The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Phantom Coach" (1864)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Phantom Coach was created by Amelia B. Edwards and appeared in “The Phantom Coach” (All The Year Round, Christmas Issue, 1864). Edwards (1831-1892) was an author who became notable in her lifetime as an Egyptologist. During a trip to Egypt she became horrified at the destruction wrought to monuments by looters, and so founded the Egypt Exploration Fund, one of the first major archeological societies.
“The Phantom Coach” is about James Murray, a barrister, who gets lost one December day while out grousing on a “bleak wide moor in the far north of England.”1 He wanders the moor past dusk, and then gets caught in a ferocious snow storm. Murray meets a local man who grudgingly agrees to let Murray follow him home. The man says that his master won’t let him in, but Murray insists, and the man gives in. The man’s master turns out to be irascible and unwelcoming, but when Murray points out that if he had stayed outside he would have died (“There’s an inch of snow on the ground already...and it would be deep enough to cover my body before daybreak”2) the man gives in and lets Murray enter his house and even feeds Murray. Murray engages the man in conversation and discovers that he is a hermit philosopher, knowledgeable in many fields. He had once voiced his firm belief in apparitions, a belief backed by all his education, and been ridiculed by his contemporaries. In response to this mockery the man retreated from society. Murray enjoys speaking with the man, but is anxious to get back to his young wife, and after the snow stops Murray takes his leave with thanks. Murray sets out for the nearest intersection where he might board the night mail coach. But before Murray leaves he is told about an accident the night mail coach suffered nine years ago, when it pitched off the road into the valley floor, killing all six passengers. Murray walks to the intersection and waves down the coach, which strikes him as strange and hazy on the outside and cold on the inside, with a “singularly damp and disagreeable smell”3 and silent, unfriendly passengers. The coach is lofty, wrapped in a soft haze of light, and moves strangely quickly and quietly. Its passengers are corpses whose eyes glow “with a fiery unnatural lustre”4 and on whose faces plays “a pale phosphorescent light–the light of putrefaction!”5 All too quickly Murray realizes that his fellow passengers are corpses and the he is riding on the ghost of the coach. Murray is found in a snowdrift, with a broken arm and a fractured skull, and his recovery is a slow one.
“The Phantom Coach” is critically well-regarded and often appears in anthologies of Victorian ghost stories, but it is underwhelming. The story is certainly readable and entertaining, and the way in which the plot swerves, from the crotchety old hermit to the coach itself, is unexpected. And the story reads like the recounting of a traditional piece of folklore. But Edwards chose to tell the story in a stodgy style, and there is little actual fright to be found. It is a classic ghost story, and influenced many other stories, certainly many haunted coach/train/car/plane stories, but it is not in the upper rank of Victorian ghost stories.
Print: Amelia B. Edwards, The Phantom Coach: Collected Ghost Stories. Ashcroft, BC: Ash-Tree Press, 2012.
1 Amelia B. Edwards, “The North Mail,” in Miss Carew, volume 3 (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1865), 198.
2 Edwards, “The North Mail,” 206.
3 Edwards, “The North Mail,” 224.
4 Edwards, “The North Mail,” 226.
5 Edwards, “The North Mail,” 227.