The Botathen Ghost (1867) by R. S. Hawker

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By Richard Budd (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons

She floated along the field like a sail upon a stream, and glided past the spot where we stood, pausingly. But so deep was the awe that overcame me, as I stood there in the light of day, face to face with a human soul separate from her bones and flesh, that my heart and purpose both failed me…

After swearing a few weeks ago that I’d tackle some of the old unread books on my shelf, I diligently picked up Malcolm Bradbury’s To The Hermitage, which I’ve been hoarding for years. Sadly, within a couple of pages I quickly discovered that I wasn’t really in the mood for such a wordy, convoluted book right now. It’s not the fault of the book – I’m sure on some other occasion we’d have gotten along just fine – but at this moment it just felt like a bit of a chore. This seems to be happening to me quite a bit recently and I never know whether it’s best to persevere or just give up and move on to something else. On this occasion I laboured on for another two weeks, so unenthusiastically that I managed to read just thirty more pages, before deciding that enough was enough. Time to move on. To be brutally honest, I don’t know whether I’ll go back and finish To The Hermitage as this isn’t the first time I’ve given up on it. Maybe it’s just not meant to be.

I was feeling a bit demoralised by the whole experience so I reached for my Penguin volume of Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories for comfort. It’s been nearly a year since I last read any of the short stories in this anthology and it was really quite relaxing to jump back into them. The first of the two stories I read this week was R. S. Hawker’s The Ghost of Botathen. Hawker, I’ve discovered, was an eccentric Cornish clergyman (he apparently excommunicated his own cat) whose works were relatively popular in his time, although they don’t appear to be very widely known today. This particular story is based on a local legend and takes the form of extracts from a diary kept by seventeenth century clergyman, Parson Ruddle. Ruddle describes being called to comfort a teenage boy who claims to have often seen the spectre of an old woman at Botathen, an isolated spot on the Cornish moors. The woman is none other than Dorothy Dinglet who has been conspicuously deceased for several years already so Ruddle blithely trots off into the wilds to witness this vision for himself.

The setting of Ruddle’s encounter with the woman is wonderfully atmospheric although not particularly threatening. This being the seventeenth century he’s unable to exorcise the phantom without express authorisation from a bishop so there’s a bit of a lull in the middle of the story while Ruddle trots off to ensure all the administrative boxes are ticked. In the end, however, the exorcism itself is wrapped up in a few brief, rather unsatisfying sentences that don’t really illuminate things a great deal. It’s all very vague, presumably because the dead woman’s reappearance in the physical world was caused by unfinished business so shocking to Victorian readers that it couldn’t be spelt out in black and white on the page. You can make some guesses, of course, but some cold, hard facts would leave you feeling less cheated. It’s a little austere, this one, but I quite liked the atmosphere and the setting.

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