The Phantom Coach by Amelia B. Edwards
Tuesday’s Tale of Terror January 29, 2013
Do we really believe in spirits of the dead lingering here among us, or do we only play with this idea in fiction—where it’s safe to accept it? If we read some of the modern paranormal investigations where ghosts are verified by EMF meters and electronic voice phenomena, even digital night photography, many people are not convinced ghosts exists. Skeptics are necessary if not endearing votes. But even personal experiences carry doubts of what might be convincing reality. Let me ask, are you a believer that spirits of the dead can haunt us here, or are you a skeptic?
The Phantom Coach (1864, written some 150 years ago) by Amelia Edwards is a story that addresses this question in a subtle but chilling way.
Meet our narrator, James Murray. He’s out in the dead of winter (pardon the pun), grouse hunting. Bitter cold, a gathering darkness, and a sudden heavy snowfall warn him to head home to his lovely bride expecting him by dusk. But inside the ominous snowfall, winds, and nightfall, James loses his way on the “bleak wide moor.”
James recalls stories of lost travelers, wearied out and found dead in the snow. Fear mounts as the dark cold and isolation threaten him. Is death near? As fate would have it, he meets a servant man, Jacob, with a lantern who guides him to his master’s farmhouse not too far away.
The master of the farmhouse is an odd sort, living pathetically alone for twenty-three years among flour-sacks and lumber, hundreds of old books, a telescope, jars of chemicals and microscopes, maps, and an ornately carved organ of medieval saints and devils. The two men dine on a meager supper and like a good host, the master invites James to chat with him by the fireside.
The master speaks of the soul, dead spirits and powers, prophecy, and supernatural appearances of ghosts. The brooding mood affects James, and he thinks this man somewhat of a sage, both scientific and philosophical. The sage is a true believer in the scientific cause and effect of dead spirits, and for that he was ridiculed by the skeptics and cast out of all respectable society, to be forgotten by all.
James finds this man’s despair quite sad, however declines to pronounce his own opinion on the phenomena of the dead. At last, the snow abates. The night sky clears. James takes the sage’s advice to catch the midnight mail coach at the crossroads not too far away.
Anxious to rush home to his bride who is likely sick with worry by now, and after a glass of whiskey, James walks the long miles in the icy cold, keeping an eye out for the signpost at the cross-road but does not come upon it. Has he lost his way again? Alas, the midnight mail coach appears with four steaming grey horses. When it stops for him, James boards with much gratitude and settles into his seat with three men who neither speak nor stir, “with the dank dews of the grave upon them.”
What happens to poor James now? Where does this coach bring him? Does he believe what he experiences on this fateful ride through the wintry woods?
I read this nostalgic story in an old book from my local library, Great Ghost Stories, edited by Herbert Van Thal, illustrated by Edward Pagram, Hill and Wang, Inc., NY publishers. The book has pen & ink illustrations. I felt like a little kid again, turning the thick pages by hand, examining the pictures and running my fingertips over them as if the scenes would grow bigger by touching them. With this digital age of books on Kindle, Nook, and computer screens, reading the old books can be a much more tactile experience, deepening the imagination of the story.
The author Amelia B. Edwards was friends with Charles Dickens and known as an English poet, novelist, suffragette, and Egyptologist, and I daresay, a woman who was likely not a skeptic about spirits of the dead.
And what of our James? Is the phantom coach a supernatural reality? Or born of suggestion? Or an experience from the dark of the consciousness?
Read it here online:
And if you’d like a film version to watch, try this on YouTube (7 minutes) by Richard Mansfield. This is an artistic black-and-white performance, done in shadow puppetry.
Do leave a comment … are you a believer or a skeptic?
And stop by next Tuesday for another Tale of Terror.