The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"The Shadow in the Moonlight" (1896)    

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“The Shadow in the Moonlight” was written by “Mrs. Molesworth” and first appeared in Uncanny Tales (1896). “Mrs. Molesworth” was the pen name of Mary Louisa Molesworth. Molesworth (1839-1921) was a British author of children's stories and ghost stories best-known in her lifetime for her children’s stories.

“The Shadow in the Moonlight” is about a family who decide to move to the seaside to recover from a bout with influenza. Through friends they hear of the availability of Finster St. Mabyn’s, an ancient “and, in a modest way, historical” mansion. The family falls in love with the house, but it is lacking in furniture, so they go shopping locally for more. In the village near the mansion they find a furniture dealer who has a good selection, one of which is a piece of old tapestry which has been made into a pair of portières (curtains). The furniture dealer is cagey about where the ancient tapestry comes from, but the family is more than happy to pay what he asks for, and they take the new furniture home and hang the portières on two side doors in the gallery. But soon afterwards the family begins experiencing odd phenomena. Different members of the family feel chills in a gallery in the house, and they see in the moonlight a shadow crawling along the wall of the gallery. The shadow is a “vague outline,” roughly man-shaped, and its hands seem to feel along the portières. Although Leila, the narrator, and her brothers and sister try to keep the knowledge of the ghost from their parents, especially their mother, who is still frail from the influenza, her father eventually approaches Leila about the ghost--he has seen it as well. They agree to change residences, but they take their new furniture with them, and in the new house they see the ghost again. They return to their new home, but the ghost and its accompanying cold follows them there. Leila eventually realizes that the cold strikes people standing near the former tapestries, and she tells her older brother Philip about her suspicions. He takes Mr. Miles, the landlord of Finster St. Mabyn’s, with him, and they investigate where the tapestries came from. They discover that they had been formerly been the property of a Captain Devereux, who took the tapestries down from his own property while it was being renovated. Devereux’s property was thought to be haunted, and he dismantled part of one wing and sold the tapestries from that wing to stop the locals from believing that his house was haunted. Philip and Miles meet with Captain Devereux and explain the situation, and Devereux, on hearing their story, is glad to help. He tells them about a Devereux family legend about an ancestor who had gambled and held orgies in the Devereux mansion. Supposedly the older Devereux had died while quarreling with a professional cardsharp, who claimed that Devereux had robbed him of a jewel before he died. Philip, Miles, and Captain Devereux investigate the wall where the tapestries had formerly hung, and discover a hidden door. They pry open the door and find a diamond ring. The ghost of the elder Devereux does not appear, and Philip and Miles come to the conclusion that the elder Devereux, by crawling around the space where the hidden door was, indicated he wanted his descendent to have the diamond ring.

“The Shadow in the Moonlight” is perhaps Mrs. Molesworth’s best-known ghost story. It is likely to strike modern readers as more appealing than “The Story of the Rippling Train.” Both stories are told in the slick style of the better 1890s stories, and both stories show Mrs. Molesworth’s talent at conjuring very visual haunting moments, but “Shadow” has a more intricate and much less predictable plot than “Rippling Train.” While “Shadow” does not have even a sliver of the emotional involvement of “Rippling Train,” “Shadow” takes the interesting and (for Victorian supernatural fiction) unusual approach of having Leila and her family act sensibly in response to the ghost. (This reflects Mrs. Molesworth’s background in writing children’s literature, where naturalistic family interactions were customary). There is no artificially manufactured family conflict in “Shadow,” and Leila’s father is neither stupid or mean. Instead, the family members have little quarrels and disagreements, as most families do, but act intelligently and with togetherness, as most families do in a dangerous situation. There are no histrionics in “Shadow,” but instead a family acting realistically. “Shadow” is not particularly frightening, but it is engaging.

Recommended Edition

Print: Hugh Lamb, ed., Terror by Gaslight: An Anthology of Rare Tales of Terror. London: Constable & Co., 1992.