Mr. Hirsham B. Otis, an American minister, has just purchased an English estate named Canterville Chase from Lord Canterville, whose family has owned it for centuries. Everyone who’s heard about the sale believes Mr. Otis to have made a mistake, because Canterville Chase is widely known to be haunted. Even Lord Canterville feels compelled by honor to tell Mr. Otis about the ghost inhabiting the property and the multiple members of his family who have seen it. Mr. Otis, who says he comes from a country far too modern to believe in ghosts, is not impressed by these stories. He agrees to purchase the estate, ghost and all.
A few weeks later, Mr. Otis and his wife, Mrs. Otis, take the train to their new home with their children, Washington, Virginia, and the twins. The ride from the rail station is a long one, and as they approach the house, the fine summer evening transforms into an ominous storm. Mrs. Umney, Canterville Chase’s housekeeper, meets the group at the door and ushers them inside. After a short period of exploring the house, the family is surprised to find a bloodstain on the floor by the sitting room’s fireplace. When questioned, Mrs. Umney informs the Otis family that the stain cannot be removed, both because it has already set into the fabric and because it is centuries old and has become a popular tourist attraction. Sir Simon de Canterville, she says, created the bloodstain when he killed his wife in 1575. Sir Simon disappeared shortly thereafter and, though he was never seen alive again, and his body was never found, his ghost haunts Canterville Chase.
The Americans react to the story of Sir Simon with the same disbelief that Mr. Otis showed about the ghost originally. Washington immediately sets to work removing the stain with the help of Pinkerton’s Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent, which proves to be quite effective. The spot is soon completely clear. It appears again the next morning, however, and for many mornings thereafter, despite Washington’s diligent and daily removal of it. Strangely, the stain seems to always be changing colors, sometimes into hues quite unnatural for a bloodstain, including purple and bright green. The family becomes convinced that the stain’s reoccurrence must be the work of the ghost after all, though they are mostly curious about the phenomenon and not at all scared. At any rate, all doubt about the haunted nature of the house are removed when the ghostly Sir Simon makes his first appearance a few days later, in the early morning hours after the family has long been asleep. With his sinister red eyes, torn, dirty clothes, and limbs shackled in long, dragging chains, Sir Simon attempts to make a frightening first impression on Mr. Otis. But the minister takes little notice of these trappings, instead awakening only to offer Sir Simon a bottle of Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator. The oil, Mr. Otis tells the ghost, will stop the awful squeaking produced by Sir Simon’s chains and allow the family to rest. Sir Simon, who displays all the haughty indignation of his aristocratic past, takes great offense to this and smashes the bottle on the ground before storming off. Before he leaves the scene entirely, however, he is accosted by the twins, who rudely throw pillows at him. They force Sir Simon to walk through a wall in order to escape to his bedroom, a secret chamber hidden in a wing of the estate.
In his room, Sir Simon contemplates his long history of haunting Canterville Chase. He considers the haunting as though it were a job—one that he takes great pride in doing. He remembers multiple instances of past haunts, reveling in the scares he was able to produce in the English aristocrats of centuries past. Remembering these successes only makes him more confused about how he was so easily foiled by a handful of upstart Americans. He vows to himself that he will have revenge. After a few days to collect his thoughts on how best to accomplish this task, Sir Simon decides to try to scare the Otis family by putting on his old suit of armor and walking around the house with it. He waits until the family is asleep before beginning his plan. Unfortunately, he quickly finds that the suit has become too heavy for him to lift, and the only scare he manages is that produced by the loud clang as the armor falls to the ground. Sir Simon quickly finds himself surrounded by the Otis family: the twins shooting him with their toy guns while Mr. Otis levels a real gun at him, as though he were a common burglar. Again, Sir Simon is forced to flee from the Otis family, retreating once more to his room to consider his changed fortunes. The back-to-back failures take a strangely physical toll on the ghost, and it takes several days before he has the strength to make another attempt at a scare.
Sir Simon’s third attempt is his most elaborate yet, with especially diabolical plans laid out for Washington Otis (because he keeps removing the bloodstain) and the twins, whom Sir Simon has come to despise. In fact, Sir Simon plans to visit each member of the Otis family individually, though he plans to take it easy on Virginia, as she has never insulted him and possesses a gentle nature. The Otises have other plans, however. They’ve set up a kind of scarecrow (a fake ghost made up of a broom, a sheet, and a hollowed-out turnip) in the hallways to ward off Sir Simon. It is their plan that succeeds. As Sir Simon turns the corner, costumed in his most frightening garb and accessorized with a rusty dagger, he encounters the counterfeit ghost and is frightened out of his wits. For a third time, he flees to his quarters in terror. It’s almost daylight when he finally works up the resolve to return and try to talk to the ghost (since Sir Simon is, himself, a ghost, he seemingly has little reason to fear other ghosts). When he does, he is enraged by the trick that’s been played on him and yet again vows revenge—but he soon loses his confidence and returns to his room downhearted, tired, and on edge. He gives up renewing the bloodstain on the sitting-room floor and limits his ghostly activities to only those he feels bound by tradition to continue—he even begins using the lubricating oil to quiet his chains, lest the twins hear him.
The twins, however, do not give up. They continue to lay traps for Sir Simon, such as pulling string across the hallway, in the hopes of catching him. One such trap, involving a slide greased with butter designed to tumble him down a staircase, so injures and angers Sir Simon that he finds the strength of will to try one last scare. He pulls out all the stops for this one, donning the guise of “Reckless Rupert, or the Headless Earl.” The costume takes a while to assemble, as he hasn’t used it for nearly a century, and he’s left the necessary props scattered around the estate, but he manages to bring it all together in time for a final assault the next night. The twins, however, are ready for him. As Sir Simon enters their room, he springs the trap they’ve laid for him and is instantly doused with water from a jug placed above the doorway. For the fourth time, the ghost flees to his room in a mixture of fear, defeat, and outrage. The physical toll of this last failure so debilitates him that he doesn’t leave his bed for weeks. Even when he finally regains his strength, he keeps well away from the Otis family, though the twins keep a constant vigil. Even a visit from the Duke of Cheshire, whose family have long been the victims of Sir Simon’s scares, isn’t enough to bring the ghost out.
The Duke is at Canterville Chase visiting Virginia, with whom he has long been smitten. One day, returning from a trip to the meadows with the Duke, Virginia encounters Sir Simon. The ghost is in a state of despair and takes no notice of her, until Virginia decides to engage him in conversation. She tells Sir Simon that she feels sorry for him but assures him that her brothers will soon be leaving for school in the fall. This, she hopes, will grant him some reprieve—though she reminds the ghost that, while she does not approve of her brothers’ treatment of him, Sir Simon has been very wicked of his own accord. For instance, she accuses the ghost of stealing her paints in order to renew the sitting-room bloodstain (which explains its strangely changing color), in turn making it impossible for her to paint what she wished. The two talk at length, and Sir Simon tells Virginia about a prophecy that foretells the circumstances under which he might be able to stop haunting Canterville Chase and move on to his eternal rest. The divination says that a young, innocent girl must weep and pray for Sir Simon. It further says that the living residents of Canterville Chase will know that the prayers have worked when they see the long-barren almond tree on the property flower again. Since Virginia is so young and good, Sir Simon hopes that she might be the girl foretold by the prophecy and asks if she will help. Virginia agrees. The two disappear into a secret area of the home.
Virginia’s absence is soon noted and a search party dispatched to little avail. Eventually, however, she does return, bearing an odd, coffin-shaped box in her hand. Virginia tells Mr. Otis that the box contains jewels given to her by Sir Simon, who has now passed on. She leads her parents and siblings to a secret room hidden in the estate, where Sir Simon was starved to death by his brothers-in-law and where his body still remained. Sir Simon’s in-laws murdered him as revenge for Sir Simon murdering his wife, who was their sister. With Virginia’s help, the ghost was at last able to find rest—a truth proven when the twins notice the blooming almond tree. The Canterville family is notified of what has transpired, and a funeral is held to bury Sir Simon’s body. Mr. Otis tries to return Virginia’s jewels to Lord Canterville, who refuses, saying that since the ghost was included with the sale of the house, as was the ghost’s property. Virginia later wears the jewels when she meets the Queen of England, following her marriage to the Duke of Cheshire.