THE SUPERNATURAL IN LITERATURE 1880
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STUDENT.—Is there at the present time only an obsolescent public taste for literature tinged with the supernatural, or clothed with the breath of faery?
STUDENT.—Is there any treatise in English on the use, in prose fiction, or poetical, of the Supernatural, and the Weird? Kindly name some prose works—excluding Poe, Hawthorne, and Hoffmann—in which these two elements have been successfully employed. Your help at this point will be thankfully received by a coterie of literary students.
Of modern English writers, we should be inclined to say that the late Lord Lytton bears the palm for treatment of things supernatural, in 'A Strange Story.' A more weird and fantastic plot it would scarcely be possible to conceive. It is a perfect magazine of supernatural terrors, embracing, as it does, every variety of manifestation or communication from the unseen world, from mediaeval magic to modern mesmerism, with a liberal allowance of apparitions, and the elixir vita as its central point of interest. In reading this marvellous work, for it is nothing less, it is difficult to realise that almost every detail of its supernaturalism has practically been done to death in an endless series of stories, of various degrees of merit. In new combinations, under the hand of a great writer, and an accomplished man of the world, these stock devices, irradiated by a powerful and poetical imagination, are presented as a consistent whole of great, and almost terrible, fascination.
The chief living master of the artistically weird, we should, without hesitation, pronounce to be Wilkie Collins. It is not only that his leading idea is often of a weird nature, but that in numberless details, often of the most trifling description, he, with consummate skill, tones down, as though by a deftly-hung curtain, the too-cheerful light which enables us to withstand the effect of the main idea. 'The Woman in White' is an instance of this. There is, perhaps, not in all our literature, a book which is a less commendable companion for sleepless hours, while yet it is absolutely free from anything supernatural. It is almost more powerful in its effects from this very absence of the ghostly. Everything seems attuned to some terror. If such a terror had been introduced, the power of the surroundings which suggested it would have been destroyed, and the weird interest would have been destroyed also. 'The Moonstone' again illustrates this great power of Wilkie Collins, in suggesting a terror, which he never presses home. The shivering sand, the diamond—the legacy of hatred, the silence of that strange experiment in sleep-walking, the dogged determination of the Indians' quest after the sacred jewel, and, as in the case of 'The Strange Story' and 'The Woman in White,' the constant contrast of the cheery, every-day world, with the strange or sombre course of individual lives, a world which, with all its noise and bustle, is as useful to drown care or the oppression of supernatural visitations, as water is to keep oil out of sight—combine to make 'The Moonstone' a very masterpiece of weird fiction. Space forbids more than a passing mention of a work which is essentially more weird than any other, 'Wuthering Heights.' The ghost story in 'Wuthering Heights' is, in many respects, unrivalled for ghastly horror. 'Jane Eyre' again stands high in the ranks of this description of fiction, and all the writings of the Brontes demand careful study from any who are interested in this aspect of our literature.
We have not been able to find any treatise of the kind desired, but the following books will be found very useful for Student's purpose:—Sir Walter Scott's 'Demonology and Witchcraft,' 'The Monastery,'' Marmion,'' Lay of the Last Minstrel,' 'The Fire King,' and the 'Grey Monk,' the old ballad of Clerk Saunders, the Clerk of Oxenford, and Thomas the Rhymer, Captain Marryatt's 'Phantom Ship,' and Coleridge's' Ancient Mariner.'—W. St. L.
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