Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Review of The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction By Dorothy Scarborough 1918

Review of The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction By Dorothy Scarborough 1918

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There are few, none perhaps save the extremest Sadducee and sceptic, who will deny that the supernatural and the macabre form one of the most fascinating realms of fiction. The appeal is universal, and Lafcadio Hearn went so far as to say that 'there is scarcely any great author in European literature, old or new, who has not distinguished himself in his treatment of the supernatural.' Nor is there any exaggeration in his words. We are nothing surprised then to find Miss Scarborough at the very outset emphasizing the difficulties of her task owing to the enormous mass of material with which she was bound to deal. She very aptly opens her study with a chapter on 'The Gothic Romance,' and here takes occasion to observe that 'the terror novel proper is generally conceded to begin with [Horace Walpole's] Romantic curiosity _The Castle of Otranto_. Walpole's pinchbeck, mediaevalism has doubtless come to be an acknowledged landmark of literary history, and it serves this purpose conveniently enough, but none the less it is to be wished that Leland's _Longsword_, _Earl of Salisbury_, 'a romance of feudal times,' which preceded Otranto by two years, were not so entirely forgotten. Even Miss Scarborough has no mention of the earlier book, which in her pages assuredly deserves some recognition, however slight. It is obvious that although the supernatural—the word is used in its broadest sense—as expressed and treated in modern English fiction is the main theme of this study, it was necessary for the writer to trace in some measure the 'terror and blood' which had such vogue in our drama, and hence so marked an influence on the development of the novel. Nor can the tradition of the macabre, as it appears in Latin and Greek classics and in modern literatures other than our own, be wholly ignored, and as link is added to link a stupendous library has to be consulted, an almost incalculable number of volumes examined, for description and citation. Miss Scarborough promises a bibliography which is to comprise over three thousand titles, and which cannot fail to be of permanent value and importance. She has already brought together such an accumulated quantity of material and in this present study discussed so many romances, short stories, chapters, and even episodes that with her copious and painstaking industry it is all the more surprising to note the omission of works which surely rank among the masterpieces of modern macabre fiction. Thus she does not refer to the series of ghost stories from the erudite pen of the Provost of King's, two volumes which have pages so vivid in their,description of malignant entities and sinister intelligences, that, when the first tale, Canon _Alieric's Scrap-Book_, appeared some years ago in _The National Review_, people were asking if it were not really true, and it was with something like relief we learned that Dr James had invented his midnight demon of the pit. Dr James is of great importance in a study of the supernatural in fiction, and this not only because his stories are consummate masterpieces, but because in his preface to _More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary_ he gives us his ideas 'how a ghost story ought to be laid out if it is to be effective,' and very striking and suggestive these ideas are. He has moreover initiated a certain school of ghost story. Such a book as E. G. Swain's _The Stoneground Ghost Tales_ patently aud avowedly owes its inspiration to his genius.

Miss Scarborough again has no mention of Mrs Nesbit's sombre little collection, _Grim Tales_, one of the stories in which for sheer gruesome horror it would be hard to beat. Vernon Lee's _Hauntings_, four weirdly fantastic studies of extraordinary power and great literary beauty in a scholarly setting, cannot be forgotten, and Lucas Malet's _The Gateless Barrier_ is a novel full of delicate charm, and one which presents no shallow philosophy of the supernatural. Cecilia de Noel is famous for its clever characterization and has long since taken its place as a little classic gem of ghost lore. _Raw Edges_ by Perceval Landon has several uncanny, and one supremely terrible story, _Thurnley Abbey_, which tells of a building hideously haunted by a foul and carious skeleton. All these, which are of prime importance, and others of lesser note, Miss Scarborough has unwisely omitted to describe in her recent study.

We find moreover only one reference to the name of W. H. Ainsworth, and that casually in a list of some half-a-dozen writers. Ainsworth's faults are great, very great, but he assuredly ought not to be dismissed in so summary a manner. For all his clumsiness and Wardour-street vocabulary, he had parts, and _Auriol_, _The Lancashire Witches_, _Rookwood_, to mention only three of many, are soaked in the macabre. Nor are we at all sure that in such a comprehensive study G. W. M. Reynolds too has not distinct claims to a place however lowly. His works are confessedly ranting melodrama and have worse defects than dubious grammar and grandiloquent bathos. They belong to the slums and alleys of fiction, but Reynolds was prolific and won notoriety in his day. _The Necromancer_; _Wagner, the Wehr Wolf_; _Faust (quantum mutatus ab illo!_)—and a score beside—are very grimoires of cheap diablerie. Far above this London Journal romancer stands Sheridan Le Fanu, a writer-whose talents are of a very high order. _In a Glass Darkly_ (which has sometimes been reprinted as _Green Tea_), is incredibly morbid, horrible, and arresting; _The Dragon Volant_ with its tangles and mysteries far surpasses more modern developments of the same theme; _Uncle Silas_ is a study which has often been repeated but perhaps never quite so well. There is no account of Le Fanu in Miss Scarborough's pages. An even more astonishing omission is the name of Monsignor Hugh Benson, whose personal interest in the occult was so well known, and whose _Mirror of Shalott_ and _The Necromancers_ aroused so much discussion a decade or so ago. By reason of those ghastly tales, _The Room in the Tower_, Mr E.F. Benson also has established an undeniable right to inclusion in a study of the supernatural in fiction, where too we might expect to meet with the _Ghost Stories_ of E. and H. Heron, a book which has distinctive features worthy of note.

Though none of these are included, and such omissions are serious, Miss Scarborough has nevertheless brought together and compared a very great number of works in which the supernatural has a place, and a study which is so extensive as hers cannot but be of great value and interest. Now-a-days the occult is receiving much serious attention, and it was indeed high time for the entrancing subject of the supernatural in literature to be dealt with at length and in detail. It has been much neglected. Miss Scarborough indeed says 'there has been no previous book on the topic, and none related to it, save Mr C. E. Whitmore's work on The Supernatural in Tragedy? a statement which we are unable wholly to endorse when we recall Thurnau's Die Geister in der eng. Literatur des 18. Jahrhunderts (1906), a slight yet pioneer contribution in this all-important field.

It is good to find that in her first chapter, 'The Gothic Romance,' Miss Scarborough breaks away from the beaten track and has ample references to little known but entirely characteristic romances such as Charlotte Dacre's _Zofloya_, or, _The Moor_ (1806), and T. J. Horsley-Curties' _The Ancient Records of the Abbey of St Oswyth_ (1801), rather than to more easily accessible and somewhat stereotyped exemplars of that school. It will be remembered that Barham in _The Spectre of Tappington_ has a good-natured laugh at 'that eminent antiquary, Mr Horsley-Curties, who described a pointed arch as 'a Gothic window of the Saxon order.' But that unique and unrelated classic in English literature, _The Ingoldsby Legends_, is not mentioned by Miss Scarborough, and even if it be pleaded that out of some sixty or more pieces only half-a-dozen are prose, yet _The Leech of Folkestone_, _Singular Passage in the Life of the Late Henry Harms, D.D.,_ and _Jerry Jarvis' Wig_, albeit grotesque, are sinister to a degree and told as few writers could have narrated them. For all his mockery and quips Barham (paradoxical as it may appear) treated the supernatural seriously. He well knew that without a vein of grim earnest underlying superficial flippancies and fun the macabre in literature is, naught. Even if we do not take the supernatural seriously we must take the treatment of it in literature seriously. This Oscar Wilde appreciated when he ended his 'hyloidealistic' _The Canterville Ghost_ upon a note of deep pathos and exquisite poetry. Although she has frequent references to Wilde, Miss Scarborough curiously enough does not instance this amusing and pertinent tale.

It is obvious that Miss Scarborough completely underestimates the rare genius of Ann Radcliffe; she does not even mention (save in an excerpt from _Northanger Abbey_) that poignant psychological study, _The Italian_, and she entirely fails to appreciate the importance of this great mistress of romance. The faults and follies of a crowd of servile imitators —Horsley-Curties went so far as to name one of his novels _The Monk of Udolpho_—have to some extent obscured the fame of 'the mighty magician of Udolpho,' and blinded by the demerits of her literary parasites, few, if any, critics have given Mrs Radcliffe her ample need of praise. Miss Scarborough very properly quotes at some length that delightful scene where Isabella Thorpe reads over to Catherine Miss Andrews' famous list of 'horrid' romances, but through some error she counts eight titles not seven. She writes with pardonable pride that she has traced the authorship of 'four out of the eight.' The whole seven however had been identified and examined long before her investigations. Some account of these novels was given by me in a letter to The Times Literary Supplement, Dec. 27, 1917, and yet fuller details may be found in my lecture on Mrs Radcliffe (Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature, second series, xxxv, pp. 39—77).

Miss Scarborough, when giving a list of those writers who have made use of the legend of the Wandering Jew (p. 180), ought certainly to have included Lewis. Ahasuerus plays an important part in one of the chief episodes of _The Monk_. The theme of the Flying Dutchman deserves more than a short and superficial paragraph (p. 187), which takes no account of Marryat's fine story _The Phantom Ship_. The werewolf is treated at length, but Baring-Gould's _The Book of Were-Wolves_, first published as far back as 1865, receives no mention. There is too a little-known but exceedingly beautiful fantasy by the late Count Eric Stenbok, _The Other Side_, which tells of the loup-garou and the 'wolfkeeper' with his horrible half-human troupe. Attention should have been drawn to this if only to praise the rare loveliness of its literary grace. And surely it is a mistake not to give one of the earliest of all were-wolf stories, the anecdote told by Niceros which made Trimalchio's guests shiver and stare....The belief in lycanthropy is, of course, extremely ancient and wide-spread. Amongst other authors, Herodotus; Vergil, Eclog. viii, 95—99; Strabo; Pliny; Solinus; Pomponius Mela; Dionysius Afer; Varro; S. Augustine, De Civ. Dei, xviii; all mention the superstition. Several pages on the supernatural in classical literature would have been highly desirable. It is almost incredible that Miss Scarborough has only one quite casual reference to Apuleius, that past-master of magic and the macabre. Even this reference is third-hand, being taken from Warton's notes on Milton, as quoted by Dyce in his introduction to Peele's _The Old Wives' Tale_.

With regard to the semi-Oriental idea of metempsychosis (p. 189), that the soul may pass into another human body, into an animal, a plant, or even (as used in literature) into some inanimate object, Dr Hawkesworth, who is quoted by Miss Scarborough, probably drew something from _Le Canape couleur de Feu_ (1714), a little fairy tale in eleven chapters, often attributed to Gresset, but in reality the work of Fougeret de Montbron. The hero is first transformed into a dog and then into a sofa. Hence Crebillon le fils drew his inspiration for _Le Sopha_; _Ah Quel Conte_; and other comic novels, a vein which has been well worked by succeeding writers. In the classics we have Ovid's encyclopaedic _Metamorphoses_.

The Doppelganger, the double or dual personality, is discussed at some length by Miss Scarborough, and she has collected several very interesting instances. It has been stated that these stories have their origin in Calderon's _El Embozado_, where a man is haunted by himself. I would rather suggest that they are but the presentation in literature of the mystical phenomenon of bi-location, which often appears in modern occultism as the Thought-Body. S. Thomas speaks at length of double personality, and there is much profound matter on the subject in Cardinal Cajetan's _Commentaries_ on S. Thomas. According to the Dominican doctor bi-location proper never does and never could happen, but bi-location improperly so called and technically termed _raptus_ does occur, and is identical with the double. S. Thomas quotes instances from the Bible (Ezekiel viii; etc.) and from the Lives of the Saints Calderon, a priest and a theologian, must have been intimately acquainted with this doctrine.

It is doubtful whether on the whole a more comprehensive view of the supernatural in fiction than this given by Miss Scarborough could easily have been contained in one volume. It is true that there are, as we have noted, omissions. There is repetition which is quite unnecessary, and more than one chapter might have been compressed with manifest advantage. But, even as the case stands, the ground which has been covered is very large, and we cannot but give a warm welcome to Miss Scarborough's achievement, which, it is certain, involved long and laborious research. All students of fiction are deeply in her debt. We would caution her however to pay careful attention to the felicities of style. Her own diction, often vivid and modern, occasionally slips into spurious slang, a pitfall to be shunned. That her study will arouse further interest in these investigations is greatly to be desired. We hope that one day the history of that school initiated by Otranto and inspired by Mrs Radcliffe will be written in detail. Hardly any branch of literature is less known. The output was tremendous, and the work will be tremendous too, but if the material can be collected—which is in itself a moot point—an addition of prime importance will then have been made to the history of English fiction.

Montague Summers.

See also Supernatural Horror in Fiction Literature - 350 Books on DVDrom, and The Paranormal and Supernatural - 400 Books on DVDrom, and The Occult Spirit World & the Bible - 170 Books on DVDrom

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