Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Monster in Fiction, article in the London Globe 1905

The Monster in Fiction, article in the London Globe 1905

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THE abnormal has always been a tolerably prominent feature in fiction. It is, of course, the staple of the folk-tales of all countries, in which not only are the laws of time and space set at naught, but giants and dwarfs, animals and flowers dowered with the gift of speech and with powers of transformation, men and women possessed of occult and wonderfully mysterious powers, are all familiar features. In literary fiction, again, the presence of the abnormal is not uncommon. The giants as a rule are left to the tales for the nursery; but the dwarf often figures among the dramatis persona;, at the head of the pigmy tribe being Victor Hugo's Quasimodo. Abnormal beings of a different kind appear in stories of strange and impossible travel, such as Swift set the example for in his account of the remarkable voyages of Captain Lemuel Gulliver. Swift has had many imitators; but few of them are at all remembered to-day, unless it be the author of "Peter Wilkins"—one Robert Pattock —that curious story in which figure the wonderful creatures known as the Glumms and the Gawreys, the men and women who fly, and from which Southey derived his conception of the Glendoveers in his now unread epic called "The Curse of Kehama."

Another form which the appearance of the abnormal takes in literary fiction is in the strange characteristics attributed to certain characters. In this class three figures stand out prominently. The first of the three, in point of time, is Elsie Venner, the heroine of Oliver Wendell Holmes's romance of that name. Of the Doctor's "medicated novels," as someone once happily called them, "Elsie Venner" is easily the best, and the study of the strange prenatal influence which so affected the whole of Elsie's short life is of the greatest interest, although the idea on which it is based is not a little repulsive. The second outstanding example of this class of character is also from an American hand—the remarkable study of Donatello in Hawthorne's "Marble Faun," or, as it is more usually (and unmeaningly) called on this side of the Atlantic, "Transformation." No figure in Hawthorne's wonderful gallery is more carefully wrought in every detail than this strange being, with the ever-present suggestion of the woodland faun, whose early innocence of the knowledge of evil is so soon overshadowed by the real tragedy that life brings him. Donatello is the innocent animal in whom the soul is awakened or born through the mediums of trouble and sin; and, as Miriam says, "comes back to his original self, with an inestimable treasure of improvement won from an experience of pain." The third example of the character in fiction with abnormal characteristics, which is well known to readers, is of a rather different kind, and need not detain us. We mean Svengali, in "Trilby," with his power of hypnotic suggestion and control of his victim.

But all these examples, whether of physical or of intellectual and spiritual abnormality, or of a combination of both, can hardly be called instances of the monster in fiction. On the borderland between the abnormal and the monstrous, with a strong leaning to the latter, is Stevenson's powerful little story of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." The Hyde is a monster pure and simple, and without the Jekyll absolutely inhuman; but so long as Hyde retains the powers of re-transformation into Jekyll he has not entirely lost his hold on humanity. But this wonderful little allegorical book stands alone, in a class by itself.

The fiction of any note in which the genuine monster figures is not very extensive. In this connection one thinks at once of Caliban, the embodiment of all that is gross and earthy, presented in semi-human form. Coleridge describes him as having "the dawnings of understanding without reason or the moral sense; and in him, as in some brute animals, this advance to the intellectual faculties, without the moral sense, is marked by the appearance of vice." But the monsters of poetry and drama form a class apart from those of fiction. In Flaubert's "Tentatious de St. Antoine" are to be found monsters in plenty. Among them are strange creatures with half the usual complement of eyes, cheeks and hands, a great red lion with a human figure and three rows of teeth, and other prodigies of the same kind. But these grotesques are not very impressive. Much more horrible are the creatures whom Mr. Wells has depicted in that dream of horror, the "Island of Dr. Moreau"—half-human creatures produced by skilled vivisection, transfusion and other arts of the laboratory and torture chamber. It is one of the grimmest of short stories, but a product of undoubted genius.

But in the fiction of the monstrous the outstanding example is "Frankenstein." Mrs. Shelley, for most readers, is the author of one book only, and "Frankenstein," to judge by the mistake which is usually made when reference is made to the story, is probably more talked of than read. It is extraordinary how speaker after speaker and writer after writer, with one accord, confound the creator with the creation, and call the monster whom Frankenstein made by the name of the maker. The story as a whole is not worth reading; but there are few stronger or more dramatic or more powerfully wrought scenes in fiction than the chapter in which the monster becomes endued with life, and enters on his horrible career. The crowning event, after two years' horrid labor, takes place at an hour past midnight on a dreary November night. Frankenstein succeeds in infusing life into the work of the hands:—"The rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs." Frankenstein fled from the monster in horror. "No mortal," he says, "could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived." The monster soon enters on an appalling path of crime, and the reader can sup full of horrors, but there is nothing in the book to equal the scenes immediately succeeding the endowment of the creature with life.—The London Globe.

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