The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"The Haunted and the Haunters; or, The House and the Brain" (1859)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“The Haunted and the Haunters; or, The House and the Brain” was written by Edward Bulwer Lytton and first appeared in Blackwood’s (Aug 1859). Edward George Earle Bulwer Lytton, 1st Baron of Knebworth (1803-1873) was a popular, productive, and influential writer for over forty years. His reputation has unjustly suffered for many decades. “The Haunted and the Haunters” is one of the most important early haunted house stories. But how the reader reacts to “The Haunted and the Haunters” will have much to do with how the reader feels about Bulwer Lytton’s writing style and about a particular choice Bulwer Lytton made in writing the story.

The nameless narrator of “The Haunted and the Haunters” is told by a friend about an actual haunted house in London. The narrator, who is interested in ghosts and haunted houses, decides to stay in the house overnight, despite warnings from his friend that there is something Wrong about the house, above and beyond the usual sorts of things which happen in supposedly haunted houses. The narrator, his favorite dog, and his servant take rooms overnight in the house, even after the landlord, Mr. J—, tries to dissuade the narrator from doing so. The narrator genially scoffs at the landlord’s warnings of the house’s terrors, but by the end of the night the narrator is a believer, having seen his formerly unflappable servant flee in fear, his dog killed, and having seen, heard, and felt a wide range of spooky happenings, from the pattering of invisible feet, to unexplained drafts of cold air and terror, to rooms which entrap the narrator and his servant, to a disembodied hand stealing letters which the narrator has discovered, to, most frighteningly, an evil Darkness in human form which seems to be the cause of so much of the house’s unpleasantness. The narrator eventually discovers the secrets of the haunted house: a murder committed there by an evil husband and wife who starved and beat their own child to death, and a psychic battery which transmitted its stored evil magnetism to the rest of the house. The narrator destroys the battery and sees to it that the section of the house infected with evil is destroyed, thus cleansing the house.

In many anthologies “The Haunted and the Haunters” ends there. But in the original story Bulwer Lytton continues the plot. In the house the narrator finds a portrait of a man. The man, in the portrait, exudes a “certain ruthless”1 calm and “an immense power.”The man in the portrait “made a considerable noise”two centuries ago. After his death his paraphernalia, including the psychic battery, was left behind in the house, so that it was this man who was ultimately responsible for the haunting of the house. The narrator recognizes the man in the portrait from his studies in history. So does the landlord, Mr. J—, who had seen the man, alive, in India. A few days later the narrator and Mr. J— are chatting when they see the man in the street. That night, at the narrator’s club, the Cosmopolitan Club, the narrator sees the stranger in conversation with his friend G—. G— names the man, “Richards,” and then introduces the narrator to Richards. The three chat, and then G— leaves. The narrator mentions that he has seen the portrait of Mr. Richards. Richards begins to hypnotize the narrator, but the narrator says “I have been a student in the mysteries of life and nature; of those mysteries I have known the occult professors. I have the right to speak to you thus,”4 and utters “a certain pass-word.”5 Richards allows the narrator to quiz him, and they have a conversation filled with prophecy and magical theory. The narrator wakes from a trance to find Richards gone. When the narrator returns to his hotel room he finds a note from Richards telling the narrator that he is now in Richards’ power.

“The Haunted and the Haunters” is one of the best-known and most-often anthologized haunted house stories of the nineteenth century. It was based on the famous haunted house at 50 (now 25) Berkeley Square in London’s West End. Readers may find “The Haunted and the Haunters” enormously frustrating because of a particular choice Bulwer Lytton made in writing it. The story can be divided into roughly three parts: the set-up, in which the narrator visits the haunted house; the solution, in which the narrator explains what is causing the house to be haunted; and the encounter with Richards. The first part, the set-up, is excellent. The narrative style is quick and is free of the ponderous rhetoric for which Bulwer Lytton is known. The story’s tone is matter-of-fact, and Bulwer Lytton’s imagination provides some moments which have the power to chill even modern readers. The second part of the story, the explanation, is the tedious and long-winded philosophizing of Bulwer Lytton at his worst, and it destroys not just the momentum of the story but also the reader’s enjoyment of it. The third part of the story is a mixture of the first two, with the interesting encounter between the narrator and Richards being interrupted by a long and dull passage on the reality behind magic. The reader will become frustrated in this third section because it is clear in the story where Bulwer Lytton made the decision to go from the first to the second part, with the corresponding deadening of enjoyment.

“The Haunted and the Haunters” is the first modern haunted house story. The house is set in London rather than in some remote location. The story has none of the rationalized supernatural which appeared in the Radcliffean Gothic, nor is the actual supernatural content of the story attributed to divine or infernal displeasure. Instead, Bulwer Lytton writes of contemporary themes and ascribes the frightening effects to psychic phenomena, something many later writers of haunted house stories would use as the cause of the haunting. Finally, Bulwer Lytton eschews the by-then trite and clichéd Gothic elements of the looming house, the portrait whose eyes follow the viewer around the room, and the moving suits of armor, for more original, and to the modern reader more frightening, occurrences and effects.

“The Haunted and the Haunters” is not the first modern ghost story—Walter Scott, in “Wandering Willie’s Tale,” and Sheridan Le Fanu, in “Schalken the Painter,” both precede “The Haunted and the Haunters” by decades. But thanks to its author’s prominence and fame--Bulwer Lytton, when he wrote it, was viewed as the best author in Great Britain—“The Haunted and the Haunters” became one of the best-known ghost stories of the century. Bulwer Lytton had more on his mind than just frightening his audience when he wrote the story:

While both the discovery of the hidden apparatus and the encounter with Mr. Richards remain strange incidents, they convey their author’s willingness to examine and explain the marvelous rather than treating it with the ambiguity more typically associated with the genre. As I shall go on to outline, this unusual feature of the story was part of a deliberate attempt by Bulwer to incorporate the marvelous into mainstream thought. By pursuing this course of action, however, Bulwer was forced to grapple with one of the major philosophical questions of the period. On the one hand, the use of scientific methodology to investigate all the phenomena that occur in the world threatened to result in Materialism, a position that Bulwer rejected on the grounds of its reductive conception of the universe. On the other hand, the attempt to avoid Materialism by appealing to Idealist philosophy created difficulties of its own, namely exiling the marvelous back to the periphery of mainstream thought.6 

Bulwer Lytton’s solution was to emphasize the marvelous as something that could be traced to “material influences, of the nature of which we are ignorant,”7 and that Idealism, a philosophical school that posits the material world as a property of the mind, was the best solution to the materialism-v-marvelous dilemma. In the Victorian debate over spiritualism and mesmerism, Bulwer Lytton “makes a conveniently noncommittal intervention in the cultural debate over the legitimacy and value of the two phenomena.”8 

Bruce Wyse compares “The Haunted and the Haunters” to Catherine Crowe’s The Night Side of Nature (1848), a famous (at the time that “The Haunted and the Haunters” was written) investigation of real-life psychic phenomena:

Spectral activity in Crowe's compilation sometimes frightens its reporters, but more often it leads to amazement and even at times a kind of amused appreciation; perhaps most typically the haunting proves to be a domestic inconvenience. The collected anecdotes in Crowe's book, then, have an extrinsic purpose, not the inherently purposeful connectedness, self-contained logic, and tight construction of the short story form. In contrast, what we expect from a fictional rendering, such as Bulwer Lytton's, of an investigation into site-specific supernatural phenomena is an interesting elaboration of key narrative elements (the "who" as well as the "what" and" where") and a meaningful, causal relation of those elements (the "why" as well as the "how"). Bulwer Lytton in "The Haunted and the Haunters," however, displays an exasperating indifference to conventional narrative concerns, or rather frustrates the reader by raising central questions and then neglecting or even rejecting them, delineating areas of interest, only to displace or evacuate them. This conspicuously circumscribed, even ascetic narration calls out to be read as an idiosyncratic strategy; coupled with other cues, it warrants a reading of the text as meta-gothic, meta-fictional, and ultimately self-reflexive.9 

“The Haunted and the Haunters” still has its chilling moments, and is worth reading both for historical purposes and to see what Wyse calls its anticipation of “Barthes’ ‘writerly’ text and Baudrillard’s order of simulation.”10 

Recommended Edition

Print: Michael Newton, ed. The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories, From Elizabeth Gaskell to Ambrose BierceLondon: Penguin Books, 2010.


For Further Research

Bruce Wyse, “Mesmeric Machinery, Textual Production and Simulacra in Bulwer Lytton’s ‘The Haunted and the Haunters; or, The House and the Brain,’” Victorian Review 30, no. 2 (2004): 32-57.


1 Edward Bulwer Lytton, “The Haunted and the Haunters; Or the House and the Brain,”, accessed Oct. 9, 2018,

2 Bulwer Lytton, “The Haunted and the Haunters.”

3 Bulwer Lytton, “The Haunted and the Haunters.”

4 Bulwer Lytton, “The Haunted and the Haunters.”

5 Bulwer Lytton, “The Haunted and the Haunters.”

6 Mark Knight, “’The Haunted and the Haunters’: Bulwer Lytton’s Philosophical Ghost Story,” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 28, no. 3 (Sept. 2006): 246-247.

7 Bulwer Lytton to the London Dialectical Society, 1869, qtd in Knight, “`The Haunted and the Haunters,’” 248.

8 Bruce Wyse, “Mesmeric Machinery, Textual Production and Simulacra in Bulwer Lytton’s ‘The Haunted and the Haunters; or, The House and the Brain,’” Victorian Review 30, no. 2 (2004): 32.

9 Wyse, “Mesmeric Machinery,’ 33.

10 Wyse, “Mesmeric Machinery,” 53.