Edith Birkhead.

The Tale of Terror A Study of the Gothic Romance online

. (page 15 of 19)
Online LibraryEdith BirkheadThe Tale of Terror A Study of the Gothic Romance → online text (page 15 of 19)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


And a foot unknown
Is surmised on the garret stairs,
And the locks slip unawares."

But "tales of terror" lose some of their power when read one
after another; they are most effective read singly in
periodicals. _Blackwood's Magazine_ was especially famous for its
tales, the best of which have been collected and published
separately. The editor of the _Dublin University Magazine_ shows
a marked preference for tales of a supernatural or sensational
cast. Le Fanu, who claimed that his stories, like those of Sir
Walter Scott, belonged to the "legitimate school of English
tragic romance," was one of the best-known contributors. _All the
Year Round_ and _Household Words_, under the editorship of
Dickens, often found room for the occult and the uncanny. Wilkie
Collins' fascinating serial, _The Moonstone_, was published in
_All the Year Round_ in 1868; _The Woman in White_ had appeared
six years earlier in _Blackwood_. The stories included in these
magazines are of various types. The old-fashioned spook gradually
declines in popularity. He is ousted in a scientific age by more
recondite forms of terror. Before 1875, with a few belated
exceptions:

"Ghosts, wandering here and there
Troop home to churchyards, damned spirits all,
That in crossways and floods have burial,
Already to their wormy beds are gone."

The "explained supernatural" is skilfully improved and developed.
Le Fanu's _Green Tea_ is a story from the diary of a German
doctor, concerning a patient who was dogged by a black monkey.
The creature, "whose green eyes glow with an expression of
unfathomable malignity," is medically explained to be an
illusion; but it is so vividly presented that it fastens on our
imagination with remarkable tenacity. Wilkie Collins' short
story, _The Yellow Mask_, included in the series called _After
Dark_, is another experiment in the same kind. A jealous woman
appears among the dancers at a ball, wearing a waxen cast of the
face of the man's dead wife. The short story, in which the author
deliberately shakes our nerves and then soothes away our fears by
accounting naturally for startling phenomena, is an amazingly
popular type. It reappears continually in different guises.
Occasionally it merges into pleasant buffoonery. _Die
Geistertodtenglocke_, for instance, a story in the _Dublin
University Magazine_ (1862), is a burlesque, in which the
mysterious tolling of a bell is explained by the discovery that a
cow strolled into the ruin to eat the hay with which the rope was
mended. But, judiciously handled, this type of story makes a
strong appeal to human beings who like to know how much of the
terrible and painful they can endure, and who yet must ultimately
be reassured.

Another group of short tales of terror consists of those which
purport to be faithful renderings of the beliefs of simple
people. To this category belong Allan Cunningham's _Traditional
Tales of the English and Scottish Peasantry_, which first
appeared, with one exception, in the _London Magazine_ (1821-23).
Cunningham has the tact to preserve the legends of elves,
fairies, ghosts and bogles, as they were passed down from one
generation to another on the lips of living beings. Later he
attempted, in a novel, _Sir Michael Scott_ (1828), a kind of
Gothic romance; but there is no trace in the _Traditional Tales_
of the influence of the terrormongers with whose works he was
familiar. Perhaps the finest story of the collection is _The
Haunted Ships_, in which are embodied the traditions associated
with two black and decayed hulls, half immersed in the quicksands
of the Solway. Lewis would have dragged us on board ship, and
would have shown us the devil in his own person. Cunningham
wisely keeps ashore, and repeats the tales that are told
concerning the fiendish mirth and revelry to be heard, when, at
certain seasons of the year, they arise in their former beauty,
with forecastle and deck, with sail and pennon and shroud. James
Hogg, the Ettrick shepherd, who was a friend of Cunningham, was
steeped in the same folk-lore. _The Mysterious Bride_, printed
among his _Tales and Sketches_, tells of a beautiful spirit-lady,
dressed in white and green, who appears three times on St.
Lawrence's Eve to the Laird of Birkendelly. On the morning, after
the night on which she had promised to wed him, he is found, a
blackened corpse, on Birky Brow. _Mary Burnet_ is the story of a
maiden who is drowned when keeping tryst with her lover. She
returns to earth, like Kilmeny, and assures her parents of her
welfare. A demon woman, whose form resembles that of Mary, haunts
her lover, and entices him to evil. Since Hogg can give to his
legends a "local habitation and a name," pointing to the very
stretch of road on which the elfin lady first appeared, it seems
ungracious to doubt his veracity. The Ettrick Shepherd's most
memorable achievement, however, is his _Confessions of a Fanatic_
(1824), a terribly impressive account of a man afflicted with
religious mania, who believes himself urged into crime by a
mysterious being. The story abounds in frightful situations and
weird scenes, one of the most striking being the reflection, seen
at daybreak on Arthur's Seat, of a human head and shoulders,
dilated to twenty times its natural size. Professor Saintsbury
has suggested that Lockhart probably had the principal hand in
this story. "Christopher North" was another member of the
_Noctes_ confraternity who came sometimes under the spell of the
unearthly.

The supernatural tales of Mrs. Gaskell, whose gift for
story-telling made Dickens call her his Scheherazade, were, like
those of Cunningham, based directly on tradition. She was always
attracted by the subject of witchcraft; and she had collected a
store of "creepy" legends of the kind which made the nervous
ladies of Cranford bid their sedan-chairmen hasten rapidly down
Darkness Lane at nights. The best of Mrs. Gaskell's short tales
is perhaps _The Nurse's Story_, which appeared in the Christmas
number of _Household Words_ in 1852. Mrs. Gaskell has a happy
gift for preserving the natural aroma of a tale of bygone days.
_The Nurse's Story_ has a hint of the old-world grace of Lamb's
_Dream Children_. The carefully disposed tableau of ghosts - the
unforgiving old man, and the vindictive sister, spurning the lady
and her child from the hall - is too definite and distinct, but
the conception of the wraith of the dead child outside the manor,
pleading piteously to be let in, and luring away the living
child, is delicately wrought. The tale is told in the rambling,
circumstantial style, suitable to the fireside and the long
leisure of a winter's evening. Dickens tells a very different
nurse's story in one of the chapters of _An Uncommercial
Traveller_. The tone of Mrs. Gaskell's nurse is kindly and
protective; that of Dickens' nurse severe, admonitory and
emphatic. She, who told the grim legend of Captain Murderer,
meant, clearly, to scare as well as to entertain her hearer. She
leads up to the climax of her story, the deadly revenge of the
dark twin's poisoned pie, with admirable art. The nurse's name
was Mercy, but, as Dickens remarks, she showed none to him.
Though Dickens shrank timorously in childhood from her frightful
stories, he himself, like the fat boy in _Pickwick_, sometimes
"wants to make our flesh creep." It seems, indeed, an odd trait
of the humorist that he can at will wholly discard his gaiety,
and, like the Pied Piper, pipe to another measure. W.W. Jacobs,
besides his humorous sailor yarns, has given us _The Monkey's
Paw_; and Barry Pain's gruesome stories, _Told in the Dark_, are
as forcible as any of his humours to be read in the daylight.
Dickens, in his excursions into the supernatural, does not,
however, always cast off his mood of jocularity. His treatment of
Marley's ghost lacks dignity and decorum. Clanking its chains in
a remote cellar of the silent, empty house, it has the power to
disturb us, but we lose our respect for the shade when we gaze
upon it eye to eye. Applied to the spirit world, there is much
truth in the old adage that familiarity breeds contempt. The
account of the thirteenth juryman, in _Dr. Marigold's
Prescriptions_, is much more alarming. The story of the
signalman, No. 1 Branch line, in _Mugby Junction_, is indefinably
horrible. The signalman's anguish of mind, his exact description
of the Appearance, his sense of overhanging calamity, are all
strangely disquieting. The coincidence of the manner of his
death, with which the story closes, is wisely left to make its
own inevitable impression.

Some of the stories in _Blackwood_ are the more striking because
they depend for their effect on natural, not supernatural,
horror. We may feel we are immune from the visits of ghosts, but
the accident in _The Man in the Bell_ (1821) is one which might
happen to anyone. The maddening clangour of sound, the frightful
images that crowd into the reeling brain of the man suspended in
the belfry, are described with an unflinching realism that
reminds us of _The Pit and the Pendulum_. To the same class
belongs the skilfully constructed _Iron Shroud_ (1830), by
William Mudford, an author who, as Scott remarks in his journal,
"loves to play at cherry-pit with Satan." The suspense is
ingeniously maintained as, one by one, the windows of the iron
dungeon disappear, until, at last, the massive walls and
ponderous roof contract into the victim's iron shroud. Wilkie
Collins' story, _A Terribly Strange Bed_, which describes the
stratagem of a gang of cardsharpers for getting rid of those who
happen to win money from them, is in the same vein. The canopy
slowly descends during the night, and smothers its victim. A
similar motive is used, with immeasurably finer effect, by Joseph
Conrad in his story of the disappearance of the sailor at the
lonely inn in the mountains of Spain. The experience of Byrne in
_The Inn of the Two Witches_[129] is a masterpiece in the
psychology of terror. The dense darkness, in which the young
naval officer "steers his course only by the feel of the wind,"
the scene when the door of the inn bursts open and reveals in the
candlelight the savage beauty of the gipsy girl with evil,
slanting eyes, and the inhuman ugliness of the old hags, are a
fitting prelude to the horrors of the chamber, where the corpse
of the missing sailor is found in the wardrobe. We pass with
Byrne through the different stages of suspicion and dread until,
completely baffled in his attempt to account for the manner in
which Tom Corbin was done to death, we feel "the hot terror that
plays upon the heart like a tongue of flame that touches and
withdraws before it turns a thing to ashes."

In the short stories of the latter half of the nineteenth
century, it is hard to escape from the terrible. We light upon it
suddenly, here, there and everywhere. We find it in Stevenson's
_New Arabian Nights_, in his _Merry Men_, and his stories of the
South Seas, as indeed we should expect, when we recall the
tapping of the blind man's stick in _Treasure Island_, the scene
with the candles in the snow after the duel between the two
brothers in _The Master of Ballantrae_, or David Balfour's
perilous adventure on the broken staircase in _Kidnapped_.
Kipling is another expert in the art of eeriness, and has a wide
range. His Indian backgrounds are peculiarly adapted for tales of
terror. The loathsome horror of _The Mark of the Beast_, with its
intangible suggestion of mystery, the quiet restraint of _The
Return of Imray_, in which so much is left unsaid, are two
admirable illustrations of his gift.

The tale of terror wins its effect by ever-varying means.
Scientific discoveries open up new vistas, and the twentieth
century will evolve many fresh devices for torturing the nerves.
The telephone set ringing by a ghostly hand, the aeroplane with a
phantom pilot, will replace the Gothic machinery of ruined abbeys
and wandering lights. The possibilities of terror are manifold,
and it is impracticable here to do more than pick up a few
threads in the tangled skein. Terror becomes inextricably
interwoven with other motives according to the bent of the
author. It is allied with psychology in James' sinister _Turn of
the Screw_, with scientific phantasy in Wells' _Invisible Man_.
It may enhance the excitement of a spy story, add zest to the
study of crime, or act as a foil to a romantic love interest.




CHAPTER XI - AMERICAN TALES OF TERROR.


In 1797 we are told that in America "the dairymaid and hired man
no longer weep over the ballad of the cruel stepmother, but amuse
themselves into an agreeable terror with the haunted houses and
hobgoblins of Mrs. Radcliffe."[130] In _The Asylum, or Alonzo and
Melissa_, published in Ploughkeepsie in 1811, the Gothic castle,
with its full equipment of "explained ghosts," has been safely
conveyed across the Atlantic and set up in South Carolina; and
_The Sicilian Pirate or the Pillar of Mystery: a Terrific
Romance_, is, if we may trust its title, a hair-raising story, in
the style of "Monk" Lewis. Charles Brockden Brown, one of the
earliest American novelists, prides himself on "calling forth the
passions and engaging the sympathy of the reader by means not
hitherto employed by preceding authors," and speaks slightingly
of "puerile superstitions and exploded manners, Gothic castles
and chimeras."[131] Brown, who, like Shelley, was an enthusiastic
admirer of Godwin, sought to embody the theories of _Political
Justice_ in romances describing American life. The works, which
are said by Peacock to have taken deepest root in Shelley's mind
and to have had the strongest influence in the formation of his
character, are Schiller's _Robbers_, Goethe's _Faust_, and four
novels - _Wieland, Ormond, Edgar Huntly_, and _Mervyn_ - by C.B.
Brown.[132]

Notwithstanding his lofty scorn for "Gothic castles and
chimeras," even Brown himself condescended to take over from the
despised Mrs. Radcliffe the device of introducing apparently
supernatural occurrences which are ultimately traced to natural
causes. Like Mrs. Radcliffe he is at the mercy of a conscience
which forbids him to thrust upon his readers spectres in which he
himself does not believe. He lacks Lewis's reckless mendacity. In
_Wieland_ mysterious voices are heard at intervals by various
members of the family. To the hero, who has inherited a tendency
to religious fanaticism, they seem to be of divine origin, and
when a voice bids him sacrifice those who are dearest to him, he
obeys implicitly. He slays his wife and children, and his sister
only escapes death by accident. After this catastrophe it proves
that the voices are produced by a skilled ventriloquist, Carwin,
who has been admitted as an intimate friend of the family.
Realising that this explanation may seem somewhat incredible,
Brown seeks to make it appear more plausible by dwelling on
Wieland's abnormal state of mind, which would render him
peculiarly open to suggestion. Carwin's motive for thus
persecuting the Wieland family with his accursed gift is never
satisfactorily explained. His attitude is apparently that of an
obtuse psychologist, who does not realise how serious the
consequence of his experiments may be.

In _Ormond_ and _Arthur Mervyn_, Brown describes the ravages of
the yellow fever, of which he had personal experience in New York
and Philadelphia. The hero of _Ormond_ is a member of a society
similar to that of the Illuminati, whose ceremonies and beliefs
are set forth in _Horrid Mysteries_ (1796). The heroine,
Constantia Dudley, who was Shelley's ideal feminine character, is
the embodiment of a theory, not a human being. She "walks always
in the light of reason," and decides that "to marry in extreme
youth would be a proof of pernicious and opprobrious temerity."
The most memorable of Brown's novels is _Edgar Huntly_, which
bears an obvious resemblance to _Caleb Williams_. Like Godwin,
Brown is deeply interested in morbid psychology. He finds
pleasure in tracing the workings of the brain in times of
emotional stress. The description of a sleepwalker digging a
grave - a picture which captivated Shelley's imagination - is the
starting-point of the book. Edgar Huntly is impelled by curiosity
to track him down. The somnambulist, Clithero, has, in
self-defence, killed the twin-brother of his patron, Mrs,
Lorimer, to whom he is deeply attached. Obsessed by the idea of
the misery his deed will arouse in her mind, he attempts, in a
moment of frenzy, to slay her. Believing that Mrs. Lorimer has
died after hearing of the murder, Clithero flees to America. When
he disappears from his home, Huntly resolves to follow him, and
in his search loses himself amid wild and desolate country. He is
attacked by Indians, and after frightful adventures at length
reaches his home. Clithero, whom he believed dead, has been
rescued. Mrs. Lorimer is still alive, and is married to a former
lover. This news, however, fails to restore Clithero, who, in a
fit of insanity, flings himself overboard when he is in a ship in
charge of Huntly.

Brown's plots, which often open well, are spoilt by hasty,
careless conclusions. It was his habit to write two or three
novels simultaneously. He was beset by the problem that exercised
even Scott's brain: "The devil of a difficulty is that one
puzzles the skein in order to excite curiosity, and then cannot
disentangle it for the satisfaction of the prying fiend they have
raised."

Brown takes very little trouble over his dénouements, but his
characters leave so faint an impression on our minds that we are
not deeply concerned in their fates. He is interested rather in
conveying states of mind than in portraying character. We search
the windings of Clithero's tormented conscience without realising
him as an individual. The background of rugged scenery, though it
is described in vague, turgid language, is more definite and
distinct than the human figures. We feel that Brown is struggling
through the obscurity of his Latinised diction to depict
something he has actually seen. An air of dreadful solemnity
hangs heavily over each story. Every being is in deadly earnest.
Brown has Godwin's power of hypnotising us by his serious
persistence, and of reducing us to a mood of awestruck gravity by
the sonority of his pompous periods.

From the oppressive gloom of Brown's "novels with a purpose," it
is a relief to turn to the irresponsible gaiety of "Geoffrey
Crayon," whose tales of terror, published some twenty years
later, are usually fashioned in a jovial spirit, only faintly
tinged with awe and dread. In _The Spectre Bridegroom_, included
in _The Sketch Book_ (1820), the ghostly rider of Bürger's
far-famed ballad is set amid new surroundings and pleasantly
turned to ridicule. The "supernatural" wooer, who now and again
arouses a genuine thrill of fear, is merely playing a practical
joke on the princess by impersonating the dead bridegroom, and
all ends happily. The story of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy
Hollow is set against so picturesque a background that we are
almost inclined to quarrel with those who laughed and said that
Ichabod Crane was still alive, and that Bram Jones, the lovely
Katrina's bridegroom, knew more of the spectre than he chose to
tell. The drowsy atmosphere of Sleepy Hollow makes us see visions
and dream dreams. The group of "Strange Stories by a Nervous
Gentleman" in _Tales of a Traveller_ (1824) prove that Washington
Irving was well versed in ghostly lore. He, as well as any, can
call spirits from the vasty deep, but, when they appear in answer
to his summons, he can seldom refrain from receiving them in a
jocose, irreverent mood, ill befitting the solemn, dignified
spectre of a German legend. Even the highly qualified,
irrepressibly loquacious ghost of Lewis Carroll's
_Phantasmagoria_ would have resented his genial familiarity. The
strange stories are told at a hunting-party in a country-house, a
cheerful, comfortable background for ghost stories. A hoary,
one-eyed gentleman, "the whole side of whose head was dilapidated
and seemed like the wing of a house shut up and haunted," sets
the ball rolling with the old story of a spectre who glides into
the room, wringing her hands, and is later identified, like
Scott's Lady in the Sacque, by her resemblance to an ancestral
portrait in the gallery. The "knowing" gentleman tells of a
picture that winked in a startling and alarming fashion, and
immediately explains away this phenomenon by the presence of a
thief who has cut a spy-hole in the canvas. _The Bold Dragoon_ is
a spirited, riotous nightmare in which the furniture dances to
the music of the bellows played by an uncanny musician in a long
flannel gown and a nightcap. The _Story of the German Student_ is
in a different key. Here Irving strikes a note of real horror.
The student falls in love with an imaginary lady, woven out of
his dreams. He finds her in distress one night in the streets of
Paris, takes her home, only to find her a corpse in the morning.
A police-officer informs him that the lady was guillotined the
day before, and the student discovers the truth of this statement
when he unrolls a bandage and her head falls to the floor. The
young man loses his reason, and is tormented by the belief that
an evil spirit has reanimated a dead body to ensnare him. The
morning after the recital of this gruesome story, the host reads
aloud to his guests a manuscript entrusted to him, together with
a portrait, by a young Italian. This youth, it chances, learnt
painting with a monk, who, as a penance, drew pictures, or
modelled waxen images, representing death and corruption, a
detail which reminds us of what was concealed by the Black Veil
in _Udolpho_. He later falls in love with his model, Bianca, who,
during his absence abroad, marries his friend Filippo. In a
jealous rage the young Italian slays his rival, and is
unceasingly haunted by his phantom. Washington Irving has no
desire to endure for long the atmosphere of mystery and horror
his story has created, and quickly relieves the tension by a
return to ordinary life. The host promises to show the picture,
which is said to affect all beholders in an extraordinary
fashion, to each of his guests in turn. They all profess
themselves remarkably affected by it, until the host confesses
that he has too sincere a regard for the feelings of the young
Italian to reveal the actual picture to any of them; With this
moment of disillusionment the strange stories come to an end. The
title, _Tales of a Traveller_, under which Irving placed his
tales of terror, indicates the mood in which he fashioned them.
He regarded them much as he would regard the wonderful adventures
of Baron Munchausen. They were to be taken, like one of Dr.
Marigold's prescriptions, with a grain of salt. The idea of
blending levity with horror, suggested perhaps by German
influence, was very popular in England and France at this period.
Balzac's _L'Auberge Rouge_ and _L'Elixir de la Longue Vie_ are
written in a similar mood.

It is not always the boldest and most adventurous beings who
elect to dwell amid "calling shapes and beckoning shadows dire."
The "virtuous mind," whom supernatural horrors may "startle well
but not astound," sometimes finds a melancholy pleasure in
beguiling weaker mortals into haunted ruins to watch their firm
nerves tremble. Sometimes too, though a man be wholly innocent of
the desire to alarm, he is led astray, whether he will or not,
among the terrors of the invisible world. Grey ghosts steal into
his imagination unawares. It was so that they came to Nathaniel
Hawthorne, who speaks sorrowfully of "gaily dressed fantasies
turning to ghostly and black-clad images of themselves." He would
gladly have written a "sunshiny" book, but was capriciously fated
to live ever in the twilight, haunted by spectres and by "dark
ideas." He fashions his tales of terror delicately and
reluctantly, not riotously and shamelessly like Lewis and
Maturin.

An innate reticence and shyness of temper held Hawthorne, as if
by a spell, somewhat aloof from life, and no one realised more
clearly than he the limitations that his detachment from humanity
imposed upon his art.

Of _Twice-Told Tales_ he writes regretfully:

"They have the pale tint of flowers that blossomed in
too retired a shade... Instead of passion there is
sentiment and even in what purport to be pictures of
actual life we have allegory, not always so warmly
dressed in its habiliments of flesh and blood as to be
taken into the reader's mind without a shiver. Whether


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 15 17 18 19

Online LibraryEdith BirkheadThe Tale of Terror A Study of the Gothic Romance → online text (page 15 of 19)