A Classic Ghost Story for Haloween: Squire Toby’s Will by Sheridan le Fanu

ruined Saxon church

Of course, there is nothing like a ghost story or tale of terror for Halloween.

Perhaps they are best enjoyed in an isolated old house by a crackling open fire, with the wind howling outside and the rain beating against the windows, but a really impressive one can be almost as atmospheric to read in modern building in town.

In fact, I did live in a reputedly haunted and certainly isolated house in the Clwyd Valley in North Wales when I read the story that I am going to recommend here as a brilliant ghost story for Halloween. No doubt, that added to the spine chilling effect. Still, it would probably have made me shiver if I had read it later, when living in London, seeing that it was written by a master of the art, Sheridan le Fanu (1814-1873).

He is generally considered the greatest influence on the development of the Victorian ghost story. His works include the Gothic tale ‘Uncle Silas’ (1862) and the collection of long short stories or short novellas, collected as ‘In a Glass, Darkly’ (1872). These include ‘Carmilla’ (which had a massive influence on the depiction of the vampire in fiction), ‘Green Tea’, a sinister story about a man haunted by a demonic monkey, and also ‘The Familiar’ — which M R James considered the best ghost story ever written.

I wrote a post about ‘Carmilla’ some years ago, and that is a wonderfully atmospheric story, but the one I want to recommend today is ‘Squire Toby’s Will’ written in 1868.

The story begins with a superb description of an ruinous great house:
‘Many persons accustomed to travel the old York to London road, in the days of stage coaches, will recall passing , in the afternoon, say, of an autumn day in their journey to the capital, about three miles south of the town of Applebury, and about a mile and a half before you reach the Old Angel Inn, a large black and white house, as those old-fashioned cage work habitations are termed, dilapidated and weather-stained, with broad lattice windows glittering all over in the evening sun with little diamond panes, and thrown into relief by a dense background of ancient elms. A wide avenue, now overgrown like a churchyard with grass and weeds, and flanked by double rows of the same dark trees, old and gigantic, with here and there a gap in their solemn files, and sometimes a fallen tree lying across on the avenue, leads up to the hall-door… ‘

Despite the lengthy sentences – Victorian’s did love those – this sums up a vivid picture.
(Off topic, it is sad to realise that all of those ancient elms would, since the outbreak of Dutch Elm Disease in the 1970’s, be dead unless they were of the resistant Wych Elm variety. This quintessentially English tree gradually vanished from the landscape after that decade. I am old enough to remember it in hedgerows in my youth.)

‘Of late years repairs have been neglected , and here and there the roof is stripped, and the ‘stitch in time’ has been wanting. At the side of the house exposed to the gales that sweep through the valley like a torrent through its channel, and there is not a perfect window left, and the shutters but imperfectly exclude the rain. The ceilings and walls are mildewed and green with damp stains. Here and there, where the drip falls from the ceiling, the floors are rotting. On stormy nights, as the guard described, you can hear the doors clapping in the old house, as far away as Gryston bridge and the howl and sobbing of the wind through its empty galleries.’

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Squire Toby Marsden is a squire of ‘the old school’ a swearing, hunting, hard drinking, horsewhipping philistine of the type of landed gentry common in Britain in the eighteenth century. A widower with two sons, he favours the younger, Handsome Charlie, and despises his heir, Scrope, as: ‘Handsome Charlie was a man for his money. He knew what a horse was, and could sit to his bottle; and the lasses was all clean wad about him.’

Scrope, however, thin and sallow, despising sports, country activities and joviality, returns his contempt.
When the old squire dies, having run up many debts, it is discovered that he has left all the property to the younger son. Enraged, Scrope contests the will in the courts, but is defeated.

Years pass. Neither brother marries. Then, twenty years after the death of the old Squire, Handsome Charlie has a near fatal hunting accident, that leaves him with a halting walk and his ‘rollicking animal spirits’ sunk into melancholy.

He confesses to the old butler, Tom Cooper, that when he lay unconscious for days, he was with his late father, who bullied him mercilessly about one thing; he thought that he never would escape him; but on his return to consciousness, he could not remember what it was about which the old squire badgered him.
Cooper suggests that it might have been to do with the fact that no proper memorial stone has been erected over the Squire Toby’s grave. The family burying ground is in an ancient chapel some way across the estate, and the two men set off near sunset to visit the graveyard.

On the way, they meet a great white dog of the bull breed. ‘The dog was looking up into the Squire’s face with the peculiar grim visage of his kind, and the Squire was thinking irreverently how strong a likeness it provided to the character of his father’s fierce pug features…’

Squire Toby is buried in the ruinous chapel. Charlie resolves to placate him by placing a gravestone on his tomb.
‘They strolled round this little burial-ground. The sun was now below the horizon, and the red metallic glow from the clouds, still illuminated by the departed sun, mingled luridly with the twilight. When Charlie peeped again into the little chapel, he saw the ugly dog stretched upon Squire Toby’s grave, looking at least twice his natural length, and performing such antics as made the young Squire stare. If you have ever seen a cat stretched on the floor with a bunch of Valerian, straining, writhing, rubbing its jaws in long-drawn caresses, and in the absorption of sensual ecstasy, you have seen a phenomenon resembling that which Handsome Charlie witnessed on looking in.’

This is only the first of many increasingly grotesque and alarming encounters between the dog and the present Squire, waking and sleeping.

Now the Squire remembers that Squire Toby, in his earlier dream, urged him to look in a sealed cupboard in King’s Herod Chamber, a room unused for forty years. He goes there, and makes a find which horrifies him…

I won’t go into any more details of the story, for fear of writing a spoiler. But for a truly spine chilling ghost story that is both traditional and original, I recommend ‘Squire Toby’s Will’.