Thursday, November 10, 2016
American Tales of Terror by Edith Birkhead 1921
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In 1797 we are told that in America "the dairymaid and hired man no longer weep over the ballad of the cruel stepmother, but amuse themselves into an agreeable terror with the haunted houses and hobgoblins of Mrs. Radcliffe." In The Asylum, or Alonzo and Melissa, published in Ploughkeepsie in 1811, the Gothic castle, with its full equipment of "explained ghosts," has been safely conveyed across the Atlantic and set up in South Carolina; and The Sicilian Pirate or the Pillar of Mystery: a Terrific Romance, is, if we may trust its title, a hair-raising story, in the style of "Monk" Lewis. Charles Brockden Brown, one of the earliest American novelists, prides himself on "calling forth the passions and engaging the sympathy of the reader by means not hitherto employed by preceding authors," and speaks slightingly of "puerile superstitions and exploded manners, Gothic castles and chimeras." Brown, who, like Shelley, was an enthusiastic admirer of Godwin, sought to embody the theories of Political Justice in romances describing American life. The works, which are said by Peacock to have taken deepest root in Shelley's mind and to have had the strongest influence in the formation of his character, are Schiller's Robbers, Goethe's Faust, and four novels—Wieland, Ormond, Edgar Huntly, and Mervyn—by C.B. Brown.
Notwithstanding his lofty scorn for "Gothic castles and chimeras," even Brown himself condescended to take over from the despised Mrs. Radcliffe the device of introducing apparently supernatural occurrences which are ultimately traced to natural causes. Like Mrs. Radcliffe he is at the mercy of a conscience which forbids him to thrust upon his readers spectres in which he himself does not believe. He lacks Lewis's reckless mendacity. In Wieland mysterious voices are heard at intervals by various members of the family. To the hero, who has inherited a tendency to religious fanaticism, they seem to be of divine origin, and when a voice bids him sacrifice those who are dearest to him, he obeys implicitly. He slays his wife and children, and his sister only escapes death by accident. After this catastrophe it proves that the voices are produced by a skilled ventriloquist, Carwin, who has been admitted as an intimate friend of the family. Realising that this explanation may seem somewhat incredible, Brown seeks to make it appear more plausible by dwelling on Wieland's abnormal state of mind, which would render him peculiarly open to suggestion. Carwin's motive for thus persecuting the Wieland family with his accursed gift is never satisfactorily explained. His attitude is apparently that of an obtuse psychologist, who does not realise how serious the consequence of his experiments may be.
In Ormond and Arthur Mervyn, Brown describes the ravages of the yellow fever, of which he had personal experience in New York and Philadelphia. The hero of Ormond is a member of a society similar to that of the Illuminati, whose ceremonies and beliefs are set forth in Horrid Mysteries (1796). The heroine, Constantia Dudley, who was Shelley's ideal feminine character, is the embodiment of a theory, not a human being. She "walks always in the light of reason," and decides that "to marry in extreme youth would be a proof of pernicious and opprobrious temerity." The most memorable of Brown's novels is Edgar Huntly, which bears an obvious resemblance to Caleb Williams. Like Godwin, Brown is deeply interested in morbid psychology. He finds pleasure in tracing the workings of the brain in times of emotional stress. The description of a sleepwalker digging a grave—a picture which captivated Shelley's imagination—is the starting-point of the book. Edgar Huntly is impelled by curiosity to track him down. The somnambulist, Clithero, has, in self-defence, killed the twin-brother of his patron, Mrs, Lorimer, to whom he is deeply attached. Obsessed by the idea of the misery his deed will arouse in her mind, he attempts, in a moment of frenzy, to slay her. Believing that Mrs. Lorimer has died after hearing of the murder, Clithero flees to America. When he disappears from his home, Huntly resolves to follow him, and in his search loses himself amid wild and desolate country. He is attacked by Indians, and after frightful adventures at length reaches his home. Clithero, whom he believed dead, has been rescued. Mrs. Lorimer is still alive, and is married to a former lover. This news, however, fails to restore Clithero, who, in a fit of insanity, flings himself overboard when he is in a ship in charge of Huntly.
Brown's plots, which often open well, are spoilt by hasty, careless conclusions. It was his habit to write two or three novels simultaneously. He was beset by the problem that exercised even Scott's brain: "The devil of a difficulty is that one puzzles the skein in order to excite curiosity, and then cannot disentangle it for the satisfaction of the prying fiend they have raised."
Brown takes very little trouble over his dénouements, but his characters leave so faint an impression on our minds that we are not deeply concerned in their fates. He is interested rather in conveying states of mind than in portraying character. We search the windings of Clithero's tormented conscience without realising him as an individual. The background of rugged scenery, though it is described in vague, turgid language, is more definite and distinct than the human figures. We feel that Brown is struggling through the obscurity of his Latinised diction to depict something he has actually seen. An air of dreadful solemnity hangs heavily over each story. Every being is in deadly earnest. Brown has Godwin's power of hypnotising us by his serious persistence, and of reducing us to a mood of awestruck gravity by the sonority of his pompous periods.
From the oppressive gloom of Brown's "novels with a purpose," it is a relief to turn to the irresponsible gaiety of "Geoffrey Crayon," whose tales of terror, published some twenty years later, are usually fashioned in a jovial spirit, only faintly tinged with awe and dread. In The Spectre Bridegroom, included in The Sketch Book (1820), the ghostly rider of Bürger's far-famed ballad is set amid new surroundings and pleasantly turned to ridicule. The "supernatural" wooer, who now and again arouses a genuine thrill of fear, is merely playing a practical joke on the princess by impersonating the dead bridegroom, and all ends happily. The story of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow is set against so picturesque a background that we are almost inclined to quarrel with those who laughed and said that Ichabod Crane was still alive, and that Bram Jones, the lovely Katrina's bridegroom, knew more of the spectre than he chose to tell. The drowsy atmosphere of Sleepy Hollow makes us see visions and dream dreams. The group of "Strange Stories by a Nervous Gentleman" in Tales of a Traveller (1824) prove that Washington Irving was well versed in ghostly lore. He, as well as any, can call spirits from the vasty deep, but, when they appear in answer to his summons, he can seldom refrain from receiving them in a jocose, irreverent mood, ill befitting the solemn, dignified spectre of a German legend. Even the highly qualified, irrepressibly loquacious ghost of Lewis Carroll's Phantasmagoria would have resented his genial familiarity. The strange stories are told at a hunting-party in a country-house, a cheerful, comfortable background for ghost stories. A hoary, one-eyed gentleman, "the whole side of whose head was dilapidated and seemed like the wing of a house shut up and haunted," sets the ball rolling with the old story of a spectre who glides into the room, wringing her hands, and is later identified, like Scott's Lady in the Sacque, by her resemblance to an ancestral portrait in the gallery. The "knowing" gentleman tells of a picture that winked in a startling and alarming fashion, and immediately explains away this phenomenon by the presence of a thief who has cut a spy-hole in the canvas. The Bold Dragoon is a spirited, riotous nightmare in which the furniture dances to the music of the bellows played by an uncanny musician in a long flannel gown and a nightcap. The Story of the German Student is in a different key. Here Irving strikes a note of real horror. The student falls in love with an imaginary lady, woven out of his dreams. He finds her in distress one night in the streets of Paris, takes her home, only to find her a corpse in the morning. A police-officer informs him that the lady was guillotined the day before, and the student discovers the truth of this statement when he unrolls a bandage and her head falls to the floor. The young man loses his reason, and is tormented by the belief that an evil spirit has reanimated a dead body to ensnare him. The morning after the recital of this gruesome story, the host reads aloud to his guests a manuscript entrusted to him, together with a portrait, by a young Italian. This youth, it chances, learnt painting with a monk, who, as a penance, drew pictures, or modelled waxen images, representing death and corruption, a detail which reminds us of what was concealed by the Black Veil in Udolpho. He later falls in love with his model, Bianca, who, during his absence abroad, marries his friend Filippo. In a jealous rage the young Italian slays his rival, and is unceasingly haunted by his phantom. Washington Irving has no desire to endure for long the atmosphere of mystery and horror his story has created, and quickly relieves the tension by a return to ordinary life. The host promises to show the picture, which is said to affect all beholders in an extraordinary fashion, to each of his guests in turn. They all profess themselves remarkably affected by it, until the host confesses that he has too sincere a regard for the feelings of the young Italian to reveal the actual picture to any of them; With this moment of disillusionment the strange stories come to an end. The title, Tales of a Traveller, under which Irving placed his tales of terror, indicates the mood in which he fashioned them. He regarded them much as he would regard the wonderful adventures of Baron Munchausen. They were to be taken, like one of Dr. Marigold's prescriptions, with a grain of salt. The idea of blending levity with horror, suggested perhaps by German influence, was very popular in England and France at this period. Balzac's L'Auberge Rouge and L'Elixir de la Longue Vie are written in a similar mood.
It is not always the boldest and most adventurous beings who elect to dwell amid "calling shapes and beckoning shadows dire." The "virtuous mind," whom supernatural horrors may "startle well but not astound," sometimes finds a melancholy pleasure in beguiling weaker mortals into haunted ruins to watch their firm nerves tremble. Sometimes too, though a man be wholly innocent of the desire to alarm, he is led astray, whether he will or not, among the terrors of the invisible world. Grey ghosts steal into his imagination unawares. It was so that they came to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who speaks sorrowfully of "gaily dressed fantasies turning to ghostly and black-clad images of themselves." He would gladly have written a "sunshiny" book, but was capriciously fated to live ever in the twilight, haunted by spectres and by "dark ideas." He fashions his tales of terror delicately and reluctantly, not riotously and shamelessly like Lewis and Maturin.
An innate reticence and shyness of temper held Hawthorne, as if by a spell, somewhat aloof from life, and no one realised more clearly than he the limitations that his detachment from humanity imposed upon his art.
Of Twice-Told Tales he writes regretfully:
"They have the pale tint of flowers that blossomed in too retired a shade… Instead of passion there is sentiment and even in what purport to be pictures of actual life we have allegory, not always so warmly dressed in its habiliments of flesh and blood as to be taken into the reader's mind without a shiver. Whether from lack of power or an inconquerable reserve, the author's touches have often an effect of tameness. The book, if you would see anything in it, requires to be read in the clear, brown twilight atmosphere in which it was written; if opened in the sunshine, it is apt to look exceedingly like a volume of blank pages";
and in his Notebook (1840) he confesses:
"I used to think I could imagine all the passions, all feelings and states of the heart and mind, but how little did I know! Indeed we are but shadows, we are not endowed with real life, and all that seems most real about us is but the thinnest shadow of a dream—till the heart be touched."
Whether he is threading the labyrinths of his imagination or watching the human shadows come and go, Hawthorne lingers longer in the shadow than in the sunshine. He was not a man of morose and gloomy temper, disenchanted with life and driven by distress or thwarted passion to brood in solitude. An irresistible, inexplicable impulse drives him towards the sombre and the gloomy. The delicacy and wistful charm of the words in which Hawthorne criticises his own work and character reveal how impossible it would have been for him to force his wayward genius. His imagination hovers with curious persistence round eerie, fantastic themes:
"An old looking-glass. Somebody finds out the secret of making all the images reflected in it pass again across its surface"—a hint skilfully introduced into the history of old Esther Dudley in The Legends of the Province House, or:
"A dreadful secret to be communicated to several persons of various character—grave or gay—and they all to become insane, according to their characters, by the influence of the secret"
—an idea modified and adapted in The Marble Faun. "An ice-cold hand—which people ever afterwards remember when once they have grasped it"—is bestowed on the Wandering Jew, the owner of the marvellous Virtuoso's Collection, whose treasures include the blood-encrusted pen with which Dr. Faustus signed away his salvation, Peter Schlemihl's shadow, the elixir of life, and the philosopher's stone. The form of a vampire, who apparently never took shape on paper, flitted through the twilight of Hawthorne's imagination:
"Stories to be told of a certain person's appearance in public, of his having been seen in various situations, and his making visits in private circles; but finally on looking for this person, to come upon his old grave and mossy tombstone."
With so many alluring suggestions floating shadowwise across his mind, it is not wonderful that Hawthorne should have been fascinated by the dream of a human life prolonged far beyond the usual span—a dream, which, if realised, would have enabled him to capture in words more of those "shapes that haunt thought's wildernesses."
Although among the sketches collected in Twice-Told Tales (vol. i. 1837, vol. ii. 1842) some are painted in gay and lively hues, the prevailing tone of the book is sad and mournful. The light-hearted philosophy of the wanderers in The Seven Vagabonds, the pretty, brightly coloured vignettes in Little Annie's Rambles, the quiet cheerfulness of Sunday at Home or The Rill from the Town Pump, only serve to throw into darker relief gloomy legends like that of Ethan Brand, the man who went in search of the Unpardonable Sin, or dreary stories like that of Edward Fane's Rosebud, or the ghostly White Old Maid. One of the most carefully wrought sketches in Twice-Told Tales is the weird story of The Hollow of the Three Hills. By means of a witch's spell, a lady hears the far-away voices of her aged parents—her mother querulous and tearful, her father calmly despondent—and amid the fearful mirth of a madhouse distinguishes the accents and footstep of the husband she has wronged. At last she listens to the death-knell tolled for the child she has left to die. The solemn rhythm of Hawthorne's skilfully ordered sentences is singularly haunting and impressive:
"The golden skirts of day were yet lingering upon the hills, but deep shades obscured the hollow and the pool, as if sombre night were rising thence to overspread the world. Again that evil woman began to weave her spell. Long did it proceed unanswered, till the knolling of a bell stole in among the intervals of her words, like a clang that had travelled far over valley and rising ground and was just ready to die in the air… Stronger it grew, and sadder, and deepened into the tone of a death-bell, knolling dolefully from some ivy-mantled tower, and bearing tidings of mortality and woe to the cottage, to the hall and to the solitary wayfarer that all might weep for the doom appointed in turn to them. Then came a measured tread, passing slowly, slowly on as of mourners with a coffin, their garments trailing the ground so that the ear could measure the length of their melancholy array. Before them went the priest reading the burial-service, while the leaves of his book were rustling in the breeze. And though no voice but his was heard to speak aloud, still here were revilings and anathemas whispered, but distinct, from women and from men… The sweeping sound of the funeral train faded away like a thin vapour and the wind that just before had seemed to shake the coffin-pall moaned sadly round the verge of the hollow between three hills."
In a later collection of Hawthorne's short stories, Mosses from an Old Manse, the grave and the gay, the terrific and the sportive, are once more intermingled. Side by side with a forlorn attempt at humorous allegory, Mrs. Bullfrog, we find the serious moral allegories of The Birthmark and The Bosom-Serpent, the wild, mysterious forest-revels in Goodman Brown, and the evil, sinister beauty of Dr. Rappacini's Daughter, a modern rehandling of the ancient legend of the poison-maiden, who was perhaps the prototype of Oliver Wendell Holmes' heroine in Elsie Venner (1861). The quiet grace and natural ease of Hawthorne's style lend even to his least ambitious tales a distinctive charm. If he chooses a slight and simple theme, his touch is deft and sure. Dr. Heidegger's Experiment, in which Hawthorne's delicate, whimsical fancy plays round the idea of the elixir of life, is almost like a series of miniature pictures, distinct and lifelike in form and colour, seen through the medium of an old-fashioned magic-lantern. Yet even in this fantastic trifle we can discern the feeling for words and the sense of proportion that characterise Hawthorne's longer works.
The Scarlet Letter (1850) was originally intended to be one of several short stories, but Hawthorne was persuaded to expand it into a novel. He felt some misgivings as to the success of the work:
"Keeping so close to the point as the tale does, and diversified in no otherwise than by turning different sides of the same dark idea to the reader's eye, it will weary very many people and disgust some."
The plot bears a remarkable resemblance to that of Lockhart's striking novel, Adam Blair. The "dark idea" that fascinates Hawthorne is the psychological state of Hester Prynne and her lover, Arthur Dimmesdale, in the long years that follow their lawless passion. Their love story hardly concerns him at all. The interest of the novel does not depend on the development of the plot. No attempt is made to complicate the story by concealing the identity of Hester's lover or of her husband. The action takes place within the souls and minds of the characters, not in their outward circumstances. The central chapter of the book is named significantly: "The Interior of a Heart." The moral situation described in The Scarlet Letter did not present itself to Hawthorne abstractly, but as a series of pictures. He habitually thought in images, and he brooded so long over his conceptions that his descriptions are almost as definite in outline and as vivid in colour as things actually seen. His pictures do not waver or fade elusively as the mind seeks to realise them. The prison door, studded with pikes, before which Hester Prynne first stands with the letter on her breast, the pillory where Dimmesdale keeps vigil at midnight, the forest-trees with pale, fitful gleams of sunshine glinting through their leaves, are so distinct that we almost put out our hands to touch them. Hawthorne's dream-imagery has the same convincing reality. The phantasmagoric visions which float through Hester's consciousness—the mirrored reflection of her own face in girlhood, her husband's thin, scholar-like visage, the grey houses of the cathedral city where she had spent her early years—are more real to her and to us than the blurred faces of the Puritans who throng the marketplace to gaze on her ignominy. Although the moral tone of the book is one of almost unrelieved gloom, the actual scenes are full of colour and light. Pearl's scarlet frock with its fantastic embroideries, the magnificent velvet gown and white ruff of the old dame who rides off by night to the witch-revels in the forest, the group of Red Indians in their deer-skin robes and wampum belts of red and yellow ochre, the bronzed faces and gaudy attire of the Spanish pirates, all stand out in bold relief among the sober greys and browns of the Puritans. The tense, emotional atmosphere is heightened by the festive brightness of the outer world.
The light of Hawthorne's imagination is directed mainly on three characters—Hester, Arthur, and the elf-like child Pearl, the living symbol of their union. Further in the background lurks the malignant figure of Roger Chillingworth, contriving his fiendish scheme of vengeance, "violating in cold blood the sanctity of a human heart." The blaze of the Scarlet Letter compels us by a strange magnetic power to follow Hester Prynne wherever she goes, but her suffering is less acute and her character less intricate than her lover's. She bears the outward badge of shame, but after "wandering without a clue in the dark labyrinth of mind," wins a dull respite from anguish as she glides "like a grey and sober shadow" over the threshold of those who are visited by sorrow. At the last, when Dimmesdale's spirit is "so shattered and subdued that it could hardly hold itself erect," Hester has still energy to plan and to act. His character is more twisted and tortuous than hers, and to understand him we must visit him apart. The sensitive nature that can endure physical pain but shrinks piteously from moral torture, the capacity for deep and passionate feeling, the strange blending of pride and abject self-loathing, of cowardice and resolve, are portrayed with extraordinary skill. The different strands of his character are "intertwined in an inextricable knot." His is a living soul, complicated and varying in its moods, but ever pursued by a sense of sin. By one of Hawthorne's swift, uncanny flashes of insight, as Dimmesdale goes home after the forest-meeting, we hear nothing of the wild beatings of hope and dreary revulsions to despair, but only of foul, grotesque temptations that assail him, just as earlier—on the pillory—it is the grim humour and not the frightful shame of the situation that strikes him, when by an odd trick of his imagination he suddenly pictures a "whole tribe of decorous personages starting into view with the disorder of a nightmare in their aspects," to look upon their minister.
Hawthorne's delineation of character and motive is as scrupulously accurate and scientific as Godwin's, but there is none of Godwin's inhumanity in his attitude. His complete understanding of human weakness makes pity superfluous and undignified. He pronounces no judgment and offers no plea for mercy. His instinct is to present the story as it appeared through the eyes of those who enacted the drama or who witnessed it. Stern and inexorable as one of his own witch-judging ancestors, Hawthorne foils the lovers' plan of escape across the sea, lets the minister die as soon as he has made the revelation that gives him his one moment of victory, and in the conclusion brings Hester back to take up her long-forsaken symbol of shame. Pearl alone Hawthorne sets free, the spell which bound her human sympathies broken by the kiss she bestows on her guilty father. There are few passionate outbursts of feeling, save when Hester momentarily unlocks her heart in the forest—and even here Hawthorne's language is extraordinarily restrained:
"'What we did had a consecration of its own. We felt it
so! We said so to each other. Hast thou forgotten it?'
'Hush, Hester!' said Arthur Dimmesdale, rising from the
ground. 'No; I have not forgotten.'"
Or again, after Dimmesdale has confessed that he has neither strength nor courage left him to venture into the world: "'Thou shalt not go alone!' answered she, in a deep whisper. Then all was spoken."
In The House of the Seven Gables (1851), as in The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne again presents his scenes in the light of a single, pervading idea, this time an ancestral curse, symbolised by the portrait of Colonel Pyncheon, who condemned an innocent man for witchcraft.
"To the thoughtful man there will be no tinge of superstition in what we figuratively express, by affirming that the ghost of a dead progenitor—perhaps as a portion of his own punishment—is often doomed to become the Evil Genius of his family."
Hawthorne wins his effect by presenting the idea to our minds from different points of view, until we are obsessed by the curse that broods heavily over the old house. Even the aristocratic breed of fowls, of "queer, rusty, withered aspect," are an emblem of the decay of the Pyncheon family. The people are apt to be merged into the dense shadows that lurk in the gloomy passages, but when the sun shines on them they stand out with arresting distinctness. The heroic figure of Hepzibah Pyncheon, a little ridiculous and a little forbidding of aspect, but cherishing through weary years a passionate devotion to her brother, is described with a gentle blending of humour and pathos. Clifford Pyncheon—the sybarite made for happiness and hideously cheated of his destiny—is delineated with curious insight and sympathy. It is Judge Jaffery Pyncheon, with his "sultry" smile of "elaborate benevolence"—unrelenting and crafty as his infamous ancestor—who lends to The House of Seven Gables the element of terror. Hour after hour, Hawthorne, with grim and bitter irony, mocks and taunts the dead body of the hypocritical judge until the ghostly pageantry of dead Pyncheons—including at last Judge Jaffery himself with the fatal crimson stain on his neckcloth—fades away with the oncoming of daylight.
Hawthorne's mind was richly stored with "wild chimney-corner legends," many of them no doubt gleaned from an old woman mentioned in one of his Tales and Sketches. He takes over the fantastic superstitions in which his ancestors had believed, and uses them as the playthings of his fancy, picturing with malicious mirth the grey shadows of his stern, dark-browed forefathers sadly lamenting his lapse from grace and saying one to the other:
"A writer of story-books! What kind of a business in life, what manner of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler."
The story of Alice Pyncheon, the maiden under the dreadful power of a wizard, who, to wreak his revenge, compelled her to surrender her will to his and to do whatsoever he list, the legends of ghosts and spectres in the Twice-Told Tales, the allusions to the elixir of life in his Notebooks, the introduction of witches into The Scarlet Letter, of mesmerism into The Blithedale Romance, show how often Hawthorne was pre-occupied with the terrors of magic and of the invisible world. He handles the supernatural in a half-credulous, half-sportive spirit, neither affirming nor denying his belief. One of his artful devices is wilfully to cast doubt upon his fancies, and so to pique us into the desire to be momentarily at least one of the foolish and imaginative.
After writing The Blithedale Romance, in which he embodied his experiences at Brook Farm, and his Italian romance, Transformation, or The Marble Faun, Hawthorne, when his health was failing, strove to find expression for the theme of immortality, which had always exercised a strange fascination upon him. In August, 1855, during his consulate in Liverpool, he visited Smithell's Hall, near Bolton, and heard the legend of the Bloody Footstep. He thought of uniting this story with that of the elixir of life, but ultimately decided to treat the story of the footstep in Dr. Grimshawe's Secret, of which only a fragment was written, and to embody the elixir idea in a separate work, Septimius Felton, of which two unfinished versions exist. Septimius Felton, a young man living in Concord at the time of the war of the Revolution, tries to brew the potion of eternity by adding to a recipe, which his aunt has derived from the Indians, the flowers which spring from the grave of a man whom he has slain. In Dr. Dolliver's Romance, Hawthorne, so far as we may judge from the fragment which remains, seems to be working out an idea jotted down in his notebook several years earlier:
"A man arriving at the extreme point of old age grows young again at the same pace at which he had grown old, returning upon his path throughout the whole of life, and thus taking the reverse view of matters. Methinks it would give rise to some odd concatenations."
The story, which opens with a charming description of Dr. Dolliver and his great-grandchild, Pansie, breaks off so abruptly that it is impossible to forecast the "odd concatenations" that had flashed through Hawthorne's mind.
Although Hawthorne is preoccupied continually with the thought of death, his outlook is melancholy, not morbid. He recoils fastidiously from the fleshly and loses himself in the spiritual. He is concerned with mournful reflections, not frightful events. It is the mystery of death, not its terror, that fascinates him. Sensitive and susceptible himself, he never startles us with physical horrors. He does not search with curious ingenuity for recondite terrors. He was compelled as if by some wizard's strange power, to linger in earth's shadowed places; but the scenes that throng his memory are reflected in quiet, subdued tones. His pictures are never marred by harsh lines or crude colours.
While Hawthorne in his Twice-Told Tales was toying pensively with spectral forms and "dark ideas," Edgar Allan Poe was penetrating intrepidly into trackless regions of terror. Where Hawthorne would have shrunk back, repelled and disgusted, Poe, wildly exhilarated by the anticipation of a new and excruciating thrill, forced his way onwards. He sought untiringly for unusual situations, inordinately gloomy or terrible, and made them the starting point for excursions into abnormal psychology. Just as Hawthorne harps with plaintive insistence on the word "sombre," Poe again and again uses the epithet "novel." His tales are never, as Hawthorne's often are, pathetic. His instinct is always towards the dramatic. Sometimes he rises to tragic heights, sometimes he is merely melodramatic. He rejoices in theatrical effects, like the death-throes of William Wilson, the return of the lady Ligeia, or the entry, awaited with torturing suspense, of the "lofty" and enshrouded figure of the Lady Madeline of Usher. Like Hawthorne, Poe was fascinated by the thought of death, "the hemlock and the cypress overshadowed him night and day," but he describes death accompanied by its direst physical and mental agonies. Hawthorne broods over the idea of sin, but Poe probes curiously into the psychology of crime. The one is detached and remote, the other inhuman and passionless. The contrast in style between Hawthorne and Poe reflects clearly their difference in temper. Hawthorne writes always with easy, finished perfection, choosing the right word unerringly, Poe experiments with language, painfully acquiring a conscious, studied form of expression which is often remarkably effective, but which almost invariably suggests a sense of artifice. In reading The Scarlet Letter we do not think of the style; in reading The Masque of the Red Death we are forcibly impressed by the skilful arrangement of words, the alternation of long and short sentences, the device of repetition and the deliberate choice of epithets. Hawthorne uses his own natural form of expression. Poe, with laborious art, fashions an instrument admirably adapted to his purposes.
Poe's earliest published story, A Manuscript Found in a Bottle—the prize tale for the Baltimore Saturday Visitor, 1833—proves that he soon recognised his peculiar vein of talent. He straightway takes the tale of terror for his own. The experiences of a sailor, shipwrecked in the Simoom and hurled on the crest of a towering billow into a gigantic ship manned by a hoary crew who glide uneasily to and fro "like the ghosts of buried centuries," forecast the more frightful horrors of A Descent into the Maelstrom (1841). Poe's method in both stories is to induce belief by beginning with a circumstantial narrative of every-day events, and by proceeding to relate the most startling phenomena in the same calm, matter-of-fact manner. The whirling abyss of the Maelstrom in which the tiny boat is engulfed, and the sensations of the fishermen—awe, wonder, horror, curiosity, hope, alternating or intermingled—are described with the same quiet precision as the trivial preliminary adventures. The man's dreary expectation of incredulity seals our conviction of the truth of his story. In The Manuscript Found in a Bottle, too, we may trace the first suggestion of that idea which finds its most complete and memorable expression in Ligeia (1837). The antique ship, with its preternaturally aged crew "doomed to hover continually upon the brink of eternity, without taking a final plunge into the abyss," is an early foreshadowing of the fulfilment of Joseph Glanvill's declaration so strikingly illustrated in the return of Ligeia: "Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will." In Ligeia, Poe concentrates on this idea with singleness of purpose. He had striven to embody it in his earlier sketches, in Morella, where the beloved is reincarnated in the form of her own child, in the musical, artificial Eleonora and in the gruesome Berenice. In Ligeia, at last, it finds its appropriate setting in the ebony bridal-chamber, hung with gold tapestries grotesquely embroidered with fearful shapes and constantly wafted to and fro, like those in one of the Episodes of Vathek. In The Fall of the House of Usher he adapts the theme which he had approached in the sketch entitled Premature Burial, and unites with it a subtler conception, the sentience of the vegetable world. Like the guest of Roderick Usher, as we enter the house we fall immediately beneath the overmastering sway of its irredeemable, insufferable gloom. The melancholy building, Usher's wild musical improvisations, his vague but awful paintings, his mystical reading and his eerie verses with the last haunting stanza:
"And travellers now within that valley
Through the red-litten windows, see
Vast forms that move fantastically
To a discordant melody;
While, like a rapid, ghastly river,
Through the pale door,
A hideous throng rush out forever
And laugh—but smile no more,"
are all in harmony with the fate that broods over the family of Usher. Poe's gift for avoiding all impressions alien to his effect lends to his tales extraordinary unity of tone and colour. He leads up to his crisis with a gradual crescendo of emotion. The climax, hideous and terrifying, relieves the intensity of our feelings, and once it is past Poe rapidly hastens to the only possible conclusion. The dreary house with its vacant, eye-like windows reflected at the outset in the dark, unruffled tarn, disappears for ever beneath its surface.
In The Masque of the Red Death the imagery changes from moment to moment, each scene standing out clear in colour and sharp in outline; but from first to last the perspective of the whole is kept steadily in view. No part is disproportionate or inappropriate. The arresting overture describing the swift and sudden approach of the Red Death, the gay, thoughtless security of Prince Prospero and his guests within the barricaded abbey, the voluptuous masquerade held in a suite of seven rooms of seven hues, the disconcerting chime of the ebony clock that momentarily stills the grotesque figures of the dancers, prepare us for the dramatic climax, the entry of the audacious guest, the Red Death, and his struggle with Prince Prospero. The story closes as it began with the triumph of the Red Death. Poe achieves his powerful effect with rigid economy of effort. He does not add an unnecessary touch.
In The Cask of Amontillado—perhaps the most terrible and the most perfectly executed of all Poe's tales—the note of grim irony is sustained throughout. The jingling of the bells and the devilish profanity of the last three words—Requiescat in pace—add a final touch of horror to a revenge, devised and carried out with consummate artistry.
Poe, like Hawthorne, loved to peer curiously into the dim recesses of conscience. Hawthorne was concerned with the effect of remorse on character. Poe often exhibits a conscience possessed by the imp of the perverse, and displays no interest in the character of his victim. He chooses no ordinary crimes. He considers, without De Quincey's humour, murder as a fine art. In The Black Cat the terrors are calculated with cold-blooded nicety. Every device is used to deepen the impression and to intensify the agony. In The Tell-Tale Heart, so unremitting is the suspense, as the murderer slowly inch by inch projects his head round the door in the darkness, that it is well-nigh intolerable. The close of the story, which errs on the side of the melodramatic, is less cunningly contrived than Poe's endings usually are. In William Wilson, Poe handles the subject of conscience in an allegorical form, a theme essayed by Bulwer Lytton in one of his sketches in The Student, Monos and Daimonos. He probably influenced Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
In The Pit and the Pendulum, Poe seems to start from the very border-line of the most hideous nightmare that the human mind can conceive, yet there is nothing hazy or indefinite in his analysis of the feelings of his victim. He speaks as one who has experienced the sensations himself, not as one who is making a wild surmise. To read is, indeed, to endure in some measure the torture of the prisoner; but our pain is alleviated not only by the realisation that we at least may win respite when we will, but by our appreciation of Poe's subtle technique. He notices the readiness of the mind, when racked unendurably, to concentrate on frivolous trifles—the exact shape and size of the dungeon; or the sound of the scythe cutting through cloth. Mental and physical agonies are interchanged with careful art.
Poe's constructive power fitted him admirably to write the detective story. In The Mystery of M. Roget he adopts a dull plot without sufficient vigour and originality to rivet our attention, but The Murders of the Rue Morgue secures our interest from beginning to end. As in the case of Godwin's Caleb Williams, the end was conceived first and the plot was carefully woven backwards. No single thread is left loose. Dupin's methods of ratiocination are similar to those of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Poe never shirks a gory detail, but the train of reasoning not the imagery absorbs us in his detective stories. In his treasure story—The Gold Bug, which may have suggested Stevenson's Treasure Island—he compels our interest by the intricacy and elaboration of his problem.
The works of Mrs. Radcliffe, Lewis, and Maturin were not unknown to Poe, and he refers more than once to the halls of Vathek. From Gothic romance he may perhaps vivid that they make the senses ache. Like Maturin, he even resorts to italics to enforce his effect. He crashes down heavily on a chord which would resound at a touch. He is liable too to descend into vulgarity in his choice of phrases. His tales consequently gain in style in the translations of Baudelaire. But these aberrations occur mainly in his inferior work. In his most highly wrought stories, such as Amontillado, The House of Usher, or The Masque of the Red Death, the execution is flawless. In these, Poe never lost sight of the ideal, which, in his admirable review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales and Mosses from an Old Manse, he set before the writer of short stories:
"A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale … having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents—he then combines such events—as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, he has failed in the first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written of which the tendency direct or indirect is not to the one pre-established design."
While he was writing, Poe did not for a moment let his imagination run riot. The outline of the story was so distinctly conceived, its atmosphere so familiar to him, that he had leisure to choose his words accurately, and to dispose his sentences harmoniously, with the final effect ever steadily in view. The impression that he swiftly flashes across our minds is deep and enduring.