Living Among Ghosts - Ideas, June 24, 1908


MR. ELLIOTT O’DONNELL is the Sherlock Holmes of the ghost world. He is no web-footed rube or pin-head, but a real husky spook-spotter from Spectreville. Where ordinary men suspect the presence of ghosts, rather fancy there might be a ghost or two about if we only knew how to put them up, and wouldn’t be surprised, you know, if there wasn’t a ghost of some sort about here somewhere, Mr. O’Donnell, with a quiet smile, goes straight to where the spectre is hiding, and has it out by the scruff of the neck in about two seconds by stop-watch.

He delivered a lecture on the subject not long ago at the Eustace Miles Restaurant, and you could hear the audience’s blood curdling. Mr. O’Donnell is the finest possible corrective to anything in the shape of a heat wave. He makes you shiver on the warmest day.

London, he says, is full of ghosts. They throng the Strand and Oxford-street, while in Euston it is practically standing-room only. As for Berkeley-square! We can only say that if any of our readers are thinking of taking lodgings there, they had better change their minds. You literally cannot throw a half-brick in Berkeley-square without sending it through a ghost. The rattle of chains is practically incessant, and the eerie groans drown the motor-’buses. Mr. O’Donnell adds that there are spectres in Dean’s Yard, Jermyn-street, Berners-street, Newman-street, Bryanston-square, and along the river. He also knows where to find phantom ships, a headless dog (an awkward nut for the muzzling authorities to tackle), the ghosts of a priest and a nun, and of phantom pigs one or two. No street, you see. He is not going to have people saying, “Well, I do think Mr. O’Donnell might have hunted up another ghost or two for us.”

He is all against niggardliness. He provides a large stock, to suit all tastes. It is quite possible that a phantom ship might leave one man cold. He would argue that for months the London Council steamboats on the river ran for the benefit of invisible passengers, and that from a phantom passenger to a phantom ship is but a small step.

For such a man Mr. O’Donnell provides the headless pig. We defy the most cold-blooded person not to be a little moved by the sight of a headless pig. For ourselves, the sight of a pig ferreting about in a trough with its neck would suffice. We would say to Mr. O’Donnell, “Take away your priests and nuns, my lad. We do not need them. We have had sufficient.”

The less sensational type of ghost is interesting as a study. People who do not know many spectres are not aware how rigid are the class distinctions that exist among them.

A Jermyn-street ghost, for instance, would not like to be seen speaking to a ghost belonging to the vague locality designated by Mr. O’Donnell as “along the river.” One can picture the meeting:—

River Ghost (from Wapping, let us suppose, or Limehouse): “Wayo, matey, who’s going to stand a pint?”

Jermyn-street Ghost (putting up his eyeglass): “Dash it all, I mean to say, you know, what? I mean, who is the fellah?”

River Ghost: “ ’Ere, don’t be ’orty; don’t be prard. I’m a ghost jest like yourself. Be matey, old dear, we’re both goin’ the same way.”

Jermyn-street Ghost: “The fellah’s a beastly boundah! I mustn’t stand heah speaking to the wottah in the public streets. A fellah simply must dwaw the line.” Walks through River Ghost, and exit.

River Ghost, with a W. W. Jacobs’ expletive, lurches into the bar of the “Wraith and Winding-Sheet.”

Scene closes.

Precedence among ghosts is simply but clearly defined. The lowest class of all are the ghosts who do nothing, who are simply ghosts and leave it at that. In the old days it was enough for a spectre merely to be spectral. He had just to appear and vanish, and perhaps appear again to take a call, but no more was expected of him. But with the march of progress the standard has been raised. Some sort of speciality is demanded nowadays, at any rate by a London audience. In the provinces the old appearing-disappearing ghost can sometimes find a public still; but in the more sophisticated metropolis such primitive performances would be laughed at. A ghost, like a music-hall performer, must put some originality of method and treatment into his turn if he wishes to get a hold on the London public. Thus, returning to the matter of precedence the most looked-up-to ghost is the ghost with the most taking speciality, and so on, down, as we say, to the mere ruck, who are content just to be ghosts and nothing more, and pick up a precarious livelihood by touring the smalls.

As with other public favourites, it is the art which conceals art that makes a ghost famous. Take one of the Berkeley-square spectres, for instance. His methods are as far removed from those of the conventional chain-rattling ghost as are those of Mr. Harry Lauder or Mr. George Bastow from the old-fashioned red-nosed comedian of the halls. There is no fuss about him, no striving after effect. He simply frightens everyone who keeps in a certain room to death. And he does not stop to pick daisies, either. The audience is dead within the space of half a second.

In 1880, a major, not the galloping major, but another, said he would put an end to all the nonsense. (It was rash of him to say that. He must have known that in ghost stories it is always the man who talks in that sort of style who finds himself absolutely in the soup, right up to his neck in the consommé before the end of the tale). Well, the major said he didn’t care for ghosts, demme if he did. He went to the haunted room. In the dead of night a shot was heard. The major was found in bed, a smoking revolver in his hand, and his number up. There’s artistic finish for you. The ghost simply came, did his turn, and vanished.

Other eminent ghosts favour the more knockabout style. They are the Fred Karno’s of the spectral world. As, for example, another Berkeley-square spook, working in a house further down the road. Two sailors once slept in this house. At midnight a heavy foot was heard ascending the staircase. They thought it was a policeman, the noise evidently having been made by some large object.

Suddenly there came a bang at the door, and in bounded a “shapeless creature,” which rolled about the room in the approved Karno style. One sailor died on the spot, the other became a raving lunatic, and now goes about imaging that he is an incomplete Limerick trying to find its last line. A little boisterous, perhaps, this type of ghost; yet undoubtedly effective.

A representative of Ideas called upon Mr. O’Donnell shortly after his lecture at his charming little pied-à-terre, “The Moated Grange,” Shiverly-on-the-Wold. Mr. O’Donnell was out lunching with a sporting vampire in the neighbouring churchyard at the moment, but our representative was courteously entertained by his astral body. He was just inspecting the incubator for hatching out young ghosts when the eminent spectre-specialist returned.

“I love my ghosts,” he said. “Many people are unreasonably prejudiced against them. They shriek or faint when they see them, and this naturally creates a coolness which it is hard to overcome. No one is more sensitive than your ghost, and a constant succession of shrieking and fainting human beings reduces his delicately-attuned nerves to a complicated hash. Yet no one is more suave, more courteous, in a word more of a thorough gentleman than a ghost.

“My ghost friends would consider it the greatest solecism to groan in my presence. They do all they can to set one at one’s ease. Once a skeleton borrowed a mackintosh to sit in while we talked.

“They are charming fellows when you know them, and I hope to induce more people to make personal friends of them. And now,” he concluded, rising, “I fear I must ask you to excuse me. I have to take the luminous dog for a run.”




Editor’s notes:
In this article (reprinted here for the first time, as far as we know, since 1908), Wodehouse interviews (or possibly pretends to interview) the celebrity ghost-hunter Elliott O’Donnell (1872–1965) as well as making points of his own which accord with other Wodehouse ghost stories (such as the Mr. Punch’s Spectral Analyses series), several of which were written before O’Donnell’s first books were published.
Eustace Miles Restaurant: a vegetarian restaurant, popular with health reformers and suffragettes, at 40 Chandos Street, London, established by Eustace Miles (1868–1948), a British champion real tennis player and author
London Council steamboats: After the failure of several privately-run steam ferries, the London County Council attempted to provide public transport along the Thames from Hammersmith to Greenwich with a service of 30 paddle steamers. Begun in 1905, the service ran at a loss and was terminated in 1907.
W. W. Jacobs: English author (1863–1943) noted for ghost and horror stories as well as tales of sailors and riverfront characters; Wodehouse frequently cited his works as influential favorites.
Harry Lauder: Scottish music-hall comedian and singer (1870–1950), one of the most successful entertainers in the world at the time
George Bastow: English music-hall singer (1872–1914), co-author and performer of “The Galloping Major” (cited in the following paragraph of the story)
consommé: Wodehouse uses many jocular substitutes for “in the soup” throughout his career; this is the first of the metaphorical consommé references I have found, a month before Psmith uses it in “The Lost Lambs.”
Fred Karno: English music-hall comedian and theatrical producer (1866–1941), known for creating knockabout comedy sketches without dialogue which were precursors of silent film slapstick comedy. Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel worked for Karno before becoming famous in movies.
moated grange: reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (IV, 1), the setting of Mariana’s song “Take, O, take those lips away,” and of Tennyson’s “Mariana”—whose opening lines “With blackest moss the flower-pots / Were thickly crusted, one and all” show up in Wodehouse on at least three occasions, first in A Damsel in Distress.