“The Ostler” was originally published in the special Christmas issue of Household Words in 1855, and Wilkie Collins later expanded this supernatural story for inclusion in The Queen of Hearts (1859) as “Brother Morgan’s Story of the Dream Woman.” Collins then significantly lengthened the story as a public reading text for his American lecture tour of 1873–74 and printed yet another revised version, titled “The Dream Woman,” in The Frozen Deep and Other Stories (1874).
“Unlucky” Isaac Scatchard is an honest and humble ostler who has never had the good fortune to marry or secure stable employment. On his 40th birthday, Isaac journeys from the small cottage that he shares with his widowed mother to seek a position on the distant estate of a gentleman. Upon his arrival however, Isaac is informed that another man has been hired as the stable helper. Unable to make the return journey until the next morning, Isaac seeks lodgings for the night in an isolated road side inn. After he shares a modest meal and amiable conversation with the proprietor, the household retires to bed. Later, Isaac is abruptly roused from his slumber by a “strange shivering” that courses through his body and by “a dreadful sinking pain at the heart.” His eyes are drawn to the foot of his bed, where he is confronted with the vision of a fair, flaxen-haired woman staring intently at him with a knife clasped in her hand. She approaches him and repeatedly attempts to stab him, but he is able to dodge her blows. As the flame on his candle flickers out, so too does the apparition of the woman. The next morning, Isaac is left wondering whether the fair woman with the knife was “the creature of a dream, or that other creature from the unknown world called among men by the name of ghost?”
Upon his return home the next day, Isaac recounts his dream to his mother, who insists on recording every detail, including the date and time of the vision, which happens to be the exact date and time of his birth. Seven years later, Isaac encounters a woman of “lost character,” Rebecca Murdoch, to whom he is strangely drawn. She soon “takes possession, not of his passions only, but of his faculties as well.” When Isaac brings her home as his wife-to-be, with great alarm his mother immediately points out Rebecca’s uncanny resemblance to the dream woman. Against his mother’s violent protestations, Isaac gives in to his “fatal passion” and marries Rebecca. After a few months of quiet marital bliss, however, she becomes strangely altered in character and temperament and takes to drinking. As she lies on her deathbed, Isaac’s mother beseeches her son to separate from the woman who means him harm. It is advice that he once again does not heed. On Isaac’s birthday, Rebecca fulfils the dream prophecy by attacking him in his bed with a knife. She disappears, but Isaac is left in a state of perpetual anxiety that the dream woman will one day return to complete her fatal purpose.
Not only does “The Ostler” represent one of Collins’s earliest contributions to the ghost story, but the narrative’s engagement of the supernatural, particularly in the form of visions, dreams, and fate, to generate sensation and suspense, beckons to what would become one of the hallmarks of Collins’s fiction. Isaac’s prophetic vision anticipates some of the more complex dream sequences in works such as The Woman in White (1859–60) and Armadale (1866).
The dream woman is also one of Collins’s early characters who confounds and disrupts the prevailing stereotypes of women in fiction. While she is described as “fair” with “fl axen hair”—the Victorian embodiment of innocence and virtue—the dangerous and desirable dream woman is, in fact, what nightmares are made of. She is likely the prototype for the “dangerous experiment” that Collins suggested in an essay the year after “The Ostler” was published. In “A Petition to the Novel-Writers,” written for Household Words in 1856, Collins challenged other writers “to overthrow the established order of things” and introduce “a jovial dark sister and a dismal light [one]” in their fiction.
Finally, the dream woman’s so-called bewitching of Isaac—a phrase that appears repeatedly in revised versions of the story—hints at the ostler’s unstable state of mind, a state in which passion and reason commingle and confound. This image of madness is a fictive strategy that Collins repeatedly returns to and develops throughout his fiction as a means to generate fear and suspense as well as to engage in contemporary debates and theories on the nature of insanity.
Collins, Wilkie. Complete Short Fiction. London: Constable, 1998.