The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"The Dead Valley" (1895)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“The Dead Valley” was written by Ralph Adams Cram and first appeared in Black Spirits & White. A Book of Ghost Stories (1895). Cram (1863-1942) is better known for his non-literary pursuits: he remains known as the best church architect America has ever produced. He was a proponent for the nineteenth-century Gothic revival in American architecture and was widely read in his time as a cultural commentator and advocate for the ideals of the Middle Ages. But although Cram thought poorly of modern life and was reactionary in his political and cultural ideas, he was also a fine writer of horror stories, and “The Dead Valley” is one of his best.

The narrator of “The Dead Valley” talks about his friend, Olof Ehrensvärd, who “by reason of a strange and melancholy mischance of his early boyhood”moved to America from Sweden. Olof tells the narrator a story from his youth. Olof was only twelve when he and his friend Nils went to Engelholm on market day. While there they find a puppy who so charms them that they plead with the puppy’s owner not to sell the dog until they can return the following week with the money to buy him. The owner agrees, but Nils and Olof are so eager to get the dog that they begin thinking that the owner, an old man, might go ahead and sell the dog before Nils and Olof can buy him. So they get permission from their parents to go over the hills to Hallsberg, where the old man lives, and buy the dog; the boys will stay that night with Nils’ aunt, and then return, being home by sunset.

They leave to get the dog, bearing with repeated injunctions before they go that they must leave for home early, so they can be back before nightfall. After the boys get the dog, they spend the night with Nils’ aunt, but they get a late start, wasting time at a shooting range, and so aren’t on their way until afternoon and are making their way up the side of a mountain as the sun sets. They are nearly at the top of the main range of the mountains when “life seemed to go out of everything, leaving the world dead, so suddenly silent the forest became, so stagnant the air.”2 They halt, and hear nothing--total silence, with no animal or insect life evident at all. They all become frightened, the puppy particularly so, and then they hear an unearthly cry, “beginning as a low, sorrowful moan, rising to a tremulous shriek, culminating in a yell that seemed to tear the night in sunder and rend the world as a cataclysm.”3 This terrifies them, and they panic and flee, running down the mountain in a headlong rush, ignoring path and landmark. They find themselves among the foothills, and ignorant of their location, and so they set off across the hills, suffering through the same silence and “dead, motionless air” and carrying the poor, helpless, terrified dog.

They surmount one moor and find themselves overlooking a large, smooth valley, filled with a heavy, dead white mist, moving and palpitating in the moonlight, a mist that frightens them both but lies directly ahead of them. As soon as Olof puts a foot in the fog, he feels a deathly chill, and both he and Nils know they must flee from it. They do, racing up the side of the mountain, chased by the mist. They escape it, but Olof passes out, though not before hearing Nils say that the dog is dead.

When Olof comes to, three weeks have passed, and he discovers that he has been suffering from “brain fever.” No one credits his story about the white fog and the valley, chalking it up to the fever, and Nils denies everything, having blanked it from his mind. Olof resolves to discover for himself the truth of what happened that night, so when he is healthy he returns to the valley--in the daytime, of course, Olof being no fool. He initially feels confident, but when he finds the dog’s body, he suddenly becomes frightened again. He presses on and finds the valley, a large smooth bowl, a “great oval basin,” stripped clean of animal and plant life, full of only “a vast expanse of beaten clay.” At its basin is a “great dead tree, rising leafless and gaunt into the air.”4 Olof walks up to the tree, noticing that the valley is completely absent even of insect life. The tree is surrounded by a huge white mound of bones, thousands of them, from rodents and birds to the occasional human skull. As Olof is staring at the tree a falcon high above cries out and falls dead on to the mound of bleaching bones. Olof, horrified, rushes for home, running on and on, only to find that he has been running in a circle around the tree. The sun is setting, and his feet seem stuck to the earth as in a nightmare. He sees the mist gathering and summons up the will to escape from the valley, though just barely. Before leaving it behind Olof hears the cry that so terrified him originally.

“The Dead Valley” is a crackerjack horror story about a classic horror fiction Bad Place. The story takes the folkloric approach of refusing to explain the Valley’s existence, refusing to pretend that Olof is any sort of adventure story hero, and refusing to state that any sort of positive resolution or defeat of the Valley is possible. Olof stumbles upon the Valley and is lucky to escape with only a three week bout of “brain fever.” Nils is less lucky, suffering hysterical amnesia, and the poor puppy unluckier still. Cram’s style is unaffected and clean. He draws the reader in with a straightforward narration, wasting little space on irrelevancies. But Cram also excels at describing the imagery of the Valley. The story relies on landscape and nature imagery and descriptions of light and color to convey the horror of what Olof finds, and Cram is superb at describing those images. The image of the “skeleton tree,” surrounded by the huge mound of bleached bones, is a chilling one, and the moment when the falcon falls dead in front of Olof is nicely frightening.

“The Dead Valley” is the only one of the stories in Black Spirits & White to contain not the slightest hint of Cram’s homosexuality. The cover of Black Spirits & White and the stories within contain numerous nods to and symbols of late-Victorian homosexuality,5 but alone of the stories in the collection “The Dead Valley” is sexless in its portrayal of the friendship between two boys.

“The Dead Valley” is top-notch late-Victorian horror.

Recommended Edition 

Print: Ralph Adams Cram, Black Spirits & White. Leyburn: Tartarus Press, 2004. 



1 Ralph Adams Cram, “The Dead Valley,” Black Spirits & White: A Book of Ghost Stories (Chicago: Stone & Kimball, 1895), 133.

2 Cram, “The Dead Valley,” 137.

3 Cram, “The Dead Valley,” 139.

4 Cram, “The Dead Valley,” 147.

5 David Weir, Decadent Culture in the United States: Art and Literature Against the American Grain, 1890-1926 (Albany: State University of New York, 2008), 69-70, and Douglas Shand-Tucci, Ralph Adams Cram: Boston Bohemia, 1881-1900 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995), 57-82.