Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Portent: George Macdonald's Ghost Story 1905


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ONE of the most successful attempts in English fiction to create an atmosphere of eeriness and indefinable terror, and, at the same time, perhaps, the most enthralling story the late George MacDonald ever wrote, is a tiny book called “The Portent; a Story of Second Sight,“ which came out in 1864, and seems at present to have been long out of print. It appeared originally in those classical first two volumes of Cornhill edited by Thackeray, where, however, it was cut short abruptly at the end of the third installment. The little volume is very rare now, and few probably are acquainted with it. “The Portent" is an exquisite example of how to deal with supernatural themes poetically and yet within the artistic bounds of a novel. It is extremely unlike the conventional ghost-story, unlike, indeed, almost every other story of the unseen. There are no ghosts of the common or churchyard kind, visible to whoever happens to cross their beat. Spirits appear only to such as have the faculty to see them, a privilege accorded to few. In a word, this is a story of second-sight. The postulate on which it is based, and which the author evidently accepts with perfect credence, is that the material and spiritual worlds exist side by side, and that certain gifted human beings may, by a powerful effort of will, step across the narrow boundary. Among these privileged beings are the man and woman whose history this is, and their spiritual natures are furthermore connected by a mystical affinity, endowing them with powers of mutual influence or “operative volition.”

The plot is old-fashioned and conventional so far as it relates to worldly things. The idea of a family conspiracy against an heiress, by which she is kept in durance and deprived of education, so that, eventually, her relatives may make her out a lunatic and get hold of her property; and the further contrivance of the tutor who falls in love with the beautiful prisoner and turns out to be a far-off kinsman; all this seems like the machinery of a too-familiar romanticism. The lady is a somnambulist, like some of the people in Brockden Brown’s novels of New England, popular at the supposed date of the story, the eve of Waterloo. The mansion has a deserted wing and a haunted room, the tutor's chamber boasts a screwed-up door in the wainscoting, and other suggestive features such as Jane Austen derided. But Dr. MacDonald’s insight into the mental life of delicately balanced natures raises the story to a totally different sphere of interest; his imagination and his sense of spiritual beauty make of it something near akin to poetry.

A young Scot at divers crises of his fortunes is warned by a portent, the sound of a horse with a shoe loose, galloping towards him—a sound audible to him, inaudible to others. Anything more weird and thrilling than this apparition of sound, not of sight, heard in the depths of midnight landscapes, in the noonday crowd, and amid the thronging visions of the Haunted Chamber, can hardly be imagined; it is rendered more impressive by the dark, romantic legend that makes it an omen of dreadful meaning to the hero’s race. By family influence, the Scot becomes tutor to the children of an English peer, in whose household he meets with the partner of his psychical experiences. This beautiful young girl, a relative of the peer, is strange in manner, “possessed,” as it were, and her guardians have little difficulty in representing her as weak mentally. How the intellect of this child of nature is awakened, how super-sensuous affinities reveal themselves between her and the young Scot, with whose ancestry hers is distantly connected, and how they meet in the psychical borderland of dreaming and waking, is a strangely beautiful love-tale, wrapped in the enchanted atmosphere of a mystic world.

Writers of ghost-stories secure the necessary illusion by agitating the emotions powerfully, by cheating the understanding momentarily with a show of logical reasoning, or by a cunning appeal to reason and emotion together. The apparatus of the Radcliffian romance was pure sensation, sometimes subtly graduated, or even merely suggested, at other times applied in crude and violent doses. Horace Walpole, Maturin, "Monk" Lewis made no attempt to rationalise their gigantic and forceful images; Mrs. Radcliffe’s postponed explanation is an artless trick that most of her imitators scorned to adopt. They dealt violent blows upon the reader’s nerves, well satisfied to evoke temporary emotions of horror and awe. This sort of thing has ceased to impress the cultured reader, who will not respond to such brutal shocks, whereas he is moved intensely by moral attractions and repulsions. And so, the modern writer, Henry James for example, gives us something more recondite and refined, yet far more potent than these raw sensations, to sway the feelings. The author of "The Turn of the Screw” makes consummate artistic use of his scientific insight into the hidden springs of fear. His science helps him in more than one way, enabling him to give a sufficiently rational account of the phenomena represented and to lull the mind into belief in the objectivity of what we read, and telling him how to thrill the reader as if by a light touch on the nerve. Dr. MacDonald's psychology is not the less efficient because it is intuitive. It is somewhat akin to the naive faith of the primitive teller of ghost-stories, who thrills his remotest and most sophisticated readers because he sets forth his real beliefs in simple and direct language. The supernatural glamour pervading Dr. MacDonald's story enchants our minds, and makes the incidents seem but the normal happenings of the world in which for the time being we live.

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"What a wonderful thing waking is! The time of the ghostly moonshine—we sleep it by; and the great positive sunlight comes: it fills me with thoughts. As with a man who dreams, and knows that he is dreaming, and thinks he knows what waking is, but knows it so little that he mistakes, one after another, many a vague and dim change in his dream for an awaking, and when the true waking comes at last, is filled and overflowed with the power of its reality: so shall it be with us when we wake from this dream of life into the truer life beyond, and find all our present notions of being thrown back as into a dim vapoury region of dreamland, where yet we thought we knew, and whence we looked forward into the present; as (to use another likeness) a man who, in the night, when another is about to cause light in the room, lies trying to conceive, with all the force of his imagination, what the light will be like, is yet, when most successful, seized as by a new and unexpected thing, different from and beyond all his imagining, when the reality flames up before him, and he feels as if the darkness were cast to an infinite distance behind him. This must be what Novalis means when he says: ‘Our life is not a dream; but it may become a dream, and perhaps ought to become one.‘"

From this eloquent passage we see that Dr. MacDonald's story must be regarded rather as poetry than fantasy. The supernatural vision of the Highlander is to him no delusion of a dreamy temperament: if he does not believe it to be an authentic faculty, he at least classes it among those things not explained by our philosophy.

Dr. MacDonald’s style is simple and chaste; it often attains a high degree of imaginative beauty, as in describing the awakening of the sleep-walker, Lady Alice.

"She lay in something deeper than sleep, and yet not death. I rose, and once more knelt beside her, but dared not touch her. In what far realms of mysterious life might the lovely soul be straying? Thoughts unutterable rose in me, culminated, and sank like the stars of heaven, Is I gazed on the present symbol of an absent life—a life that I loved by means of the symbol; a symbol that I loved because of the life. How long she lay thus, how long I gazed upon her thus, I do not know."

"Gradually, but without my being able to distinguish the gradations of the change, her countenance altered to that of one who sleeps. The slightest possible colour tinged her lips, and deepened to a pale rose; then her cheek seemed to share in the hue, as the cloud the farthest from the sunset yet acknowledges the rosy atmos here. I watched, as it were, the dawn of a soul on the horizon of the material. As I watched, the first approaches of its far-off flight were manifest; and I saw it come nearer and nearer, till its great, silent, speeding pinions were folded, and it looked forth, a calm, beautiful, infinite woman, from the face and form sleeping beside me."

Not less beautiful is this picture of the Haunted Room:

"By the dim light I caught only a darkling glimpse of a large room, apparently quite furnished; but how, except from the general feeling of antiquity and mustiness, I could not tell. Little did I think then what memories—sorrowful and old now as the ghosts that along with them haunt that old chamber, but no more faded than they—would ere long find their being and take their abode in that ancient room, to forsake it never, never more—the ghosts and the memories flitting together through the spectral moonlight, and weaving strange mystic dances in and out of the storied windows and the tapestried walls.”

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