Saturday, May 13, 2017
The Supernatural in 19th Century Fiction (Edinburgh Review) 1903
The Supernatural in 19th Century Fiction, article in the Edinburgh Review 1903
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THE element of the supernatural in the fiction of the nineteenth century has sprung from such varied roots, and been developed after such various methods, and with such different aims, purposes, and sentiments that any classification under a single heading must he obviously more or less arbitrary. Yet as we have the fiction of philanthropy and religion, the police novel and the novel of adventure, the novel of character and the romance novel, each comprising in its own group works of widely separated tendencies, so there has grown up a fiction of the supernatural——or, more accurately, a supernaturalism in fiction—which allows in some measure of specialisation as a study in literary history.
The briefest and most cursory review of the fiction of the nineteenth century supplies a list of notable writers, writers of divergent sympathies and belonging to every level of intellectual capacity, who, in the course of their career, have turned aside from other paths of invention to hinge a narrative upon events abnormal, preterhuman, or phantasmal; who have chosen as their theme the possible agencies of occult forces, the possibilities of communication between the world visible and substantial and the world invisible and spiritual. And as a phenomenon of literature the inclination towards the supernatural seems in no manner of means to be on the decline. In more remote ages the belief in what may broadly be termed magic was, one might conjecture, too vivid to admit freely of such tamperings with the occult. The grim picture presented by M. Michelet in his records of the sorcery of past days may well convince us that in the centuries of faith men would have been backward to handle in fiction what was in truth a living terror of daily life and experience. Belief in witchcraft, in unseen, intangible yet always formidable influences of evil, and in spectral apparitions, held too firm, inward and terrorising a hold on the popular mind to allow of trifling. Perhaps, moreover, the supernatural, in its whole breadth and inclusiveness, was too deeply imbedded in thought at large to invite objective treatment. For the most part, we are taught, belief must put on self-consciousness before it submits itself to that form of inspection which leads to expression as the subject-matter of fiction, and belief, with the cult of the supernatural, when it rose to the surface, when it reached that stage of self-analysis and self-examination which projects it towards expression, suffered a too precipitate and total eclipse to register the intermediate results of exteriorisation. The axe of pure reason fell with a sudden shock; no mental loiterings were suffered amongst the educated classes. Culture and intellectual emancipation were the order and the fashion of the eighteenth century; both abjured the superstitions of the generations who had lived and died according to nature rather than according to book—whether that book were the grammar of philosophy or the encyclopaedia of science. The author would have been bold indeed who made his appeal to the fears, the practices, the assumptions of past credulities. Fiction was in the hands of the Marivauxs, the Smolletts, Sternes, Fieldings, and all their rational confraternity. Eschewing romance, assimilating to itself the prose realities of life and action, the early novel was as free from the least tincture of supernaturalism as were the first realistic novelle of the Italian Renaissance with its fund of sceptical paganism and its overplus of naturalistic philosophy.
But sudden as had been the extinction of educated curiosity in occult practices and occult thought, its revival, like the revival of interest in the myths of extinct creeds, was within the predestined swing of the pendulum. The nineteenth century, with its craving for mental sensationalism to supply its deficit of religious emotion, with its halfdenials and half-beliefs, with its increase of nervous tension and the morbid reaction of minds constantly at work under high pressure, was not likely to leave the blank, occasioned by the withdrawal of the supernatural from men’s practical creed, unfilled. In the preceding century the votaries of Swedenborgianism—Swedenborg’s revelation dated from 1743—had spread far and wide their founder’s doctrine of spiritualistic manifestations. They supplied Balzac ninety years later with the plot of his ‘Séraphita.’ Even in the Voltairean epoch Mesmer and Cagliostro and all their brotherhood of dupes and impostors had haunted the Courts of Louis XVI. and Frederick the Great. And Swedenborg, Mesmer, Cagliostro had not vanished without leaving behind them the germs of new, or resuscitated, superstitions. On all sides, as the decades of the centuries passed, emanating it is difficult to say from where, a tide of new supernaturalism, less denominational than Swedenborg’s, less defined than that of the pseudo-scientist, more insidious and more subtle than the crude supernaturalism of the romantic school, crept out from unsuspected byways and lurked in the shadowy thoroughfares of unacknowledged thought. And before the legitimate scientist could bottle the demon and seal it with the pentagram of rationalism and experimental research, phenomena which bore the name of mesmerism—dealings with the unknown, the phenomena of spiritualism-—dealings with the unknowable, were become the subject of popular discussion, and the doctors of their cult recruited as disciples all the human driftwood cast up by the wave of materialism.
Fiction reflected, as it was bound to reflect, the movement. Life makes its own books, the author is but its amanuensis. He may shake the kaleidoscope into fresh combinations, but he tints no atom of the many-coloured glass splinters which form the shifting pattern. And as the supernaturalism of the mesmerist and the spiritualist gained ground, as, now there, now here, in obscure groups, men’s lives and women’s lives were swayed by new apostleships of the potencies of unexplored powers, the novelist was provided with a theme of growing popular importance. Within its narrowed boundaries the Romance School initiated after its own fashion the literary tendency towards abnormalism of incident and episode. In the later decades of the eighteenth century, Mrs. Radcliffe, M. G. Lewis, and Beckford, presently followed by Maturin, founded what has been called the School of Terror, in the form of romantic novels, in which fear was treated as the dominant passion." ‘Frankenstein’ was composed by Mary Shelley during her first sojourn abroad with Shelley, and although in 1817 she writes that ‘Gifford did not allow this courtly bookseller ‘[Mr. Murray] to purchase it,’ it was accepted in the following year, and the attention accorded to it was evinced by reviews in ‘Blackwood,’ the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine,’ the ‘Edinburgh,’ and the ‘Quarterly,’ in which it was unfavourably criticised as the work of a ‘man of talent.’ Maturin's once famous story ‘Melmoth the Wanderer,’ with its demonology, made its appearance in 1820, and shared the popularity of others of its kind. It was not, however, in the school of melodramatic romance, nor in that section of it to which ‘Frankenstein’ belongs, that supernaturalism was destined to take its modern imprint, and only in the next decade did the use of the supernatural receive its true impetus towards a new goal. In 1830 Balzac produced the ‘Peau de Chagrin.’ Here, if the magic talisman itself savours of the romance of the romantics, the more or less symbolic stage-property finds its place in a psychological fiction of the greatest of then living novelists; and a few years later to the same series ‘Etudes Philosophiques’ was added that strangest of strange conceptions, Balzac’s Swedenborgian novel ‘Séraphita,’ with its dual hero-heroine (Séraphita-Séraphitus) to play the role of the central actor. George Sand, the modern woman of her day and generation, wrote her spectral chronicle of ‘Spiridion.’ Théophile Gautier produced ‘Spirite,’ where the supernaturalism is placed in the everyday environment of Paris streets; and the elect short-story writer of the time amongst his fellowcountrymen—Prosper Mérimée—in one of his best-known novelettes resuscitated the mediaeval legend of the abiding power of the lost gods over the sons of men in the somewhat coarse realism of his ‘Vénus d’Ille.’ But it was in America that supernaturalism was most completely shorn of its romantic adjuncts and disguises, for if Nathaniel Hawthorne still retains if not the framework yet a large measure of the fantasies of romance, his contemporary, Edgar Allan Poe, was accepted in England (as at an earlier date he was recognised in France) for the originator of realistic supernaturalism. With him the school which counts Sheridan Le Faun and FitzJames O’Brien amongst its masters, and to which Bulwer Lytton’s ‘Strange Story’ also properly belongs, the school of the ‘Tale of Terror,’ sprang fullgrown into existence and created traditions which remain vital and active to this day.
Within or without this school modern novelists of the supernatural arose and multiplied. George MacDonald, with his bent towards the moral mysticism of unorthodox Christianity, Mr. Shorthouse, with kindred proclivities bereft of their heterodoxy and bound in the strait limits of ecclesiastical beliefs, have both, as one would anticipate, trespassed beyond the barriers of actuality, but, as one might also anticipate, in both writers there is an unacknowledged reversion to the atmosphere of romance, and their modernite is superficial rather than radical. Mrs. Oliphant, to cite another type, temporarily deserted the domestic hearth of her customary heroes and heroines to invent the tale of ‘A Beleaguered City.’ Mr. Marion Crawford likewise uncharacteristically touched upon the ground of the unknown in ‘Mr. Isaacs.’ Mr. Henry James, both in his earlier and later writings, when he is not engaged in photographing the prose of realities, is the frankest of supernaturalists. Amongst Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson’s short stories are two essays at the supernatural, with the longer and more detailed narrative of ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.’ Later still, Lucas Malet’s full-fledged novel ‘The Gateless Barrier’ is an excursion into the same region, and the singularly impressive study—for despite its melodramatic sensationalism it merits the name—of Mr. Hichens’s ‘London Fantasy Flames’ may exemplify the various uses of the supernatural in its most recent developments. Without adding further to the catalogue, which can be almost indefinitely prolonged by names whose only claim to recognition lies in the perplexing fact of their popularity, it is in truth more than sufficiently evident that the supernatural in fiction has, for the present at least, established itself amongst us, and that, moreover, no one school of writers has been suffered to monopolise its use.
The new supernaturalism, so called in distinction from the supernaturalism of romance—the ladies white, grey or brown of ‘The Monastery,’ ‘ The Betrothed,’ and ‘My Aunt Margaret’s Mirror,’ with the white or black magic of pseudo-chivalrous romances, has, broadly speaking, drifted into three rather indefinitely circumscribed species, each determined by the aim and object with which the author has introduced it as a main thread or an incidental circumstance into his narrative.
As an ingredient in the ‘Tale of Terror’ it appears in its crudest, most ordinary, and continuous form, and, one would be inclined to say for the most part, on its lowest level as a motive in art. In its more markedly modern developments it has become an element in the psychological novel, where the workings of character and the realistic study of human life are allowed to reflect the influences of agents invisible to the workaday world, and the authors, not content with penetrating below the surface of life, have essayed to pass beyond it. While between the supernaturalism of terror and the supernaturalism of realistic psychology lie manifold works—the attempts of writers who, with various degrees of success, have incorporated supernaturalism of event or influence, in novels of idealism, emotion, of fantasy, and of religious, moral, and spiritual sentiment, aspiring to embody in their fictions what may be designated as the spirit of lay mysticism. But while for convenience such a threefold classification may be admitted as a basis for the study of treatment and method, it must always be remembered that in many instances affinities of thought efface all such theoretical divisions, that the supernaturalism of terror obtrudes itself into the supernaturalism of the psychologist, that the psychologist’s analysis is to be found in the ‘Tale of Terror,’ that both are often intermingled throughout the inventions of the idealist, the sentimentalist, the emotionalist, and the religionist.
In the stories, long or short, of which the main object is to evoke the sensation of imaginative terror, the supernatural has inevitably been largely drawn upon to contribute to the desired effect. The pleasures of fear count amongst the most popular attractions of the bookstall, and the spectral fears of the nursery are resuscitated freely for the amusement of maturity. The fact is a curious one. But there are certain apparently aimless tastes which, so far as our present experience of human nature goes, seem almost ingrained in the race. The taste for danger, for and in itself, apart from the notoriety or fame achieved in its encounter, the taste of the true-born gambler whose interest in the chances of loss or gain is based, not on the stake, but on the risk, present to those without the adventurer’s spirit, or the dice-thrower’s temperament, the spectacle of an insoluble enigma. Both are classified vaguely as phases of an attitude of mind specified as love of excitement, a love with which men of more phlegmatic dispositions are rarely in sympathy. Equally widely spread, though passive instead of active in operation, as the passion for peril or the gambler’s madness, is the delight, no less aimless and purposeless, in the aroused sense of terror which fiction of a certain order is designed to stimulate and intensify. 'Fear is a disease, cure it,’ says the physician. Fear is an intellectual indulgence, provoke it, says the novelist.
The appeal to terror has been made after many manners. There have been writers—M. Villiers de l’lsle Adam in his ‘Contes Cruelles’ may serve as an example—who have sought to elicit the sensation by the representation of scenes of savage barbarities, of criminal violence, and bodily torture; others who, to quote Mr. Gosse’s criticism of Barbey d’Aurevilly, reach the same goal by aid of a monstrous fact or have recourse to some audacious feat of ‘anti-morality’; when the recoil of the instinctive and intuitive conscience takes the place of the recoil of the sympathetic nerves. But where the object is imaginative terror pure and simple, undiluted with any effort to indulge those perverted physical or moral tastes which seek their gratification in the shambles of literature, the supernatural has been the ultimate resource of most terrorist authors. Guy de Maupassant, whose judgement in such matters carries its own credentials as the judgement of a proficient in the craft, has gone so far as to assert, in a story fitly named ‘La Peur,’ that without the element of the superhuman true fear cannot exist for the man of average courage. ‘La vraie peur,’ he says, discriminating between fear and fear, ‘c’est quelque chose comme une reminiscence ‘des terreurs fantastiques d’autrefois.’ The assumption is, perhaps, sufficiently near the truth in life to justify its application in works of fiction. Yet like all such generalisations it allows of many exceptions. Taking the writings of the master who, in the School of Terror, has been counted first and greatest, Edgar Allan Poe, it is noteworthy that only a comparatively small number of his tales of the first rank (their inequality of merit is conspicuous) pass, strictly speaking, beyond the boundary line of the normal in nature. His stories—the burlesques omitted—as a matter of fact supply models in brief, from which writers of all sorts and conditions have drawn, not illegitimately, their several inspirations. The police novel epitomised is to be found in the ‘Murders of La Rue Morgue’ and ‘Marie Roget.’ ‘ Arthur Gordon Pym,’ Poe’s longest narrative and one of the most revolting in incident, with ‘ The Gold Bug,’ anticipate many later novels of adventure in tone and treatment. The ‘Descent into the Maelstrom’ and the section of kindred tales where the design (Poe here laid express claim to originality of invention) was to make a fiction plausible by the use of scientific facts and principles, struck another vein, a vein in which Mr. Wells has since sought distinction. In the appalling semi-psychological stories of ‘The Black Cat,’ ‘The Tell-tale Heart,’ and ‘The Pendulum’ (the last has a far more powerful counterpart in L’Isle Adam’s ‘La Torture par l’Espérance’) the appeal chiefly is to instincts of physical repulsion. Their aim is the gratification of the pleasure in witnessing scenes of horror belonging amongst the educated either to natures too blunted and insensitive, or to temperaments too coarse—grained, to respond to more immaterial and subtle emotional stimulants. But, however repellent the detail, the ladder of ascent from the grosser aspect of his plots to the psychological is always discernible, and he sees most incidents under a dual aspect. So accurate, indeed, is his observation that science itself quotes him as an authority—
‘Edgard Poe . . . peut étre regardé comme un des observateurs des effets de la peur. Nul ne l’a plus minutieusement décrite, nul n’a su mieux analyser et faire sentir avec plus de déchirement la douleur des émotions qui stupéfient, les palpitations qui brisent le coeur, qui ébranlent l’ame, l'oppression qui suffoque dans l’agonie.’
Yet while in the greater number of these groups of stories the element of strict supernaturalism lacks, there is no abrupt line of demarcation discernible when Poe passes in things material from the normal to the abnormal, in things spiritual from the human to the preterhuman. Without direct reference to the printed text it is difficult to recall where and in which instances he has crossed the limits of the possible. His mind would seem to be so perpetually leaning over the verge of actualism that only a turn of the head determines whether his eyes fall on the phantoms that people the abyss, or upon the passers-by who tread the solid levels of the earth. For the atmosphere, the medium through which we gaze, is always the same. One taint of moral ugliness and squalid crime, one mournful apathetic preoccupation of spirit with the diseases, the disillusions, the graveyards, literal and figurative, of humanity, one continuous emphasis, an obsession of the mind by the body, is imprinted on every page which bears his signature. Every picture he draws is the hieroglyphic of a distorted brain, a half-wrecked genius, a wholly wrecked life. The strange nightmare of death, dwelt upon until it satiates his soul like an indulged sense, left its stamp, an indelible stamp, upon his autobiographical imagination. His vision of life is epitomised in his description of the human drama.
‘That motley drama! Oh, be sure
It shall not be forgot,
With its Phantom chased for evermore
By a crowd that seize it not,
Through a circle that ever returneth in
To the self-same spot;
And much of madness and more of sin
And horror, the soul of the plot.
‘Out, out are the lights—out all!
And over each quivering form,
The curtain a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm.
And the angels all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the Play is the Tragedy “Man,"
And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.’
Such was Poe’s permanent literary mood. His mind dressed itself in many costumes, but to each he imparted the same folds, and each he wore according to his own, and no other man’s, fashioning. Few have given a more deeply dyed print to their individuality. In some eight or ten lyrics he set himself apart from, if not above, every poet of his time and language. To him the world, with its beauty as with its foulness, with its moving rivers as with its stagnant pools, was nothing but a Wilderness peopled with images of death; and by the extraordinary quality of his rhythmical effects he accentuated the morbid languor, the fungus-coloured monotony of his opium-tinted vision. His verse was a translation of impression into sound. His prose is devoid, for the most part, of any definite appeal to the ear, but his verbal skill, without the aid of metrical adjustment of words, creates an analogous atmosphere; and the mental imagery of surroundings, sentiment and sensation infects it with kindred qualities. Permeated with these qualities his transitions from the actual to the preternatural pass unnoticed. When he turns from ‘The Black Cat’ to ‘The Case of M. Waldemar,’ from ‘The Tell-tale Heart’ to ‘Ligeia,’ from the suggested identification of the material fabric of the House of Usher with the race who inhabit it to the embodiment of the Plague in ‘The Mask of the Red Death,’ to the ‘Double’ in ‘William Wilson,’ to the spectre horse in ‘Metzengerstein,’ no change of style reminds us that he is modulating from plane to plane of the possible and the impossible. No better appreciation of Poe is to be found than that of M. Baudelaire, the translator, editor, and analyst of his writings —
‘ Ce temperament Unique,’ he says, ‘. . . lui a permis de peindre et d’expliquer, d’une maniere impeccable, saisissante, terrible, l’exception dans l’ordre moral . . . chez lui mute entrée en matiere est attirante sans violence, comme un tourbillon. Sa solennité surprend et tient l’esprit en éveil. On sent tout d’abord qu'il s'agit de quelque chess de grave, et lentement, pen a pen, se déroule une histnire dont tout l‘intérét repose sur une imperceptible deviation de l’intellect, sur une hypothese audacieuse, sur un dosage imprudent de la nature dans l'amalgame des facultés.’
And resuming in one memorable phrase the supreme characteristic of the man, he adds ‘Poé est l’écrivain des nerfs— et meme de quelque chose de plus—et 1e meilleur que je ‘connaisse.’ ‘L’écrivain des nerfs’—with an extra nerve; for method: to extend the precincts of the actual, to ‘degrade’ the tones of the abnormal till the lines of demarcation are crossed unawares, and to materialise the preterhuman so that no spiritual attributes betray its alien presence in the gross world of matter where Poe’s realism sombrely revels; for aim: terror. ‘The Case of M. Waldemar’ illustrates the lowest rung of the intellectual ladder to which the aim in the hands of genius can descend, and from which at best it is only removed by difference of degree—a terror stimulated by every detail inciting to bodily repulsion and the instinctive recoil of mental sanity from horrors morbid in conception and revolting in presentment. With this ‘ extra nerve,’ this method, this aim, Poe remains master of his art, as, with perhaps one exception, no other author has been.
But the question arises of itself, does the ‘Tale of Terror’ demand the employment of such means to the attainment of such effects? Poe has lived, written, and most tragically died. The almost perfect art of his best poems, the brilliancy of his constructive talents, the extraordinary powers of realisation in his landscape sketches—the realism of nightmares, the singular combination of morbid wildness, verging 0n insanity, in his ideas, with his peculiarly lucid faculty for abbreviated expression, for concentration and condensation of style, have won him—more especially amongst men who are themselves adepts—a high, if not the highest, rank amongst genre writers.
‘Tel qu’en Lui-méme enfin l’éternité le change,
Le Poe'te suscite avec un glaive nu
Son siecle épouvanté de n’avoir pas connu
Que la mort triomphait dans cette voie étrange.’
But does his genius point to the only path of success in the special school over which it may be held to preside? Are the most penetrative eifects unattainable without the subordination of spiritual to material horrors? The question resolves itself into a study of the comparative excellence of other stories of the same class of composition. Sheridan Le Fanu’s is the name which will at once present itself to most English readers as Poe’s fellow in that particular domain of literature. And undoubtedly the author of ‘Uncle Silas’ possessed in a high degree the power of playing upon the nerves of his readers with sinister suggestions of shadowy perils emanating from evil human influences or ghostly monstrosities—revenants, vampires, were-wolves. But without depreciating his talent, which for the most part is free from the sordid moral squalor of Poe’s outlook, and which never descends to his extreme ugliness of morbid detail, it must be conceded Le Fanu rarely creates that susceptible receptive attitude of mental emotionalism it is the triumph of Poe’s greater genius continually to evoke. The same want makes itself felt in the companion tales of a writer less known in England than in his adopted country—America—FitzJames O’Brien. Junior to Poe by some twenty years [Poe was born in 1809, O’Brien about 1828], living, as Poe lived, the life of a spendthrift’s penury, James Russell Lowell discerned in this new soldier of literary fortune a rival talent ‘equal to Poe in many things, superior in a few.’ The equality Lowell may have found in the brilliant ingenuity of O’Brien’s inventions, the originality of his ideas, and the conciseness of his execution; the superiority in the fact that there is not one of his stories in which the interest is centralised on any incident of bodily horror. In the most famous, ‘The Diamond Lens,’ where the fanatic of the microscope is doomed to fall a victim to his passion for the marvellously beautiful nymph-animalcule enclosed in the slowly evaporating waterdrop on the slide, and disclosed to his view by means of the ill-gotten lens, the whole poignancy of the situation consists in the impossibility of establishing the faintest personal link between the microscopist and the living, moving, radiant vision he beholds in its infinitesimal perfection and inaccessible remoteness. In the ‘Wondersmith,’ where O’Brien touches on a viler and brutalised strata of fancy, the element of Hoffmannesque fantasy still dominates the savage squalor of the human passions. The animation of the evil~faced dollmannikins by their infection with the ‘bottleful of souls,’ and the scene of their midnight raid on the feathered and caged occupants of the bird-fancier’s shop, has as true a touch of inspiration as the inimitable battle-of-the-mice scene in Hofmann’s 'Nutcracker'; it has the same irresistible reality of presentment, the same violent and vindictive suggestiveness; and though it borders on the confines of the conte cruelle, its fantastic extravaganees in part redeem its barbarity. ‘The Lost Room’ approximates far closer to Poe’s manner of thought and execution. The dreariness, the intangible oppression, the unfamiliarity of the familiar attained by the over-accentuation of the known until it has become the unknown, have the true ring of the ‘Tale of Terror’ at its best. Yet it is significant that in no other instance does O’Brien convey the evasive impression of shadowy dread essential to the perfection of the art.
It is in French fiction that Poe found his more formidable compeer, and perhaps amongst French novelists alone effects as sombre, as disquieting, as conclusive, have been obtained without recourse to the sensationalism of physical repulsion Poe summoned to his aid. In the most famous of Guy De Maupassant’s stories of the supernatural—‘Le Horla’—the suggestion of terror could scarcely be surpassed and the bounds of the extreme are touched; beyond,the tension could only snap. Yet there is no material unsightliness of incident or descriptive detail. There is terror of the intelligence, of the imagination, of the emotions, terror supreme and dominant; there is terror, too, of bodily danger, for the ‘Horla’-—-evil, invisible, malevolent—has hands to strangle and destroy; but for the reader the sense of horror is throughout devoid of its coarser and cruder elements, and the level of art, so gained, is on another plane. It is the terror of the endless possibilities of night as compared with the terror of foul darkness in some shut cellar of a city street. Few have painted, with a profounder appreciation of the mysteries beyond, the limitation of the senses.
On such a temper of mind Maupassant’s imagination built those of his stories (they are few and unfortunately dispersed amongst stories of another texture) of the supernatural, of which one other, ‘Sur l’Eau’—the water of a river, ‘la plus sinistre des cimetières, celui où l’on n’a point ‘de tombeau’——illustrates with equal power the extra-normal sense impressions as they overtake and suspend the sanity of the perceptive faculty.
And as Maupassant reigns in the circle of mental terror, so Gautier is as Saul amongst his brethren in his masterpiece of emotional terror, ‘La Morte Amoureuse.' Le Fanu rendered the vampire tradition in its customary form. ‘Carmilla,’ skilful as it is in treatment, is little more than a re-edited, modernized version of an old and hideous fantasy, But Gautier transfigured the monstrous features of a grim mediaeval grotesque into the tragic beauty of a Medusa head. He has so riveted the attention upon the emotional agony of his terrible love story that if a measure of loathsomeness remains provocative of physical recoil, it is eclipsed by the many-coloured shadows of that supervening passion, and in that eclipse the grosser aspects, inseparable from any presentment of the vampire theme, are obscured. The two stories should be read side by side. Le Fanu has done the work of a thoroughly competent story teller, Gautier that of a great imaginative artist.
It is in this latter capacity that Poe’s contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne, approached the supernatural, and, in America, with Hawthorne, supernaturalism passed into a new phase. No two writers ever employed more opposite methods. In the intensely prosaic reality Poe endeavoured to bestow upon the intangible, in the materialization of the spectral, in the logical consistencies of inventions whose base is some bold assumption of the impossible, he efi'aces the distinction between the facts and the nightmares superadded to the facts, until for the reader nightmare and actuality are merged in one. Moreover, he overthrows the understanding by surprise, and with a shock of terror takes credulity by violence. Hawthorne’s method is in all things the reverse. Terror is seldom a feature of his dealings with things unknown. Shock and surprise are heedfully avoided. He effaces distinctions after another fashion between things of sense and substance, and things extra to sense and substance. His most successful attempts are, as it were, atmospherically conceived. He bestows an unreality upon the familiar, he grafts a strangeness upon the commonplace, gives an evasiveness to certainties. He tones down, one might say, the level of life to a dream-impression, and then lets the dream glide into it before the onlooker is aware of its presence. Where substance is painted as shadow, shadow may well bear the likeness of substance. In ‘Howe’s Masquerade,’ the most perfect perhaps of all his tales, Hawthorne has literally exemplified this process. The crisis of the story bears so close an analogy to the crisis of Poe’s ‘William Wilson’ that Poe's generous admiration gave way for a moment to suspicion; but his obviously unjust charge of plagiarism, brought against the rival story-teller, serves only to emphasise the wide disparities of treatment. In the one we are confronted by a psychological study; in the other we are under the spell of romance. In both the theme is the well-worn idea of a man confronted by his own wraith or ‘ double.’ Hawthorne has invested the whole scene with a dignity which is always delicately light-handed, while the lightness never for an instant detracts from the dignity. But beyond so ordinary a characteristic of all his writings he has here significantly given us the key to his method. He has put the living actors into fancy dress before he introduces those other masqueraders upon the stage whose pantomime is voiceless, and whose feet are soundless on the stair. And whether his concern is with ‘The White Old Maid,’ ‘The Birthmark,’ ‘Rappucini’s Daughter,’ ‘ Young Goodman Brown,’ or ‘The Hill of the Seven Hollows,’ one is still always conscious of that fancy-dress element, that faintly fantastic clothing of earth and sky and tree and man which was the spontaneous impulse of Hawthorne’s art. Poe demands more—he would extort, not solicit, faith. He confuses our intelligence—the automatic reason of the imagination—as with the gloomy darkness of a shadowed street, where the flare of naphtha or the heavy yellow gaslight leave in blackness the recesses of sombre archways. Hawthorne throws mist over that imaginative rationality. His world is moonlit; his inventions—as he himself tells us—require to be read in the same illuminated twilight in which they were written. ‘Opened in sunshine, they are apt to look exceedingly like a volume of blank pages.’ He does not ask his readers to take him at more than his own valuation. He appeals to their sentiment, to their moral being, to their sympathies; he takes them into his confidence: the author is rarely out of sight in his tale. Whatever the figures, factors, or incidents, we are to see them as Hawthorne saw, we are to think through his thoughts, see through his sensitive vision. It is impossible to feel oneself face to face with any single object described. They are, as he hints, stories of dream-substance; and is there anything more rigidly personal, more incommunicably individual, than a dream? He is the Hans Andersen, as Poe is the Hoffmann, of the supernatural. He aspires to no realism; his charm lies in his unrivalled grace of unconcealed artificiality.
Both Poe and Hawthorne were men possessed of ultraperceptive capacities. Hawthorne’s sensitiveness amounted to an extra sense. Poe had, one is convinced, the extra nerve ascribed to him. To their genius was likewise accorded—an advantage or demerit as men view it——the particular excellence which is induced by working in a limited area, not indeed of subject but of thought. With Hawthorne the sphere in which he sought his effects was narrow; and the effects were of unvaried, or but slightly varied, kinds. Supernatural or unsupernatural, the colours assorted on Hawthorne’s palette are the same, and are equally well adapted for the portrayal of a spectre or a man; and, as with Poe, only by an effort of memory can the reader recall where and in which of his works the normal slides into the abnormal. Possibly—though both Maupassant and Gautier might be instanced as proving the contrary—it is to their restrictiOns, voluntary or involuntary, that both owe their pre-eminence in their own school of fiction. Other men of equal talent as story-tellers—for it is a question not of the greatness, but of the quality, of genius—have made experiment in the genre, but rarely with success. Mr. Stevenson made his adventure with ‘Markheirn’ and ‘Thrawn Janet.’ But, though he worked with skill and vigour of pen, we are distinctly aware that the author of ‘Treasure Island,’ of ‘Will o’ the Mill,’ of ‘Prince Otto,’ has shifted his anchor for the moment, and is applying a new tool to a new craft; while in his longer effort of ‘Dr. Jekyll’ Mr. Stevenson as a moralist carries more weight than Mr. Stevenson as a supernaturalist. As Balzac, by force of his psychological veracity, extorts faith in his ‘Peau de Chagrin’ with a high hand, so Mr. Stevenson by force of moral terrorism compels belief in the abnormal conditions of Dr. Jekyll’s dual existence. But a suspicion will linger in the mind of every reflective reader that, were the moralism eliminated from the story, the superhumanism would carry little conviction with it. It is a case in which the pill has been shrewdly used to conceal the gilding.
The attempt to combine the human-life science of the moral or emotional psychologist with a main thread of supernaturalism was one of the earliest, as it has remained one of the most recent, efforts of the novelist. With Maupassant the ‘short story’ of the supernatural may be held to have said, if by no means its last word, at least a word which will not be surpassed as a work of consummate art. But the modern novel of the supernatural, as distinguished from the short story, chronicles a somewhat different record, and its literary genealogy is far less evident. It has, generally speaking, other and wider aims; it effects success or failure under other and more diverse conditions. It may be questioned whether any one endeavour gave a special impetus to literary fashion. Possibly the novel form is not favourable to the use of the supernatural as subject-matter. Le Fanu reserved his short stories for its treatment. Hawthorne’s longer works, ‘The House of the Seven Gables,’ ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ ‘Transformation,’ are almost without a hint of the abnormal. Poe adhered firmly to the doctrine that a perfect work of art must be of a length to be read at one reading. His principles inhibited the novel altogether, if artistic perfection were the goal sought. Having conceived with deliberate care a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he [the author] 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, then he has failed in his very first step. In the whole composition there should not be a word written of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the pre-established ‘design.’ Unity of effect, moreover, was not, according to his dictum, only a matter of conception and performance on the part of the author, but was equally dependent on the unbroken continuity of the reader’s attention; hence it follows that all stories must be within the compass of a ‘single hour more or less of study.’ Undoubtedly terror-effects, as Poe designed them, could be attained by no other medium. Though the supreme moment is approached by graduated stages, it is always so contrived as to come swiftly and take the reader’s credulity by storm. Suspense cannot be prolonged without diminution of the acute mental anxiety which should preface the catastrophe, and the catastrophe once over it is evident that no dying echoes should be permitted to blunt the sensation of horror, no lingering over the scene should be allowed to accustom the eye to the sight, of which the terror consists—how often—merely in the unfamiliarity.
Thus terror, unless used incidentally—as the tapping hand at the window in the opening chapters of ‘Wuthering Heights’—has usually been outside the novelist’s province. It has been an episode, but rarely a theme. George Sand, who may be considered one of the originators of the supernatural in moral fiction, discarded almost every semblance of terror in ‘Spiridion.’ Her method differed further from that of other authors in so far that she makes no attempt to introduce the supernatural as if it were contraband cargo. ‘Spiridion’ is a story of living souls to whom the world of dead souls has opened a window. She makes no slightest effort to deprecate scepticism or solicit belief. She expects her readers to volunteer a sympathetic and passive acceptance to possibilities that transcend experience. Her ghost masks himself in no futile disguises. He has his own reason for earthly re-existence, and his reason for re-existence is the justification for its abnormalism; he is a ghost, so to say, with a purpose—a theological, or rather anti-theological, purpose; he is an apostle risen from the dead to propagate the doctrines of an illuminated and philosophical creed. The faint glamour of romance, which in the earlier stages of the narrative clings round the figures of Spiridion and his monk-disciples, evaporates as disquisition follows disquisition, and the web of a fanciful and beautiful legend gives way at length under the weight of controversial dogma and metaphysical speculation. Its chief interest, however, is unimpaired by its undeniable tedium; it lies in its position in the tables of literary ancestry. For even more than ‘Séraphita’ it is the type of the religious and moral novels of supernaturalism which were to succeed it—novels, that is, where the moral or religious element predominates over the emotional, psychological, or personal elements, in constituting the material of the fiction.
‘ Spiridion,’ it may be, inaugurated a school, of which the later products may fairly be illustrated by examples drawn from the works of two notable modern novelists-— Mr. Shorthouse and Mrs. Oliphant.
In ‘A Beleaguered City’ Mrs. Oliphant’s story is a parable of modern life illustrating the scriptural axiom that the man of little faith will not be persuaded though one rose from the dead. Here the dead of a certain city do arise, inspired with missionary zeal, and return, an invisible host compassed by darkness, to the abodes of the living. Their presence, felt if unseen, drives the legitimate occupants from their homes, and the streets are abandoned to the silent intruders. The evicted citizens camp around the outer walls until, tardily convinced that conversion by miracle does not necessarily imply the reorganisation of the spiritual and moral man, that it will not, in fact, lead to any ‘true appreciation of the import of life,’ the dead at length evacuate the city and the siege—if siege it can be called, where there is neither attack nor defence—is at an end. There is a breach in the darkness, and, after certain preliminaries of peace are negotiated, the living re-enter their homes and life resumes its common course. In this narrative there is no complication of thought and no obscurity of fact. Mrs. Oliphant has neither the help nor the hindrances of the true-born mystic. She portrays a marvel; she does not descry a mystery. And to a certain extent she achieves an effect. The opening chapters, the intimation of the inclosing darkness, the encompassment of night has, if not the extraordinary disquietude of Maupassant’s ‘La Nuit’ (which, to those who recall it, makes other kindred efforts insignificant), still a fair measure of impressiveness. The evidence of the ensuing occurrences given by the matter-of-fact average man, in whose delineation Mrs. Oliphant here, as elsewhere, is at home, leaves little to be desired. But, and this is the point at issue, when she supplements his testimony with that of the visionary, the spiritual idealist who alone remains in that city tenanted by the dead; when, that is to say, she tries to bring her readers into close quarters with the invaders, the collapse is entire, and one is tempted to say that except where genius, like love, laughs at locksmiths, literary talent cannot set us face to face with the Unseen.
And as Mrs. Oliphant, so also Mr. Shorthouse fell into a like snare. As a novel, in the ordinary sense of the word, ‘Countess Eve’ can scarcely be considered a success. Mr. Shorthouse seeks, after the manner of Hawthorne, some species of fancy dress for his romance. He, with Mrs. Oliphant, finds it in a theatrical décor of French Catholicism. French terms and phrases seem to supply to the pens of both authors a more convenient medium of sentiment than their more prosaic-sounding English equivalents. But, particularly with Mr. Shorthouse, the landscape, religious as well as material, which is the mise en scene of the story, produces that indefinable effect of merely stage portraiture. Moreover, the grasp of character is too slight; the actors—the countess, the abbess, the player, the violinist—are, as one might say, too ornamental, to incite us to belief; they are unreal as regards life, without the compensation of imaginative vitality. On the other hand, as the conception of a plot in which the supernatural was to serve as a main factor, there were possibilities of an interest subtler than any Mrs. Oliphant conceived of. The idea of the story, if we understand it aright—which the obscurity and confusion of the narrative make dubious—is full of latent suggestiveness, full of promised, but unrealised, developements of thought and action.
To take the idea detached from the action, it would seem to be deduced from a supposition that thought may, under certain conditions, become so intensely vital that, severed from the thinker, it may enter upon an independent existence of its own; that in that phase of existence it may obtrude itself upon the consciousness of another person, enter within the spheres of other lives, and may even become, from an influence a presence, apparent to the senses of certain elect individuals. Applied by Mr. Shorthouse, the theory dramatises itself. Countess Eve’s husband has sinned a pre-marriage sin. His sin has materialised its spiritual essence, and, thus embodied, the sin becomes in its turn a Tempter. In the form of the spectral Abbé it whispers new desires into the young wife’s ears, and instigates the play-actor to seek the gratification of his and her fugitive passion in the consummation of evil. Such is the theme. The thought and the form of thought are in themselves singularly complete. But the workmanship is defective. The figure of the ghost-abbé, visible to three of the actors in the little drama, hangs rather like a broken thread in mid-air; it comes on the stage an unaccounted-for personality, and only by an effort of attention does the reader discover the legitimate connexion of the phantom with the husband’s prematrimonial intrigue. Moreover, whenever we are brought face to face with the apparition, whenever, as in ‘A Beleaguered City,’ suggestion is abandoned for direct presentment, there is the same anti-climax of impression, and the conviction is re-enforced that the author’s art is inadequate for the author’s aim.
Yet though such writers of undeniable excellence have both, according to our estimation, failed, it is more than possible that other methods of treatment exist by which the difficulties they found insuperable may be overcome—methods by which the supernatural may be introduced and pass unchallenged the sympathetic or imaginative incredulity of intellectual sceptics. Modern psychology, at least, hints at some first principles for the guidance of authors. It has taught us that the origin of all belief—and it is belief in his fiction as possible, that the novelist must compel-lies in sensation. 'Plus on moins masquée, la sensation est la ‘ condition, sine qua non, de la croyance, et il nous est impossible de croire a ce dont nous ne pouvons immediatement on médiatement avoir une perception sensible.' Science has gone further, it has attempted—it is for the scientist to say with what success—to determine the degrees of conviction induced by the evidence of the several senses of hearing, seeing, and touching. For, setting aside the more indistinct perceptions of taste and smell, we are told that (though opinions difl'er as to the order of merit) the testimony of the ear stands lowest, that of the eye next, that of touch—at a greatly increased ratio—foremost in the scale. It would seem to follow, without entering into scientific details, that according to the author’s power of depicting sensation, according to his power of awakening the echo of sensations depicted, of forcing his readers sympathetically to see, to hear, to touch, so will be his power of engendering a preliminary belief. But this talent is not enough; to it must be added that of delineating emotion with equal vigour. Belief is a complex process. Once engendered, if it is not to die still-born, if it is not to remain ‘un non-étre, ‘un mot vide,’ the vitalising presence of an emotion is requisite. The terrorist was aware instinctively of this. Fear, the emotion which above all others unhinges the will and disorganises the resources of reason, is in his stories the vivifying principle. Who trembles believes. Where fear has ceased to be the accompaniment of the supernatural, belief must seek, as it were, its nutriment in some other emotional envelopement.
It is doubtless improbable that any novelist has yet worked consciously upon the principles of psychological analysis, and when the scientist adds to sensation and emotion further conditions essential to belief, of memory, will, habit and expectancy, the lay mind is left with an uneasy suspicion that it is being conducted round a circle expressed in the formula that if man must see to believe, he must no less believe in order to see. Yet some initial and elementary axioms remain for the guidance, if not of the writer, of the critic. It is more than possible that it is the deficiency of emotional power that leaves us wholly unimpressed by the supernaturalism of the moralist and the religionist in the novels cited of George Sand, of Mrs. Oliphant, and Mr. Shorthouse; more than possible that it is the vividness with which Gautier has drawn the reciprocal passion of Guy de Malivert and the dead girl, that gives the hazardous supernaturalism of 'Spirite’ its singular hold upon the reader’s mind.
Gautier’s theme is more or less identical with that of a book which, being of recent date, will be better remembered—Lucas Malet’s ‘Gateless Barrier.’ Each novel deals with the love of a living man for a dead woman whose affections, surviving death intact, still seek in a phantasmal embodiment of her former semblance the happiness of a union life had withheld. Beyond the bare outline of the subject-matter, method and treatment are radically reversed. Where the English novel at one stroke sets us face to face with a pink-gowned ghost-figure in the traditional haunted chamber of fiction, the French artist preludes Spirite’s apparition with gradual manifestations—manifestations always allowing the possibility of a natural interpretation, until doubts are resolved by the reflection in the mirror of that one face in all the world which brings with it to Malivert its revelation of predestined passion. But it is not alone in the delicate deliberateness of Gautier’s handicraft that the two works afford a curious contrast. In ‘Spirite’ the intercourse between the two lovers has for its key-note the spiritualisation of the man’s whole nature, his estrangement from material desire by the infection of the fair soul whose fugitive human semblance eludes not the touch but the grasp of sense. The climax of the story is reached when Spirite repents that she has overtaxed Malivert’s strength of soul, leading him to love her, not as a spirit with the desire of the eternal marriage of pure souls, but as a woman, very fair to behold, with the desire of earthly union. Extraordinarily pathetic is the scene when, renouncing the last poor vanity of mortal affection, she resumes the remote ethereality of her spiritual semblance. ‘La femme a voulu étre aimée—et j’ai failli te perdre a ‘jamais,’ she cries, in terror of the penalty which awaits the unworthiness of material passion. And the beauty which was the delight of his eyes, the feminine tenderness of those faint caresses, the gaieties of a too mundane happiness are withdrawn from her lover, and no surface veil of the girlhood which is dead is again suffered to humanise the austerer radiance of the soul which is alive.
In the ‘Gateless Barrier’ the outlook is reversed. There the whole endeavour of the lover is not to divest himself of materiality, but to re-endow the spectral existence of the gentle soul he loves, with matter, with the needs, the desires, the passions of the dust and the clay of human nature. He would establish her in this earthly life she was re-entering, and chain her spirit to this recovered human body by some corporeal act. The catastrophe is centred in the supper-scene, where, inverting the position of our primeval parents, the man tempts the phantom to eat of the fruit of the earth outspread before her, and to become not as the gods, but as other women are.
In both novels the love-interest predominates over all other interests. Whether—to return to psychological principles—it provides a sufficiently strong emotional current to open a passage for the supernatural facts represented, whether the emotion has impetus enough to carry the abnormalism of the narrative beyond the bar where imagination rejects the impossible in art no less than in life, is an open question. The only criterion of success is the infinitely varying susceptibility of the individual reader, and judgement founded on such necessarily conflicting testimony must merely represent a personal opinion. For the public at large possibly no emotion in relation to the supernatural can quite vie with the emotion of terror as used by the earlier novelists; no other emotion can give so vivid an hallucination of reality to the unreal. ‘Si l’homme intrépide peut quelque fois se tromper, celui qui a peur se trompe toujours; and, in fiction, this deception by fear reigns so far paramount over the deception by love.
The most powerful novel of the most modern school of the psychological supernaturalist, and one which reflects most closely the temper of the day, seems to corroborate this conjectural theory of the principles underlying the successful presentment of the preterhuman. In ‘Flames,’ Mr. Hichens has interwoven a double thread of emotion with his supernaturalist plot. He has reinforced the concentrated sentiment of terror belonging to the main episodes of the story, with the sentiment of a girl’s—a girl of the London streets— absolutely selfless and self-sacrificing passion for the man whose honour, whose whole moral being, is falling a prey to the malign influence clothed in the semblance of his dead friend. In the skilful interchange of one master emotion with another, in the alternation of love with terror, or in some scenes by the fusion of both, he has prolonged the tension of nerve and the tension of sympathy beyond the possible duration of either as an isolated sentiment; and in so doing, above other authors, he has created for many readers that condition of mental receptivity which admits of a passive acquiescence in what is abnormal. And, further, it may be noted that his terror is mainly an incorporeal terror: it is the terror of ‘Le Horla,’ of ‘Sur l’Eau’—a horror realistically human, but intellectual rather than physical; while, in what we may call the secondary emotional element, the passion of the girl, though equally and recognisably human, is of the nature of those loves the soul has made holy with the whiteness of its everlasting fires. But once more the predestined failure of the supernaturalist overtakes Mr. Hichens, as it has overtaken his fellows in the craft. In his direct presentment of the re-incarnated Tempter his actuality of touch forsakes him. When the mask is withdrawn, when suggestion is supplanted by description, when the evil counterfeit is unveiled before our eyes in his acts and thoughts, his aspect is more that of a pictured devil in a Danse Macabre than an evil reality of distorted manhood.
So terrorist, moralist, religionist, emotionalist, and psychologist have, each after his kind, taken up the parable and evolved out of the raw material of the abnormal and preterhuman a feature—never more prominent than now—-—of literary art. The radius embraces too wide a circle to allow criticism to follow its branches to their ultimate bifurcations, and each man can supplement for himself the list of authors cited. But, theorising yet further upon the conditions favourable or adverse to the production of the best work of their particular school, it would seem that the attitude of mind of the author should admit of no neutrality of belief in the supernatural. Secure credulity or secure scepticism would appear—either the one or the other—to promise a greater measure of success, a sharper touch, a clearer outline than the waverer between faith and unfaith can ever attain. The believer will work on the basis of his faith, the disbeliever will work on the basis of his imagination. Both will work with certainty of hand, certainty of reality in the conception will invigorate the believer, certainty of imaginative invention will stimulate the sceptic, while both forms of certainty will be denied to the agnostic, whose conception of what cannot be is crossed and recrossed at every turn by his conception of what, after all, may be. The attitude of mind of believer and unbeliever, thus bracketed together in antithesis to the attitude of mind in which the agnostic stands alone, is in truth but a further practical application of the teaching of philosophy to literary art, ‘l’incroyance est encore une forme, souvent une forme supérieure de la croyance.’ Believer and unbeliever, even in the authorship of fiction, stand confessed as the two ends of the same pole, and dogmatic negation will produce work of one blood and race with dogmatic affirmation.
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