46. Selecting a Ghost: The Ghosts of Goresthorpe Grange (1883)

Illustration by G. Dutriac in Dimanche Illustré (18 November 1928)

This episode, we return to a different incarnation of Goresthorpe Grange in ‘Selecting A Ghost’ from December 1883.

You can read the story here: https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php/Selecting_a_Ghost

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After making his fortune in the grocery business, Argentine D’Odd has developed a raft of social pretension and acquired property and ancestry to match. He now lives in a moated Mediaeval castle, with his own coat of arms and a carefully chosen gallery of instant ancestor portraits. All his new and venerable home lacks is a resident ghost, and now his wife’s resourceful cousin, Jack Brocket, has met a man in a pub who can remedy that defect…

Writing and publication history

Charles Doyle illustration from
Friendly Hands and Kind Words
The story was submitted to James Hogg, editor of London Society, a magazine that was a lifeline for the young Conan Doyle when a struggling doctor in Southsea. Hogg’s £10 advance for My Friend the Murderer enabled Conan Doyle to lay down his first quarter’s rent on Bush Villas.

Hogg had also published illustrations by Conan Doyle’s father, Charles Altamont Doyle, including that featured here, which is taken from Friendly Hands and Kindly Words: Stories Illustrative of the Law of Kindness, the Power of Perseverance, and the Advantages of Little Helps (1862).

Between 1880-1885, London Society printed eleven of Conan Doyle’s stories, from ‘The American’s Tale’ to ‘The Parson of Jackman’s Gulch’. In March 1882, Hogg described Conan Doyle as “one of the coming men in literature.”

‘Selecting a Ghost’ was written in Summer 1883, as is evidence by a letter from Conan Doyle to his mother in which he described a disagreement with Hogg over advanced payment for a short story about a three -eyed man which appears never to have been completed.

The story was first published in London Society in December 1883, and in the New York Times in the USA that same month.

Conan Doyle and Hogg eventually fell out. After the story appeared in Dreamlands and Ghostland (1887), it reappeared in Mysteries and Adventures, an unendorsed collection of Conan Doyle’s early fiction for London Society, edited by Hogg, in 1889. Conan Doyle was incensed and referred to it as a “pirated edition.”

The story was published variously as ‘Selecting a Ghost: The Ghosts of Goresthorpe Grange’, ‘The Ghosts of Goresthorpe Grange’, ‘The Secret of Goresthorpe Grange’ and ‘The Secret of the Grange’ so tracing it can become quite difficult at times. Conan Doyle never anthologised it.


The reception hall at Undershaw
with crests in the window on the left
The nouveau riche D’Odd bears some similarities to Conan Doyle in that he has an interest in genealogy and has restored his family’s crest.

Conan Doyle’s mother was greatly interested in her family line, which she traced to the Percy’s and the Plantagenets. Conan Doyle refers to this in Memories and Adventures and mildly teases his mother in The Stark Munro Letters (1895). In Memories and Adventures, Conan Doyle drew his family line back to the D’Oils (similar formulation to D’Odd) and the Staffordshire Doyles, rather than the Irish cadet branch.

Conan Doyle’s own crest featured the Doyle and the Foleys. He included it in the large south-facing window in Undershaw, the purpose-built home which the family occupied 1897-1907. It also appears on the Paget oil painting of Conan Doyle, completed 1897-98, although the crest was affixed later.

On 10 December 1951, Adrian Conan Doyle was granted a coat of arms by the Chief Herald of Ireland. It features the quartering of crests for Doyle, Foley, Pack and Percy You can see the application and record online at the National Library of Ireland. https://catalogue.nli.ie/Record/vtls000870728 (images 185 and 186).

Procuring a ghost

The BBC's Rentaghost
Having attained Goresthorpe Grange to cement his new social status, D’Odd is alarmed the manor house does not have a ghost. He is all the more irked that his neighbour, Jorrocks of Haverstock Farm, has a ghost and decries that ‘democratic spectres are allowed to desert the landed proprietors and annul every social distinction by taking refuge in the houses of the great unrecognised.’

D’Odd’s wife’s cousin, the shady and often inebriated Jack Brocket, seeks a ghost-dealer in his capacious index of tradesmen, which is somewhat reminiscent of that of Sherlock Holmes. The index reveals no-one suitable, but he meets a man down the Lame Dog who can help. Mr Abrahams, the cockney tradesman, is a Dickensian working-class caricature who talks in a thick accent and puffs a Trichinopoly cigar.

The whole prospect of auditioning a ghost is reminiscent of the BBC children’s series, Rentaghost (1976-84), in which the recently deceased Fred Mumford opens up a talent agency for ghost offering bespoke hauntings. Coincidentally, Mumford is originally from Southsea…


After Brocket discounts spiritualists as being the route to a ghost, he sources Abrahams and it is here that Conan Doyle start’s mildly teasing the rituals of contacting the dead. He points out ludicrous rules, such as when a ghost can best be seen, and the private knowledge of those in touch with ghosts.

The actual ritual is rather more akin to occultism that spiritualism, with the use of the chalk circle, potions, and an unintelligible invocation. The descriptions are rather more suggestive of the literature Conan Doyle (and D’Odd) was familiar with than of any systematic knowledge of spiritualism.

Conan Doyle never anthologised ‘Selecting a Ghost’, perhaps because of its rather less than favourable take on spiritualism. The story was written before Conan Doyle had joined the Portsmouth Literary and Scientific Society (November 1883) where he met Major A. W. Drayson who provided a more structured schooling in theosophy and spiritualism.

The parade of ghosts

From Scott's 'The Tapestried Chamber'
After taking the potion, D’Odd witnesses a parade of ghosts. The story mechanism would be reused by Conan Doyle in ‘A Literary Mosaic’ (1886) in which the narrator, having dined on a pint of beer and Welsh rarebit supper, witnesses a string of famous literary figures. We discussed ‘A Literary Mosaic’ in Episode 35.

The first is a Bulwer-Lytton-inspired spirit, reminiscent of the ghosts in ‘The Haunted and the Haunters’ (1859) which we discussed in Episode 45. The “I kill dogs” is a specific reference to that story in which the ghost-hunter’s dog is murdered.

The cackling old crone ghost is taken from Sir Walter Scott’s ‘The Tapestried Chamber’ (1829). There are echoes in J. Sheridan LeFanu’s ‘Madam Crowl’s Ghost’ (1870).

A generic cavalier follows. This popular form of ghost would feature a year later in an article in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (January 1885) by Frederick Myers.

The Dickens ghost is most likely taken from ‘To be Taken with a Grain of Salt’ (1865). The hideous laughter is reminiscent of ‘A Madman’s Manuscript’ (1836).

The pirate captain makes allusions to the legends of Captain Kidd and Blackbeard which also influenced Conan Doyle’s Captain Sharkey tales (as discussed in Episode 8).

The most terrifying ghost is the “American blood-curdler”, which is ascribed to Edgar Allan Poe. Poe did not write conventional ghost stories, favouring spectral figures such as Lady Madeline in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ or Ligeia in the story of the same name.

Comic ghost stories

Sherlock Holmes as he appears in
The Pursuit of the House-boat when
serialised in Harper's Weekly (1897)
D’Odd picks the plaintive (and aristocractic) young lady ghost – only to be woken by his wife with the news they have been robbed. The culprit, Abrahams, is really Jemmy Wilson, the Nottingham Cracksman. The potion, Lucoptolycus, is analysed by Dr. T. E. Stube and revealed to be chloral hydrate.

By the 1880s, the ghost story genre was well established and being pastiched. Mark Twain’s ‘A Ghost Story’ (1875) is a notable example, although there are numerous other stories that preceded it.

Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost (1887) would appear four years after this story. It references the Society for Psychical Research, Myers and Podmore and has a similarly anti-commercial slant.

J. Kendrick Bangs was famed for his comic takes on the genre, ‘The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall’ (1894) being a successful example. He wrote a collection entitled The House-boat on the Sticks (1896) and a sequel, The Pursuit of the House-boat (1897). The latter features the spirit of Sherlock Holmes…

Conan Doyle’s friend Jerome K Jerome successfully pastiched the telling of Christmas ghost stories in Told after Supper (1891), which is a delightful seasonal read.


We didn’t get to cover this in the podcast, but the story has been adapted twice.

Куплю Привидение (Buy a Ghost) is a Russian TV cartoon that aired in 1992. It is essentially the same, but goes in quite a different direction half-way through: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MTeW2JnK0_Y

The Ghost Purchaser (2018), directed by Ross Foad, is a short adaptation that is pretty faithful to the story. You can find it here, alongside other adaptations: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNrnCew1SCc. ‘Selecting a Ghost’ starts at 46:00.

Next time on Doings of Doyle

2023 was an eventful year for Conan Doyle scholarship. We take a look at some of the highlights and look forward to 2024.


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Image credits: Thanks to Alexis Barquin at The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopaedia for permission to reproduce these images. Please support the encyclopaedia at www.arthur-conan-doyle.com.

Music credit: Sneaky Snitch Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/