Background

“The Haunted and the Haunters, or, The House and the Brain” is a short story written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, first published in Blackwell’s Magazine in August 1859. It is one of the earliest Victorian ghost stories.

He is labeled “Bulwer-Lytton” today because his paternal side (the Bulwers) were aristocratic, while his maternal side (the Lyttons) were distinguished scholars. Bulwer-Lytton lived life as both- the scholar and the aristocrat. However, after marrying the Irish coquette Rosina Wheeler in 1827, his mother (his father was dead by this time) cut him off of his allowance. This meant not only that he had to begin writing for money, thus leading him to write fiction, but it also influenced his interest in misfit and outcast characters.

Plot Summary

The narrator is a gentleman scholar who hears of a haunted house off Oxford Street in London from a friend who attempted to spend the night. The narrator persuades the owner, who complains of his inability to keep a tenant for more than a few hours, to let him spend a night there. The owner even offers the man money or some sort of reward in return for exorcising the house, if possible. The owner warns, however, that he doubts the narrator will have much success. He also states that everyone who has been in the house has seen and experienced different things, but their visions have always been unspeakably terrifying. While spending the night, the narrator’s servant is terrorized by something in another room, causing him to run away, leaving the narrator alone with his dog. However, even the dog is soon removed from the equation when his dog mysteriously dies suddenly (and quietly) of a broken neck in the midst of a wild supernatural display, including a dark shadowing form with glowing eyes and a disappearing letter. The narrator refuses to leave the house and instead locates the source of the house’s supernatural energy in a single room. By detective investigation, he also discovers that the murder of a child took place in the house. He helps the owner dismantle the haunted room. During the destruction of the room, a safe is found which contains strange chemicals, weird apparatus, and a note from the murderer of the child stating that his curse shall remain on the house forever. Once the safe is removed, however, the house is completely exorcised and the owner is able to finally let the house.

Notes & Quotes

  • Despite the supposed presence of supernatural energy in his property, the owner of the haunted house (as well as his would-be tenants and the gentleman narrator) persist in viewing the issue at least partly in economic terms. For example, the owner laments the fact that he can’t let the house for more than a few hours because nobody is able to stay the night:
  • “Sir,” said Mr. J-, with great courtesy, “the house is at your service, for as short or as long a time as you please. Rent is out of the question, -the obligation will be on my side should you be able to discover the cause of the strange phenomena which at present deprive it of all value. I cannot let it, for I cannot even get a servant to keep it in order or answer the door…I have so despaired of finding any person to take charge of the house, much more a tenant, that I would willingly let it rent free for a year to any one who would pay its rates and taxes.”

  • The gentleman’s friend, who attempted to stay the night with his wife, immediately includes the financial cost of the fright in his telling of the story:
  • “…I paid for my week, and too happy were my wife and I to get off so cheaply.”

  • When the narrator offers to spend the night in the house in order to discover the source of the haunting, the owner promises that he would pay the gentleman if he proved able to cleanse the house. However, money clearly is not a major factor in the narrator’s interest in the house. Instead, he seems motivated by the scholarly interest he has in discovering the source behind the phenomena. For example, near the end of the story, after explaining how they may be able to exorcise the house, he states:
  • “…I am so persuaded that I am right, that I will pay half the expense if you will allow me to direct the operations.”

  •  The narrator’s almost obsessive interest in discovering the truth behind the seemingly unexplainable is one of many elements of Bulwer-Lytton’s story that connects it to detective tales. Rather than money motivating him, it is the thrill of detection.
  • Capital also flows through the origin story of the supernatural phenomena. After the child murder occurred within the house, the child’s aunt (and lover of the American criminal/murderer) “inherited her brother’s fortune.” One year later, however, the American left her and was lost somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean. The widow also lost all of her money as a result of numerous moments of misfortune. Finally, at the end of the narrator’s story, he finds a safe fixed to the walls of the room where all of the supernatural energy seems to originate.
  • But our main discovery was in a kind of iron safe fixed to the wall, the lock of which it cost us much trouble to get picked…

Inside of the lock they find a portrait of the American, a compass, and chemicals emitting strange odors, among other items. There was also a tablet that

  • …contained but one bit of vellum, and on that sheet were inscribed, within a double pentacle, words in old monkish Latin, which are literally to be translated thus: “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.”

The story ends happily, with the owner finally being able to receive financial gain from the house: “Subsequently he let it to advantage, and his tenant has made no complaints.”

 

  • I’m also interested in the role that the senses play in creating fear. Thankfully, the narrator determines that what appears to the senses to be supernatural actually has a natural explanation (which is the narrator’s theory on all things deemed “supernatural”). It is fear itself rather than a malevolent ghost that causes the physical effects of this story: the dead dog, the servant fleeing in a panic, etc.
  • The dread that came over me, to be thus in the dark with that dark Thing, whose power was so intensely felt, brought a reaction of nerve. In fact, terror had reached that climax, that either my senses must have deserted me, or I must have burst through the spell. I did burst through it.

  • Finally, this text might be useful for historical understanding of mesmerism and American spiritualists, both of which are mentioned as part of the narrator’s explanation for why he believes that the phenomena are the result of a “living human will” rather than a ghost. He also describes the house as mechanical, stating that he needed to “cut off the telegraph wires” that connected the rest of the house to the room with the safe.

“The Haunted and the Haunters, or, The House and the Brain” (1859) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.