The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Skeleton Horseman; or, The Shadow of Death (1865-1866)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The author of The Skeleton Horseman; or, The Shadow of Death is unknown. The Skeleton Horseman, while not in the top rank of penny dreadfuls, is nonetheless enjoyable for modern readers to peruse.
The Skeleton Horseman begins in England in 1665, when the evil Lord Glendore is surprised in his home by a stranger. The man tries to extort money from Lord Glendore but is attacked and overwhelmed by him. Before Glendore has the man dragged off the man reminds him of “Alice Temple” (which makes Glendore feel afraid) and threatens him with “Remember ‘The Red Avengers!’ Remember Paul Peril!” Glendore sneers at the man and has him imprisoned in Glendore’s dungeon. Meanwhile rumors spread throughout London about the spectral highwayman the Skeleton Horseman, who bullets seem to pass through. Glendore attends a dinner of his fellow royalists; during the dinner the Skeleton Horseman, who seems to be an actual skeleton clad in riding clothes, appears, sword drawn, and threatens the royalists and King Charles II.
At an inn an attractive barmaid catches the eye of a group of soldiers, who attack her and attempt to rape her. A masked highwayman, the Red Hand, comes to her aid, but the troops attack him and are about to beat him when King Charles appears and saves him. The King is immediately attracted to the barmaid, who introduces herself as Nell Gwynne [sic]. The Red Hand leaves the inn and rides into the forest. He robs a carriage, behaving in a polite manner to those he robs. He rides into the heart of the forest and passes by a strand of trees from which hang several gibbets; beneath the gibbets dance a group of laughing hags. The Red Hand reaches the camp of his brothers-in-arms, the Red Avengers. The Red Avengers have heard that Paul Peril, one of their own, is held prisoner by Lord Glendore, so they arm themselves and ride out to rescue him. They go to the local Romany camp and meet with Judith, the beautiful young Queen of the local Romany clan. They owe Peril a debt and agree to help the Avengers rescue him. Judith uses her local contacts to find out where Peril is being held, and the Avengers storm Glendore’s mansion and free him. Glendore is angered by this, and he approaches his allies in the Black Band, a “rich and powerful brotherhood,” who agree to avenge this slight by wiping out the Red Avengers.
The Skeleton Horseman robs a group of greedy Jewish traders. Glendore, who desires both Alice Temple’s rich inheritance and her body, tries to get her alone so that he can “court” her and force her to marry him. He is unsuccessful in this, but another woman, who has designs on Glendore, finds out about his attempt to get at Alice and is unhappy that Glendore has eyes for someone else. The woman is Lady Clinton, and although she is married to the kindly Lord Clinton she wants to replace him with Glendore. Lord Clinton met Lady Clinton when she was friendless and homeless, and they fell in love and married, but years of exposure to court life have warped her, and now she treats her husband badly and plots his death so that she can marry the much higher-born and wealthier Lord Glendore.
The Red Avengers are a group of high-minded highwaymen; among their friends is Claude Duval (see: Claude Duval). But they have robbed enough aristocrats that King Charles accedes to the complaints of their victims and orders the Black Band, who have done the King favors in the past, to destroy the Avengers. But although the Black Band are happy to obey this order, they do so out of a desire for vengeance rather than patriotism. The Black Band are corrupt, and they use their access to the King to steal the Crown Jewels. Paul Peril and the Red Hand are eating a meal in Nell Gwynne’s inn when they are attacked by a group of watchmen. The two highwaymen are rescued from the watchmen by the Red Avengers. The Skeleton Horseman succeeds in recapturing the Crown Jewels from the Black Band. The Band eventually locates the camp of the Avengers and attacks them. The Avengers are outnumbered and on the verge of defeat when they are rescued by the Skeleton Horseman, whose late arrival helps the Avengers rout the Black Band.
Lady Clinton succeeds in poisoning Alice Temple, but the Skeleton Horseman has been keeping a close watch on Alice and sees Lady Clinton do this. The Horseman buys the antidote for the poison from Judith, the Romany queen, and gets it to Alice in time to save her life. The Horseman restores the Crown Jewels to the King, although the Horseman is impudent toward the King, telling him that the Horseman is “the Shadow of Death” and that the “Mystic Skeleton Band” is far above the King and the Black Band. At one of the royal balls Lady Clinton attempts to poison Alice Temple again, but the Skeleton Horseman, the Red Hand, and Paul Peril burst in and take Alice away from Clinton, Glendore, and the King’s guards. The Skeleton Horseman traps Glendore and brands his breast. Eventually the wicked men and women are killed, the Black Band is hanged, the identity of the Skeleton Horseman is revealed–he is Alice Temple’s father Henry–and Paul Peril and Nell Gwynne live happily ever after.
The Skeleton Horseman is an enjoyable penny dreadful. It is more influenced by the Gothics than was usual for penny dreadfuls; the dreadful begins with a stormy night and includes a library with secret panels, mysterious messages written on walls which are readable only by moonlight, a hunchbacked dwarf (although he is a hero), and a secret society conspiring against the King. The author succeeds in maintaining the mystery of the Skeleton Horseman’s identity for a long period; while delaying the revelation of the masked hero’s true identity was customary for the dreadfuls, the reader of The Skeleton Horseman has a hard time guessing who he might be.
The author’s portrayal of King Charles II (1630-1685) as a lascivious scoundrel is a refreshing change from the manner in which royalty was often (though not always) portrayed in penny dreadfuls. The real Charles II was a lascivious man, with numerous mistresses (including the historical Nell Gwynn [1650-1687]) and a dozen illegitimate children, but traditionally he has been beloved by the British and seen as the “merry monarch” because of the Restoration of the monarchy after Oliver Cromwell’s rule and the resumption of ordinary life in London:
Other kings had inspired more respect, but perhaps only Henry VIII had endeared himself to the popular imagination as much as this one. He was the playboy monarch, naughty but nice, the hero of all who prized urbanity, tolerance, good humour, and the pursuit of pleasure above the more earnest, sober, or material virtues.1
However, Charles II’s “naughty but nice” morals met with disapprobation and disapproval from the Victorians, with Lord Macaulay (1800-1859) describing him in 1848 as having “polite and engaging manners… [with a] talent for lively conversation...[but] addicted beyond measure to sensual indulgence… incapable of self denial and of exertion, without faith in human virtue or in human attachment.”2 The portrayal of Charles II in The Skeleton Horseman might be seen as an attempt to curry favor with the would-be censors and morality police of the 1860s, for whom an insult to the morally correct English royalty of the past or present would have been grounds for condemnation, but an insult to the morally incorrect English royalty of the past would be allowed to pass unremarked upon and uncensored.
Interestingly, the author or authors of The Skeleton Horseman, though trotting out the usual racist, antisemitic, anti-Romany stereotypes, also include heroic Jewish and Romany characters. Brett himself was neither Rom nor Jewish, and it’s extremely doubtful that the author(s) of The Skeleton Horseman was either. Moreover, other contemporary Brett publications, such as the anonymously-written The Work Girls of London, Their Trials and Temptations (1865), included asides about poor East End seamstresses being oppressed and exploited by the “Jewish dealers of the neighborhood,"3 an antisemitic stereotype that “had become part of a sentimental and safe iconology, their usage evident since the radical journalism of the 1830s.”4 It’s surprising, therefore, that The Skeleton Horseman goes in the opposite direction, even taking into account the rise in heroic Jewish characters in mainstream English literature of the century, such as the übermensch Sidonia in Disraeli’s Coningsby (1844). Perhaps Brett, ever the businessman, felt the need to appeal to both the antisemitic prejudices of the English audience (in The Work Girls of London) and to the growing numbers of Jewish children in London (via the Jewish heroes of The Skeleton Horseman)?
The illustrations of The Skeleton Horseman are entertainingly melodramatic. The portrayal of the Skeleton Horseman’s skull mask is effective, and the artist varies between bloodthirsty illustrations and humorous ones. (Unusually, topless women appear in these illustrations. Extremely unusually, the topless women in the illustrations are alive and not dead).
One of the subplots of The Skeleton Horseman involves the Dutch conspiring with the Black Band to overthrow King Charles during the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-7). The Band are portrayed as being similar to the Rosicrucians. Although the idea of secret societies in conflict appeared in other penny dreadfuls (see: Wild Boys of London), the political element is unusual, if hardly unprecedented (see: The Black Coats Adventures), and anticipates the end-of-the-century fears of similar conspiracies (see: Fin-de-Siècle Unease).
Arthur E. Waite, an American-born British mystic and writer on a variety of occult matters, described The Skeleton Horseman as “the worst penny serial we have met with,”5 but Waite was wrong. The Skeleton Horseman is far from the worst, and can be entertaining reading.
Print: The Skeleton Horseman; or, The Shadow of Death. London: Newsagents’ Publishing Company, 1866.
1 Ronald Hutton, Charles II: King of England, Scotland, and Ireland (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 446.
2 Thomas Babington Macaulay, The History of England, volume 1 (Chicago: Donohue, Hennebery & Co., 1890), 159-160.
3 The Work Girls of London, Their Trials and Temptations (Newsagents’ Publishing Company, 1865), 11.
4 John Springhall, “‘A Life Story for the People’? Edwin J. Brett and the London ‘Low-Life’ Penny Dreadfuls of the 1860s,” Victorian Studies 33, no. 2 (Winter, 1990): 243.
5 Arthur E. Waite, “By-ways of Periodical Literature,” Walford’s Antiquarian n. 12 (1887): 66.