Thursday, November 17, 2011

Family Ghost Story: The Canterville Ghost

The perfect family holiday ghost story is The Canterville Ghost a short story written by the Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde. This story was first published in 1887. 

The Canterville Ghost is unique in many ways. Wilde wrote his story from the ghosts’ perspective, which is unlike most ghost stories that are told from the point of view of the people being haunted. Wilde also manages to mix the macabre with comedy delightfully.

Wilde uses two cultures, the American and British and pits them against each other, which creates a very humorous story. 

He takes the quintessential modern American family, the Otises, and places them in a traditional English country manor house, Canterville Chase, that also happens to be haunted by Sir Simon who has been haunting the place for 400 years. 

In a twist that is no less than genius, Wilde turns the tables on Sir Simon and makes him the victim of the Americans as opposed to him being able to victimize them.

The dark side of the story is that Sir Simon committed a terrible crime—he killed his wife for being plain and a bad housekeeper—which you have to admit is kind of funny. His wife’s brothers punish him by locking him in a room and leaving him to starve to death.

The story begins with Mr. Otis being warned by Lord Canterville that the Chase is haunted. 

Besides Mr. Otis the family includes Mrs. Otis whom Wilde complements by stating she is British like, their daughter Virginia, their eldest son Washington and two younger boys who are twins referred to as Stars and Stripes. 

None of the family believes in ghosts but when they discover that the Chase is indeed haunted they all take it in stride adding to the humor in the story.

Sir Simon in a series of very funny attempts tries to impress and scare the Otises, which results in his ultimate chagrin. 

He makes a bloodstain reappear near the sitting room fireplace, which is his wife’s blood, he rattles chains and his apparition appears to the Otis family each time more gruesome than the last. Humorously the Otises foil his efforts at every turn.

He plots his revenge but he doesn’t succeed. In fact, the Otises’ terrible twins turn the tables on him. 

They use trip wires, a butter slide which results in Sir Simon falling down the staircase, buckets of water balanced on half open doors, and they even rig up an apparition themselves made with a pumpkin head that torments and terrifies Sir Simon which results in him giving up. 

To his shame, he finds himself creeping around the manor quietly so he is not discovered. Finally, he retreats depressed and in a weakened state to his secret room.

Wilde presents the Otis family in a variety of lights. A humorous bit he uses throughout the story is their belief in commercial remedies to solve all problems. 

When Mrs. Otis discovers the bloodstain in the sitting room Washington immediately suggests they use “Champion Stain Remover and Paragan Detergent” to get rid of it. Wilde in a tactful way is also making fun of Americans which I find is not offensive because it has shades of truth.

In the end, Virginia the Otises fifteen year-old daughter who is the only Otis who doesn’t dismiss Sir Simon listens to his problems and helps him, which ultimately helps her. 

So this story is actually one of redemption through the power of love.

You can read The Canterville Ghost On Project Gutenberg for free or at Wikisource:

There is a nice audio version of the story at Librivox:

There is a nice abridged version of the story for children, which leaves out the gruesome details at:

Many film and television versions of The Canterville Ghost have been made over the years as well.