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The Tale of Terror A Study of the Gothic Romance online

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teaches her to read from Plutarch's _Lives_, Volney's _Ruins of
Empire, The Sorrows of Werther_, and _Paradise Lost_. The monster
overhears the lessons, and ponders on this unique library, but,
as he pleads his own cause the more eloquently because he knows
Satan's passionate outbursts of defiance and self-pity, who would
cavil at the method by which he is made to acquire his knowledge?
"The cold stars shone in mockery, and the bare trees waved their
branches above me; now and then the sweet voice of a bird burst
forth amidst the universal stillness. All save I were at rest or
in enjoyment. I, like the arch fiend, bore a hell within me." And
later, near the close of the book: "The fallen angel becomes a
malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends
and associates in his desolation; I am alone," His fate reminds
us of that of _Alastor, the Spirit of Solitude_, who:

"Over the world wanders for ever
Lone as incarnate death."

After the long and moving recital of his woes, even the obdurate
Frankenstein cannot resist the justice of his demand for a
partner like himself. Yet when the student recoils with horror
from his half-accomplished task and sees the creature maliciously
peering through the window, our hatred leaps to life once more
and burns fiercely as the monster adds to his crimes the murder
of Clerval, Frankenstein's dearest friend, and of Elizabeth on
her wedding night. We follow with shuddering anticipation the
long pursuit of the monster, expectant of a last, fearful
encounter which shall decide the fate of the demon and his maker.
Amid the region of eternal ice, Frankenstein catches sight of
him; but fails to reach him. At last, beside the body of his last
victim - Frankenstein himself - the creature is filled with remorse
at the "frightful catalogue" of his sins, and makes a final bid
for our sympathy in the farewell speech to Walton, before
climbing on an ice-raft to be "borne away by the waves and lost
in darkness and distance."

Like _Alastor_, _Frankenstein_ was a plea for human sympathy, and
was, according to Shelley's preface, intended "to exhibit the
amiableness of domestic affection and the excellence of universal
virtue." The monster has the perception and desire of goodness,
but, by the circumstances of his abnormal existence, is delivered
over to evil. It is this dual nature that prevents him from being
a mere automaton. The monster indeed is far more real than the
shadowy beings whom he pursues. Frankenstein is less an
individual than a type, and only interests us through the
emotions which his conflict with the monster arouses. Clerval,
Elizabeth and Frankenstein's relatives are passive sufferers
whose psychology does not concern us. Mrs. Shelley rightly
lavishes her skill on the central figure of the book, and
succeeds, as effectually as Frankenstein himself, in infusing
into him the spark of life. Mrs. Shelley's aim is to "awaken
thrilling horror," and, incidentally, to "exhibit the excellence
of domestic virtue," and for her purpose the demon is of
paramount importance. The involved, complex plot of a novel
seemed to pass beyond Mrs. Shelley's control. A short tale she
could handle successfully, and Shelley was unwise in inciting her
to expand _Frankenstein_ into a long narrative. So long as she is
completely carried away by her subject Mrs. Shelley writes
clearly, but when she pauses to regard the progress of her story
dispassionately, she seems to be overwhelmed by the wealth of her
resources and to have no power of selecting the relevant details.
The laborious introductory letters, the meticulous record of
Frankenstein's education, the story of Felix and Sofie, the
description of the tour through England before the creation of
the second monster is attempted, are all connected with the main
theme by very frail links and serve to distract our attention in
an irritating fashion from what really interests us. In the novel
of mystery a tantalising delay may be singularly effective. In a
novel which depends chiefly for its effect on sheer horror,
delays are merely dangerous. By resting her terrors on a
pseudo-scientific basis and by placing her story in a definite
locality, Mrs. Shelley waives her right to an entire suspension
of disbelief. If it be reduced to its lowest terms, the plot of
Frankenstein, with its bewildering confusion of the prosaic and
the fantastic, sounds as crude, disjointed and inconsequent as
that of a nightmare. Mrs. Shelley's timid hesitation between
imagination and reality, her attempt to reconcile incompatible
things and to place a creature who belongs to no earthly land in
familiar surroundings, prevents _Frankenstein_ from being a
wholly satisfactory and alarming novel of terror. She loves the
fantastic, but she also fears it. She is weighted down by
commonsense, and so flutters instead of soaring, unwilling to
trust herself far from the material world. But the fact that she
was able to vivify her grotesque skeleton of a plot with some
degree of success is no mean tribute to her gifts. The energy and
vigour of her style, her complete and serious absorption in her
subject, carry us safely over many an absurdity. It is only in
the duller stretches of the narrative, when her heart is not in
her work, that her language becomes vague, indeterminate and
blurred, and that she muffles her thoughts in words like
"ascertain," "commencement," "peruse," "diffuse," instead of
using their simpler Saxon equivalents. Stirred by the excitement
of the events she describes, she can write forcibly in simple,
direct language. She often frames short, hurried sentences such
as a man would naturally utter when breathless with terror or
with recollections of terror. The final impression that
_Frankenstein_ leaves with us is not easy to define, because the
book is so uneven in quality. It is obviously the shapeless work
of an immature writer who has had no experience in evolving a
plot. Sometimes it is genuinely moving and impressive, but it
continually falls abruptly and ludicrously short of its aim. Yet
when all its faults have been laid bare, the fact remains that
few readers would abandon the story half-way through. Mrs.
Shelley is so thoroughly engrossed in her theme that she impels
her readers onward, even though they may think but meanly of her
story as a work of art.

Mrs. Shelley's second novel, _Valperga, or the Life and
Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca_, published in 1823,
was a work on which she bestowed much care and labour, but the
result proves that she writes best when the urgency of her
imagination leaves her no leisure either to display her learning
or adorn her style. She herself calls _Valperga_ a "child of
mighty slow growth," and Shelley adds that it was "raked out of
fifty old books." Mrs. Shelley, always an industrious student,
made a conscientious survey of original sources before fashioning
her story of mediaeval Italy, and she is hampered by the
exuberance of her knowledge. The novel is not a romance of
terror; but Castruccio, though his character is sketched from
authentic documents, seems towards the end of the story to
resemble the picturesque villain who numbered among his ancestry
Milton's Satan. He has "a majestic figure and a countenance
beautiful but sad, and tarnished by the expression of pride that
animated it." Beatrice, the gifted prophetess who falls deep in
love with Castruccio, ends her days in the dungeons of the
Inquisition. Mrs. Shelley's aim, however, is not to arouse fear,
but to trace the gradual deterioration of Castruccio's character
from an open-hearted youth to a crafty tyrant. The blunt remarks
of Godwin, who revised the manuscript, are not unjust, but fall
with an ill grace from the pen of the author of _St. Leon_: "It
appears in reading, that the first rule you prescribed was: 'I
will let it be long.' It contains the quantity of four volumes of
_Waverley_. No hard blow was ever hit with a woodsaw."[121]

In _The Last Man_, which appeared in 1825, Mrs. Shelley attempted
a stupendous theme, no less then a picture of the devastation of
the human race by plague and pestilence. She casts her
imagination forward into the twenty-first century, when the last
king of England has abdicated the throne and a republic is
established. Very wisely, she narrows the interest by
concentrating on the pathetic fate of a group of friends who are
among the last survivors, and the story becomes an idealised
record of her own sufferings. The description of the loneliness
of the bereft has a personal note, and reminds us of her journal,
where she expresses the sorrow of being herself the last
survivor, and of feeling like a "cloud from which the light of
sunset has passed."[122] Raymond, who dies in an attempt to place
the standard of Greece in Stamboul, is a portrait of Byron; and
Adrian, the late king's son, who finally becomes Protector, is
clearly modelled on Shelley. Yet in spite of these personal
reminiscences, their characters lack distinctness. Idris, Clara
and Perdita are faintly etched, but Evadne, the Greek artist, who
cherishes a passion for Raymond, and dies fighting against the
Turks, has more colour and body than the other women, though she
is somewhat theatrical. Mrs. Shelley conveys emotion more
faithfully than character, and the overwrought sensibilities and
dark forebodings of the diminished party of survivors who leave
England to distract their minds by foreign travel are artfully
suggested. The leaping, gesticulating figure, whom their jaded
nerves and morbid fancy transform into a phantom, is a delirious
ballet-dancer; and the Black Spectre, mistaken for Death
Incarnate, proves only to be a plague-stricken noble, who lurks
near the party for the sake of human society. These "reasonable"
solutions of the apparently supernatural remind us of Mrs.
Radcliffe's method, and Mrs. Shelley shows keen psychological
insight in her delineation of the state of mind which readily
conjures up imaginary terrors. When Lionel Verney is left alone
in the universe, her power seems to flag, and instead of the
final crescendo of horror, which we expect at the end of the
book, we are left with an ineffective picture of the last man in
Rome in 2005 deciding to explore the countries he has not yet
viewed. As he wanders amid the ruins he recalls not only "the
buried Cæsars," but also the monk in _The Italian_, of whom he
had read in childhood - a striking proof of Mrs. Shelley's faith
in the permanence of Mrs. Radcliffe's fame.

Though the style of _The Last Man_ is often tediously prolix and
is disfigured by patches of florid rhetoric and by inappropriate
similes scattered broadcast, occasional passages of wonderful
beauty recall Shelley's imagery; and, in conveying the pathos of
loneliness, personal feeling lends nobility and eloquence to her
style. With so ambitious a subject, it was natural that she
should only partially succeed in carrying her readers with her.
Though there are oases, the story is a somewhat tedious and
dreary stretch of narrative that can only be traversed with
considerable effort.

Mrs. Shelley's later works - _Perkin Warbeck_ (1830), a historical
novel; _Lodore_ (1835), which describes the early life of Shelley
and Harriet; _Falkner_ (1837), which was influenced by _Caleb
Williams_ - do not belong to the history of the novel of terror;
but some of her short tales, contributed to periodicals and
collected in 1891, have gruesome and supernatural themes. _A Tale
of the Passions, or the Death of Despina_[123] a story based on
the struggles of the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, contains a
perfect specimen of the traditional villain of the novel of
terror:

"Every feature of his countenance spoke of the struggle
of passions and the terrible egotism of one who would
sacrifice himself to the establishment of his will: his
black eyebrows were scattered, his grey eyes deep-set
and scowling, his look at once stern and haggard. A
smile seemed never to have disturbed the settled scorn
which his lips expressed; his high forehead was marked
by a thousand contradictory lines."

This terrific personage spends the last years of his life in
orthodox fashion as an austere saint in a monastery.

_The Mortal Immortal_, a variation on the theme of _St. Leon_, is
the record of a pupil of Cornelius Agrippa, who drank half of the
elixir his master had compounded in the belief that it was a
potion to destroy love. It is written on his three hundred and
twenty-third birthday. _Transformation_, like _Frankenstein_,
dwells on the pathos of ugliness and deformity, but the subject
is treated rather in the spirit of an eastern fairy tale than in
that of a novel of terror. The dwarf, in return for a chest of
treasure, borrows a beautiful body, and, thus disguised, wins the
love of Juliet, and all ends happily. Mrs. Shelley's short
stories[124] reveal a stronger sense of proportion than her
novels, and are written in a more graceful, fluent style than the
books on which she expended great labour.

The literary history of Byron's fragmentary novel and of
Polidori's short story, _The Vampyre_, is somewhat tangled, but
the solution is to be found in the diary of Dr. John William
Polidori, edited and elucidated by William Michael Rossetti. The
day after that on which Polidori states that all the competitors,
except himself, had begun their stories, he records the simple
fact: "Began my ghost-story after tea." He gives no hint as to
the subject of his tale, but Mrs. Shelley tells us that Polidori
had some idea of a "skull-headed lady, who was so punished for
looking through a key-hole, and who was finally buried in the
tomb of the Capulets." In the introduction to _Ernestus
Berchtold, or the Modern OEdipus_, he states definitely:

"The tale here presented to the public is one I began
at Coligny, when _Frankenstein_ was planned, and when a
noble author, having determined to descend from his
lofty range, gave up a few hours to a tale of terror,
and wrote the fragment published at the end of
Mazeppa."

As no skull-headed lady appears in _Ernestus Berchtold_, it is
probable that her career was only suggested to the rest of the
party as an entrancing possibility, and never actually took
shape. This theme would certainly have proved more frightful and
possibly more interesting than the one which Polidori eventually
adopted in _Ernestus Berchtold_, a rambling, leisurely account of
the adventures of a Swiss soldier, whose wife afterwards proves
to be his own sister. Their father has accepted from a malignant
spirit the gift of wealth, but each time that the gift is
bestowed some great affliction follows. This secret is not
divulged until we are quite near the close of the story, and have
waited so long that our interest has begun to wane. _Ernestus
Berchtold_ is, as a matter of fact, not a novel of terror at all.
The supernatural agency, which should have been interlaced with
the domestic story from beginning to end, is only dragged in
because it was one of the conditions of the competition, as
indeed Polidori frankly confesses in his introduction:

"Many readers will think that the same moral and the
same colouring might have been given to characters
acting under the ordinary agencies of life. I believe
it, but I agreed to write a supernatural tale, and that
does not allow of a completely everyday narrative."

The candour of this admission forestalls criticism. Strangely
enough, Polidori adds that he has thrown the "superior agency"
into the background, because "a tale that rests upon
improbabilities must generally disgust a rational mind." With so
decided a preference for the reasonable and probable, it is
remarkable that Polidori should treat the vampire legend
successfully. It has frequently been stated that Byron's story
was completed by Polidori; but this assertion is not precisely
accurate. Polidori made no use of the actual fragment, but based
his story upon the groundwork on which the fragment was to have
been continued. Byron's story describes the arrival of two
friends amid the ruins of Ephesus. One of them, Darvell, who,
like most of Byron's heroes, is enshrouded in mystery, and is a
prey to some cureless disquiet, falls ill and dies. Before his
death he demands that his companion shall on a certain day throw
a ring into the salt springs that run into the bay of Eleusis. If
we may trust Polidori's account, Byron intended that the
survivor, on his return to England, should be startled to behold
his companion moving in society, and making love to his sister.
On this foundation Polidori constructed _The Vampyre_. The story
opens with the description of a nobleman, Lord Ruthven, whose
appearance and character excite great interest in London society.
His face is remarkable for its deadly pallor, and he has a "dead,
grey eye, which, fixing upon the object's face, did not seem to
penetrate and at one glance to pierce through to the inward
workings of the heart, but fell upon the cheek with a leaden ray
that laid (_sic_) upon the skin it could not pass." A young man
named Aubrey, who arrives in London about the same time, becomes
deeply interested in the study of Ruthven's character. When he
joins him on a tour abroad he discovers that his companion takes
a fiendish delight in ruining the innocent at the gaming-table;
and, after receiving a warning of Ruthven's reputation, decides
to leave him, but to continue to watch him closely. He succeeds
in foiling his designs against a young Italian girl in Rome.
Aubrey next travels to Greece, where he falls in love with
Ianthe. One day, in spite of warnings that the place he purposes
to visit is frequented by vampires, Aubrey sets off on an
excursion. Benighted in a lonely forest, he hears the
terror-stricken cries of a woman in a hovel, and, on attempting
to rescue her, finds himself in the grasp of a being of
superhuman strength, who cries: "Again baffled!" When light
dawns, Aubrey makes the terrible discovery that Ianthe has become
the prey of a vampire. He carries away from the spot a
blood-stained dagger. In the delirious fever, which ensues on his
discovery of Ianthe's fate, Aubrey is nursed by Lord Ruthven.
While they are travelling in Greece, Ruthven is shot in the
shoulder by a robber, and, before dying, exacts from Aubrey a
solemn oath that he will not reveal for a year and a day what he
knows of his crimes or death. In accordance with a promise made
to Ruthven, his body is conveyed to a mountain to be exposed to
the rays of the moon. The corpse disappears. Among Ruthven's
possessions Aubrey finds a sheath, into which the dagger he has
found in the hovel fits exactly. On passing through Rome he
learns that the girl he had once saved from Ruthven has vanished.
When he returns to London, Aubrey is horrified to behold the
figure of Lord Ruthven almost on the very spot where he had first
seen him. He dare not break his oath, and soon becomes almost
demented. The news of his sister's marriage seems to rouse him
momentarily from his lethargy, and when he discovers that Ruthven
is to be the bridegroom he urges her to delay the marriage. His
warnings are disregarded, and the ceremony takes place. Aubrey
relates to his sister's guardians all that he knows of Ruthven,
but it is too late. Ruthven has disappeared, and she has "glutted
the thirst of a vampyre."

Polidori's manner of telling the story is curiously matter of
fact and restrained. He relates the incidents as they occur, and
leaves the reader to form his own conclusions. If Lewis had been
handling the theme he would have wallowed in gory details, and
would have expatiated on the agonies of his victims. Polidori
wisely keeps his story in a quiet key, depending for his effect
on the terror of the bare facts. He realises that he is on the
verge of the unspeakable.

Polidori's story set a fashion in vampires, who appear as
characters in fiction all through the nineteenth century. A
writer in the _Dublin University Magazine_ tells of a vampire who
plays an admirable game of whist! There is an "explained" vampire
in one of George Macdonald's stories, _Adela Cathcart_. The
prince of vampires is, however, Bram Stoker's _Dracula_, round
whom centres a story of absorbing interest.

De Quincey, who might have selected from the novel of terror many
admirable illustrations for his essay on _Murder, Considered as
one of the Fine Arts_, and who seems to have been attracted by
the German type of horrific story, shows some facility in
sensational fiction. In _Klosterheim_, a one-volumed novel
published in 1832, the interest circles round the machinations of
an elusive, ubiquitous "Masque," eventually revealed to be none
other than the son of the late Landgrave, who, like many a man
before him in the tale of terror, has been done to death by a
usurper. Disappearances through trap-doors, and escapes down
subterranean passages are effected with a dexterity suggestive of
Mrs. Radcliffe's methods; and the inexplicable murders, with the
exception of that of an aged seneschal accidentally betrayed, are
not real. In certain of his moods and habits, the Masque bears a
likeness to Lewis's "Bravo," but the setting of De Quincey's
story is very different. The adventures of the Masque and of the
Lady Pauline are cast in Germany amid the confusion of the Thirty
Years' War. In _The Household Wreck_, published in _Blackwood's
Magazine_, January 1838, De Quincey shows his power of conveying
a sense of foreboding, that anticipation of horror which is often
more harrowing than the reality. Another tale of terror, _The
Avenger_, published in the same year, describes a series of
bloodcurdling murders which baffle the skill of the police, but
which eventually prove to have been committed by a son to avenge
dishonour done to his Jewish mother. For a collection of _Popular
Tales and Romances of the Northern Nations_, published in 1823,
De Quincey translated _Der Freischütz_ from the German of J.A.
Apel, under the title of _The Fatal Marksman_. By means of
ill-gotten magic bullets the marksman wins his bride, but by one
of those little ironies in which the devil delights to indulge,
she is slain on the wedding-day by a bullet, which is aimed
straight, but goes askew. In _The Dice_, another short story from
the German, De Quincey once again exploits the old theme of a
bargain with the devil.

De Quincey's contributions to the tale of terror shrink into
unimportance beside the rest of his work, and are not in
themselves remarkable. They are of interest as showing the
widespread and long-enduring vogue of the species. It is
noteworthy how many writers, whose main business lay elsewhere,
have found time to make erratic excursions into the realms of the
supernatural.

So late as 1834 - more than a decade after the appearance of
_Melmoth_ - Harrison Ainsworth, whose imagination was steeped in
terror, sought once more to revive the "feeble and fluttering
pulses of old Romance." Among his earliest experiments were tales
obviously fashioned in the Gothic manner. His Imperishable One,
the hero of a tale first published in the _European Magazine_ for
1822, bemoans the burden of immortality in the listless tones of
Godwin's St. Leon, and is tempted by the fallen angel in the
self-same guise in which he appeared to Lewis's notorious monk.
In _The Test of Affection_ (_European Magazine_, 1822) a wealthy
man avails himself of Mrs. Radcliffe's supernatural trickery to
test the loyalty of his friends, whom he succeeds in alarming by
noises and a skeleton apparition. In _Arliss's Pocket Magazine_
(1822) there appeared _The Spectre Bride_; and in the _European
Magazine_ (1823) Ainsworth attempted a theme that would have
attracted Poe in _The Half Hangit_. _The Boeotian_ for 1824
contained _A Tale of Mystery_, and the _Literary Souvenir_ for
1825 _The Fortress of Saguntum_, a story in the style of Lewis.
Ainsworth's first novel, _Rookwood_ (1834), was inspired by a
visit to Cuckfield Place, an old manor house which had reminded
Shelley of "bits of Mrs. Radcliffe":

"Wishing to describe somewhat minutely the trim
gardens, the picturesque domains, the rook-haunted
groves, the gloomy chambers and gloomier galleries of
an ancient hall with which I was acquainted, I resolved
to attempt a story in the bygone style of Mrs.
Radcliffe, substituting an old English squire, an old
manorial residence and an old English highwayman for
the Italian marchise, the castle and the brigand of


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Online LibraryEdith BirkheadThe Tale of Terror A Study of the Gothic Romance → online text (page 13 of 19)