Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Supernatural in Literature 1880


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STUDENT.—Is there at the present time only an obsolescent public taste for literature tinged with the supernatural, or clothed with the breath of faery?

STUDENT.—Is there any treatise in English on the use, in prose fiction, or poetical, of the Supernatural, and the Weird? Kindly name some prose works—excluding Poe, Hawthorne, and Hoffmann—in which these two elements have been successfully employed. Your help at this point will be thankfully received by a coterie of literary students.

Reply: The realistic tendencies of the present day have affected seriously the taste for that more poetical and romantic side of the supernatural, which is generally understood by the word 'faery.' This, perhaps, is not greatly to be regretted, for if any style cannot tolerate bad imitation it is that of the school of De la Motte Fouque. Beautiful as are his works, notably Undine, a very slight experience of inferior writers in a similar style shows how hard it is to preserve the just balance between extravagance and imaginative liberality, and to secure the reader's interest in beings whose very nature and essence are subject to no conditions, gave at the arbitrary will of their literary creator. While the taste for faery lore has sensibly retreated before the advance of realism, the taste for the supernatural in literature, paradoxical as it may sound, has rather been strengthened by the same cause. An interest in, and a love for, the supernatural, are innate in mankind. It has its phases and its fashions, like everything else. Sometimes it is temporarily discredited, again it is quite the rage. Still it is always in the human mind, like the reflection, in Wordsworth's poem, sleeping on a glassy sea, 'it trembles, but it never passes away.' At the present time there is no symptom, so far as we can see, of the taste becoming obsolete. It has been readily recognised by writers of stories dealing with the supernatural, that all the matter-of-fact surroundings of modern life, the advance of science, and even the most philosophical scepticism, far from rendering their task more difficult, have only supplied a background, which sets off, with more telling effect, those features of their work which superficial reflection would consider incompatible with such accessories. Our magazines and periodicals, and, in a very marked degree, our Christmas numbers, and Christmas annuals, testify to the existence of a well developed interest in matters supernatural. There is still a large demand, if we may judge by that safest test, the supply, for the good old straight-forward ghost, who would not demean himself, or, more usually, herself, by frequenting any house of a later date than Queen Anne, or the first George at the latest, who would, probably, be lost a few steps out of the beaten track of Picture Gallery or Armoury, and would certainly suffer if deprived of a due complement of chains, or heavy brocaded robe, from what in the spirit-world answers to a severe cold. But ghostlore, though able to maintain a respected position on the old lines, has shown conclusively that it can keep pace with the times. Mail coaches were no doubt at one time the acme of all that was modern, bustling, and cheerful. Now, the idea of a phantom coach seems almost as reasonable as that of a phantom crusader. Railways and trains, the vain boast of the scoffer, have already supplied the framework of quite a little library of gruesome tales, and next Christmas, at the latest, will surely introduce the reading world to a haunted telephone—'and echo there, whatever is asked her, answers death.'

Of modern English writers, we should be inclined to say that the late Lord Lytton bears the palm for treatment of things supernatural, in 'A Strange Story.' A more weird and fantastic plot it would scarcely be possible to conceive. It is a perfect magazine of supernatural terrors, embracing, as it does, every variety of manifestation or communication from the unseen world, from mediaeval magic to modern mesmerism, with a liberal allowance of apparitions, and the elixir vita as its central point of interest. In reading this marvellous work, for it is nothing less, it is difficult to realise that almost every detail of its supernaturalism has practically been done to death in an endless series of stories, of various degrees of merit. In new combinations, under the hand of a great writer, and an accomplished man of the world, these stock devices, irradiated by a powerful and poetical imagination, are presented as a consistent whole of great, and almost terrible, fascination.

The chief living master of the artistically weird, we should, without hesitation, pronounce to be Wilkie Collins. It is not only that his leading idea is often of a weird nature, but that in numberless details, often of the most trifling description, he, with consummate skill, tones down, as though by a deftly-hung curtain, the too-cheerful light which enables us to withstand the effect of the main idea. 'The Woman in White' is an instance of this. There is, perhaps, not in all our literature, a book which is a less commendable companion for sleepless hours, while yet it is absolutely free from anything supernatural. It is almost more powerful in its effects from this very absence of the ghostly. Everything seems attuned to some terror. If such a terror had been introduced, the power of the surroundings which suggested it would have been destroyed, and the weird interest would have been destroyed also. 'The Moonstone' again illustrates this great power of Wilkie Collins, in suggesting a terror, which he never presses home. The shivering sand, the diamond—the legacy of hatred, the silence of that strange experiment in sleep-walking, the dogged determination of the Indians' quest after the sacred jewel, and, as in the case of 'The Strange Story' and 'The Woman in White,' the constant contrast of the cheery, every-day world, with the strange or sombre course of individual lives, a world which, with all its noise and bustle, is as useful to drown care or the oppression of supernatural visitations, as water is to keep oil out of sight—combine to make 'The Moonstone' a very masterpiece of weird fiction. Space forbids more than a passing mention of a work which is essentially more weird than any other, 'Wuthering Heights.' The ghost story in 'Wuthering Heights' is, in many respects, unrivalled for ghastly horror. 'Jane Eyre' again stands high in the ranks of this description of fiction, and all the writings of the Brontes demand careful study from any who are interested in this aspect of our literature.

We have not been able to find any treatise of the kind desired, but the following books will be found very useful for Student's purpose:—Sir Walter Scott's 'Demonology and Witchcraft,' 'The Monastery,'' Marmion,'' Lay of the Last Minstrel,' 'The Fire King,' and the 'Grey Monk,' the old ballad of Clerk Saunders, the Clerk of Oxenford, and Thomas the Rhymer, Captain Marryatt's 'Phantom Ship,' and Coleridge's' Ancient Mariner.'—W. St. L.

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