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The Tale of Terror A Study of the Gothic Romance online

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door and causes the mysterious music of an Æolian harp to sound
upon the midnight air. Celinda sleeps, too, like the ill-starred
heroine of the novel of terror, "at the end of a long gallery,
scarce within hearing of any other inhabited part of the
house."[28] The scene in _Count Fathom_, in which Renaldo, at
midnight, visits, as he thinks, the tomb of Monimia, is
surrounded with circumstances of gloom and mystery:

"The uncommon darkness of the night, the solemn silence
and lonely situation of the place, conspired with the
occasion of his coming and the dismal images of his
fancy, to produce a real rapture of gloomy
expectation... The clock struck twelve, the owl
screeched from the ruined battlement, the door was
opened by the sexton, who, by the light of a glimmering
taper, conducted the despairing lover to a dreary

As he watches again on a second night:

"His ear was suddenly invaded with the sound of some
few, solemn notes, issuing from the organ which seemed
to feel the impulse of an invisible hand ... reason
shrunk before the thronging ideas of his fancy, which
represented this music as the prelude to something
strange and supernatural."[29]

The figure of a woman, arrayed in a flowing robe and veil,
approaches - and proves to be Monimia in the flesh. Although
Smollett precedes Walpole, in point of time, he is, in these
scenes, nearer in spirit to Udolpho than Otranto. His use of
terror, however, is merely incidental; he strays inadvertently
into the history of Gothic romance. The suspicions and
forebodings, with which Smollett plays occasionally upon the
nerves of his readers, become part of the ordinary routine in the
tale of terror.

Clara Reeve's Gothic story, first issued under the title of _The
Champion of Virtue_, but later as _The Old English Baron_, was
published in 1777 - twelve years after Walpole's _Castle of
Otranto_, of which, as she herself asserted, it was the "literary
offspring." By eliminating all supernatural incidents save one
ghost, she sought to bring her story "within the utmost verge of
probability." Walpole, perhaps displeased by the slighting
references in the preface to some of the more extraordinary
incidents in his novel, received _The Old English Baron_ with
disdain, describing it as "totally void of imagination and
interest."[30] His strictures are unjust. There are certainly no
wild flights of fancy in Clara Reeve's story, but an even level
of interest is maintained throughout. Her style is simple and
refreshingly free from affectation. The plot is neither rapid nor
exhilarating, but it never actually stagnates. Like Walpole's
Gothic story, _The Old English Baron_ is supposed to be a
transcript from an ancient manuscript. The period, we are
assured, is that of the minority of Henry VI., but despite an
elaborately described tournament, we never really leave
eighteenth century England. Edmund Twyford, the reputed son of a
cottager, is befriended by a benevolent baron Fitzowen, but,
through his good fortune and estimable qualities, excites the
envy of Fitzowen's nephews and his eldest son. To prove the
courage of Edmund, who has been basely slandered by his enemies,
the baron asks him to spend three nights in the haunted apartment
of the castle. Up to this point, there has been nothing to
differentiate the story from an uneventful domestic novel. The
ghost is of the mechanical variety and does not inspire awe when
he actually appears, but Miss Reeve tries to prepare our minds
for the shock, before she introduces him. The rusty locks and the
sudden extinction of the lamp are a heritage from Walpole, but
the "hollow, rustling noise" and the glimmering light, naturally
explained later by the approach of a servant with a faggot,
anticipate Mrs. Radcliffe. Like Adeline later, in _The Romance of
the Forest_, Edmund is haunted by prophetic dreams. The second
night the ghost violently clashes his armour, but still remains
concealed. The third night dismal groans are heard. The ghost
does not deign to appear in person until the baron's nephews
watch, and then:

"All the doors flew open, a pale glimmering light
appeared at the door from the staircase, and a man in
complete armour entered the room: he stood with one
hand extended pointing to the outward door."

It is to vindicate the rights of this departed spirit that Sir
Ralph Harclay challenges Sir Walter Lovel to a "mediaeval"
tournament. Before the story closes, Edmund is identified as the
owner of Castle Lovel, and is married to Lady Emma, Fitzowen's
daughter. The narration of the unusual circumstances connected
with his birth takes some time, as the foster parents suffer from
what is described by writers on psychology as "total recall," and
are unable to select the salient details. The characters are
rather dim and indistinct, the shadowiest of all being Emma, who
has no personality at all, and is a mere complement to the
immaculate Edmund's happiness. The good and bad are sharply
distinguished. There are no "doubtful cases," and consequently
there is no difficulty in distributing appropriate rewards and
punishments at the close of the story - the whole "furnishing a
striking lesson to posterity of the overruling hand of providence
and the certainty of retribution." Clara Reeve was fifty-two
years of age when she published her Gothic story, and she writes
in the spirit of a maiden aunt striving to edify as well as to
entertain the younger generation. When Edmund takes Fitzowen to
view the fatal closet and the bones of his murdered father, he
considers the scene "too solemn for a lady to be present at"; and
his love-making is as frigid as the supernatural scenes. The hero
is young in years, but has no youthful ardour. The very ghost is
manipulated in a half-hearted fashion and fails to produce the
slightest thrill. The natural inclination of the authoress was
probably towards domestic fiction with a didactic intention, and
she attempted a "mediaeval" setting as a _tour de force_, in
emulation of Walpole's _Castle of Otranto_. The hero, whose birth
is enshrouded in mystery, the restless ghost groaning for the
vindication of rights, the historical background, the archaic
spelling of the challenge, are all ineffective fumblings towards
the romantic. _The Old English Baron_ is an unambitious work, but
it has a certain hold upon our attention because of its limpidity
of style. It can be read without discomfort and even with a mild
degree of interest simply as a story, while _The Castle of
Otranto_ is only tolerable as a literary curiosity. A tragedy,
_Edmond_, _Orphan of the Castle_ (1799), was founded upon the
story, which was translated into French in 1800. Miss Reeve
informs the public in a preface to a late edition of _The Old
English Baron_ that, in compliance with the suggestion of a
friend, she had composed _Castle Connor, an Irish Story_, in
which apparitions were introduced. The manuscript of this tale
was unfortunately lost. Not even a mouldering fragment has been
rescued from an ebony cabinet in the deserted chamber of an
ancient abbey, and we are left wondering whether the ghosts spoke
with a brogue.

When Walpole wrote disparagingly of Clara Reeve's imitation of
his Gothic story, he singled out for praise a fragment which he
attributes to Mrs. Barbauld. The story to which he alludes is
evidently the unfinished _Sir Bertrand_, which is contained in
one of the volumes entitled _Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose_,
published jointly by J. and A.L. Aikin in 1773, and preceded by
an essay _On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror_. Leigh
Hunt, who reprinted _Sir Bertrand_, which had impressed him very
strongly in his boyhood, in his _Book for a Corner_ (1849)
ascribes the authorship of the tale to Dr. Aikin, commenting on
the fact that he was "a writer from whom this effusion was hardly
to have been looked for." It is probably safe to assume that
Walpole, who was a contemporary of the Aikins and who took a
lively interest in the literary gossip of the day, was right in
assigning _Sir Bertrand_ to Miss Aikin,[31] afterwards Mrs.
Barbauld, though the story is not included in _The Works of Anne
Letitia Barbauld_, edited by Miss Lucy Aikin in 1825. That the
minds of the Aikins were exercised about the sources of pleasure
in romance, especially when connected with horror and distress,
is clear not only from this essay and the illustrative fragment
but also from other essays and stories in the same
collection - _On Romances, an Imitation_, and _An Enquiry into
those Kinds of Distress which Excite Agreeable Sensations_. In
the preliminary essay to _Sir Bertrand_ an attempt is made to
explain why terrible scenes excite pleasurable emotions and to
distinguish between two different types of horror, as illustrated
by _The Castle of Otranto_, which unites the marvellous and the
terrible, and by a scene of mere natural horror in Smollett's
_Count Fathom_. The story _Sir Bertrand_ is an attempt to combine
the two kinds of horror in one composition. A knight, wandering
in darkness on a desolate and dreary moor, hears the tolling of a
bell, and, guided by a glimmering light, finds "an antique
mansion" with turrets at the corners. As he approaches the porch,
the light glides away. All is dark and still. The light reappears
and the bell tolls. As Sir Bertrand enters the castle, the door
closes behind him. A bluish flame leads him up a staircase till
he comes to a wide gallery and a second staircase, where the
light vanishes. He grasps a dead-cold hand which he severs from
the wrist with his sword. The blue flame now leads him to a
vault, where he sees the owner of the hand "completely armed,
thrusting forwards the bloody stump of an arm, with a terrible
frown and menacing gesture and brandishing a sword in the
remaining hand." When attacked, the figure vanishes, leaving
behind a massive, iron key which unlocks a door leading to an
apartment containing a coffin, and statues of black marble,
attired in Moorish costume, holding enormous sabres in their
right hands. As the knight enters, each of them rears an arm and
advances a leg and at the same moment the lid of the coffin opens
and the bell tolls. Sir Bertrand, guided by the flames,
approaches the coffin from which a lady in a shroud and a black
veil arises. When he kisses her, the whole building falls asunder
with a crash. Sir Bertrand is thrown into a trance and awakes in
a gorgeous room, where he sees a beautiful lady who thanks him as
her deliverer. At a banquet, nymphs place a laurel wreath on his
head, but as the lady is about to address him the fragment breaks

The architecture of the castle, with its gallery, staircase and
subterranean vaults, closely resembles that of Walpole's Gothic
structure. The "enormous sabres" too are familiar to readers of
_The Castle of Otranto_. The gliding light, disquieting at the
outset of the story but before the close familiar grown, is
doomed to be the guide of many a distressed wanderer through the
Gothic labyrinths of later romances. Mrs. Barbauld chose her
properties with admirable discretion, but lacked the art to use
them cunningly. A tolling bell, heard in the silence and darkness
of a lonely moor, will quicken the beatings of the heart, but
employed as a prompter's signal to herald the advance of a group
of black statues is only absurd. After the grimly suggestive
opening, the story gradually loses in power as it proceeds and
the happy ending, which wings our thoughts back to the Sleeping
Beauty of childhood, is wholly incongruous. If the fragment had
ended abruptly at the moment when the lady arises in her shroud
from the coffin, _Sir Bertrand_ would have been a more effective
tale of terror. From the historical point of view Mrs. Barbauld's
curious patchwork is full of interest. She seems to be reaching
out wistfully towards the mysterious and the unknown. Genuinely
anxious to awaken a thrill of excitement in the breast of her
reader, she is hesitating and uncertain as to the best way of
winning her effect. She is but a pioneer in the art of freezing
the blood and it were idle to expect that she should rush boldly
into a forest of horrors. Naturally she prefers to follow the
tracks trodden by Walpole and Smollett; but with intuitive
foresight she seems to have realised the limitations of Walpole's
marvellous machinery, and to have attempted to explore the
regions of the fearful unknown. Her opening scene works on that
instinctive terror of the dark and the unseen, upon which Mrs.
Radcliffe bases many of her most moving incidents.

Among the _Poetical Sketches_ of Blake, written between 1768 and
1777, and published in 1783, there appears an extraordinary poem
written in blank verse, but divided into quatrains, and entitled
_Fair Elenor_. This juvenile production seems to indicate that
Blake was familiar with Walpole's Gothic story.[32] The heroine,
wandering disconsolately by night in the castle vaults - a place
of refuge first rendered fashionable by Isabella in _The Castle
of Otranto_ - faints with horror, thinking that she beholds her
husband's ghost, but soon:

"Fancy returns, and now she thinks of bones
And grinning skulls and corruptible death
Wrapped in his shroud; and now fancies she hears
Deep sighs and sees pale, sickly ghosts gliding."

A reality more horrible than her imaginings awaits her. A
bleeding head is abruptly thrust into her arms by an assassin in
the employ of a villainous and anonymous "duke." Fair Elenor
retires to her bed and gives utterance to an outburst of similes
in praise of her dead lord. Thus encouraged, the bloody head of
her murdered husband describes its lurid past, and warns Elenor
to beware of the duke's dark designs. Elenor wisely avoids the
machinations of the villain, and brings an end to the poem, by
breathing her last. Blake's story is faintly reminiscent of the
popular legend of Anne Boleyn, who, with her bleeding head in her
lap, is said to ride down the avenue of Blickling Park once a
year in a hearse drawn by horsemen and accompanied by attendants,
all headless out of respect to their mistress.

Blake's youthful excursion into the murky gloom of Gothic vaults
resulted in a poem so crude that even "Monk" Lewis, who was no
connoisseur, would have declined it regretfully as a contribution
to his _Tales of Terror_, but _Fair Elenor_ is worthy of
remembrance as an early indication of Walpole's influence, which
was to become so potent on the history of Gothic romance.

The Gothic experiments of Dr. Nathan Drake, published in his
_Literary Hours_ (1798), are extremely instructive as indicating
the critical standpoint of the time. Drake, like Mrs. Barbauld
and her brother, was deeply interested in the sources of the
pleasure derived from tales of terror, and wrote his Gothic
stories to confirm and illustrate the theories propounded in his
essays. He discusses gravely and learnedly the kinds of
fictitious horror that excite agreeable sensations, and then
proceeds to arrange carefully calculated effects, designed to
alarm his readers, but not to outrage their sense of decorum. He
has none of the reckless daring of "Monk" Lewis, who flung
restraint to the winds and raced in mad career through an orgy of
horrors. In his enchanted castles we are disturbed by an uneasy
suspicion that the inhabitants are merely allegorical characters,
and that the spectre of a moral lurks in some dim recess ready to
spring out upon us suddenly. Dr. Drake's mind was as a house
divided against itself: he was a moralist, emulating the "sage
and serious Spenser" in his desire to exalt virtue and abase
vice, he was a critic working out, with calm detachment,
practical illustrations of the theories he had formulated, and he
was a romantic enthusiast, imbued with a vague but genuine
admiration for the wild superstitions of a bygone age. His
stories exhibit painful evidence of the conflict which waged
between the three sides of his nature. In the essay prefixed to
_Henry Fitzowen, a Gothic Tale_, he distinguishes between the two
species of Gothic superstition, the gloomy and the sportive, and
addresses an ode to the two goddesses of Superstition - one the
offspring of Fear and Midnight, the other of Hesper and the Moon.
In his story the spectres of darkness are put to flight by a
troop of aerial spirits. Dr. Drake knew the Gothic stories of
Walpole, Mrs. Barbauld, Clara Reeve and Mrs. Radcliffe; and
traces of the influence of each may be found in his work. Henry
Fitzowen loves Adeline de Montfort, but has a powerful and
diabolical rival - Walleran - whose character combines the most
dangerous qualities of Mrs. Radcliffe's villains with the magical
gifts of a wizard. Fitzowen, not long before the day fixed for
his wedding, is led astray, while hunting, by an elusive stag, a
spectral monk and a "wandering fire," and arrives home in a
thunderstorm to find his castle enveloped in total darkness and
two of his servants stretched dead at his feet. He learns from
his mother and sister, who are shut in a distant room, that
Adeline has been carried off by armed ruffians. Believing
Walleran to be responsible for this outrage, Fitzowen sets out
the next day in search of him. After weary wanderings he is
beguiled into a Gothic castle by a foul witch, who resembles one
of Spenser's loathly hags, and on his entrance hears peals of
diabolical laughter. He sees spectres, blue lights, and the
corpse of Horror herself. When he slays Walleran the enchantments
disappear. At the end of a winding passage he finds a cavern
illuminated by a globe of light, and discovers Adeline asleep on
a couch. He awakes her with a kiss. Thunder shakes the earth, a
raging whirlwind tears the castle from its foundations, and the
lovers awake from their trance in a beautiful, moonlit vale where
they hear enchanting music and see knights, nymphs and spirits. A
beauteous queen tells them that the spirits of the blest have
freed them from Horror's dread agents. The music dies away, the
spirits flee and the lovers find themselves in a country road. A
story of the same type is told by De La Motte Fouqué in _The
Field of Terror_.[33] Before the steadfast courage of the
labourer who strives to till the field, diabolical enchantments
disappear. It is an ancient legend turned into moral allegory.

In the essay on _Objects of Terror_, which precedes _Montmorenci,
a Fragment_, Drake discusses that type of terror, which is
"excited by the interference of a simple, material causation,"
and which "requires no small degree of skill and arrangement to
prevent its operating more pain than pleasure." He condemns
Walpole's _Mysterious Mother_ on the ground that the catastrophe
is only productive of horror and aversion, and regards the old
ballad, _Edward_, as intolerable to any person of sensibility,
but praises Dante and Shakespeare for keeping within the "bounds
of salutary and grateful pleasure." The scene in _The Italian_,
where Schedoni, about to plunge a dagger into Ellena's bosom,
recoils, in the belief that he has discovered her to be his own
daughter, is commended as "appalling yet delighting the reader."
In the productions of Mrs. Radcliffe, "the Shakespeare of Romance
Writers, who to the wild landscape of Salvator Rosa has added the
softer graces of a Claude," he declares,

"may be found many scenes truly terrific in their
conception, yet so softened down, and the mind so much
relieved, by the intermixture of beautiful description,
or pathetic incident, that the impression of the whole
never becomes too strong, never degenerates into
horror, but pleasurable emotion is ever the
predominating result."

The famous scene in _Ferdinand, Count Fathom_, the description of
Danger in Collins' _Ode to Fear_, the Scottish ballad of
_Hardyknute_ are mentioned as admirable examples of the fear
excited by natural causes. In the fragment called _Montmorenci_,
Drake aims at combining "picturesque description with some of
those objects of terror which are independent of supernatural
agency." As the curfew tolls sullenly, Henry de Montmorenci and
his two attendants rush from a castle into the darkness of a
stormy night. They hurry through a savage glen, in which a
swollen torrent falls over a precipice. After hearing the crash
of falling armour, they suddenly come upon a dying knight on
whose pale features every mark of horror is depicted. Led by
frightful screams of distress, Montmorenci and his men find a
maiden, who has been captured by banditti. Montmorenci slays the
leader, but is seized by the rest of the banditti and bound to a
tree overlooking a stupendous chasm into which he is to be
hurled. By almost superhuman struggles he effects his escape,
when suddenly - there at this terror-fraught moment, the fragment
wisely ends.

In _The Abbey of Clunedale_ Drake experiments feebly and
ineffectively with the "explained supernatural" in which Mrs.
Radcliffe was an adept. The ruined abbey, deemed to be haunted,
is visited at night as an act of penance by a man named Clifford
who, in a fit of unfounded jealousy, has slain his wife's
brother. Clifford, accompanied by his sister, and bearing a
light, kneels at his wife's tomb, and is mistaken for a spectral

The Gothic tale entitled _Sir Egbert_ is based on an ancient
legend associated with one of the turrets of Rochester Castle.
Sir Egbert, searching for his friend, Conrad, who had disappeared
in suspicious circumstances, hears from the Knights Templars,
that the wicked Constable is believed to hold two lovers in a
profound and deathlike sleep. He resolves to make an attempt to
draw from its sheath the sword which separates them and so
restore them to life and liberty. Undismayed by the fate of those
who have fallen in the quest, Sir Egbert enters the castle, where
he is entertained at a gorgeous feast. When the festivities are
at their height, and Sir Egbert has momentarily forgotten his
enterprise, a terrible shriek is heard. The revellers vanish, and
Sir Egbert is left alone to face a spectral corpse, which beckons
him onward to a vault, where in flaming characters are inscribed
the words: "Death to him who violates the mysteries of Gundulph's
Tower." Nothing daunted, Sir Egbert amid execrations of fiends,
encounters delusive horrors and at last unsheathes the sword. The
lovers awake, and the whole apparatus of enchantment vanishes.
Conrad tells how he and Bertha, six years before, had been lured
by a wandering fire to a luxurious cavern, where they drank a
magic potion. The story closes with the marriage of Conrad and
Bertha, and of Egbert and Matilda, a sister of one of the other
victims of the same enchanter.

In Dr. Drake's stories are patiently collected all the heirlooms
necessary for the full equipment of a Gothic castle. Massive
doors, which sway ponderously on their hinges or are forcibly
burst open and which invariably close with a resounding crash,
dark, eerie galleries, broken staircases, decayed apartments,
mouldering floors, tolling bells, skeletons, corpses, howling
spectres - all are there; but the possessor, overwhelmed by the
very profusion which surrounds him, is at a loss how to make use
of them. He does not realise the true significance of a
half-stifled groan or an unearthly yell heard in the darkness.
Each new horror indeed seems but to put new life into the heart
of the redoubtable Sir Egbert, who, like Spenser's gallant
knights, advances from triumph to triumph vanquishing evil at
every step. It is impossible to become absorbed in his
personages, who have less body than his spectres, and whose
adventures take the form of a walk through an exhibition of
horrors, mechanically set in motion to prove their prowess. Dr.
Drake seems happier when the hideous beings are put to rout, and
the transformation-scene, which places fairyland before us,
suddenly descends on the stage. Yet the bungling attempts of Dr.
Drake are interesting as showing that grave and critical minds
were prepared to consider the tale of terror as a legitimate form
of literature, obeying certain definite rules of its own and
aiming at the excitement of a pleasurable fear. The seed of
Gothic story, sown at random by Horace Walpole, had by 1798 taken
firm root in the soil. Drake's enthusiasm for Gothic story was
associated with his love for older English poetry and with his
interest in Scandinavian mythology. He was a genuine admirer of
Spenser and attempted imitations, in modern diction, of old
ballads. It is for his bent towards the romantic, rather than for

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Online LibraryEdith BirkheadThe Tale of Terror A Study of the Gothic Romance → online text (page 3 of 19)