Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, January 25, 2013


The Ghost by William D. O'Connor (1867)

Twee, maudlin, syrupy, many words that I could use to describe this short novel.  To this let me add surprisingly effective.

The Ghost is a Christmas story in the tradition of A Christmas Carol (which had been published nearly a quarter century before), although not nearly as well-written. 

Let me state here and now that what follows is basically a **SPOILER** because I'm pretty sure than none of you will actually track the book down and read it.  (And because I've already mentioned The Christmas Carol the entire plot is. for all intents and purposes, preordained.)

The scene is Beacon Hill in Boston -- Bodoin Street, actually.  The street's original name was Middlecott, from the man who gave the property to the city in his will.  Legend had it that Middlecott's spirit was not pleased when the street name was changed and stories kept arising about an aged, mysterious figure that was occasionally seen lurking in the dim shadows of the street.  In recent years, the stories became more common, the figure now reportedly gaunt, with long white hair.  The stories were partly right:  a spectre was haunting Bowdoin Street, but it was not the aged spirit of Middlecott, but that of the Christ-like George Feval, and he was not haunting the street but only the home of his friend Dr. Charles Renton.  Renton's only loves at this time are his fifteen-year-old daughter and his bank acccount.  Renton and Feval were very close friends when younger.  They separated for a time as their interest diverged, only to have Renton reestablish contact when Ferval was on his deathbed, around the time when Renton's daughter was born.

Dying, Ferval wrote a letter to his friend admonishing him to love the least of humanity:

     "Farewell -- farewell!  But, oh!  take my counsel into memory on Christmas Day, and forever.  Once again, the ancient prophecy of peace and good-will shines on a world of wars and wrongs and woes.  Its soft ray shines into the darkness of a land wherein swarm slaves, poor laborers, social pariahs, weeping women, homeless exiles, hunted fugitives, despised aliens, drunkards, convicts, wicked children, and Magdalens unredeemed.  These are but the ghastliest figures in that sad army of humanity which advances, by a dreadful road, to the Golden Age of the poets' dream.  These are your sisters and brothers.  Love them all.  Beware of wronging one of them by word or deed.  O friend!  strong in wealth for so much good -- take my last counsel.  In the name of the Saviour, I charge you, be true and tender to mankind!  Come out from Babylon into manhood, and live and labor for the fallen, the neglected, the suffering, and the poor..."

And so on and so on, in excruciating overwrought detail.

But -- alas! -- Renton is not being true to his charge.  One of the many properties he owns is rented to an oyster and ale house, where the customers drink perfidious drink and act perfidiously.  Indeed, just the night before -- the eve before Christmas eve, a fight in the alehouse led to the stabbing of one man who now hovered at death's proverbial door.  In the apartment above the ale house a poor woman is three months behind in her rent, has no money for food, and is burdened by a sick child.  What o what is Renton to do?  Renew the lease on the ale house and evict the poor woman and her sick child on Christmas Day, of course.

Feval's spirit psychically links Renton's subconscious with the letter he wrote him fifteen years before.  That and the giving spirit of Renton's young daughter combine to convince Renton to change his ways and do the right thing.  **Yay!**

I cannot leave this tale without giving you a glimpse of the ale-house on Christmas eve:

     "Before him [Renton] was the dramshop, let and licensed to nourish the worst and most brutal appetites and instincts of human natures, at the sacrifice of all their highest and holiest tendencies.  the throng of tipplers and drunkards was swarming through its hopeless door, to gulp the fiery liquid whose fumes give all shames, vices, miseries, and crimes, a lawless strength and life, and change a man ino a pig or tiger.  Within those walls no good was ever done; but, daily, unmitigated evils, whose results were reaching on to torture unborn generations."



Admittedly, the story is saccharine and trite and verbose.  Yet, approached on its own terms, I found The Ghost to be entertaining and interesting.  Insulin (surprisingly) was not needed when I finished it.

William Douglas O'Connor (1833-1889) was a noted literary figure and minor government official whose fame has been eclipsed by that of his one-time friend Walt Whitman.  (Whitman and O'Connor were close friends for over ten years until a disagreement caused O'Connor to sever ties with the poet.  Both during and long after their friendship, O'Connor was an influential defender of Whitman's work.)  O'Connor was heavily into the liberal and progressive causes of the day -- abolitionism, prohibition [not the example quoted above], women's rights, divorce laws, welfare, and spiritualism.   O'Connor was also a staunch Baconian and was convinced that great personage had actually penned Hamlet, a play ofter attribiuted to a different author.

The Ghost is readily available online, either in a separate book publication or in O'Connor's 1892 collection Three Tales.  But you now know the entire story so why bother?


This week, Forgotten Books are in the capable hands of Todd Mason at Sweet Freedom.  Stop by for today's links.


  1. Well, why bother reading the Dickens at this point? The first version of the Dickens I had was bound up with one of hie several other long Xmas fantasies...but I never got very with it. I haven't read O'Connor yet, and might want to, even if not this one...

  2. Very far, that is, with "The Chimes"...

  3. I have a copy of O'Connor's THREE TALES around here somewhere. I'll have to find it and give it a try. Nice review!

  4. I'd like to read this book even if it's in the tradition of "A Christmas Carol". I don't mind reading a different take on a story that has been retold before.