The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde
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You know the problem with books? They just keep making more of them. Current estimates say that about 4 million books are published each year, and that number is growing.
Pretty astounding, right?
All this means is that I won't ever be able to read them all. It's hard enough to keep up with the new ones, but looking back on the centuries—no, millennia—of books from the past, there's no way to ever read them all. Not even if you're immortal, like a vampire (you could still die).
I've decided the only way to do it is to become a ghost with the unfinished business of not having read every book ever made. That also comes with the complication of somehow getting ghost hands on all the books that are no longer available in the earthly realm. Perhaps there is a ghost library. Also, the living would have to stop making books so you could catch up, or you'd have to learn to speed read at a level beyond our current comprehension of physics.
With all the books coming out ALL THE TIME, it's easy to miss ones that came out a while ago. This is why I sometimes look back and find old books, like "The Canterville Ghost", published in 1887.
That was over 130 years ago. Back in 1887, the Eiffel Tower didn't exist, nor did the theory of relativity—and a whole bunch of other things you use in your daily life weren't even in the imaginations of science fiction writers.
One thing that did exist, though, was a newly published story called "The Canterville Ghost" by an author named Oscar Wilde. You may not think that a story from over 130 years ago would still be relevant today, but you'd be oh so wrong.
Who Was Oscar Wilde?
Oscar Wilde is kind of a big deal.
At least...today. In fact, if Oscar Wilde were alive today, his entire existence would be pretty controversial in places like America. You see, Oscar Wilde's work, like The Picture of Dorian Gray, was getting banned way before it was cool.
He was known for his wit, flamboyant style, and infamous imprisonment. Born in Dublin, Ireland, Oscar Wilde quickly ascended the ranks of the literary world, eventually leaving behind plays, poems, and prose that are still famous today. While (mostly) welcomed from a literary perspective, his personal life was marked by controversy. He openly challenged the rigid societal norms of Victorian England and questioned those norms in his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
The novel is set against the backdrop of London, and the narrative follows the life of Dorian Gray, a man who remains forever young. A painting of Dorian Gray ages and displays the consequences of his moral depravities. The novel was groundbreaking in its exploration of vanity, hedonism, and moral duplicity.
Critics of the era—who valued decorum and moral propriety—found the whole work scandalous, not only because of the portrayal of hedonism but also due to its subtle and not-so-subtle homoerotic undertones. Back then, strict moral codes governed society. Homosexuality was a crime. Good thing we're living in the future where people are totally and completely accepted for who they are...amirite?😬
Oscar Wilde's portrayal of the intimate relationships between men and the implicit critique of the shallowness of societal moral standards was shocking, audacious, and defiant—creating, well, outrage. His outspokenness and his romantic relationships with men like Lord Alfred Douglas made him a target for moralists and conservative critics. He was accused of "gross indecency"—an actual crime used to describe homosexual acts. The whole thing turned into a whirlwind legal battle, resulting in Oscar Wilde being sentenced to two years of hard labor.
With all this controversy surrounding him, and while the prudes clutched their pearls over his personal life, Oscar busied himself penning sardonic gems that served deliciously snarky critiques of society.
Enter "The Canterville Ghost".
It is a short story in which Oscar Wilde doesn't just take a potshot at societal norms; he loads a satirical cannon and fires gleefully at both the stuffy British aristocracy and the ever-so-confident Americans.
/rant-on Sticklers on American punctuation probably noticed that I've been putting periods and such outside of the double quotes that enclose the title "The Canterville Ghost". This is not the American Way of things. Americans like to box everything inside those double quotes for short stories, making it look like the punctuation is part of the title. Putting the punctuation inside the double quotes is about as appealing as an unskippable 30-second ad. /rant-off
A Brief Look: "The Canterville Ghost"
Have you ever wondered what would happen if a straight-laced British ghost met a fearless American family with no qualms about agitating the supernatural? Welcome to Oscar Wilde's "The Canterville Ghost", where British traditions clash with American audacity.
Picture this: An ancient British mansion, complete with its very own ghost named Sir Simon. Sir Simon has been doing his ghostly duties (haunting) for centuries, taking pride in his ability to send aristocratic invaders running and screaming off the premises. Everything's worked quite well, and Sir Simon has been able to keep anyone from staying in the mansion.
Enter the Otis family from the USA, who, instead of trembling in fear, offer Sir Simon the ghost some lubricant for his noisy chains and try to give him throw pillows to keep him quiet when he groans.
The entire story plays with the contrast between two worlds: the British aristocracy, with its stiff upper lip and decaying grandeur, against the ever-so-confident, pragmatic Americans.
Unfortunately for Sir Simon, his old-school haunting tactics meet modern American commercial solutions, and the results are pure comedic gold. No real spoilers, but I will say that the story has two twin American boys (named "Stars" and "Stripes") who keep setting up traps around the mansion for Sir Simon.
Again, this was a story Oscar Wilde wrote and published over 130 years ago. But it sounds like something you might see in a theater today as a comedy summer blockbuster.
It is a short story of only about 11,000 words (think something like 45 pages), so it's a quick read. Some of the movies you've seen or books you've read may have been inspired by "The Canterville Ghost", like, perhaps, Beetlejuice and Home Alone. So, if you haven't read it (or if you have, but it's been a while), check it out.
Relevant & Related
- Read The Canterville Ghost for free at Project Gutenberg.
- Watch the 1996 film adaptation, The Canterville Ghost, free on YouTube. This adaptation includes some actors you may recognize, like Sir Patrick Stewart and Neve Campbell. Check out the film trailer right here.
- Unsurprisingly, the story has been adapted into film several times. The latest is from 2021 by BYU, and—shockingly—it's also available for free on their website. It's a 4 episode limited series and is a modern retelling of the story. Sir Simon de Canterville is played by Anthony Head, who you may recognize from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Merlin, and a whole bunch of other things. Watch The Canterville Ghost (2021) on BYUtv.
- You can also pop on the audiobook, free on YouTube, narrated by award-winning actor and narrator Elliot Fitzpatrick: The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde - Full Audiobook | Ghost Stories.
- Want to read about more literary horror? Check out these articles: Michael McDowell's Blackwater Series | Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu | Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood | Ann Radcliffe, Pioneer of Gothic Fiction | The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein