprung to her side, in I don’t know what mad, glad hope. But at that instant we both saw it. Between us and the coffin, first grey, then black, it crouched in an instant, then sank and liquified – and was gathered together and drawn till it ran into the nearest shadow. And the nearest shadow was the shadow of Mabel’s coffin.

In ‘Man Size in Marble’, statues appear to rise from the tomb on which they were lying and, though her story is generally not believed by her friends, the young woman who claims to have seen the apparitions is found to have a marble finger clasped in her dead hand. This, probably the best known of Nesbit’s ghost stories, was written in 1887, the earliest in the collection. Twenty-three years later, in 1910, she published ‘The Marble Child’, in which reanimation occurs again, this time in the form of a marble child who comes to life and becomes the playmate of a lonely young boy, whose body once again turns out to have a marble finger clutched in his hand. 

This collection really shows off Nesbit at her best – imaginative, sometimes witty, always entertaining and immensely readable. The book is beautifully presented, with a full and informative introduction by Melissa Edmundson and helpful endnotes, as you would expect from a Handheld edition. Sadly it’s one the last books they will be publishing. Oh Handheld, we’ll miss you.

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Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny.

Edith Nesbit, The House of Silence: Ghost Stories 1887-1920 (Handheld Press, 2024). 978-1912766825, 258pp., paperback original.

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