Tuesday Terror! A Ghost Story by Mark Twain

The elephant in the room…


Since so many of the writers of the 19th century wrote in several genres, it crossed my mind to wonder if Mark Twain had ever written horror. Indeed he did – but in his own inimitable style. With his tongue firmly in his cheek, he mocks not just the conventions of the horror story, but has a little swipe at the gullibility of both humans and ghosts in this week’s…



A Ghost Story by Mark Twain


mark twain

I took a large room, far up Broadway, in a huge old building whose upper stories had been wholly unoccupied for years, until I came. The place had long been given up to dust and cobwebs, to solitude and silence. I seemed groping among the tombs and invading the privacy of the dead, that first night I climbed up to my quarters. For the first time in my life a superstitious dread came over me; and as I turned a dark angle of the stairway and an invisible cobweb swung its lazy woof in my face and clung there, I shuddered as one who had encountered a phantom.

As he prepares to spend his first night in this room, Twain uses every horror story cliché he can think of, from shrieking winds and rain to fanciful half-heard voices and half-forgotten memories, to send our narrator into a mood of nervous melancholy. As the fire burns low, he falls into a deep sleep, but naturally he is soon wakened…

…and filled with a shuddering expectancy. All was still. All but my own heart – I could hear it beat. Presently the bedclothes began to slip away slowly toward the foot of the bed, as if some one were pulling them! I could not stir; I could not speak. Still the blankets slipped deliberately away, till my breast was uncovered. Then with a great effort I seized them and drew them over my head.

ghost story illustration

Sadly, this plan for ghost avoidance proves somewhat ineffective, since he can still hear groaning and the sound of heavy footsteps stomping around the room like an elephant. But then the footsteps recede, as if the thing is leaving the room, and our narrator risks a peek from beneath the bedclothes. And sees nothing! Giving himself a shake, he convinces himself that the whole thing was a dream, and gets up to smoke his pipe beside the fire, when…

…down went the pipe out of my nerveless fingers, the blood forsook my cheeks, and my placid breathing was cut short with a gasp! In the ashes on the hearth, side by side with my own bare footprint, was another, so vast that in comparison mine was but an infant’s’! Then I had HAD a visitor, and the elephant tread was explained.

And then he hears mysterious sounds from all over the house (yes, even clanking chains). Soon he hears the treads returning towards his room, and all sorts of spooky phenomena begin – pallid, floating faces, warm blood dripping down from above, sighs and whispers all around him. Terrified, he listens to the steps draw closer and closer and gradually a form appears in front of him – and as it takes shape he recognises it as the ghost of the Cardiff Giant. (The Cardiff Giant was apparently a famous hoax – the petrified figure of a giant “found” near Cardiff, New York, and put on display for the gullible. To compound the fraud, PT Barnum copied the original and put his version on display too – in the museum just across the road from our narrator’s room.) This apparition has an unexpected effect…

The Cardiff Giant on display...
The Cardiff Giant on display…

All my misery vanished – for a child might know that no harm could come with that benignant countenance. My cheerful spirits returned at once, and in sympathy with them the gas flamed up brightly again. Never a lonely outcast was so glad to welcome company as I was to greet the friendly giant.

However as the giant stumbles about the room breaking all the furniture, the narrator’s pleasure quickly turns to annoyance…

“Now what sort of a way is that to do? First you come lumbering about the place bringing a legion of vagabond goblins along with you to worry me to death, and then when I overlook an indelicacy of costume which would not be tolerated anywhere by cultivated people except in a respectable theater, and not even there if the nudity were of YOUR sex, you repay me by wrecking all the furniture you can find to sit down on.”

Finally, the giant settles on the floor and proceeds to reveal the reason for his haunting of the house…

twain ghost story illustration

* * * * * * *

The final twist is typical Twain, full of mocking humour. Here’s a link if you don’t know the story and would like to know what happens… click here for the full story.

This is a wonderfully crafted story – the early build-up shows how well Twain could have written a really chilling tale had he chosen, but instead he turns all the conventions on their heads and produces a deliciously humorous pastiche. Though I didn’t know about the Cardiff Giant while I was reading, it really didn’t matter since Twain gets the basic fact of it being a hoax over within the story, which in itself is a kind of hoax too. No scare factor in this ghost story, but that doesn’t prevent it from being a great one – the porpentine and I chuckled enormously throughout and, for once, knew the author actually meant us to!

smiling porpentine

Fretful porpentine rating: 😯

Overall story rating:         😀 😀 😀 😀 😀


65 thoughts on “Tuesday Terror! A Ghost Story by Mark Twain

  1. That’s Twain for you, FictionFan! I love the way he used humour. In my humble opinion, he was better at that sort of tongue-in-cheek, very dry wit than almost anyone else. So glad you enjoyed this, and what an adorable porpentine!


  2. *smiles bigly* A Twain story! How grand. Isn’t he a handsome chap?

    I’m kinda disappointed to say I’ve never heard of this story. The professor! And I consider myself a Twain fanatic. Oh well.

    My favorite sentence: “Sadly, this plan for ghost avoidance proves somewhat ineffective, since he can still hear groaning and the sound of heavy footsteps stomping around the room like an elephant.” That made me laugh!

    Is that your hedgehog?


  3. Hurrah Mark Twain! This does look particularly fantastic, I shall definitely give this a read – I didn’t know he tipped his toe into the literary pool of horror. And I do love a horror that doesn’t take itself too seriously. That porpentine is delightful. If he wasn’t so spikey I would give him a little kiss!


  4. Your porpie wins the Lady Fanciful cute pin-up of the day award. The porpie’s award is a mulled wine chocolate ‘A deliciously warming truffle with fortified wine, spiced with Pimento leaf and bitter orange . Hotel Chocolat’s finest. You’ll be relieved to hear I’m sure that i shall consume it myself, as that dear adorable porpie is clearly only a wain and FAR too young to partake of mulled wine. And the ‘best before’ would happen much earlier than such a very juvenile porpie would be sufficient mature to handle fortified wine. Delicious!


    • Isn’t he adorable? But that smile makes me wonder if he hasn’t already been at the alcoholic truffles. To be on the safe side, though, you should send me the choccies – I’ll sacrifice myself for the benefit of your and the porpie’s health…


  5. Great to see the return of Tuesday Terror. Mark Twain can be v funny; I remember reading about his newspaper reports, which were completely fabricated but hysterically funny – I don’t know how he got away with it! I think he would have been marvellous company; a most mischievous man!


    • I think you’re right – I’m pretty sure he had a wicked streak! This one is really good – I love the way he swipes at society while still keeping it nicely humorous… 🙂


    • I wondered that too! It was apparently a huge sensation at the time and I kind of picked up from google that it’s still on display somewhere. The story is great – he can be really funny when he’s taking the …er… Michael out of society… 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve just followed your link and read the story – brilliant! And the porpentine is up there with meerkats on the cuteness scale. Where can I get one?


  7. I hadn’t realised that he had written a ghost story either. Sounds like one that I might actually be able to read without being reduced to a shivering wreck too! Although, if I had been the hero, I think I would have just stayed under the covers until morning!


    • Haha! Yes, my first reaction on meeting a ghost would be to run away very fast! But then I don’t suppose that would make a very good story…

      This is really a fun one though – if you get the chance to read it, I hope you enjoy it! 🙂


  8. Twain wielded parody and satire like a pair of six guns — A Ghost Story on one hip, Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses on the other. Tighter and funnier than the passages about the King and the Earl that drag Huck Finn’s pace, but political satire that moves into polemic is inherently a tougher go. My favorite Twain of all is A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a hilarious romp about royalty of the Someteenth Century that works with daggers to perhaps as dark an ending as he ever wrote.

    There’s so much great Twain out there. Don’t sleep on The Collected Short Stories, always terrific to have around the house. Cheers.


    • Yes, I thought the short format worked really well for his style, and I love the way he mocks everybody and everything without coming over as too superior-sounding. ‘A Connecticut Yankee…’ is on the TBR (what isn’t?) but the next Twain read will be Innocents Abroad…sometime soon. I love these Complete Works things you get for the Kindle – I must have enough reading material to last several lifetimes…I hope they invent immortality soon!


  9. The Professor would kill me, but I’m not a Twain fan. Despite that, I’ve read a fair amount of Twain. There is nothing like the old writing — that unmistakable language. Then there’s the satire… I really enjoyed the passages in your review! (the little porcupine at the end is so swwet)


    • I have mixed feelings about him. When he’s good, he’s very good, but when he’s bad… But I won’t tell the Prof if you don’t! 😉

      This one was great though – funny and well written. (He is!)


  10. I may just have to look into reading this! I’m always pleasantly surprised by, as you said, the number of 19th-century writers who wrote in multiple genres–it ensures an almost unlimited supply of reading material, even after you’ve gone through the more famous works. And I personally love Twain when he’s spoofing other genres (Huck Finn and Puddn’head Wilson are great, fascinating novels, but I have to say, as someone who used to read a lot of Arthurian myth, I have a soft spot for A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court).


    • The link on the post takes you through to the full story online. Generally I hate reading on the laptop but this one’s not too long. Yes, I love downloading these complete works versions you get for Kindle – there’s all sorts of stuff in them you don’t normally see. I wish more of today’s writers would experiment in other genres too – I guess the commercial pressures must make them churn out the same old thing again and again.

      I’ve only recently started reading Twain. I haven’t read Puddn’head Wilson yet, but I really enjoyed Tom Sawyer and The Prince and the Pauper. Next up in Twain is Innocents Abroad, and then Connecticut Yankee I think…


      • Yes, I’m not a huge fan of reading on my computer either, but I suppose I could probably manage a short story (sad to say, I’ve generally found that my attention span–at least when it comes to reading–decreases significantly when I’m on my computer, plus I like marking up what I read).

        I definitely recommend Puddn’head Wilson–I read it for a class on slavery and literature, and it’s a really different (and dark) look at race in 19th-century America. I’ve also been curious about Innocents Abroad for awhile, but haven’t read it yet–so I hope you’ll do a post on it if you do decide to read it!


        • How odd – that wasn’t the idea I had of Puddn’head at all – I thought it was some kind of fairly light pastiche of crime fiction or something. I shall have to push it up the priority list. And yes, I’ll be reviewing Innocents Abroad – hoping to read it in Feb or March…


          • Well, it’s certainly funny (I mean, it is Twain), but I’d say there’s even more of an edge to it than there is to something like Huck Finn. It’s sort of a strange mash-up of stories, actually, and one is much lighter than the other (if my memory is correct, it was originally going to be even more of a hybrid, but Twain removed the fluffiest parts as the darker storyline expanded).


            • Yes I read something about him cutting bits snd sort of re-aiming the story in a lit-crit book – ‘Failure and the American Writer’ by Gavin Jones. I found that one a bit of a pain to read because it was so full of academic jargon, but nonetheless he made some interesting points, and when I do get around to reading PW, I’ll probably go back and remind myself of what he said about it.


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