It was a dark and stormy night…
Besides “Once upon a time,” this storytelling opening has no equal. Is there any region of fiction so hoary and so hallowed as the Ghost Story? The reasons for this are wholly mysterious but hardly strange. Is there anything that can make one more at home than the outlandish? Is there anything that can make anyone feel more safe than danger? Is there anything that can make the world more known than the unknown? Is there anything that can make men and women feel more alive than the dead?
There is a cobwebbed corner in every heart and in every library for the things that go bump in the night. Whether thrillers, shockers, or flesh-crawlers, the haunted volumes of literature and the chilling fireside chronicles are venerable indeed, and will remain beloved so long as human beings have lives to lose and souls to save. And what a joy it is rediscovering the ghastly delight of the ghost story by discovering a buried relic—some encrusted piece unheard of that can hold its own against anything by Stevenson, Dickens, Hawthorne, Wells, or even the great Poe. Known for his contributions to the eerie annals with the Headless Horseman, Washington Irving’s Sketch Book delivers just such a gem. Though obscure, The Spectre Bridegroom is a terrific tale of terror, valor, and true love; a story that renews the gloomy glory of the ghost story and the corporal convention that, though doomed to the grave, men cannot seem to keep out of the graveyard to save their lives.
Born in New York City, 1783, Washington Irving provided with his pen an integral part of American heritage—and largely because he made American heritage haunted, animating the spirit of America with ghosts and goblins through the legends of Ichabod Crane and Rip Van Winkle. The Spectre Bridegroom is a perfect companion to these, for it illustrates the interaction of heaven and earth—or even hell and earth. Irving’s retelling of this nugget of Germanic folklore resonates with the tone that is synonymous with the ghost story as it emanates from a dark inn kitchen where travelers huddle convivially with steaming mugs and smoking pipes:
They were seated round a great burnished stove, that might have been mistaken for an altar at which they were worshipping. It was covered with various kitchen vessels of resplendent brightness, among which steamed and hissed a huge copper tea-kettle. A large lamp threw a strong mass of light upon the group, bringing out many odd features in strong relief. Its yellow rays partially illumined the spacious kitchen, dying duskily away into remote corners, except where they settled in mellow radiance on the broad side of a flitch of bacon or were reflected back from well-scoured utensils that gleamed from the midst of obscurity.
Thus is the scene beautifully set for a baleful tale with the perfect measure of humor, romance, and whimsy. Baron Von Landshort, a quirky old nobleman of a decayed nobility clinging to the past with his ancient castle and ancient temperament, is preparing to receive a bridegroom for his enchanting daughter.
The marriage was carefully arranged to Count Von Altenburg of illustrious escutcheon, a young and gallant soldier whom neither father nor daughter had ever set eyes upon. As the wedding banquet was prepared by the bustling household in high anticipation of the bridegroom’s arrival, the young man was attacked by robbers in the woods along his way and murdered.
Just as the Baron gave up all hope for the bridegroom’s coming at that late hour, a stranger thundered over the drawbridge and entered at the gate. The bridegroom was come. Though handsome, he was pale, somber, and silent. He took his place by his blushing bride and the castle erupted into the long-awaited merriment. Still, the cavalier’s visage remained overhung with shadow and a mysterious air of speechless longing. Suddenly, after confiding whispered words to his bride, he rose from the board and made for the door, announcing that he must keep a previous indispensable engagement. When the incredulous Baron questioned him, the response sent shudders down every spine. “My engagement is with no bride—the worms! the worms expect me! I am a dead man—I have been slain by robbers—my body lies at Wurtzburg—at midnight I am to be buried—the grave is waiting for me—I must keep my appointment!” With that, he mounted his black horse and vanished into the gloom like a rush of wind.
What follows is for a fireside on a howling night. Between the haunting of the castle by the spectre bridegroom, to the spiriting away of his bride, to a conclusion that brings all full-circle with dramatic surprise, Washington Irving’s little story reminds the mortal world of its immortal love for the uncanny and the supernatural. The chilling tradition of ghost stories like The Spectre Bridegroom originate from mankind’s inherent awareness of beings, powers, and even worlds beyond his own; man’s keen hunger for the holy. Haunted folklore contains countless concepts, expressions, and depictions that manifestly indicate the conviction that there is more than meets the eye and the consequent pursuit for the invisible. Men have ever known that they belonged to two worlds, the material and the immaterial, as man himself is body and soul. From this belief came a thirst to know the ultimate realities of life and the human destiny—and the conjuring up of a whole host of otherworldly fantasies to provide a context whereby men might consider and judge things beyond ken.
These numinous weavings provide the backbone to most home-spun stories and rustic legends involving spirits, supernatural beings, and the walking dead. Such time-rusted tales reveal an undeniable fervor in the quest, seeking earnestly for answers to cosmic questions arising from the primal and mystical sensitivity of the human spirit. What are the secrets behind the inscrutable mysteries of nature? What is the purpose of life? What occurs after death? How does man stand before the divine? What are the truths surrounding unexplained phenomena that men are sometimes suddenly witness to?
At that time of year when nature doffs its seasonal splendor for a dress of decay, man’s mind turns to the end of his own life and those gone before him: the after-life and the supernatural mingled with the tingling fear of the unknown. During the autumn, when the world suffers a seeming death in aspects both wondrous and withering, men spy strange shapes across the moon and women tell strange stories over the fire. Paradoxically lively traditions were born that declared a need to know more about the composition of the world beyond sight. Was death a mere sleeping or the awakening from the dream, and life an agitated expectation? As their cathartically entertaining ghost stories suggest, such haunting folklore arose from the natural piety of simple folk whose thoughts were bent on the spirit of things.
The ghost story chronicles man’s understanding of himself, death itself, and the condition of the soul after death. They highlight man’s keen instincts and healthy curiosities. The tradition of the rural god, ghost, and goblin can be seen as historically rooted in a healthy, human, and even holy mentality rather than a heathen one. Tales of fear, like Washington Irving’s The Spectre Bridegroom, draw people closer, as around a life-giving fire, warding off the chill darkness reminiscent of death. The shadows thrown by flames are ominous, but they dance as well. This is the realm of ghostly escapades, haunted castles, and flitting phantoms—and it is a dance that keeps the worlds around us alive with the thrill of the unknown.
This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Crisis Magazine.