The Ghost Bureau

The ghost bureau

I arrived at 14 Dean’s-Yard in the autumn of 1894 entirely unaware that this part of the city should prove so attractive. My eyes, from every conceivable angle, were rewarded with the delights of such remarkable construction and I make no bones in saying that I did feel at this juncture to be overawed by the finery of it all. The public entrance, framed by such an imposing arch, brought me to a spot where I stood and viewed the scene rather as a small insect would look upon a world of far greater magnitude. It felt peaceful enough and presented as a retired and quiet nook amongst the lofty stone-built mansions.

Despite the surrounding charm, I could not help but feel that Number 14 had an odd feeling to it, almost as if it was in mourning. The generous windows of the most antique pattern, seemed to be scrutinising me with a curious meaning, as if awed by my temerity. I approached the door, which was raised, about three feet from the ground and was reached by several steps of rough stone. I rang the bell, timidly at first, but there was no response save the faint echo of the ringing. Then, emboldened by my initial efforts and by the darkness of the clouds brewing overhead, which seemed rolling on towards the enclosure from all portions of the sky, I rang again, this time more vigorously, so that the loud peels rolled through the empty rooms, and returned to my ear in repeated echoes. My heart beat quickly, for I was sure I heard a step within. It appeared to proceed from an upper chamber, and came slowly, stealthily down the stair.

The steps came along the hallway and, after some time, the door was opened by an elderly grey-haired man. He muttered something under his breath and beckoned me accompany him along the corridor. I was shown into a luxuriously-furnished room, which seemed to be a kind of library to judge at least by the open bookcase, thickly stocked with books. The room was filled with flickering shadows from the fire held within an ornate grate, heaped up carefully towards the middle and the sides blocked in by bricks.

I had been alone for several minutes when the still and contemplative atmosphere was broken by the entrance of a gentleman who, from first appearance, appeared to be my host, followed by a lady in a light-coloured cotton dress. The gentleman was thick set, very active and determined-looking, with dark hair turning now to grey, a thick but evenly-cut moustache, joining his bushy whiskers, the large square heavy chin left bare, with small, restless, passionate eyes beneath. Mr Thomas made his introductions and spoke at length as to the nature of my employment. It was mid-way in the conversation when the lady rose from her seat and left the room.

Mr Thomas maintained the flow of conversation. I must declare that I was entirely untroubled by the more prosaic aspects of this collection of information — nothing could be more clearly worded or directly put than questions regarding age, occupation, rank, and so forth — however, it was not the formal aspects of form-filling which concerned me; rather, it was the nature of the questions that were to be asked. I should point out that there is very little within the realm of the supernatural that would give me nerves. Personally, I do not believe in ghosts, or that it is possible for the dead to return in any form, or to communicate, by any means, with the living. I have been regaled on many a winter’s evening by stories with a ghostly bent but never had I been asked to give such serious thought to things so otherworldly; and, if ever had I been asked to predict a situation where I would have to give such consideration, then I most certainly would not have envisaged that it would be through employment.

My duty was to gather information from as many persons as would grant their commitment to answer a series of questions related to the subject of hallucinations or dreams, and manifestations of the spectral variety. Specifically, these persons had to be of the “sane and healthy” variety though I was quite uncertain how one should diagnose such a candidate with certainty. Fortunately, the undertaking was not delivered so bluntly and indelicately as to alienate me from this eccentric proposal; Mr Thomas made a point of addressing my natural concern, stating that only a few years ago a project of this manner would have been regarded as bordering very closely on the insane but now, in more enlightened times the suggestion had been taken up by scientists and others working in the field of psychical research. And, I must say, despite what I had said earlier regarding my scepticism for such things, the words he chose were altogether rather intriguing: —

“I acknowledge with a certain amount of objectivity,” began Mr Thomas, “that the evidence is far from conclusive, yet the cases that have been recorded thus far do, in my mind, afford some argument for the continuity of psychical life, and the possibility of communication between the dead and the living.”

There was something so strange, and yet so honest, about the man, that I was in a certain his charm of manner, knowledge of the world, and high intelligence qualified him for almost any kind of business. There could be no credit in liking him because, simply, one could not help it. Continue reading

The etiquette of addressing a ghost at a Victorian séance (and how to avoid embarrassing faux pas)

rules of etiquette for addressing a ghost

In 1921, a thoroughly charming and entertaining article appeared in The Times detailing the domestic rules of etiquette for receiving ghosts. This ghostly code of conduct was prepared as a possible topic for discussion at the First International Congress for Psychical Research in Copenhagen the same year. Whether it actually made it onto the conference agenda for that year, or any other, however, is not known. Nevertheless, I would say that any of today’s self-respecting psychic researchers could do very well to abide by these principles if only to avoid unnecessary and embarrassing ostracisations from the spirit world — heaven forbid!

The Times, Jan 1921

WHAT’S GOOD FORM WHEN RECEIVING GHOSTS?

We cannot urge you too strongly to appear perfectly natural when receiving a ghost. If you are seated remain so. You won’t gain anything by standing up. When reading you may lay aside your book if you wish. Or if you are very nervous you may walk across the room and flick your cigarette ashes off in the tray. This will conceal your embarrassment for the time being.

GLANCING over the morning mail in the breakfast room last Wednesday we discovered a most unusual communication. It was written on pale white stationary.

“Dear Madam,” thus it ran, “can you throw some light on a matter which has a vital bearing on our social position in this community? One must be psychic to be really smart these days. So I would like some information on the proper method of addressing ghosts. Every third Thursday I am at home to a few expert table-tippers. Phillips Brooks, William James and others have already given us afternoons. But there are a number of points on which I need guidance.”

“For instance, what is the correct method of salutation for disembodied spirits? Should the hostess stand while receiving her guests? If the visitors from the other world appear in negligee, should the hostess wear full dress? Should masculine spirits be invited to informal afternoon affairs? What is the really correct thing to say when ghosts are leaving?”

“Is it good form to count the raps out loud? How many spirits can be invited to one sitting without crowding? Which is more stylish — direct or indirect lighting?”

“If a ghost leaves unexpectedly in high dudgeon, how can it be brought back?”

“Should the most illustrious shades be entertained à deux or ensemble?” Continue reading

The Viaduct (A ghost story)

Balcombe Viaduct

I had returned to Balcombe out of instinct, not for pleasure. Though the train had refreshed my memory of its seductive beauty I had a less romantic place for those thoughts to reside. The landscape view of sun-drenched streams and sparkling lakes played like a cinematic trailer, catching the attention of the couple opposite me who immediately sprang into a congratulatory embrace. This only served to heighten my unease with the place.

A sudden lurch of the train announced our arrival, propelling the occupants into a flurry of activity. All around me, day tripping couples leapt from their seats and set about passing bags as elegantly as possible from carriage to platform. With this I allowed myself a wry smile; briefly charmed by the obvious enthusiasm of the new arrivals.

Alighting on the platform I turned and looked down the length of the train, beyond the carriages, towards the track curving away into the distance. Though not visible from this point I knew the rest of the line well; not to mention the shadows that dwelt within its tunnels and archways.

On reflection, it occurred to me that this was an entirely perfect setting for what had happened. With so many trains passing over the structure on the Brighton Main Line, the spirits of men that toiled here could never be far away from the living.

But it is the ghosts of more recent times, just as numerous as those of their Victorian counterparts that I am here to consider. For now his words are clearer to me than at any time over the decades that have passed since they were uttered. This is his tale; one told to me almost forty years ago, when I was a young man living in Balcombe, working on the London to Brighton line. Continue reading

The Viaduct (a ghost story)

Balcombe Viaduct

I had returned to Balcombe out of instinct, not for pleasure. Though the train had refreshed my memory of its seductive beauty I had a less romantic place for those thoughts to reside. The landscape view of sun-drenched streams and sparkling lakes played like a cinematic trailer, catching the attention of the couple opposite me who immediately sprang into a congratulatory embrace. This only served to heighten my unease with the place.

A sudden lurch of the train announced our arrival, propelling the occupants into a flurry of activity. All around me, day tripping couples leapt from their seats and set about passing bags as elegantly as possible from carriage to platform. With this I allowed myself a wry smile; briefly charmed by the obvious enthusiasm of the new arrivals.

Alighting on the platform I turned and looked down the length of the train, beyond the carriages, towards the track curving away into the distance. Though not visible from this point I knew the rest of the line well; not to mention the shadows that dwelt within its tunnels and archways.

On reflection, it occurred to me that this was an entirely perfect setting for what had happened. With so many trains passing over the structure on the Brighton Main Line, the spirits of men that toiled here could never be far away from the living.

But it is the ghosts of more recent times, just as numerous as those of their Victorian counterparts that I am here to consider. For now his words are clearer to me than at any time over the decades that have passed since they were uttered. This is his tale; one told to me almost forty years ago, when I was a young man living in Balcombe, working on the London to Brighton line. Continue reading