The Castle Spectre; or, Family Horrors: A Gothic Story
Author: Sarah Scudgell Wilkinson
Publisher: Printed for T. and R. Hughes
Publication Year: 1807
Book Dimensions: 12cm x 20cm
University of Virginia Library Catalog Entry, Sadleir-Black Collection: PZ2.W55 Ca 1807
Set in Scotland, England, and Italy, Sarah Scudgell Wilkinson’s 1807 chapbook is a complicated tale of vengeance, violence, and long-lost love. And there’s a ghost!
At first glance, The Castle Spectre; or, Family Horrors: A Gothic Story is nothing more than a small, nondescript book. It is bound in a spotless cardboard cover, with no title or images on the front or back. The spine has a small red rectangle in which The Castle Spectre or Family Horrors is written in gold writing. The chapbook is about 12 centimeters wide, 20 centimeters long, and 1 centimeter thick.
Upon opening the book, it is evident that it has been rebound. The pages inside are soft, yellowed, and worn. The edges are tattered and uneven and the pages are of different sizes. The frontispiece appears to have been glued to a blank page for structural support, as it was ripped and about two inches of the page is missing from the bottom. This page contains a colorful image of two knights in front of a red castle. They are holding blue shields with gold crosses and are wearing red skirts. Behind the knights is a woman in a pink dress; she is surrounded by what appears to be sunbeams and looks as if she is floating with her arm raised. Some of the colors go beyond the edge of the picture, indicating it may have been painted with watercolor. Beneath the image is a caption that says, “GERTRUDE rising from the Rubbish before the CASTLE”. Below the caption is a note about the print company.
The title page contains the title, written as follows: “The // Castle Spectre; // or, // Family Horrors: // A Gothic Story.” The words are all uppercase, except for “A Gothic Story,” which is written in a more elaborate gothic typeface. Beneath the title is a quote by Langhorne, and then a note on the publisher: “London: // Printed for T. and R. Hughes, // 35, Ludgate-Street.” “London” is written in the same gothic font, while the rest is again all capitalized. Beneath this is the publishing date: 1807. The title page has a small, rather illegible phrase written in pencil in the upper left corner, and a large stain on the right. The back of the title page is blank, except for a small stamp in the bottom left corner that says, “Printed by Bewick and Clarke, Aldergates-street.” It should be noted that the name of the author is never mentioned.
On the first page of the text, the title is again printed, but this time as The Castle Spectre. The chapbook contains thirty-eight pages, and the page sizes vary slightly. The upper and lower margins range from about 1.5 centimeters to 2.5 centimeters. “Castle Spectre” is written on the top margin of every page, and there are page numbers in the upper corners. The text is small and tight, and the inner margin is very narrow. On the left pages, the words run almost into the spine. On some pages, the text is fading and in certain instances, can be seen through from the back of the page. The pages are speckled with light stains, but none that obscure much text. The bottom margins of a few pages contain signature marks, such as B3, C, and C3. These marks indicate how the pages should be folded together, as the book was printed on one large sheet and then folded and trimmed. This binding technique also explains why the pages vary in size. There are nine blank pages at the end of the book. These pages seem newer and are larger; they were likely added to make the book slightly thicker, as it is difficult to bind such a thin book.
An index card is loosely placed in the front of the book, containing the title and publishing information. It appears to be written in Michael Sadleir’s handwriting and was likely used for cataloging purposes. The note indicates that the book was originally unbound, but then mounted on modern board and engraved. This explains the discrepancy between the wear of the cover and that of the pages. “Louisiana” is written on the upper left corner; Sadleir presumably got the book from someone who lived there. A line on the bottom of the card indicates his belief that the plot was plagiarized, as he notes the book is “a theft of title and idea.”
The Castle Spectre by Sarah Scudgell Wilkinson was printed by Bewick and Clarke for T. and R. Hughes in 1807. According to Michael Sadleir’s handwritten note, the copy in the University of Virginia Sadleir-Black Collection was originally unbound and then rebound as a stand-alone chapbook. It appears there is only one edition, the 1807 version, but some other copies are bound in volumes with other chapbooks. According to WorldCat, there are six copies of this edition located at Dartmouth Library, Columbia University Library, and the National Library of Wales, among others. As of 2021, there are no digital copies of the story, though GoogleBooks has information about the title, author, and publishing company.
Wilkinson’s The Castle Spectre; or, Family Horrors: A Gothic Story is often misinterpreted as being inspired by Matthew Gregory Lewis’s play The Castle Spectre. Though part of the title is the same, the actual plot, characters, and setting are entirely unrelated. The confusion has arisen because Wilkinson published two chapbooks with similar titles: The Castle Spectre; or, Family Horrors: A Gothic Story in 1807 and The Castle Spectre: An Ancient Baronial Romance; Founded on the Original Drama of M. G. Lewis in 1820. This second text, The Castle Spectre: An Ancient Baronial Romance, is in fact based upon Lewis’s play (as accurately suggested by the subtitle), with the same characters, setting, and plot. By contrast, the 1807 chapbook, The Castle Spectre; or, Family Horrors, remains separate and unrelated except for its similar main title.
Though the two Castle Spectre texts by Wilkinson are entirely separate, they are frequently confused for one another. For instance, Franz J. Potter notes in The History of Gothic Publishing that Wilkinson “also adapted two versions of Matthew Lewis’s melodrama ‘The Castle Spectre’ publishing The Castle Spectre; or, Family Horrors (2.58) in 1807 with Thomas Hughes, and The Castle Spectre; An Ancient Baronial Romance, Founded on the Original Drama M. G. L. (2.57) in 1820 with John Bailey” (119). In his section on the “Family Horrors” version of Wilkinson’s chapbook, Frederick S. Frank notes that she “transformed Lewis’s Gothic drama, The Castle Spectre [l-219], back into a Gothic novel” (171). Franz J. Potter similarly states that this “Family Horrors” version was “founded on Lewis’s The Castle Spectre. A Drama in Five Acts” (Gothic Chapbooks 39). Even an article in UVA Today makes this common error, stating “Lewis’ work was regularly plagiarized and used in this way, as it is in ‘The Castle Spectre, or, Family Horrors: a Gothic Story,’ by Sarah Scudgell Wilkinson” (McNally).
Many sources that make the claim of a link between The Castle Spectre and Matthew Lewis’s play cite Montague Summers’s Gothic Bibliography, which lists The Castle Spectre by Sarah Wilkinson without specifying the subtitle or a publication date. Summers’s entry reads: “Castle Spectre, The. By Sarah Wilkinson. Founded upon Matthew Gregory Lewis’ famous drama, The Castle Spectre, produced at Drury Lane on Thursday, December 14th, 1797” (268). Of the libraries that own The Castle Spectre; or, Family Horrors, many list M. G. Lewis as an author, and these library catalogs frequently reference Summers’s Gothic Bibliography, echoing his statement that the story is “Founded upon Matthew Gregory Lewis’ famous drama ‘The castle spectre’.” Some libraries note the link to Lewis’s play based upon The National Union Catalog Pre-1956 Imprints, and this source also cites back to Summers’s Gothic Bibliography. It is possible Summers’s entry for The Castle Spectre was misunderstood to be about the “Family Horrors” version, when it was meant to reference the “Baronial Romance” version, which specifically claims to be founded upon Lewis’s play. Whatever the reason, this misunderstanding has spurred many sources, including library catalogs, to erroneously note a connection between the plot of Lewis’s The Castle Spectre play and Wilkinson’s The Castle Spectre; or, Family Horrors chapbook.
It should also be noted that some sources discuss a similarity between the two distinct chapbooks Wilkinson wrote under the titles The Castle Spectre. Diane L. Hoeveler, for instance, suggests that Wilkinson was plagiarizing herself in these two chapbooks, indicating she believes the plots to be “virtually identical and indicate how authors as well as publishers had no qualms about ‘borrowing’ literary texts from others as well as themselves” (14). Hoeveler writes, “Wilkinson’s The Castle Spectre: An Ancient Baronial Romance is actually her second attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Lewis’s 1797 drama The Castle Spectre”, naming as the “other version” The Castle Spectre; or, Family Horrors: a Gothic Story (14). Yet while it is true that Wilkinson used the same main title for two different books, they are not “virtually identical”: the plots, characters’ names, and setting of the story have no similarities. A potential reason for the similar titles was that Wilkinson used the phrase “Castle Spectre” precisely because of its popularity at the time to attract readers, despite the “Family Horrors” version being a unique story.
On a separate note, the title page of The Castle Spectre; or, Family Horrors includes a portion of a poem by John Langhorne. It appears to be an edited stanza from a longer poem entitled “Fable VII. The Wall-flower” from his collection of poems, The Fables of Flora (Johnson 447). It is unclear whether the poem was adapted by Wilkinson or the publishing company, but the poem alludes to the idea of remembrance and telling the stories of the dead. This theme reflects in the story of Gertrude’s death and Richard’s journey of avenging her.
Narrative Point of View
The Castle Spectre is, for the most part, narrated in the third person by an anonymous narrator who is not present in the plot. There are a few occasions throughout the story when the narrator speaks in first-person plural, referencing the history of the story and its translations. The narration follows the knight, Sir Richard, throughout the entire story, and much of the chapbook contains dialogue and interpolated tales spoken by a variety of the characters with whom Richard interacts, such as Douglas. The narrative focuses more on plot and less on characters’ thoughts, and the sentences are often long and descriptive. There is a bit of insight into Richard’s feelings, but the narrator does not discuss other characters’ emotions unless the characters reveal their feelings aloud in dialogue. There is also an instance where Sir Richard and Sir Kenelm exchange letters, which are printed within the text in quotation marks; both Sir Richard and Sir Kenelm refer to themselves in the third person in their letters. At times when Elenora (also known as Gertrude) appears as a ghost, she also refers to herself in the third person during her tales.
Sample of Third-Person Narration:
The moon, emerging from a black cloud just as he entered, enabled him to ascertain he was in a grand spacious hall, in the centre of which stood a large banquetting table He seized an extinguished taper, which he with difficulty lighted by the friction of some wood he found on the hearth. He had now an opportunity to observe the place more accurately. The table was laden with viands, some in a putrid state, some mouldering to powder; and to his eager view appeared vases filled with the juice of the generous grape. In a corner of the apartment he beheld the body of a man extended in death on the floor, the boards of which were stained with congealed blood. A murder had been committed here but a short time before. The sight of this did not alarm him; he knew not fear, but emotions of pity rose in his breast, for the unfortunate object before him, and a desire to develope the mysteries of the place he was in, prevailed over ever other consideration. (6)
Sample of First-Person Plural Narration:
But we must not anticipate in our story too much, and the Scottish manuscript from whence we translate, mentions some transactions that will better appear hereafter. In the mean time we must observe that after much consultation on these transactions, Lord Mackworth advised Sir Richard to appoint a meeting with Sir Kenelm at midnight. (16)
Sample of Sir Richard’s Third-Person Letter to Sir Kenelm Cromar:
Sir Richard, brother to Lady Gertrude, returning from the Holy Wars, finds his venerable father mouldering into dust, brought to the grave by grief for the untimely fate of a beloved daughter, whose fair fame was basely called into question, and her dear life sacrificed to lawless love. —Sir Kenelm must account for this, and inform Sir Richard what is become of a dear sister. For which purpose Sir Richard challenges Sir Kenelm to meet him, in single combat, near that castle-gate where he, Sir Kenelm, banquetting with his new bride, beheld the injured shade of Lady Gertrude, when, for a slight offence, he stabbed his cupbearer. Eight days hence, exactly at the hour of twelve, Sir Richard will be there, with two of his most trusty friends. (16)
Sample of Sir Henry Mackworth’s Interpolated Tale:
At his return to Palestine, finding I was in confinement, his generosity and friendship made him hazard his life to rescue me from my confinement. He succeeded beyond our most sanguine expectations. We continued together some time. We had but one heart, one purse, and were a pattern of friendship throughout camp and country. Clemena was often the subject of our conversation. I ventured to hint the inclination I felt for her, from his description and the picture I had seen. ‘Alas!’ said he, ‘I dare not flatter you with the least hope of success; my sister has been educated in a convent, and ever been intended by our parents for a nun, their fortune being too small to support us both in a manner suitable to our rank…’ I remonstrated with Vertolini on the cruelty of secluding a beloved sister, for life, within the dreary walls of a convent… (33).
The various types of narration in The Castle Spectre allow for a deeper exploration of different characters’ actions and emotions, as well as greater detail on the setting and history of the story. The Castle Spectre utilizes several techniques to augment suspense. On numerous occasions, the names of the characters Richard meets are not revealed until the end of that individual’s story, and the reveals often occur casually amidst the dialogue or narrative with little emphasis. The reveal of the characters’ names has a great impact on the entire plot, and the narration’s nonchalant delivery augments the suspense and adds an element of surprise. As a result, many key details and surprises are revealed suddenly and without foreshadowing. Though the narrator does not touch on characters’ feelings often, the dialogue provides greater insight into the different characters’ personalities and emotions. Because so many different plots are embedded into the chapbook, the story is both engaging and, at times, confusing: the chapbook is extremely fast-paced because so much action is packed into each sentence, and in some cases it is difficult to follow the story and to distinguish who is speaking or who characters are because the plot jumps back and forth in time or between the different story lines. The moments of first-person plural narration detail the story as if it were true by discussing the sources from which the story was translated. These moments where the narrator speaks as “we” directly to the reader, along with the detailed setting and long rambling sentences, all conspire to make the story oral in feel, as if being told to a friend.
The Castle Spectre follows the knight Sir Richard over a period of several years. The story begins on a stormy night in the Scottish Highlands. Sir Richard is traveling to his father’s castle in the Grampian Mountains after a four-year deployment to the Holy War in Palestine. He seeks shelter to ride out the storm, but no one will take him in. In a flash of lightning, he sees the turret of a castle; he sounds his bugle numerous times with no response, so he dismounts his horse and tries the door. By chance, the door is unlocked, and Richard enters the banquet hall of the castle. With only the moon and occasional flash of lightning to guide him, the knight explores. The hall is filled with food and drink that appears to have been placed there recently. In the corner of the hall lies the dead body of a man; the floor is soaked with congealed blood. Sir Richard vows to unravel the mystery of the catastrophe that occurred.
Sir Richard tours the rest of the castle, which is magnificently decorated in gothic splendor. No one is to be found and all is silent. He comes upon a great bed, and as he is exhausted from his journey, he jumps in and falls into a deep sleep. At one o’clock, a bell rings and Sir Richard wakes to the curtains of the bed being ripped open. Standing at the foot of the bed bathed in blue light is a veiled woman in a white dress. As he approaches her, the woman’s veil falls off and a stream of blood gushes from a wound in her side. Richard looks into the woman’s face, and it is none other than his sister! He calls to the apparition “by her name Elenora” (though later in the story she is referred to predominantly as Gertrude, with no explanation given for the shift in name) (7). Elenora the apparition stands, not speaking, while holding her hand over the seemingly fresh wound in her side. After repeated prodding, Elenora explains the story of her brutal murder in the castle, revealing that two years after Richard left, she married the owner of this castle, and in a fit of frenzy he stabbed her (while she was pregnant) and left her corpse in a rubbish pile. Left to rot without a proper Christian burial, she haunts her murderer and his new wife. The scene that Richard came upon in the banquet hall was the remnants of their wedding, which was ruined when Elenora appeared and terrorized the guests. Finally, with a clap of thunder and a flash of lightning, Elenora vanishes in a swirl of blue flame.
Shocked and overcome with emotion, Sir Richard decides to leave and avenge his beloved sister. He lets his horse take the reins on the way to his father’s estate and does not realize the horse has gone down the wrong road. They come upon a cottage where he is treated with great hospitality. The owner, Douglas, tells the story of his childhood and time as a soldier, where he saved the life of the “worthy nobleman, under whose banners I had enlisted” and was thus assured protection and this cottage (11). Douglas explains that the nobleman has died and his son is at war; he fears thar if he does not return, Sir Kenelm Cromar will take over his estates and leave Douglas and his family to live out their days in poverty. During this story, Douglas reveals the name of his former nobleman to be Duncan, and Sir Richard reveals that Duncan was his father! This means that Sir Richard is the son who has now returned home; the Douglas family rejoices. Douglas’s story also reveals that Sir Kenelm’s first wife was Elenora (now predominately referred to as Gertrude in the story). Upon Gertrude and Kenelm’s marriage, Ally (Douglas’s daughter) moved into the castle where Sir Kenelm “began to take great liberties with her” (12). Douglas says Lady Gertrude is now missing and so is Ally. Because of Gertrude’s ghost’s daily visits, Sir Kenelm and his new wife have moved to his hunting lodge so the castle remains uninhabited. Sir Richard thanks Douglas and promises him a life of friendship and protection.
When he finally arrives home, the servants rejoice at the return of their young lord. They tell the knight all that has happened and grieve for the good young lady Gertrude and their master Duncan. Enraged, Sir Richard vows to avenge her and lay her body to rest in a Christian burial. He seeks out his father’s friend, Lord Mackworth, and tells the man the story. Richard decides to challenge Sir Kenelm to single combat, with Mackworth’s assistance. As part of their agreement, Mackworth wants Sir Richard to marry his daughter and Sir Richard agrees. Sir Kenelm accepts Richard’s request, mentioning that though it is illegal to fight in this manner, he will do it anyways to honor the memory of the venerable Duncan. Meanwhile, Kenelm sends a letter to the king, requesting that he send men and imprison Richard before the fight occurs. Instead, the king decides the two men will have an impartial hearing at his court and he will support whichever cause is more just.
It is now the night of combat, and the marshal Lord Glencairn asks if any last-minute accommodations can be made. Richard declines, unless Sir Kenelm will admit to murdering Gertrude and surrender to public justice. Kenelm refuses, saying that Gertrude abandoned him for a lover, and Richard is about to stab him in rage when suddenly, they are both commanded prisoners and summoned to the king’s court. Before they leave with the soldiers, the clock strikes one and in a swirl of thunder and lightning, Gertrude appears. She shares her story and explains that three times now she has prevented Kenelm from murdering his new wife. She requests a proper burial, asks Mackworth to protect Richard, and vanishes in a thick blue flame amidst a crack of lightning and tremendous peal of thunder. Richard breaks the silence and tells the soldiers to bring them to the court, so that he can share the full story in front of the king. The hearing occurs, and Kenelm is found guilty and sent to prison; he later has a public trial and is condemned to death. Gertrude’s remains are recovered and she has a proper burial; all the churches in the surrounding area hold masses in her honor and her final wish is granted.
Finally, Richard goes home. He keeps his house open to serve his father’s tenants, and the neighboring nobility congratulate him on his return from the war and for bringing Kenelm to justice. Nevertheless, Sir Richard is unhappy; he mourns the loss of his father and sister and misses his lost love Lady Jane. The story now shifts back many years, before Richard went to the Holy Land. He fell in love with Mackworth’s daughter, Jane, and she waited for him to return from the war. In the four years of his absence, Jane denied many marriage offers from wealthy prospects, one of them being Lord Glendour. Finally, Richard returns and they are set to marry. We learn that two years before Richard left, Mackworth’s son went to war and never returned. They mourned his death, and Mackworth received Richard as a son and the heir to his estates and domains. As they prepare for the wedding at the Mackworth estate, Richard returns to his familial castle, and in his absence, an unfortunate event occurs. One evening, Jane is kidnapped while on a walk through the gardens. Mackworth sends news to Richard, who vows never to return until he finds his love. He searches for weeks with no sign of Jane, until he comes across a hut offering refreshments to travelers. The man inside mentions that a gagged woman and man had come through just before and were on their way to Italy. Richard chases them to the river’s edge and resolves to follow them. For years, he traverses all of Italy, hopelessly searching convents for his lover. He falls ill and almost dies from grief, but dreams of Jane and vows to recover and free her.
The story jumps back in time to Jane’s kidnapping, and it is revealed that Lord Glendour, one of Kenelm’s friends, fell madly in love with her and kidnapped Jane to be with her. He requests her hand in marriage, but she refuses. She tricks him into allowing her to pass the time in a convent in Italy, where she is watched over by the Lady Abbess and not allowed to leave. Back in the present, Richard meets an English man in the middle of Venice. They become friends and visit the man’s villa. Richard recognizes someone in one of the family pictures and asks the man to share the story of why he left England. The man says the story is long, but he has written it down for his children and will one day give Richard a copy to read. After months of visits, Richard reads the man’s story and is surprised by the similarities between them. The man, Wentworth, was the eldest son of a noble house in England. He fell in love with a peasant girl Louisa, and though he was promised to marry a noble woman Anna, he runs away with his lover. He fakes illness and tells his father he will go to the Holy War; Louisa goes with him, and they marry and have a son and daughter. He returns from the war and vows to sort out his betrothal to Anna. Leaving his wife and children in the protection of her father, he goes back to his paternal castle. He sets a plan for his brother, William, to marry Anna instead, and it works. Elatedly, Wentworth returns to the cottage and is devastated to find Louisa and his infant son missing. They were tricked by a letter claiming to be from him, and Wentworth suspects his own father to have sent it. For five years, Wentworth and his daughter travel the world, though nothing can make him forget Louisa. Receiving word of his father’s ill health, he returns to England. On his death bed, Wentworth’s father reveals he sent Louisa to a convent in Italy, but she escaped. Wentworth and his daughter go back to Italy to search for her, but he never finds Louisa. He lives like a recluse in his villa, and this is where Richard reenters the story.
Richard again visits Wentworth. The man reveals he is Richard’s uncle but used a fake family name so that he may retire in peace, away from the nobility. Richard explains that during his search for Jane, he saw Louisa and her son in the Pyrenees. Together, Richard and Wentworth begin their journey to the mountains to find the long-lost wife and son. They come across a cottage that Richard had visited before and reunite with Louisa and the son. Wentworth, now revealed to be called Sir George, decides to return to his family home in England. Richard promises to join them, if they can spare a few weeks for him to search for Jane.
One night on his return to the Italian villa, Richard sees two criminals attacking a man. He intervenes, and they admit they were hired by Count Vertolini to kill him. Richard and the man go back to his house, so they may speak safely. The young man then explains his story: he came from England to fight in the Holy War and had a father and sister at home who he had not heard from in years. During the war, he became great friends with an Italian man, Vertolini, who had a sister named Clemena. The man falls in love with her, but is then taken prisoner in Palestine. Four years later, Vertolini bribed the soldiers and freed his friend, and they carry on their travels together. The Italian man reveals his sister is promised to a convent, so she cannot be with his friend despite his love for her. They meet the sister in Italy, where he becomes even more enamored. Clemena admits she does not want to join the convent, but it is necessary for her honor. Vertolini vows to save her before she takes the veil, and the siblings try in vain to convince their father to free her. The father, Count Vertolini, refuses the young man’s wedding proposal, and advises him to leave Italy immediately. It is now revealed that the young man is Sir Henry Mackworth, Lord Mackworth’s long lost son and Jane’s brother.
Back in the present, Richard and Henry plan to rescue Clemena. While at the convent, a girl hands the knight a note telling him to return at midnight to find something of great importance. He listens, and that night, finds Lady Jane at the convent! She explains her story and begs him to free her. Richard and Henry return to the convent to demand her release, but the Lady Abbess refuses. The next day, Henry interrupts the veiling ceremony and saves Clemena from the convent. Richard goes back to England with Henry and Clemena, where he hurries to find Mackworth. Together, they apply to the king and receive his royal mandate to imprison Lord Glendour. The king sends word to the Pope, and Mackworth and Sir Richard go back to Italy to retrieve a freed Jane. With Richard’s lover in tow, they return to England. Wentworth lives in his castle with his family, there are numerous weddings, Glendour dies in a convent, and Sir Richard is blessed with years of happiness with Jane, Henry, Wentworth, and the others. They all live happily ever after.
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Hoeveler, Diane L., “Sarah Wilkinson: Female Gothic Entrepreneur” (2015). Gothic Archive: Related Scholarship. 7. https://epublications.marquette.edu/gothic_scholar/7.
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Researcher: Abby Minkin