Michael Sims has once again curated a fascinating and perhaps unexpected collection of stories for the Victorian reader.

None of these stories rely on scare tactics as such. They are unsettling. They get into your head and rattle around, like a ghost clinking its chains. They are all the more unnerving, just as ghostly movies are more effective when they rely on imagination and psychological terror to scare the audience.

Each of these tales is atmospheric in its own way. The eponymous story recalls forsaken moors, unmarked roads, moonlit nights and the kindness of strangers. There was a time when a stranger knocking on your doorstep was common and acceptable. Especially in rural areas, homeowners opened their doors to lost and weary travellers, providing a warm meal and shelter for the night. It was an understood rule that this hospitality was expected — indeed you might need to call upon it yourself one day. Thus, the frightening turn that a friendly night takes is all the more chilling.

(This image is by an artist on DeviantArt and is not associated with this publication of stories.) Link

It is also laced with unexplained details. Perhaps red herrings? Or simply meant to be mysterious and therefore unsettling? After the traveller (and narrator) pushes his way into the house, he notes its contents. After listing off a dozen farm-related items, he takes special notice of an unlikely object:

In the center of the floor stood some huge object gauntly dressed in a dingy wrapping-cloth, and reaching halfway to the rafters. Lifting a corner of this cloth, I saw, to my surprise, a telescope of very considerable size, mounted on a rude movable platform, with four small wheels. The tube was made of painted wood, bound round with bands of metal rudely fashioned; the speculum, so far as I could estimate its size in a dim light, measured at least fifteen inches in diameter. While I was yet examining the instrument, and asking myself whether it was not the work of some self-taught optician, a bell rang sharply. ~Pg. 32

My favorite story (if I must choose just one) is The Library Window by Margaret Oliphant. A young lady, living with her aunt in Edinburgh, finds her idle curiosity about a window across the street become obsession. Innocently enough, the narrator (unnamed) wonders about a window opposite her own. Is it a window? Or has it been boarded up because of the Scottish window taxes? Does she really see a man hard at work behind a desk? Or is the light affecting her imagination?

And it is the light that is so otherworldly. It’s high summer in Edinburgh. The sun barely dips below the horizon and evening stretches well into night, giving a soft glow to the entire city. When I visited a couple of summers ago, I was amazed for it to be bright as day at 10:30 or 11 at night. It was so easy to tire yourself out, unaware of how long you’d actually been awake. These descriptions of the deceptive light are so atmospheric:

It was a night in June; dinner was long over, and had it been winter the maids would have been shutting up the house, and my Aunt Mary preparing to go upstairs to her room. But it was still clear daylight, that daylight out of which the sun has been long gone, and which has no longer any rose reflections, but all has sunk into a pearly neutral tint — a light which is daylight yet is not day. ~Pg. 157

Who among us hasn’t “seen” something in the twilight?

Each story is carefully chosen for its entertainment value and its literary quality, and each is given a brief, spoiler-free introduction. Even an English major (such as myself) will come across new tales and surprising contributions from well-known authors. The book includes:

  • The Old Nurse’s Story by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • The Phantom Coach by Amelia B. Edwards
  • The Trial for Murder by Charles Dickens
  • The Captain of the “Pole-Star” by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Sir Edmund Orne by Henry James
  • The Yellow Sign by Robert W. Chambers
  • The Library Window by Margaret Oliphant
  • The Monkey’s Paw by W. W. Jacobs
  • The Southwest Chamber by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
  • “They” by Rudyard Kipling
  • The Moonlit Road by Ambrose Bierce
  • August Heat by W. F. Harvey

Many thanks to Bloomsbury for the review copy. Watch here for my upcoming interview with editor Michael Sims.

Published: 08-26-2014
Format: Paperback
Edition: 1st
Extent: 320
ISBN: 9781620408056
Imprint: Bloomsbury USA
Dimensions: 5 1/2″ x 8 1/4″
List price: $17.00

2 thoughts on “REVIEW: THE PHANTOM COACH by Michael Sims”

  1. Thanks for listing the stories–I searched several other sites in vain before I found your review. I can’t believe that it doesn’t occur to some (most?) sellers and reviewers of story collections that the prospective reader might like to know what the stories are before purchasing the book! I’m a devotee of Victorian ghost stories, so it’s important to me to know whether a new book contains any stories I haven’t read before–duh!

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