Tuesday, January 5, 2016

English Occult Fiction by Lewis Spence 1920

English Occult Fiction by Lewis Spence 1920

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English literature, as it is known to-day, really begins with the Elizabethan age; for the writers prior to that time, excellent as many of them are, elicit comparatively little interest nowadays save among experts. And, by the time of Elizabeth's advent, the old "miracle plays " had gone out of fashion; yet tales about the miraculous doings of mythical heroes continued to find favour, and many new things of this kind were written.

A few of the Restoration dramatists dealt in magic and the like, but throughout the Georgian age people were mostly too prosaic, too matter-of-fact, to care for things of that sort, and they were eschewed by the majority of prominent writers of the day. However, after the great artistic movement commonly styled the Renaissance of Wonder, the old interest in the occult began to revive apace, and, ere the nineteenth century was very far advanced, a literature suitable to this budding taste was being purveyed on a voluminous scale. Among the first to enter the lists, soi disant, was William Godwin, with his novel of St. Truyne the Rosicrucian; while Godwin's daughter, Mary, chiefly remembered nowadays as the second wife of Shelley, merits notice as a mystical writer by virtue of her story of Frankenstein. A little before the advent of this authoress, numerous occult tales had been written by Matthew Lewis, notably Tales of Terror and the drama of Castle Spectre, staged successfully at Drury Lane in 1798; while not long after Lewis a further novelist came to swell the muster-roll, Bulwer Lytton, whose taste for the mystic is seen especially in Zanoni, A Strange Story, and Haunters and the Haunted. His essays of this kind, nevertheless, were never very satisfactory in the real literary sense; and as Leslie Stephen once discovered, they too often smacked of the theatrical. But Sir Walter Scott, on the other hand, writing just before Lytton's time, not only showed a keen fondness for occult matter, but frequently utilized it to genuine artistic purpose. In The Monastery a mysterious sylph rises from a fountain; astrology is introduced into Guy Mannering, The Fortunes of Nigel, and Quentin Durward; while a splendid ghost story is told in Redgauntlet, and ghosts figure also in Woodstock. In The Bride of Lammermoor, besides, the author deals incidentally with that firm belief in prophecy which was long a prominent part of Scottish life; while in Waverley, again, he depicts a Highland chief as awestruck and unmanned by the sight of a peculiar omen. Highland superstitions, indeed, appealed with particular potency to Sir Walter's romantic temper; while he was not the only writer of his time who dealt ably with this branch of the occult, another being Susan Ferrier in her novels of Destiny and The Chief's Daughter. Nor should we fail ere leaving this period, to mention Ann Radcliffe, for in almost all her novels the supernatural figures prominently.

While the last-named trio were at work thus in Britain, some good stories in which magic occurs were being written in America by Washington Irving; and, not very long after his day, a second American arose to treat brilliantly of weirdness and wizardry, Edgar Allan Poe. Then, reverting to England, ghosts appear in a few of Dickens' novels, and Charles Reade manifests here and there a love of the occult; while coming to slightly later times, a writer who manifested this predilection abundantly is Robert Louis Stevenson. His Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is among the best of all modern novels in which the supernatural plays a salient role, and many of his short stories pertain also to the category of occult, for example, the tale of the magic bottle in Island Nights Entertainments; while, about the date these were being composed, Oscar Wilde was writing what is one of the most beautiful things dealing with invisible powers, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Much inferior to this masterpiece, yet possessing considerable excellence, are George du Maurier's Peter Ibbetson, Trilby and The Martian, in each of which the supernatural is prominent; while a further work which should certainly be cited is Lafcadio Hearn's Dead Love, a tiny tale of magic which the author thought lightly of, but which future generations are almost sure to prize on account of its lovely wording, at some places worthy of Theophile Gautier himself, who was Hearn's acknowledged master.

These recent authors do not by any means conclude the list, for a wealth of occult fiction has been written since their day. Among its most remarkable items is The Ghost Ship of Richard Middleton, a singularly promising storyteller and poet who died by his own hand lately at the early age of twenty-nine; while many contemporary novelists have introduced magic into their books, for instance, Mr. Rider Haggard in She, the late Mr. Bram Stoker in Dracula, and Mr. F. A. Anstey in Vice Versa and The Brass Bottle. In fact, were one to cite all the living wont to trade in the occult, an article of formidable size would be the result, and accordingly the attempt must be eschewed; but at least it is essential to mention Mr. Theodore Watts-Dunton's Aylwin, this reflecting really fine treatment of mystic matter, and being couched throughout in a style of exceptional beauty. Mr. Arthur Symons is another. great writer of to-day who loves the borderland between dreams and realities, as witness many pages in his Spiritual Adventures; while the invisible world has always appealed powerfully to Mr. W. B. Yeats, and is employed to good purpose here and there in his stories of the Irish peasantry. It is less the ghost than the fairy which he delights in, true Celt that he is; and his predilection herein sets one dreaming of fairy-tales in general, and summons a curious medley of names. William Morris wrote a host of beautiful fairy-stories, some of them concerned with the promulgation of socialistic ideas, but others innocent of anything of that sort; while the voluminous works of Ruskin include what can only be defined as a fairy tale, The King of the Golden River. Numerous contemporary writers have likewise done good work in this field—Lord Dunsany, Mr. J. M. Barrie, and more especially Mr. Laurence Housman—while a remarkable fairy play has been written lately by Mr. Graham Robertson, and has been staged with surprising triumph. Then, reverting for a moment to defunct authors, fairies occur in that charming volume by H. D. Lowry, Make Believe, and in Richard Middleton's book, The Day Before Yesterday; while no account of this particular domain of literature would be complete without mention of the work of Lewis Carrol, and also of Jean Ingelow's lovely story, Mopsa the Fairy. This last is possibly the best of all fairy stories, and one which has been most widely and wisely cherished; and it stands out very clearly in the memory of nearly every man of imaginative temperament, reminding him of his own childhood.

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