The following was completed as a part of a primary source project for EN634: Victorian Literature
The Haunted and the Haunters: Or the House and the Brain by Edward Bulwer-Lytton
“The Haunted and the Haunters: Or the House and the Brain” begins with an unnamed narrator recounting a recent conversation with a friend who told him about a haunted house in London. The friend says that he and his wife stayed in the house only three nights because they were overwhelmed by an “undefinable terror which seized both of [them] whenever [they] passed by the door of a certain unfurnished room, in which [they] neither saw nor heard anything” (11). Upon leaving the house, the friend was told by the housekeeper that no tenant has ever stayed in the house as long as three days. Apparently, the house is haunted. This mystery piques the interest of the narrator, and he asks for the address of the house.
Upon visiting the house, he is told that the housekeeper has died. He then seeks out the owner of the house, Mr. J–, to ask to rent the house for a night. Mr. J– says that he can stay in the house for free for as long as he likes; however, Mr. J– advises him not to stay in the house, for it has been haunted for several years. The narrator, however, wants to visit the house of horrors for himself. He asks his servant F– to go with him, a strong and brave man, who the narrator feels “would not desert [him]” (76). He also takes his dog and several weapons along for added safety.
As the narrator and F– explore the house, they encounter several strange phenomena. They see mysterious, childlike footprints. They witness a chair move across the room, apparently of its own will. A locked door opens, and when the pair enter the room, the door shuts and traps them inside. In the dead housekeeper’s room, the narrator finds letters dated thirty-five years back, which hint at a mysterious history. Later in the night, the dog ominously bristles in fear, and F– is struck by some sudden terror and runs away.
Left alone, the narrator sustains composure by reading and reminding himself of his beliefs about the supernatural. He is distracted by a dark shadowy figure, which brings forth several episodes of supernatural activity. The candles fade, and the man is left in darkness. He hears three knocks as the room vibrates, and bubbles of light spring from the ground. He sees a young man and woman appear. When the man approaches the woman, the dark figure envelopes them, then revealing a blood-stained woman and a man fallen upon his sword. These figures disappear, and an old woman emerges, reading the letters the narrator had found. Behind her appears a drowned man, and at her feet, lie a corpse and a small child. The shadow darkens them, and bubbles of light reappear as monstrous larvae fill the room. The narrator forces himself to remain calm, eventually crying out that he is not afraid. The room vibrates at the sound of three knocks, and the dark shadow goes away.
In the approaching daylight, the man realizes that his dog has died, with an inexplicably broken neck. His watch, previously taken from the night table, has been returned, but the time has stopped. At daylight, he returns home to find that F– has fled the country. He tells Mr. J– of his adventures, especially about the mysteriously intriguing letters. The two men begin a discussion about mesmerism and magic, ultimately deciding that Mr. J– should destroy the room in which the phenomena appeared.
Ten days later, Mr. J– writes that he has discovered some information about the mysterious housekeeper. Thirty-six years prior, she married a suspicious American against her family’s will. Her brother, a wealthy widower, was found dead in the Thames, and his son was sent to live with his aunt and the American. Six months later, the boy died of malnourishment and abuse. The woman inherited her brother’s fortune, and the American left England, dying at sea years later. The woman eventually lost her money and became a housekeeper in her original home, where she eventually died.
After spending a night in the house and feeling reassured of the dark dread of the housekeeper’s particular room, Mr. J– agrees to destroy the room. In the process, he and the narrator find a trap door leading to a secret room. They find a safe which contains bottles of colorless liquid, glass tubes, a rod of iron, and a miniature portrait set in gold, inscribed, “Marianna to thee. Be faithful in life and in death to _______.” The narrator recognizes the name of a criminal who fled London on charges of a double murder. Finally, they find a compass floating on a saucer set on top of tablet. When the narrator grabs the tablet, the compass spins frantically, causing him to drop the saucer on the floor. The liquid spills, and the walls begin to shake. The narrator opens the tablet to read the words, “On all that it can reach within these walls, sentient or inanimate, living or dead, as moves the needle, so work my will! Accursed be the house, and restless be the dwellers therein.” Mr. J– burned the tablet and destroyed the room. After living unhindered in the house for a month himself, he began renting the house to tenants, and no other complaints were ever made.
Bulwer-Lytton first published “The Haunted and the Haunters” in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1859. The more famous version, however, is this abbreviated edition which was republished in Blackwood Magazine in 1861. Reportedly, Bulwer-Lytton abridged the story because it replicated parts of his next novel, A Strange Story (Wyse 34). The original story contains nearly five additional pages which introduce an entirely new character, a mysterious Mr. Richards. The original ending would have provided much more closure for readers, giving the audience an obvious villain, a mesmerist and magician to ultimately blame for the haunting of the house (Wyse 36).
However, as the story stands, in its more recent and popular version, readers are left to conclude the story for themselves. Was there another living person, absent in body, but present in mind, using mesmerism to “haunt” the dwellers and tenants of the house? Was there a nonliving person, still sending his or her restless soul or spirit to haunt and mesmerize the house’s occupants? What do the letters have to do with the ghosts? Is it all related to the criminal past of the housekeeper? Were the compass and the tablet inside the safe used as machines of mesmerism, “material fluid” through which scientific or supernatural magic could be performed? (Wyse 42). The story’s shorter version, “with its annoyingly premature termination, [forfeits] the key to at least one fundamental enigma of the story” (Wyse 37). Without a clear resolution, readers are left to piece clues together as they will and to question what actually happened inside the haunted house.
The narrator himself produces a conundrum for readers because, despite his ghostly descriptions of the seemingly supernatural, he states that he refuses to believe in the existence of a true supernatural. He believes everything can be explained in some way by science, that every “supernatural” phenomena has some tie to a natural medium or observer who thus demystifies the alleged paranormal. This probably portrays what Bulwer-Lytton himself believed about the supernatural. During a time of scientific novelty and uncertainty, Bulwer-Lytton’s “belief in the material cause of the marvelous involved an attempt to distinguish it from the supernatural and legitimize investigation into it” (Knight 248).
While he could not deny certain mysterious happenings, he could try to demystify them by investigating the science behind such events and creating literature that questioned the existence of a real preternatural. Bulwer-Lytton probably believed that “what is called supernatural is only a something in the laws of nature of which we have hitherto been ignorant. The story’s thesis is probably the closet Bulwer ever came to publicly declaring his belief in magic, the term he applied to phenomena beyond scientific explanation” (Campbell 118). Some scholars suggest that Bulwer-Lytton’s “revision of the… ghost story was part of an attempt to strengthen the status of the marvelous. By changing it from an indefinable mystery to a problem waiting to be solved, he hoped to relocate the marvelous at the centre of contemporary thought” (Knight 253).
The author’s ideas are possibly best revealed through the unnamed narrator, who struggles (but mostly succeeds) in keeping his composure when surrounded by horrifying and seemingly unexplainable “supernatural” events. The narrator leaves the readers to deal with the existence of the supernatural in their own way, based on his descriptions, his thoughts, and their own beliefs. The unbelief of the narrator and this “narratological stance inhibits the construction of plot in relation to the house and its haunting, and yet the production and circulation of detached, potential plot fragments challenge the reader to combine tentatively and conjecturally the unbound story components” (Wyse 42). Do we believe as the narrator claims he does, that there is no real “supernatural,” or do we believe the terrible descriptions of the apparitions, which seemingly point to the ghostly existence of supernatural phenomena? How does the reader pull the plot fragments together to create a cohesive and satisfying conclusion to such a frustratingly abrupt ending? Without a clear solution in the story’s ending, readers are left with unanswered questions about the how and the why of the house’s haunting.
Despite all the frustrating loose ends, some revealing deductions can be drawn after Mr. J– reveals some information on the history of the housekeeper. Readers can infer and understand the significance of the apparitions of the young man and woman as well as the drowned man, the older woman, the corpse, and the child. However, the “sordid story seems to hold little interest for [the narrator],” and the apparitions seem “largely meaningless and unmotivated” as it relates directly to the life of the narrator or the interest of the reader (Wyse 43). The narrator thus switches his focus to the machinery of the magic or mesmerism – the brain. When the brain is thus affected by elements of the “supernatural,” Bulwer-Lytton suggests that “the brain might as well be dead, and the shorter version of the story ends with some ambiguity or confusion about whether there is, or even can be, a living human being behind the holographic events” (Wyse 47). This is where the story’s extended title (“The Haunted and the Haunter: Or the House and the Brain”) gets its full name and significance. The title begs the question: Is it the house or the brain that is truly haunted?
The entire story could be read as allegory for the mysterious natural and/or supernatural happenings within the brain. Read in this way, Bulwer-Lytton’s story encourages readers to think about questions that frequented the minds of the readers of the Victorian era: Can human brains be succumbed to mesmerism? Can a brain be subjected and controlled by an outside mesmerist just as the house in the story is subjected to third-party haunters? If so, how can people protect their brains from this evil? Once the brain is surrendered to mesmeric power, can it be recovered? Is mesmerism real, or is it just an imagined pseudoscience? These questions remain unanswered as the ending of the story remains unclear. However, Victorian minds would rest somewhat easier, knowing that ultimately the machinery of magic and mesmerism could be destroyed, just as it was with the tablet and the compass in the story.
*Original image from Amherst College archives