Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Supernatural in Fiction by FE Regal 1886

The Supernatural in Fiction by F.E. Regal 1886

See also Supernatural Horror in Fiction Literature - 350 Books on DVDrom (Lovecraft)

Man is naturally a superstitious animal, and no education has sufficed to drive this innate element from his constitution. The most learned materialistic philosopher only differs in degree from the Hottentot in this respect. He may succeed in blinding even himself to the existence of this quality, but nevertheless it still exists, ready to spring into life at the moment of sudden peril or of impending death.

In all ages, man, oppressed by the limitations and evils of the physical world around him, looks toward "the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns," for the fulfillment of his ideal.

On the other hand, it is also from the veiled land of spirits that the human mind receives its deadliest terrors. Here the imagination of the poet runs riot, and the speculations of the philosopher lose themselves in the measureless labyrinths of the Unknowable; where the wildest dreams and fancies, the loftiest hopes, the highest ideals of men, seem but atoms in the midst of infinity.

What wonder, then, that the poet, the dramatist and the novelist should look to the supernatural as a most powerful means for moving the soul!

In the Middle Ages, what literature there was was based for the most part upon the supernatural. The lays of the minstrels, and the tales of chivalry alike found their source of inspiration here. Of realism there was none. This literature, limited as it was, was a reflection of the character of the age. The superstitions of the people, from the nobles to the peasants, found a place here, and while these crude works have not kept their place in literature, they remain to the historian as a mirror of the times.

On the rise of the realistic school, of which Richardson and Fielding were the chief founders, the romantic literature ceased altogether for the time, and the beginnings of the modern novel were far too intensely real and practical to admit of the introduction of any supernatural element.

The reaction came with ridiculous intensity in the romantic school of Walpole, Clara Reeve and Anne Radcliffe, with their mediaeval castles, underground passages, magic, and all the antique clap-trap which has haunted sensational fiction ever since. From that time on, while spectres, shrouded women in windy corridors with the light blown out, skeletons in rusty chains, and all their grewsome relatives, have sprung up like a most unhealthy growth of fungi on the pages of our cheap fiction, our higher novelists have shrunk from the supernatural as a tool too keen, and too difficult of use to be employed except on rare occasions, and by a most experienced hand.

The supernatural finds a place in all the forms of imaginative literature; the poem, the tale and the novel, but it is used quite differently in each, and for this reason I purpose to examine the nature and divisions of the supernatural as literary material, and then to proceed to apply the results of the investigation to the various styles of literature.

In the first place, then, works of fiction employing the supernatural may differ in two particulars:

1st, The nature of the Supernatural.

2nd, The nature of the Treatment.

(1) The most common form in which the Supernatural appears is Apparitions. Besides this there are Magic, Clairroyance, Telepathy, Second-sight, Metempsychosis, etc. These differ greatly as to credibility, force, and artistic fitness.

(2) The differences in the nature of treatment are much more various and complex.

1st, There is the work which is primarily supernatural, where the real holds a subordinate place; as in the old chivalry tales.

2d, Where the work is primarily realistic, but a touch of the genuine supernatural is introduced; as in most of the modern magic novels.

3d, Where the apparitions, etc., are purely subjective.

4th, Where the whole turns out to be a hoax, the result of a dream,etc.

5th, Where the intention is left merely mysterious, as in some of Hawthorne's works, and Christabel, etc.

6th, Where the magic is introduced simply as a farce, with no attempt to explain it, as in the hoax; but, contrary to the first and second species, with the farcial intention of the whole apparent.

Only the first two really come under the head of the Supernatural, but the rest borrow so much of their effect from these, that they must also be considered.

After this analysis it may be easier to examine the various branches of literature, and to formulate rules for the correct use of the supernatural in each.

1st, In Poetry, as the special language of the imagination, the supernatural finds free room without coming in conflict with reason. Whether in the Iliad, The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Faust, Macbeth, or Hamlet, it is both suitable and effective. It need be restricted by no age or country, nor by anything except the subject and the method of treatment. But with Poetry we are not concerned in the present article.

2d, Of Prose Fiction we have, (1) The Short Tale, and (2) The Novel.

(1) The tale affords far greater facilities for the introduction of the weird and supernatural than the longer novel, for the attention can be held to the end without the intervention of any of the base and realistic duties of life. In the hands of a master it may be used effectively of every-day life without that projection against a dark back-ground of antiquity or of a foreign land which is usually essential in a novel of the same kind.

(2) The use of magic in a long novel is a much more delicate and perilous work, and if not perfectly done, is likely, instead of moving the reader, to bring down ridicule upon the writer.

The two cross divisions, first, as to the nature of the supernatural, and second, as to the method of treatment, with some half dozen heads under each, give us a large number of varieties, of which it will be impossible to treat of more than a few of the most important in this paper. The extremes of these varieties are far apart, but taken together they constitute the whole gamut of supernatural literature, from the most harrowing ghost story to the lightest farce, and accommodate every type of writer, from the tragedian to the humorist.

For instance, we have:

1st, The novel which is primarily supernatural, and deals in magic; Lord Lytton's Zanoni, and Strange Story, are good examples of this. The immense difficulties of this style of composition in an age so free from superstition, keep most writers from attempting such novels. Lord Lytton has, however, tried to resurrect the old oriental magic as literary material, and in several of his works, notably A Strange Story, and Zanoni, has used them quite effectively.

2nd, The novel in which the apparition is introduced incidentally, simply to solve a diffiulty in the plot, or to heighten the dramatic effect, rather than for its own sake, as in The Monastery, by Scott. The greatest trouble with this is the difficulty of the union of the realistic with the superhuman. The chances are that it will cast ridicule on both, as actually happened with this novel.

The stories of clairvoyance, telepathy, secondsight, etc., are more numerous, and owing to the credulity or at least hesitation of a large proportion of the people in regard to these subjects, may be used with less caution. Since the rise of Spiritualism in the United States, the number of these has increased immensely. Geo. Sand makes a striking use of second-sight in Consuelo.

Metempsychosis offers the same weird attraction to the story-writer of to-day that it did to the philosopher of antiquity. It is particularly well adapted to the production of ghastly and terrible effects. Poe, in Ligeia, Berenice and other tales, reaches a pitch of horror absolutely unsurpassed in this direction. It is, however, well adapted to comic effects, as in Anstey's Vice Versa, which will be spokeo of in another place.

These varieties constitute the first, or what may be called the genuine method of treatment. Leaving this now for the present, the next method or general class is where the whole turns out to be a hoax. This includes all stories which turn out to have a material explanation. It may be applied to all the classes of the supernatural, so that there are numerous sub-divisions. It is most often used for comic effects, but not always. The Woman in White, by Collins, is quite the reverse. The usual mechanism with this class of stories is to have the whole thing turn out to be a dream; a method of procedure which, if somewhat time worn, and savoring slightly of mild decay, has at least the great merit of simplicity, and, (if we allow the hypothesis of cheese and late supper), of probability. Of this kind are Dickens' Christmas Carols, Chimes, and the Pickwick stories, The Bagman's Story, Gabriel Grub, etc. Stories of this class may be made very effective if the element of surprise be worked in at the denouement. Anstey's Curse of the Catafalques is cleverly written in this respect, and Poe's Gold Bug is an admirable example.

Next comes the 3d general division; the stories in which the supernatural is not pronounced, but left simply mysterious. America has produced two of the greatest artists in this department of literature: Hawthorne and Poe. Naturally this class is more often written by, and appeals more strongly to, those of a dreamy, poetic turn of mind, and some of Hawthorne's prose tales have more poetry in them than whole tons of metrical rubbish that is ground out every year. To this class belong the majority of tales of the weird and terrible, and in general the strongest effects may be derived from its use. Here the supernatural element does not jar so rudely upon the sceptical modern mind as in some of the other more pronounced species. In Poe's Fall of the House of Usher and The Black Cat, the very climax of the weird and terrible is reached, yet while partaking largely of the mysterous and bizarre, they do not actually trespass upon the realms of the distinctly supernatural. Here belongs Hawthorne's Septimius Felton or The Elixir of Life, The Ancestral Footstep, possibly The Marble Faun and The Scarlet Letter, and many of his weird and beautiful shorter tales. This class may also be used for humorous and grotesque effects, but its natural place is in the wild and terrible.

There only remains to treat of the 6th principal use, viz:—Where the magic is used like a grown up fairy story, without regard to probability, and with a humorous effect. It derives its force most frequently from contrasts; and from that very discrepancy between the material and the spiritual, which is the stumbling block of the tragedian, the comedian draws an inexhaustible fund of humor. Frank Stockton has written some clever tales of this kind, and Fred Anstey has lately made a groat hit in this line with Vice Versa and The Tinted Venus. The latter of these, which represents a Grecian statue as brought to life, derives a hightened zest from the anachronisms which the introduction of a classic goddess upon a modern cockney stage must infallibly occasion. A Fallen Idol is of the same nature. This is to the genuine supernatural as the "Midsummer Night's Dream' is to Macbeth. Its merit is in proportion to its preposterousness.

Having now examined the principal forms in which the supernatural appears in fiction, it is somewhat easier to see why there are so many views in regard to an important principle of use; as to whether the story should be projected against a dark back-ground of antiquity or of some more romantic country, or brought out in the strong light of our own time and country. Hawthorne and many other distinguished writers favor the former view, and a scarcely weaker party of authors and critics the latter. Hawthorne, in a frequently quoted passage from the introduction to the Marble Fawn, says:

"Italy, as the site of his romance, was chiefly valuable to him as affording a sort of poetic or fairy precinct, where actualities would not be so terribly insisted upon as they are and must needs be in America. No writer without a trial can conceive of the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, as is happily the case with my dear native land. . . . Romance and poetry, ivy, lichens and wall-flowers need ruins to make them grow."

In reply to this a critic in the Atlantic says: "... A ghost racketing about in some old-world relic, banging rusty armor, running down corridors, lighting mysterious flames in mouldy turrets, may be very interesting and pleasant to read about, but the supernatural element in him affects us no more than it does when the ghost in "Hamlet" stalks on the scene, or the figure of Mephistophilis pops up through the trap door. But a very small and insignificant ghost on a New England farm or in an American village brings the awesomeness of the supernatural very much home to our own business and bosoms."

It is not difficult to see the truth and error of both of these views when you consider the great number of forms that the supernatural may take. In a hitherto unexplored science, without nomenclature as yet, it is difficult to formulate rules or to make many specifications, but it is easy to see that both are right and both are wrong. Individual peculiarity is the most trustworthy guide in this particular. Hawthorne's poetic genius did not lead him astray in inclining him to Italy, any more than Conway's did in leading him to choose stories of English life. Writers of the supernatural have a Scylla and Charybdis to encounter, upon one of which everyone so far has fallen. The one is the danger of too great vagueness and mysticism, the other lies in the incongruity and inharmoniousuess of the two elements, the real and the supernatural. It is not too much, however, to hope that in the future some great artist will arise who will be capable of drawing from the supernatural all the force that it derives from every-day life and common characters and who, conquering the feeling of scepticism that the supernatural causes in the reader, by the sheer force of his personality, will make an artistic and terribly effective use of The Supernatural in Fiction.

See also Supernatural Horror in Fiction Literature - 350 Books on DVDrom (Lovecraft)

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