The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
Phantasms: Original Stories Illustrating Posthumous Personality and Character (1895)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Phantasms: Original Stories Illustrating Posthumous Personality and Character was written by “Wirt Gerrare,” the pseudonym of William Oliver Greener (1862-1946), a novelist and authority on firearms. Phantasms is a collection of undistinguished short stories, only one of which, “Mysterious Maisie,” is particularly memorable—but that one comes close to being a classic.
Horace Vesey is a believer in “spiritualism,” which in this case boils down to a gussied-up form of Theosophy accompanied by various scientific facts meant to justify it. Unfortunately, like many of the other proponents of Theosophy, such as Rosa Praed (see: The Brother of the Shadow), Greener seemed to feel the need to propagandize, rather than make his beliefs (which also appeared in Rufin’s Legacy) a part of the story’s backdrop. This leads Greener into a long and tedious lecture at the beginning of Phantasms, complete with antisemitic comments and slams against organized religion. It is a relief to begin the stories themselves, which are accounts from Vesey’s life and from the lives of those he has known or who have known him. Vesey tells the story of an old woman, dying too slowly and haunted by the curse of her long-dead husband, who she cuckolded. Vesey describes a man who in a previous reincarnation did a woman wrong and who is now suffering for it. Vesey describes a man who is haunted by a crime he committed and can’t sleep as a result. Vesey tells the story of his ne’er-do-well Uncle Selwyn, who lets his wife starve to death while he drinks her food money, and who pays for it. Vesey describes a woman who works as a nurse/companion to a black magician in a fairy-haunted house. And Vesey describes a Finnish spiritualist who wants to see the “face of nature,” the entirety of the universe, all at once. (It is implied that this latter impulse is what eventually kills Vesey).
For the most part the stories in Phantasms are unremarkable. They are not wholly without interest, however. They are at least readable; Greener was a competent writer, if not more than that. “The Sleepless Man,” about a Russian haunted by his crime, includes a great deal of accurate information on Russia, the Russians, and hunting; the level of detail in this story, as in a few others in the collection, adds a layer of verisimilitude and hints at extensive research or personal experience on Greener’s part. Better still, each story in Phantasms has at least one certifiably creepy image, so that even those stories which stray into incoherence, like “The Sleepless Man,” have a moment which provides a pleasurable chill.
And then there is “Mysterious Maisie,” a story which falls only just short of classic status. “Mysterious Maisie” begins normally enough, with the narrator going to work in a strange house as a nurse and companion to the titular Maisie, an old, nearly blind woman. Unfortunately, Maisie is a black magician whose house is host to the worst of magical rites, and the narrator only barely escapes, and that after being psychically scarred. “Mysterious Maisie” has a mounting sense of insanity and achieves, at its peak, a hallucinogenic, nightmarish state and a feeling of the intrusion of Wrongness. Greener makes a critical mistake in interrupting the mood with several pages of dialogue. This disrupts the story’s atmosphere, but then the narrator is again endangered and the ominous, alien atmosphere resumes.
Vesey could be described as a psychic occult detective. His life brings him into contact with individuals who have problems with occult/psychic causes, and he attempts to solve those problems. In one story, “Retribution,” Vesey is consulted by a doctor friend about a man who is beset by terrifying nightmares. Vesey eventually reveals that the man sinned against his wife several centuries before, in a previous incarnation, and is repeating the sin against his current wife, who is the incarnation of the wife he first cuckolded. Vesey tells the man that the only way to stop the nightmares is to repent and make good the sin against his wife. In this story Vesey is not substantially different from other late-Victorian occult detectives, such as the Prichards’ Flaxman Low (see: The Flaxman Low Mysteries) or Arabella Kenealy’s Lord Syfret (see: “Some Experiences of Lord Syfret”). But in all the other stories Vesey is only a passive observer; he witnesses events and horrors, but is unable to prevent or alter them. In this he is different from Low or Syfret or any of the other occult detectives, whose stories usually have happy or at least bittersweet endings.
Print: Wirt Gerrare, Phantasms: Original Stories Illustrating Posthumous Personality and Character. London: Roxburghe Press, 1895.