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March/April 2017
 
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A Beleaguered City, by Mrs. Oliphant (1879)


ADMIRED by M.R. James as an exemplary religious ghost story, this tale of "the Seen and the Unseen" is set in the French city of Semur, where they speak Hercule Poirotese—fluent if quirky English, sprinkled with untranslatable Gallicisms like le bon Dieu and les morts.

Impiety is rife, alas. Coarse-minded atheists prefer to worship money (that is, l'argent). Even non-churchgoers like the mayor are affronted. As people keep saying, "It is enough to make the dead rise out of their graves!"

Sure enough, they do. The July sunshine dims, just as in England "where the seafogs so often blot out the sky." That evening there appears a huge written proclamation from the dead: "Go! Leave this place to us…." Nothing else is visible, but in the book's best scene the pressure of a ghostly throng swiftly empties the city. Semur is now besieged not by spirits but by its own townsfolk.

It's tempting to argue that Margaret Oliphant's personal losses, of three infant children and her TB-stricken husband, inclined her toward an ultimate note of consolation in this one long tale of the supernatural. (She also wrote short ghost stories.) All ends upliftingly.

A Beleaguered City is creepy but restrained, never crossing into outright horror. It impressed Kipling, whose Stalky & Co. schoolboy persona adapts it for whispering by twilight at his school, "in a fog—besieged by ghosts of dead boys, who hauled chaps out of their beds.… None of 'em have ever let me finish it. It gets just awful at the end." A version we'll never read.

—David Langford

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