The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Open Door" (1882)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“The Open Door” was written by Mrs. Oliphant and first appeared in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (Jan. 1882). Margaret Oliphant (1828-1897) was one of the most formidable writers of the Victorian age. She wrote widely, on a number of subjects, was well-respected in her time, and is seen now as one of the best writers of the supernatural of the century. “The Open Door” is typically excellent work by Oliphant.
Colonel Mortimer is a former India hand who moves to Brentwood, a small rural village near Edinburgh. He settles his family there, and they begin to enjoy the change from India. The Colonel’s son Roland, a sensitive and intelligent lad of frail health, especially enjoys Brentwood. The Colonel is in London on business when he gets several frantic messages that something is wrong with Roland. The Colonel rushes home to discover that Roland is weak and confined to bed. But on speaking with Roland the Colonel finds that what ails his son is not a sickness, but a secret: Roland has been hearing an awful voice from a doorway standing in ruins near to the house. The voice cries out, “Oh, mother, let me in! Oh, mother, let me in!” Roland has made himself sick worrying about the voice, for he is sure that it is a ghost, and in pain, and Roland wants to help the ghost and can’t. Roland is equally sure that his father can do something about it, and now that his father has arrived Roland believes that all will be well. The Colonel is doubtful, both about the ghost and his ability to do something about it, but agrees to try to do something. The Colonel quizzes the local coachmen and his wife, who both confess that, yes, the area is haunted, and no, they won’t accompany him for an in-person investigation. While passing by the ruins the Colonel hears a sigh and fetches his man Bagley. They hear a frightening and heart-wrenching series of moans and cries, culminating with the cry of “Oh, mother, let me in!” which Roland had spoken of. The Colonel is no longer frightened by the cries, but is instead affected by them and is certain that some creature is in pain and must be helped. The Colonel sees Roland’s doctor, Simson, who scoffs at the thought of ghosts but is eventually persuaded to accompany the Colonel to the doorway and the ruins the following night. They hear it all again, with the doctor gracelessly admitting that there might be more in the world than lies in his philosophy. At last the Colonel consults with the local minister, a pleasant and open-minded fellow who agrees to go with the Colonel. As soon as the minister hears the cry he recognizes the voice and begins responding with a type of compassionate exorcism:
Willie, lad! Why come ye here frighting them that know you not? Why came ye not to me?...is this right to come here? Your mother’s gone with your name on her lips. Do you think she would ever close her door on her own lad? Do ye think the Lord will close the door, ye faint hearted creature? No!–I forbid ye!...go home, ye wandering spirit! Go home!1
A vague something leaps through the doorway and then disappears. The minister explains that Willie was a profligate and wastrel who fell into bad company. “The young man had come home thus a day or two after his mother died...and distracted with the news, had thrown himself down at the door and called upon her to let him in.”2 After his death he continued to call for her. But with the exorcism complete Willie’s ghost is gone and the doorway and the ruins are no longer haunted.
“The Open Door” is outstanding and will make readers want to search out more of Oliphant’s stories. Oliphant’s style is not quite refined, but she does a wonderful job of creating an atmosphere in which the appearance of the ghost, Willie, is convincing but also arouses the reader’s sympathy. Oliphant’s characterization is efficient, but her descriptions of the scenery around the doorway, the sounds made by Willie, and of the Colonel’s physical reactions on hearing the sounds and during his attempt to investigate the cause of the sounds are superb. The scenes in the darkness, when the Colonel hears the sounds but can see nothing, are at times chilling. Oliphant makes a good use of the Scottish environment and the use of Gaelic, but most of the story is told in a straightforward and easily understood fashion.
Interestingly, Willie is not a malevolent ghost, but a sad one. There is a level of sympathy and even compassion in “The Open Door” which is often missing from Victorian English ghost stories. (By contrast, American ghost stories of the nineteenth century often featured sympathetic ghosts sympathetically portrayed). When the ghost appears Roland is not afraid of it, but rather afraid for it, and sad for it, and wants his father to help the ghost. When the Colonel hears Willie’s cries he reacts in the same way–“this spirit in pain...was a poor fellow creature in misery, to be succoured and helped out of his trouble”–and goes to great lengths to help Willie, so that the minister’s exorcism is not done as an attack on the ghost but rather as a way to help the ghost meet its final reward.
The character of Doctor Simson is that of a skeptic, and a particularly stubborn and blind one. Mrs. Oliphant wrote “The Open Door” soon after the death of her son, and she likely wrote the story as a rebuttal to and assault on materialists and skeptics.
“The Open Door” is an interesting example of how haunted house and ghost stories of the late Victorian era written by women usually had different concerns and themes than those written by men:
Often…the troubled past comes to the knowledge of the present inhabitant in the form of a dream vision, visions which ultimately turn out to be quite real to the people who must deal with the ghosts. These dreams also lead to tangible results because by the end of the stories, the main characters have learned to change their present ways by taking more responsibility for their actions, and some characters actually find happy endings…This idea alone makes women’s stories of haunted houses something different from their male counterparts, whereas in most stories by men, the apparition doing the haunting is malevolent and, in many cases, successfully drives the visitors or tenants out of the house by terrifying them with frightening visions, or even physical harm. Likewise, their presence in these houses and the traumas that led to their unhappy afterlives are usually never fully understood by readers. The added element of psychological appeasement that is such a part of ghost stories by women can be seen in both Riddell’s and Oliphant’s stories. For instance, in Margaret Oliphant’s ‘The Open Door’, originally published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1882, the haunted property comes to the attention of the current owners through mysterious voices and moving shades which reside near certain parts of the house or grounds, parts which represent some past trauma for the former inhabitants. This past trauma leads to reconciliation and a greater understanding between the living and the dead by the end of the story. The stories…highlight the interest of the authors not simply to scare, but to teach readers lessons beyond the narrative. More so than their male counterparts, female authors increasingly turned to the ghost story as a way to critique the economic problems in both the impoverished streets and wealthy ancestral homes of England, as well as to shine a light on the emotional grievances existing behind closed doors. Issues of economic and social inequality arise just as frequently as the ghosts in these stories. Their troubled houses expanded the traditional idea of the haunted house as a place of fear and made it into something more meaningful, a place not only where fear resides but also where there is the potential for individual awareness, as well as mutual understanding that transcends the boundaries between life and death.3
Print: Michael Newton, ed., The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories: From Elizabeth Gaskell to Ambrose Bierce. New York: Penguin, 2010.
For Further Research
Melissa Edmundson, “The ‘Uncomfortable Houses’ of Charlotte Riddell and Mrs. Oliphant,” Gothic Studies 12,
no. 1 (May, 2010): 51-67.
1 Mrs. Oliphant, “The Open Door,” in The Open Door; The Portrait: Two Stories of the Seen and Unseen (Boston: Roberts, 1885), 74.
2 Oliphant, “The Open Door,” 82.
3 Melissa Edmundson, “The ‘Uncomfortable Houses’ of Charlotte Riddell and Mrs. Oliphant,” Gothic Studies 12, no. 1 (May, 2010): 52.