The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"The Ghost at the Rath" (1886)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“The Ghost at the Rath” was written by Rosa Mulholland and first appeared in All the Year Round xv, no. 364 (Apr. 14, 1886). Mulholland (1841-1921) was an Irish poet, novelist, and children’s writer. “The Ghost at the Rath” is one of the best haunted house stories of the nineteenth century.

Captain John Thunder receives word that a relative has died and left him substantial properties in Ireland. Thunder goes to inspect the properties and looks up his old friend Frank O’Brien, who has fallen on old times, Frank is poor and ill and unable to marry his beloved. Thunder tells Frank that he should get a change of scenery and go look at the Rath, an old house and park which are now part of Thunder’s estates. Frank does as Thunder suggests, but three weeks pass and Thunder does not hear from him. Thunder goes down to the Rath to see Frank but does not like what he finds. He encounters Frank before he sees the house, but Frank is, despite good health, vacant, unaware of how much time has passed, unconcerned about his lover Mary or Thunder, and is “so comfortable that he had forgotten everything else.”1 Frank talks about how wonderful the house is, how the birds sing to him, how the house knows him and belongs to him. Thunder is not sure whether Frank has gone mad but accompanies him to dinner at the house. Thunder dislikes the house. It looks fine from the outside, but the gardens are wildly overgrown and the interior of the house is dusty, sullen, and oppressive. Frank chatters on about the wonderful dreams he has, but Thunder is nonplused by the Rath. That night he has a hard time sleeping, feeling uncomfortable in the room (“there was a something antagonistic to sleep in every angle of its many crooked corners”2) and hearing all sorts of noises, from “tremendous tantarararas”3 on the door to dishes clashing to voices calling. Then a “powdered servant in an elaborate livery of antique pattern”4 enters the room and tells Thunder that “Her ladyship, my mistress, desires your presence.”Thunder follows the servant and finds a party in full swing. He sees one woman enter; she is dazzling, but with her comes “a faintness in the air, as if her breath had poisoned it.”6 Then Thunder sees a middle-aged man and a young girl enter the party, and Thunder is compelled to follow them. No one at the party sees Thunder or acknowledges his words to them, and the party-goers walk through Thunder’s body as if he were mist. Frank is at the party, but he is sound asleep. Thunder sees the young girl weeping, but no one pays attention to her except the older, beautiful woman, who glances at her with contempt. The older woman dances with the middle-aged man, and they make a great pair. Then Thunder sees the young girl looking at him, and when she gestures at him he follows her into another room, where Thunder sees a cradle covered with white curtains. She looks with joy on the cradle, but when she strips back the coverlet “there went a rushing moan all round the weird room, that seemed like a gust of wind forcing in through the crannies.”7 The cradle is empty, and the girl looks horrified and runs from the room. Thunder follows her to another room and sees the older woman comforting the girl. The older woman gives the girl something to drink; as the older woman does this Thunder sees that “the jeweled eyes of the serpent looked out from her bending head.”8 The girl drinks the liquid and then cries out “Poisoned!” and flees. Thunder tries to hit the murderess but is unable to touch her. Thunder runs after the girl and sees her stagger and then fall into the river.

When Thunder wakes up he finds that the house is normal, and that the party regalia and finery have disappeared. Thunder talks to an old servant who tells him that those who stay in the house often see things, and that Thunder should get Frank out of the house as soon as possible. Thunder goes exploring around the house and then the grounds, and sees what he thinks is a woman burying something. But when he reaches the spot at which she was digging, he finds nothing and decides that it was only a trick of the light. That night Thunder decides to stay in the library and not to fall asleep, but he does so anyhow. He is startled awake by a noise in the room above him, and he hears steps on the stairs, the rustling of a silk dress on the banister of the stairs, and a step pausing outside the library door. When Thunder opens the door he sees nothing, and he returns to the library and falls asleep. The next day he goes looking for the room above the library but discovers that there is no entrance to it in the house, although its windows are visible from the house’s exterior. Thunder again speaks to the old servant, who tells him that the room was Lady Thunder’s, and was also her grave. The servant mentions that nobody but Thunder had ever asked about the room. The servant explains that Lady Thunder “left her eternal curse on her family if so be they didn’t leave her coffin there,”9 and that the family sealed the room after her death. Thunder again sees the woman burying something on the grounds of the estate and again can find nothing at the spot. That night Thunder breaks into Lady Thunder’s rooms and finds them decayed and also left as if “the owner of this retreat had been snatched from it without warning, and that whoever had thought proper to build up the doors, had also thought proper to touch nothing that had belonged to her.”10 In Lady Thunder’s bedroom he finds her stone coffin. The atmosphere of the room makes him feel weak and sick, so he drinks some wine he finds in a decanter in the room. He is overcome with giddiness and pain and sinks upon the coffin. The feelings pass and he moves into the outer room, which is changed. It is full of new furniture and gilding, lit candles, and the beautiful murderess at the desk. She looks right at him, and he sees “something dark looming behind her chair, but I thought it was only her shadow thrown backward by the firelight.”11 

She rises to meet him and goes to her writing desk. “The shadow, as she moved, grew more firm and distinct in outline, and followed her like a servant where she went.”12 Thunder is impelled to move to her left shoulder to see what she writes.

The shadow stood motionless at her other hand. As I became accustomed to the shadow’s presence he grew more visibly loathsome and hideous. He was quite distinct from the lady, and moved independently of her with long ugly limbs. She hesitated about beginning to write, and he made a wild gesture with his arm, which brought her hand quickly to the paper, and her pen began to move at once.13 

The lady tells Thunder that she is the spirit of Madeline, Lady Thunder, and that “‘I am constrained to make my confession to you, John Thunder, who are the present owner of the estates of your family.’ Here the hand trembled and stopped writing. But the shadow made a threatening gesture, and the hand fluttered on.”14 Madeline tells John about how she was beautiful, poor, and ambitious, so she decided to become the wife of Sir Luke Thunder. Madeline pushed aside Sir Thunder’s daughter Mary and seduced and married Sir Thunder. Madeline hated Mary but thought her powerless. However, Mary eloped with a man, and as time went by Madeline bore Sir Thunder no children while Mary had a son, and eventually Sir Thunder took Mary’s son as his heir. Madeline had the child kidnapped. Mary found out that Madeline was responsible for it and accused her of it, so Madeline gave her poison. Mary rushed from the house and fell in the river, and people thought she had gone mad from grief over her missing child and committed suicide. Sir Thunder died of sorrow, sure that his grandson was still alive. But before Sir Thunder died he had his will changed to grant everything to the son, so Madeline buried the will and went on to live happily until her miserable death. Madeline tells John Thunder where the true will is buried and shows him what the real heir, the grandchild of Mary Thunder, looks like. Thunder realizes that Frank’s lover Mary is the true heir to the estates, and John Thunder gets the Rath signed over to Mary and Frank.

“The Ghost at the Rath” is excellent. The plot is nicely twisty, so that the reader has no idea why the events are taking place until Madeline pens her confession. The resolution is fitting and only mildly sentimental; Madeline was evil in life and suffered after her death, but she gets a chance to confess and atone, and Mary and Frank get the Rath as they deserve. The story has some efficient character moments. But the best aspect of the story is the wonderful atmosphere Mulholland creates, the large amounts of splendid detail about the visual and tactile aspects of the haunted Rath. The sunlight turned to the color of blood through the windows of the house, the ill feelings which sweep across Thunder’s body at various moments, the oppressive, sick air of the house–“The Ghost at the Rath” is marvelous at leaving precise, effective, and creepy tactile impressions in the reader’s mind. Mulholland also makes excellent use of various ghost story and haunted house motifs, including frightening noises heard in the night, a the ghost writing her confession for the living to see, and a room only visible from the outside of the house.

“The Ghost at the Rath” shows the influence of both Charles Dickens and J. Sheridan Le Fanu on Mulholland—two authors that influenced most of her horror and ghost stories—but it’s a light influence. The wonderfulness of “The Ghost at the Rath” is almost entirely Mulholland’s own.

Recommended Edition 

Print: Rosa Mulholland, Not to be Taken at Bed-Time and Other Strange Stories. Neuilly-le-Vendin, FR: Sarob Press, 2013.



1 Rosa Mulholland, “The Ghost at the Rath,” The Haunted Organist of Hurly Burly and Other Stories (London: Hutchinson, 1890), 25.

2 Mulholland, “The Ghost at the Rath,” 27.

3 Mulholland, “The Ghost at the Rath,” 27.

4 Mulholland, “The Ghost at the Rath,” 28.

5 Mulholland, “The Ghost at the Rath,” 28.

6 Mulholland, “The Ghost at the Rath,” 29.

7 Mulholland, “The Ghost at the Rath,” 33.

8 Mulholland, “The Ghost at the Rath,” 33.

9 Mulholland, “The Ghost at the Rath,” 40.

10 Mulholland, “The Ghost at the Rath,” 43.

11 Mulholland, “The Ghost at the Rath,” 44.

12 Mulholland, “The Ghost at the Rath,” 45.

13 Mulholland, “The Ghost at the Rath,” 45.

14 Mulholland, “The Ghost at the Rath,” 45-46.