Wednesday, October 21, 2015
History of the Terror Tale by Edith Birkhead 1921
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The history of the tale of terror is as old as the history of man. Myths were created in the early days of the race to account for sunrise and sunset, storm-winds and thunder, the origin of the earth and of mankind. The tales men told in the face of these mysteries were naturally inspired by awe and fear. The universal myth of a great flood is perhaps the earliest tale of terror. During the excavation of Nineveh in 1872, a Babylonian version of the story, which forms part of the Gilgamesh epic, was discovered in the library of King Ashurbanipal (668-626 B.C.); and there are records of a much earlier version, belonging to the year 1966 B.C. The story of the Flood, as related on the eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh epic, abounds in supernatural terror. To seek the gift of immortality from his ancestor, Ut-napishtim, the hero undertakes a weary and perilous journey. He passes the mountain guarded by a scorpion man and woman, where the sun goes down; he traverses a dark and dreadful road, where never man trod, and at last crosses the waters of death. During the deluge, which is predicted by his ancestor, the gods themselves are stricken with fear: "No man beheld his fellow, no more could men know each other. In heaven the gods were afraid...drew back, they climbed up into the heaven of Anu. The gods crouched like dogs, they cowered by the walls." Another episode in the same epic, when Nergal, the god of the dead, brings before Gilgamesh an apparition of his friend, Eabani, recalls the impressive scene, when the witch of Endor summons the spirit of Samuel before Saul.
When legends began to grow up round the names of traditional heroes, fierce encounters with giants and monsters were invented to glorify their strength and prowess. David, with a stone from his sling, slew Goliath. The crafty Ulysses put out the eye of Polyphemus. Grettir, according to the Icelandic saga, overcame Glam, the malevolent, death-dealing vampire who "went riding the roofs." Beowulf fearlessly descended into the turbid mere to grapple with Grendel's mother. Folktales and ballads, in which incidents similar to those in myths and heroic legends occur, are often overshadowed by terror. Figures like the Demon Lover, who bears off his mistress in the fatal craft and sinks her in the sea, and the cannibal bridegroom, outwitted at last by the artfulness of one of his brides, appear in the folk-lore of many lands. Through every century there glide uneasy spirits, groaning for vengeance. Andrew Lang mentions the existence of a papyrus fragment, found attached to a wooden statuette, in which an ancient Egyptian scribe addresses a letter to the Khou, or spirit, of his dead wife, beseeching her not to haunt him. One of the ancestors of the savage were-wolf, who figures in Marryat's Phantom Ship, may perhaps be discovered in Petronius' _Supper of Trimalchio_. The descent of Bram's Stoker's infamous vampire Dracula may be traced back through centuries of legend. Hobgoblin's, demons, and witches mingle grotesquely with the throng of beautiful princesses, queens in glittering raiment, fairies and elves. Without these ugly figures, folk-tales would soon lose their power to charm. All tale tellers know that fear is a potent spell. The curiosity which drove Bluebeard's wife to explore the hidden chamber lures us on to know the worst, and as we listen to horrid stories, we snatch a fearful joy. Human nature desires not only to be amused and entertained, but moved to pity and fear. All can sympathise with the youth, who could not shudder and who would fain acquire the gift.
From English literature we gain no more than brief, tantalising glimpses of the vast treasury of folk-tales and ballads that existed before literature became an art and that lived on side by side with it, vitalising and enriching it continually. Yet here and there we catch sudden gleams like the fragment in King Lear:
"Childe Roland to the dark tower came.
His word was still Fie, Foh and Fum,
I smell the blood of a British man."
or Benedick's quotation from the Robber Bridegroom:
"It is not so, it was not so, but, indeed; God forbid that it should be so,"
which hint at the existence of a hoard as precious and inexhaustible as that of the Nibelungs. The chord of terror is touched in the eerie visit of the three dead sailor sons "in earthly flesh and blood" to the wife of Usher's well, Sweet William's Ghost, the rescue of Tam Lin on Halloween, when Fairyland pays a tiend to Hell, the return of clerk Saunders to his mistress, True
Thomas's ride to Fairyland, when:
"For forty days and forty nights.
He wade through red blood to the knee.
And he saw neither sun nor moon,
But heard the roaring of the sea."
The mediaeval romances of chivalry, which embody stories handed down by oral tradition, are set in an atmosphere of supernatural wonder and enchantment. In Malory's _Morte d'Arthur_, Sir Lancelot goes by night into the Chapel Perilous, wherein there is only a dim light burning, and steals from the corpse a sword and a piece of silk to heal the wounds of a dying knight. Sir Galahad sees a fiend leap out of a tomb amid a cloud of smoke; Gawaine's ghost, with those of the knights and ladies for whom he has done battle in life, appears to warn the king not to begin the fight against Modred on a certain day. In the romance of _Sir Amadas_, the ghost of a merchant, whose corpse the knight had duteously redeemed from the hands of creditors, succours him at need. The shadow of terror lurks even amid the beauty of Spenser's fairyland. In the windings of its forests we come upon dark caves, mysterious castles and huts, from which there start fearsome creatures like Despair or the giant Orgoglio, hideous hags like Occasion, wicked witches and enchanters or frightful beings like the ghostly Maleger, who wore as his helmet a dead man's skull and rode upon a tiger swift as the wind. The Elizabethan dramatists were fascinated by the terrors of the invisible world. Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, round whose name are clustered legends, centuries old concerning bargains between man and the devil, the apparitions and witches in Macbeth, the dead hand, the corpse-like images, the masque of madmen, the tombmaker and the passing-bell in Webster's sombre tragedy. _The Duchess of Malfi_, prove triumphantly the dramatic possibilities of terror. As a foil to his Masque of Queens (1609) Ben Jonson introduced twelve loathly witches with Ate as their leader, and embellished his description of their profane rites, with details culled from James I's treatise on Demonology and from learned ancient authorities. In The Pilgrim's Progress, Despair, who "had as many lives as a cat," his wife Diffidence at Doubting Castle, and Maul and Slaygood are the ogres of popular story, whose acquaintance Bunyan had made in chapbooks during his ungodly youth. Hobgoblins, devils and fiends, "sturdy rogues" like the three brothers Faintheart, Mistrust and Guilt, who set upon Littlefaith in Dead Man's Lane, lend the excitement of terror to Christian's journey to the Celestial City. The widespread belief in witches and spirits to which Browne and Burton and many others bear witness in the seventeenth century, lived on in the eighteenth century, although the attitude of the "polite" in the age of reason was ostensibly incredulous and superior. A scene in one of the Spectator essays illustrates pleasantly the state of popular opinion. Addison, lodging with a good-natured widow in London, returns home one day to find a group of girls sitting by candlelight, telling one another ghost-stories. At his entry they are abashed, but, on the widow's assuring them that it is only the "gentleman," they resume, while Addison, pretending to be absorbed in his book at the far end of the table, covertly listens to their tales of "ghosts that, pale as ashes, had stood at the feet of the bed or walked over a churchyard by moonlight; and others, who had been conjured into the Red Sea for disturbing people's rest." In another essay Addison shows that he is strongly inclined to believe in the existence of spirits, though he repudiates the ridiculous superstitions which prevailed in his day; and Sir Roger de Coverley frankly confesses his belief in witches. Defoe, in the preface to his Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions (1727) states uncompromisingly: "I must tell you, good people, he that is not able to see the devil, in whatever shape he is pleased to appear in, he is not really qualified to live in this world, no, not in the quality of a common inhabitant." Epworth Rectory, the home of John Wesley's father, was haunted in 1716-17 by a persevering ghost called Old Jeffrey, whose exploits are recorded with a gravity and circumstantial exactitude that remind us of Defoe's narrative concerning the ghostly Mrs. Veal in her "scoured" silk. John Wesley declares stoutly that he is convinced of the literal truth of the story of one Elizabeth Hobson, who professed to have been visited on several occasions by supernatural beings. He upholds too the authenticity of the notorious Drummer of Tedworth, whose escapades are described in chapbooks and in Glanvill's _Sadducismus Triumphatus_ (1666), a book in which he was keenly interested. In his journal (May 25th, 1768) he remarks:
"It is true that the English in general, and indeed most of the men of learning in Europe, have given up all accounts of witches and apparitions, as mere old wives fables. I am sorry for it; and I willingly take this opportunity of entering my solemn protest against this violent compliment which so many that believe the Bible pay to those who do not believe it."
The Cock Lane ghost gained very general credit, and was considered by Mrs. Nickleby a personage of some importance, when she boasted to Miss La Creevy that her great-grandfather went to school with him—or her grandmother with the Thirsty Woman of Tutbury. The appearance of Lord Lyttleton's ghost in 1779 was described by Dr. Johnson, who was also disposed to believe in the Cock Lane ghost, as the most extraordinary thing that had happened in his day. There is abundant evidence that the people of the eighteenth century were extremely credulous, yet, in literature, there is a tendency to look askance at the supematural as at something wild and barbaric. Such ghosts as presume to steal into poetry are amazingly tame, and even elegant, in their speech and deportment. In Mallet's _William and Margaret_ (1759), which was founded on a scrap of an old ballad out of _The Knight of the Burning Pestle_, Margaret's wraith rebukes her false lover in a long and dignified oration. But spirits were shy of appearing in an age when they were more likely to be received with banter than with dread. Dr. Johnson expresses the attitude of his age when, in referring to Gray's poem, _The Bard_, he remarks: "To select a singular event and swell it to a giant's bulk by fabulous appendages of spectres and predictions has little difficulty, for he that forsakes the probable may always find the marvellous. And it has little use ; we are affected only as we believe; we are improved only as we find something to be imitated or declined." (1780.)
The dictum that we are affected only as we believe is open to grave doubt. We are often thrown into a state of trepidation simply through the power of the imagination; We are wise after the event, like Partridge at the play:
"No, no, sir; ghosts don't appear in such dresses as that neither . . . And if it was really a ghost, it could do one no harm at such a distance, and in so much company; and yet, if I was frightened, I am not the only person."
The supernatural which persisted always in legends handed down from one generation to another on the lips of living people, had not lost its power to thrill and alarm, and gradually worked its way back into literature. Although Gray and Collins do not venture far beyond the bounds of the natural, they were in sympathy with the popular feelings of superstitious terror, and realised how effective they would be in poetry.
Collins, in his _Ode on the Superstitions of the Scottish Highlands_, adjures Home, the author of _Douglas_, to sing:
"how, framing hideous spells.
In Sky's lone isle, the gifted wizard-seer
Lodged in the wintry cave with Fate's fell spear
Or in the depths of Uist's dark forests dwells.
How they whose sight such dreary dreams engross
With their own vision oft astonished droop
When o'er the wintry strath or quaggy moss
They see the gliding ghosts unbodied troop."
Burns, in the foreword to _Halloween_ (1785), writes in the "enlightened" spirit of the eighteenth century, but in the poem itself throws himself whole-heartedly into the hopes and fears that agitate the lovers. He owed much to an old woman who lived in his home in infancy:
"She had . . . the largest collection in the country of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, giants, enchanted towers, dragons and other trumpery. This cultivated the latent seeds of poetry, but had so strong an effect on my imagination, that to this hour, in my
nocturnal rambles, I sometimes keep a sharp look-out in suspicious places; it often takes an effort of philosophy to shake off these idle terrors."
_Tam o' Shanter_, written for Captain Grose, was perhaps based on a Scottish legend, learnt at the inglenook in childhood, from this old wife, or perhaps
"By some auld houlet-haunted biggin
Or kirk deserted by its riggin,"
from Captain Grose himself, who made to quake:
"Ilk ghaist that haunts auld ha' or chamer.
Ye gipsy-gang that deal in glamor,
And you, deep-read in hell's black grammar.
Warlocks and witches."
In it Burns reveals with lively reality the terrors that assail the reveller on his homeward way through the storm:
"Past the birks and meikle stane
Where drunken Charlie brak's neck-bane;
And through the whins, and by the cairn
Where hunters fand the murdered bairn
And near the thorn, aboon the well
Where Mungo's mither hanged hersell."
For sheer terror the wild, fantastic witch-dance, seen through a Gothic window in the ruins of Kirk-Alloway, with the light of humour strangely glinting through, has hardly been surpassed. The Ballad-collections, beginning with Percy's _Reliques of Ancient English Poetry_ (1765), brought poets back to the original sources of terror in popular tradition, and helped to revive the latent feelings of awe, wonder and fear. In Coleridge's _Ancient Mariner_ the skeleton-ship with its ghastly crew —the spectre-woman and her deathmate—the sensations of the mariner, alone on a wide, wide sea, seize on our imagination with irresistible power. The very substance of the poem is woven of the supernatural. The dream imagery is thrown into relief by occasional touches of reality—the lighthouse, the church on the cliff, the glimpses of the wedding, the quiet song of the hidden brook in the leafy month of June. We, like the mariner, after loneliness so awful that
Scarce seemed there to be,"
welcome the firm earth beneath our feet, and the homely sound of the vesper bell. In _Christabel_ we float dreamily through scenes as unearthly and ephemeral as the misty moonlight, and the words in which Coleridge conjures up his vision fall into music of magic beauty. The opening of the poem creates a sense of foreboding, and the horror of the serpent-maiden is subtly suggested through her effect on Christabel. Coleridge hints at the terrible with artistic reticence. In _Kubla Khan_ the chasm is:
"A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover."
The poetry of Keats is often mysterious and suggestive of terror. The description of the Gothic hall in The Eve of St. Agnes:
"In all the house was heard no human sound;
A chain-drooped lamp was flickering by each door;
The arras, rich with horseman, hawk and hound.
Fluttered in the besieging wind's uproar;
And the long carpets rose along the gusty floor;"
the serpent-maiden, Lamia, who
"Seemed at once some penanced lady elf.
Some demon's mistress, or the demon's self;"
the grim story in Isabella of Lorenzo's ghost, who
"Moaned a ghostly undersong
Like hoarse night-gusts sepulchral briers along."
all lead us over the borderland. In a rejected stanza of the Ode on Melancholy, he abandons the horrible:
"Though you should build a bark of dead men's bones
And rear a phantom gibbet for a mast,
Stitch shrouds together for a sail, with groans
To fill it out, blood-stained and aghast;
Although your rudder be a dragon's tail
Long severed, yet still hard with agony,
Your cordage, large uprootings from the skull
Of bald Medusa, certes you would fail
To find the Melancholy—"
Keats's melancholy is not to be found amid images of horror:
"She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die"
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
In _La Belle Dame sans Merci_ he conveys with delicate touch the memory of the vision which haunts the knight, alone and palely loitering. We see it through his eyes:
"I saw pale kings and princes too.
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—'La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!'
I saw their starv'd lips in the gloam
With horrid warning gaped wide.
And I awoke and found me here.
On the cold hill's side."
From effects so exquisitely wrought as these it seems almost profane to turn to the crude attempts of such poets as "Monk" Lewis or Southey to sound the note of terror. Yet they too, in their fashion, played a part in the "Renascense of Wonder." Coleridge, fascinated by the spirit of "gramarye" in Burger's Lenore, etherealised and refined it. Scott and Lewis gloried in the gruesome details and spirited rhythm of the ballad, and in their Supernatural poems wish to startle and terrify, not to awe, their readers. Those who revel in phosphorescent lights and in the rattle of the skeleton are apt to o'erleap themselves; and Scott's _Glenfinlas_, Lewis's _Alonzo the Brave and the Fair Imogene_ and Southey's _Old Woman of Berkeley_ fall into the category of the grotesque. Hogg intentionally mingles the comic and the terrible in his poem. _The Witch of Fife_, but his prosestories reveal his power of creating an atmosphere of diablerie, undisturbed by intrusive mockery. In the poem _Kilmeny_, he handles an uncanny theme with dreamy beauty.
From the earliest times to the present day, writers of fiction have realised the force of supernatural terror. In the _Babylonica_ of Iamblichus, the lovers evade their pursuers by passing as spectres; the scene of the romance is laid in tombs, caverns, and robbers' dens, a setting remarkably like that of Gothic story. Into the English novel of the first half of the eighteenth century, however, the ghost dares not venture. The innate desire for the marvellous was met at this period not by the novel, but by oral tradition and by such works as Galland's translation of _The Arabian Nights_, the Countess D'Aulnoy's collection of fairy-tales, Perrault's Contes de ma Mere Oie. Chapbooks setting forth mediaeval legends of "The Wandering Jew," the "Demon Frigate," or "Dr. Faustus," and interspersed with anecdotes of freaks, monsters and murderers, satisfied the craving for excitement among humbler readers. Smollett, who, in his _Adventures of Ferdinand, Count Fathom_ (1753), seems to have been experimenting with new devices for keeping alive the interest of a picaresque novel, anticipates the methods of Mrs. Radcliffe. Although he sedulously avoids introducing the supernatural, he hovers perilously, on the threshold. The publication of The Castle of Otranto in 1764 was not so wild an adventure as Walpole would have his readers believe. The age was ripe for the reception of the marvellous.
The supernatural had, as we have seen, begun to find its way back into poetry, in the work of Gray and Collins. In Macpherson's _Ossian_, which was received with acclamation in 1760-3, the mountains, heaths and lakes are haunted by shadowy, superstitious fears. Dim-seen ghosts wail over the wastes. There is abundant evidence that "authentic" stories of ghostly appearances were heard with respect. Those who eagerly explored Walpole's Gothic castle and who took pleasure in Miss Reeve's well-trained ghost, had previously enjoyed the thrill of chimney-corner legends. The idea of the gigantic apparition was derived, no doubt, from the old legend of the figure seen by Wallace on the field of battle. The limbs, strewn carelessly about the staircase and the gallery of the castle, belong to a giant, very like those who are worsted by the heroes of popular story. Godwin, in an unusual flight of fancy, amused himself by tracing a certain similitude between _Caleb Williams_ and _Bluebeard_, between _Cloudesley_ and _The Babes in the Wood_, and planned a story, on the analogy of the Sleeping Beauty, in which the hero was to have the faculty of unexpectedly falling asleep for twenty, thirty, or a hundred years.
Mrs. Radcliffe, who, so far as we may judge, did not draw her characters from the creatures of flesh and blood around her, seems to have adopted some of the familiar figures of old story. Emily's guardian, Montoni, in _The Mysteries of Udolpho_, like the unscrupulous uncle in Godwin's _Cloudesley_, may well have been descended from the wicked uncle of the folk tale. The cruel stepmother is disguised as a haughty, scheming marchioness in _The Sicilian Romance_. The ogre drops his club, assumes a veneer of polite refinement and relies on the more gentlemanlike method of the dagger and stiletto for gaining his ends. The banditti and robbers who infest the countryside in Gothic fiction are time-honoured figures. Travellers in Thessaly in Apuleius' _Golden Ass_, like the fugitives in Shelley's _Zastrozzi_ and _St. Irvyne_, find themselves in robbers' caves. The Gothic castle, suddenly encountered in a dark forest, is boldly transported from fairyland and set down in Italy, Sicily or Spain. The chamber of horrors, with its alarming array of scalps or skeletons, is civilised beyond recognition and becomes the deserted wing of an abbey, concealing nothing worse than one discarded wife, emaciated and dispirited, but still alive. The ghost-story, which Ludovico reads in the haunted chamber of Udolpho, is described by Mrs. Radcliffe as a Provencal tale, but is in reality common to the folklore of all countries. The restless ghost, who yearns for the burial of his corpse, is as ubiquitous as the Wandering Jew. In the Iliad he appears as the shade of Patroclus, pleading with Achilles for his funeral rites. According to a letter of the younger Pliny, he haunts a house in Athens, clanking his chains. He is found in every land, in every age. His feminine counterpart presented herself to Dickens' nurse requiring her bones, which were under a glass-case, to be "interred with every undertaking solemnity up to twenty-four pound ten, in another particular place." Melmoth the Wanderer, when he becomes the wooer of Immalee, seems almost like a reincarnation of the Demon Lover. The wandering ball of fire that illuminates the dusky recesses of so many Gothic abbeys is but another manifestation of the Fate-Moon, which shines, foreboding death, after Thorgunna's funeral, in the Icelandic saga. The witchcraft and demonology that attracted Scott and "Monk" Lewis, may be traced far beyond Sinclair's _Satan's Invisible World Discovered_(1685), Bovet's _Pandemonium or the Devil's Cloyster Opened_(1683), or Reginald Scot's _Discovery of Witchcraft_(1584) to Ulysses' invocation of the spirits of the dead, to the idylls of Theocritus and to the Hebrew narrative of Saul's visit to the Cave of Endor. There are incidents in _The Golden Ass_ as "horrid" as any of those devised by the writers of Gothic romance. It would, indeed, be no easy task to fashion scenes more terrifying than the
mutilation of Socrates in _The Golden Ass_, by the witch, who tears out his heart and stops the wound with a sponge which falls out when he stoops to drink at a river, or than the strange apparition of a ragged, old woman who vanishes after leading the way to the room, where the baker's corpse hangs behind the door. Though the title assumes a special literary significance at the
close of the eighteenth century, the tale of terror appeals to deeply rooted instincts, and belongs, therefore, to every age and clime.
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