THE NEWER STYLES IN GHOSTS AND DEMONS, article in the Current Opinion 1918
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Dr. Dorothy Scarborough Reports that the Spirit-World has been Made Safe for Democracy
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GHOSTS and devils, disembodied spirits, the supernatural in many forms, all permeate modern fiction. Unearthly beings meet us in all guises and answer our every mood, whether it be serious or awed, satiric or humoresquc. Ghosts "came in" with the Gothic romance, with such writers as Charles Brockden Brown or Anne Radcliffe; but our most modern writers, our Theodore Dreisers no less than our Edith Whartons, still study their haunts and habits. The new ghosts and the new devils are now studied in detail, in the first volume ever published about the supernatural in English fiction, by Dr. Dorothy Scarborough, of Columbia University. A specialist and a lover of ghosts, Miss Scarborough has contributed not merely erudition and scholarship to this investigation but, as the N. Y. Sun takes care to point out, humor and irony and colloquial cleverness of phrase. In her introduction she reveals her own attitude in interpreting the latest styles in ghosts:
"I deal with ghosts and devils, by and large, in an impressionistic way. I don't know much about them; I have no learned theories of causation. I only love them. I only marvel at their infinite variety and am touched by their humanity, their likeness to mortals. I am fond of them all, even the dejected, dog-eared ghosts that look as if they were wraiths of poor relations left out in the rain all night, or devils whose own mothers wouldn't care for them. It gives me no holier-than-thou feeling of horror to sit beside a vampire in the subway, no panic to hear a banshee shut up in a hurdy-gurdy box. I give a cordial how-do-you-do when a dragon glides up and puts his paw in mine, and in every stray dog I recognize a Gladsome Beast. Like us mortals, they all need sympathy, none more so than the poor wizards and bogles that are on their own, as the Scotch say."
There is a new democracy, a new freedom, in the realm of the supernatural, if we may accept the authority of Dr. Dorothy Scarborough. Ghosts and demons, it seems, no longer take themselves quite as seriously as they did a century ago. The grand manner among the wraiths is now passe. Even the seraphs are democratic, and angels have developed a sense of humor that renders them more interesting than they used to be. "They care little for harps and crowns, grow fidgety under excess of rest, and engage in all sorts of activities, retaining their individual tastes. James Stephens's archangel, seraph and cherub are chatty, cordial souls with an avidity for cold potatoes and Irish companionship." The demons have felt the same leveling influence. "Only in their case the thing is reversed, and they are raised to the grade of humanity. We are coming to see, in modern fiction at least, that the devil is not really black, only a pleasant mottled gray like ourselves."
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"Ghosts, angels, witches, devils, werewolves, and so forth, are now made more human, more like to man, yet without losing any of their ancient power to thrill. Ghosts in late literature have more of the mortal characteristics than ever before. They look more human, more normal, they are clad in every-day garments of varied colors, from red shirts and khaki riding-habits to ball-gowns, — tho gray seems the favored shade for shades as well as witches,—and they have lost that look of pallor that distinguished early phantoms. Now they are more than merely vaporous projections, as they used to be, more than merely phantasmogenetic apparitions, — but are healthy, red-blooded spooks. They are not tongue-tied as their ancestors were, but are very chatty, giving forth views on everything they are interested in, from Socialism to the present war. And their range of interests has widened immeasurably. It would seem that the literacy test has been applied to ghosts in recent fiction. Modern specters are so normal in appearance that often no one recognizes them as ghosts, — as in Edith Wharton's story 'Afterwards,' where the peculiar thing about the apparition haunting a certain house is that it is hot till long afterwards that one knows it was a ghost. The man in the gray suit whom the wife thinks a chance caller is the spirit of a man not yet dead, a terrible living revenge-ghost, who finally takes his victim mysteriously away with him. Modern ghosts have both motions and emotions like men, hence mortals are coming to regard them more sympathetically, to have more of a fellow-feeling for them."
The new philosophy, the new science, the new psychology, have all aided in increasing interest in supernatural subjects. Fictioneers have not hesitated in using the suggestions from these fields for their own purposes. Some have given to their supernatural beings more cumulative and terrible power. In the work of Ambrose Bierce, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Bram Stoker and others, supernaturalism is raised to the nth power and every possible thrill is employed. "The carrion-ghosts of Bierce, animated by malignant foreign spirits, surpass the charnal shudders produced by the Gothic." Ghosts, angels, devils, witches, werewolves, are humanized in modern fiction, made like to man in appearance, passions, and powers.
"Another aspect of the leveling influence is seen in the more than natural power of motion, feeling, and intelligence given to inanimate objects, machinery, plants, and animals, in late literature. The idea of endowing inanimate figures with life and personality is seen several times in Hawthorne's stories, as his snow image, Drowne's wooden image, the vivified scarecrow, Feathertop, that the witch makes. The clay figures that Satan in Mark Twain's novel models, endues with life, then destroys with the fine, casual carelessness of a god, remind one of an incident from mythology. The statue in Edith Wharton's 'The Duchess at Prayer' that changes its expression, showing on its marble face through a century the loathing and horror that the living countenance wore, or Lord Dunsany's jade idol that comes with stony steps across the desolate moor to exact vengeance on four men helpless in its presence, has a more intense thrill than Otranto's peripatetic statue. Lord Dunsany's 'The Gods of the Mountain,' of which Frank Harris says, 'It is the only play which has meant anything to me in twenty years,' shows an inexorable fatality as in the Greek drama.
"Science is revealing wonderful facts and fiction is quick to realize the possibilities for startling situations in every field. So diabolic botanical specimens, animals endowed with human or more than human craft—sometimes gifted with immortality as well—add a new interest to uncanny fiction. And the new machines that make all impossibilities come to pass inspire a significant class of supernatural stories. In general, a new force is given to all things, to raise them to the level of the human."
Modern supernaturalism is, perhaps, more complex, more psychological, than terroristic, Miss Scarborough suggests, because we have become more intellectual, our thought-processes more subtle. Humanity still wants ghosts, but they must be cleverly presented to be convincing. It is a more difficult feat to thrill readers than it formerly was. "Yet when it is attained it is more poignant and lasting in its effects because more subtle in its art." The sense of the unearthly persists. As Lafcadio Hearn suggested, there is something ghostly in all great art, whether of literature, music, sculpture or architecture. But the outstanding fact to this erudite ghost-hunter is the new democracy in the world of spirits:
"We go a-ghosting now in public places, and a specter may glide up to give us an apologia pro vita sua any day in Grand Central or on Main Street of Our-Town. We chat with fetches across the garden fence and pass the time of day with demons by way of the dumb-waiter. That gray-furred creature that glooms suddenly before us in the winter street is not a chauffeur, but a were-wolf questing for his prey. Yon whirring thing in the far blue is not an aeroplane but a hippogriff that will presently alight on the pavement beside us with thundering golden hoofs to bear us away to distant lovely lands where we shall be untroubled by the price of butter or the articles lost in last week's wash. That sedate middle-aged ferry that transports us from Staten Island is a magic Sending Boat if only we knew its potent runes! The old woman with the too-pink cheeks and glittering eye that presses August bargains upon us with the argument that they will be in style for early fall wear is a witch wishful to lure away our souls. We may pass at will by the guardian of the narrow gate and traverse the regions of the Underworld. True, the materialist may argue that the actual is more marvelous than the imagined, that the aeroplane is more a thing of wonder than was the hippogriff, that the ferry is really the enchanted boat, after all, and that Dante would write a new 'Inferno' if he could see the subway at the rush hour; but that is another issue.
"We might have more psychal experiences than we do if we would only keep our eyes open; but most of us do have more than we admit to the neighbors. We have an early-Victorian reticence concerning ghostly things as if it were scandalous to be associated with them. But that is all wrong. We should be proud of being singled out for spectral confidences and should report our ghost-guests to the society columns of the newspaper. It is hoped that this discussion of comparative ghost-lore may help to establish a better sense of values."
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