The Explained Supernatural - The Gothics - Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

The Explained Supernatural
The Gothics
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

It might seem on the surface that the reduction of Walpole’s plethora of supernaturalism to Reeve’s single supernatural element would lead naturally to the entire elimination of the supernatural in the work of the most influential of Gothic writers, Ann Radcliffe (1764—1823); but it is by no means clear how or why Radcliffe devised her “explained” supernatural, in which bizarre phenomena are repeatedly suggested only to be resolved by natural means, chiefly as the result of misunderstanding on the part of the character viewing the phenomenon or some kind of trickery on the part of the villain engendering it. In the near total absence of documentary evidence regarding Radcliffe’s literary purposes or influences, we are left with the texts of her six novels and not much else; and of these, several can be dispensed with as being irrelevant to the development of weird fiction. Her first novel, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (1789), is a pure historical tale about the feuding of two Scottish clans. A Sicilian Romance (1790) introduces the dubious and implausible trope of the nuptial prisoner—a hapless woman who, because she refuses to die, prevents her husband (or, in this case, a ruthless and violent woman who seeks to replace her) from remarrying. Charlotte Brontë’s employment of the trope in Jane Eyre is made only slightly less ridiculous by her literary artistry.

Radcliffe hit her stride with The Romance of the Forest (1791), in many ways her most satisfactory—or, at any rate, enjoyable—novel. The number of elements borrowed from Walpole and Reeve are almost too numerous to tally. The topographical focus of the novel is not a castle but an abbey, where La Motte, a fugitive from justice, holes up with his family. He has a chance encounter with a young woman, Adeline, who is the presumable focus of the reader’s sympathy and the first of Radcliffe’s put-upon virgins; the threat to her virtue coming not from La Motte, but from Marquis de Montalt, who is using the abbey as the focus of a ring of robbers. The curious thing is that Adeline appears to have a succession of prophetic dreams regarding underground passages, a young man imprisoned in a deserted room, and so forth: it is difficult not to interpret these dreams other than supernaturally, for in the course of time we are shown exactly such passages, including a hidden room with a trunk containing a skeleton and a crumbling manuscript, and at last a personable young man, significantly named Theodore, who ultimately rescues her.

It is true that the pseudo-supernatural incidents in The Romance of the Forest are few and far between, but they are ably handled. And yet, perhaps the most interesting feature of the novel is the degree to which Radcliffe—in a deeper echo of the sceptical Walpole than she was perhaps aware of—systematically distances herself from the superstitiousness that leads some of her characters to suspect supernaturalism where there is none. La Motte declares at one point: “Stories of ghosts and hobgoblins have always been admired and cherished by the vulgar” (367), and similar sentiments of eighteenth-century rationalism are peppered throughout the work. Adeline herself, early on, expresses disdain for the life of a nun—“Too long I had been immured in the walls of a cloister, and too much had I seen of the sullen misery of its votaries, not to feel horror and disgust at the prsopect of being added to their number” (290)—that emphatically underscores the religious scepticism of her day and serves as a striking anticipation of the grim working out of this theme in Denis Diderot’s La Réligieuse (1796).

Of Radcliffe’s most celebrated novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), it is difficult to speak charitably. It is rare to encounter a literary work so undeserving of its fame, for this is a virtually unreadable novel that highlights all the worst features of Radcliffe’s work—a mincing, languid prose style that is utterly incapable of generating tension or suspense; a perennial harping on the woes of the virginal heroine that borders on self-parody; and a prodigious, appalling verbosity that is more horrifying than anything she actually puts on stage. Even if this tale of Emily St. Aubert’s struggles with the tyrannous Montoni were a half or a third its length, it would fail to be compelling, for the Gothic novel had already become so stereotyped that the ultimate defeat of Montoni and Emily’s reuniting with her lover, Valancourt, are foregone conclusions.

Even Radcliffe’s supposed skill at portraying the natural landscape (a landscape that, as far as the southern Italian scenes are concerned, was purely a product of her imagination and not the result of first-hand experience) and in suggesting the sublime is much exaggerated. What we find instead is Radcliffe’s repeated dropping of the word “sublime” as if that alone would be sufficient to create the sensation in the reader. We have already seen this in The Romance of the Forest, when La Motte, upon first seeing the abbey and its interior, “felt a sensation of sublimity rising into terror—a suspension of mingled astonishment and awe!” (265). But the preceding description of the abbey does not seem sufficient to have engendered such a sentiment. Similarly, in Udolpho we read of Emily’s first glimpse of the castle:

Emily gazed with melancholy awe upon the castle, which she understood to be Montoni’s; for, though it was now lighted up by the setting sun, the gothic greatness of its features, and its mouldering walls of dark grey stone, rendered it a gloomy and sublime object. As she gazed, the light died away on its walls, leaving a melancholy purple tint, which spread deeper and deeper, as the thin vapour crept up the mountain, while the battlements above were still tipped with splendour. (226—27)

But again, we are being told what to feel, rather than being given the elements of landscape and architecture that would allow us to feel these emotions for ourselves. In any case, Radcliffe’s portrayals of “gothic greatness” (whatever that might exactly be) after a time become so conventionalised, and her prose style in describing them is so flat and stereotyped, that they cease to have any effect on the reader.

The Italian (1797) is probably Radcliffe’s most artistically finished work; but here there is rarely even the pretence of any pseudo-supernaturalism, and the novel is strictly one of star-crossed lovers (Vincentio de Vivaldi and his beloved, Ellena Rosalba) and an evil monk, Schedoni, whom Vivaldi’s mother commissions to keep the lovers apart. The novel contains what are probably the two most striking scenes in Radcliffe’s work (the notorious “black veil” incident in Udolpho not excepted): Vivaldi’s torments at the hands of the Inquisition and Schedoni’s creeping into Ellena’s bedroom to kill her, only to find that she wears a locket containing a picture of … himself (he is, unbeknownst to either of them, her father). On occasion Radcliffe attempts to imbue the Inquisition scenes with a certain supernatural menace, as when Vivaldi has a dream in which he sees a monk whom he believes to be Schedoni, but it proves to be someone he has not seen before:

Vivaldi at the first glance shrunk back;—something of that strange and indescribable air, which we attach to the idea of a supernatural being, prevailed over the features; and the intense and fiery eyes resembled those of an evil spirit, rather than of a human character. He drew a poniard from beneath a fold of his garment, and, as he displayed it, pointed with a stern frown to the spots which discoloured the blade; Vivaldi perceived they were of blood! He turned away his eyes in horror; and, when he again looked round in his dream, the figure was gone. (318)

Not bad. But moments like this are—apparently by design—very rare in this novel. It seems reasonably clear that the Schedoni figure was inspired by that of Ambrosio in M. G. Lewis’s The Monk (1796), while the Inquisition scenes may well have influenced Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer—although in that regard Maturin would have had plenty of other examples to draw upon.

The one moderately interesting point in Radcliffe’s work is the increasing recency of the settings of each successive work. Whereas The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne is clearly mediaeval in its temporal setting, A Sicilian Romance is definitively dated to 1580, The Romance of the Forest to 1658, The Mysteries of Udolpho to 1584, and The Italian to 1758—a date less than fifty years prior to the publication of the novel, and not by any stretch of the imagination mediaeval or “Gothic” in an historical sense. True enough, the Inquisition scenes in the novel may create the effect of mediaeval religious tyranny (or, more likely, reflect an anti-Catholic bias that comes to full flower in the work of Charles Robert Maturin), but nevertheless even the pretence of appealing to “Gothic” superstition (a pretence that was, in any case, feeble in the entire lack of convincing tokens of mediaevalism in her other novels) has by now been dropped. The point is of significance in the sense that, once the supernatural (not merely the pseudo- or explained supernatural) is manifested in something approximating the contemporary world, the charade that it is meant to convey merely the crude beliefs of a barbaric period must be dropped and attempts must be made to portray that supernaturalism convincingly. Gigantic helmets dropping irrationally out of the sky would no longer be feasible.

I have referred to Radcliffe as the most influential of the Gothic writers; but her influence was strictly circumscribed to the Gothic period itself. Her brand of explained supernaturalism was quickly seen as an aesthetic dead end; as early as 1811, Sir Walter Scott delivered a fitting epitaph upon it. His manner of expressing his criticism on this point is so much shrewder than I or anyone else could manage that it is worth quoting in extenso:

Mrs. Radcliffe, a name not to be mentioned without the respect due to genius, has endeavoured to effect a compromise between those different styles of narrative, by referring her prodigies to an explanation, founded on natural causes, in the latter chapters of her romances. To this improvement upon the Gothic romance there are so many objections, that we own ourselves inclined to prefer, as more simple and impressive, the narrative of Walpole, which details supernatural incidents as they would have been readily believed and received in the eleventh or twelfth century. In the first place, the reader feels indignant at discovering he has been cheated into a sympathy with terrors which are finally explained as having proceeded from some very simple cause; and the interest of a second reading is entirely destroyed by his having been admitted behind the scenes at the conclusion of the first. Secondly, the precaution of relieving our spirits from the influence of supposed supernatural terror, seems as unnecessary in a work of professed fiction, as that of the prudent Bottom, who proposed that the human face of the representative of his lion should appear from under his masque, and acquaint the audience plainly that he was a man as other men, and nothing more than Snug the joiner. Lastly, these substitutes for supernatural agency are frequently to the full as improbable as the machinery which they are introduced to explain away and supplant. The reader, who is required to admit the belief of supernatural interference, understands precisely what is demanded of him; and, if he be a gentle reader, throws his mind into the atitude best adapted to humour the deceit which is presented for his entertainment, and grants, for the time of perusal, the premises on which the fable depends. But if the author voluntarily binds himself to account for all the wondrous occurrences which he introduces, we are entitled to exact that the explanation shall be natural, easy, ingenious, and complete. Every reader of such works must remember instances in which the explanation of mysterious circumstances in the narrative has proved equally, nay, even more incredible, than if they had been accounted for by the agency of supernatural beings. For the most incredulous must allow, that the interference of such agency is more possible than that an effect resembling it should be produced by an inadequate cause. (“Introduction to The Castle of Otranto” 10—11)

To this very little need be added, save that it seems a striking anticipation of Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” (for which see the next chapter). It will become evident that Radcliffe’s influence in general, and her use of the explained supernatural in particular, did not extend much beyond the heyday of the Gothic novel itself. Non-supernatural horror fiction did indeed flourish, but in very different forms—either through the horror engendered by psychological aberration (Poe, Bierce, and their followers) or in the realm of psychological suspense, which really did not gain a foothold until well into the twentieth century and of course did not look back to Radcliffe as a forerunner.

One writer who did consciously acknowledge a debt to Radcliffe, but whose own working out of the explained supernatural topos proved to be very different and much more aesthetically viable, was the American Charles Brockden Brown (1771—1810). As America’s first professional writer Brown has some claim to historical significance—a claim that might be a bit more difficult to make on the basis of his actual work, which is uneven at best. But Brown is perhaps more interesting for what he tried to do than for what he actually accomplished; for, while adopting the “explained supernatural” of Radcliffe, he did nothing less than to set the stage for the profounder studies of psychological aberration that we find in Hawthorne and, especially, Poe.

The busy reader would probably be excused for reading nothing but Wieland; or, The Transformation (1798), for it is by far the most compelling of Brown’s novels. Its relation to the fragmentary novella “Carwin the Biloquist” (written in the summer of 1798 just as Brown was completing Wieland, and published by him serially in the Literary Magazine in 1803—04) is complex and need not concern us; but it is of interest to note that the basic plot of Wieland was clearly based upon an actual incident—a case in 1796 in Tomhannock, New York, where a man named James Yates killed his wife and four children, and attempted to kill his sister, under the influence of religious mania. Brown used this incident as the basic framework of Wieland, although inserting as a backdrop the quasi-Byronic hero Carwin, the ventriloquist, who (apparently) causes Theodore Wieland to hear voices that instruct him to kill his wife and children.

In his “Advertisement” to the novel, Brown states that his novel “aims at the illustration of some important branches of the moral constitution of man” (3), a locution by which Brown manifestly intends to suggest a psychological analysis of all the characters involved—Wieland himself, his sister Clara, who emerges as a remarkably strong figure of dogged rationalism in the face of horror and tragedy, and the enigmatic Carwin—by means of lengthy monologues, either written or spoken, that occupy much of the novel. The setting in rural Pennsylvania is much more effective than any of Radcliffe’s concocted portrayals of Italy, but far more compelling are the portrayals of character. Each of the central figures emerges crisply and vividly, chiefly by their own words. It should be pointed out that the entire novel purports to be a testament (or testimony) written by Clara to clarify in her own mind the tragedies befalling her family, and perhaps to purge herself of their horrific potency. Her father, himself a religious fanatic, died in spectacular fashion from spontaneous combustion; Brown is careful to add a footnote appealing to journals in France and Italy attesting to the reality of this phenomenon, so that we are clearly not to take it as a supernatural occurrence. But its baneful effect upon Clara’s brother is evident:

His father’s death was always regarded by him as flowing from a direct and supernatural decree. It visited his meditations oftener than it did mine. The traces which it left were more gloomy and permanent. This new incident had a visible effect in augmenting his gravity. He was less disposed than formerly to converse and reading. When we sifted his thoughts, they were generally found to have a relation, more or less direct, with this incident. (35)

As the novel progresses, a large proportion of space is given to the fundamentally irrelevant recounting of the falling out between Clara and Pleyel (Wieland’s brother-in-law) over his suspicions that she is in league with Carwin. But after Wieland’s horrible murder of his wife and children, attention refocuses on him, and we are given his lengthy written account of the voice he heard (which he believes to be the voice of God) instructing him to commit these dreadful acts.

The common assumption, made both by Clara herself and by the great majority of readers and scholars of the novel, is that Carwin, the “biloquist,” managed to throw his voice in such a way as to lead Wieland to his crimes. But, when Clara confronts him at the novel’s conclusion, he explicitly denies responsibility in the matter:

“Catherine [Wieland’s wife] was dead by violence. Surely my malignant stars had not made me the cause of her death; yet had I not rashly set in motion a machine, over whose progress I had no controul, and which experience had shewn me was infinite in power? Every day might add to the catalogue of horrors of which this was the source, and a seasonable disclosure of the truth might prevent numberless ills… .

“I have uttered the truth. This is the extent of my offences. You tell me an horrid tale of Wieland being led to the destruction of his wife and children, by some mysterious agent. You charge me with the guilt of this agency; but I repeat that the amount of my guilt has been truly stated. The perpetrator of Catherine’s death was unknown to me till now; nay, it is still unknown to me.” (215—16)

What I believe Carwin means is this: his reference to “set[ting] in motion a machine” alludes, apparently, to the fact that he did in fact throw his voice on one occasion early in the novel, when both Wieland and Pleyel heard it, as Pleyel notes:

“’Well,’ said he, at length, ’What do you think of this? This is the self-same voice which I formerly heard; you are now convinced that my ears were well informed.’

“’Yes,’ said I, ’this, it is plain, is no fiction of the fancy.’” (44)

At this point we are in fact led to suspect the supernatural, but the moment we learn of Carwin’s ventriloquist abilities (75), it becomes plain that his was the voice that Wieland and Pleyel heard. But what Carwin is asserting to Clara at the end is that he was not responsible for the voice that urged Wieland to kill his wife and children; and, in fact, there seems much truth in the assertion. Indeed, Wieland had himself already made clear that he had been given to “hearing voices” well before Carwin ever emerged on the scene. Carwin apparently is maintaining that the one occasion when he made Wieland hear a disembodied voice aggravated Wieland’s religious mania to the point that he heard a voice (one generated by his own mind, it is needless to add, not by a supernatural force) that instructed him to kill his wife and children.

The point is perhaps not of overwhelming significance, but it frees Carwin from at least a certain share of guilt in the whole affair. Indeed, Carwin is by no means the toweringly evil Byronic or Montonian villain of early Gothic fiction; his characterisation—especially in his exculpatory remarks to Clara—is far more complex than that. While he does admit to “a passion for mystery, and a species of imposture” (201)—what Pleyel had earlier referred to scornfully as an “imp of mischief” (123)—he portrays himself as more sinned against than sinning (“My life has been a life of hardship and exposure” [203]). And, when Wieland breaks in on their conversation and threatens to kill Clara, Carwin uses his ventriloquism to save her, whereupon Wieland kills himself.

For all its power as an exhibition of the baneful effects of religious mania, Wieland does not contain quite enough psychological analysis of its central figure to qualify as the first genuine novel of psychological terror. The palm for that probably remains with James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824). But the work does represent a significant, and positive, shift from the absurd Radcliffian convention of suggesting the supernatural and accounting for it lamely by human contrivance. The phenomenon of ventriloquism had been used at least twice in previous works of Gothic fiction—Elizabeth Bonhote’s Bungay Castle (1796) and Eliza Parsons’s The Mysterious Warning (1798), the latter often assumed to have inspired Brown; but in Wieland the device becomes, in reality, only a minor component of the novel and does not detract from the psychological aberration that in fact led Wieland to commit his crimes. In this sense, Carwin’s exculpation from guilt in those crimes gains aesthetic significance, for had Wieland really been led to kill his family merely by the contrivance of a thrown voice, rather than from the madness that afflicted his mind, then the phenomenon would indeed have come across as a cheap trick. As it is, Wieland’s madness becomes the genuine efficient cause of his actions; and if there had been greater emphasis on the particulars of that madness—something we do not, curiously, find even in his own written testament—then the novel would have a good claim to be considered a work of psychological terror.

The other novels by Brown are less impressive. Arthur Mervyn (1799) seeks to find horror in a yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. Ormond (1799) uses the yellow fever epidemic as a backdrop for a brutal tale of murder and seduction. Edgar Huntly (1799) is somewhat more interesting in its attempt to draw upon the phenomenon of sleepwalking as a substitute for the supernatural. Opening strikingly with the tableau of a sleepwalker digging a hole in the woods, the novel tells of the protagonist, Huntly, learning the tale of Clithero Edny, a servant of a “musing and melancholy deportment” (25) who both walks and talks in his sleep. Clithero tells a long story of being befriended by a Mrs. Lorimer, then inadvertently killing her brother in self-defence and, in an access of madness, almost killing Mrs. Lorimer herself. He flees into a cave—an obvious metaphor for the dark recesses of his own disordered mind. Much later Huntly, who himself becomes afflicted with somnambulism, expostulates: “How little cognizance have men over the actions and motives of each other! How total is our blindness with regard to our own performances!” (278). Evidently sleepwalking is the metaphor that putatively instantiates this proposition, but in reality the phenomenon of sleepwalking is not treated extensively enough in the novel to hammer the point home, nor (again) is there sufficient psychological analysis of either Clithero or Huntly to see in Edgar Huntly a genuine novel of psychological terror.

Of Ann Radcliffe’s other disciples, still less need be said. No one would pay the least attention to Francis Lathom (1777—1832) had Jane Austen not mentioned his Midnight Bell (1798) in Northanger Abbey. This novel, although crippled by excessive length and absurdly implausible coincidences, does create a moderately effective sense of supernatural mystery around whether a spectral force could be tolling a bell at midnight in the tower of a haunted castle; and the ultimate naturalistic revelation—that the tolling is being done by the wife of the castle’s owner, a count, who mistreated her—is not as fatally disappointing as many analogous moments in Radcliffe’s own work. Lathom, who worked in the theatre as both an actor and a playwright, found it to his taste to lay the horror on thick. He was active as a writer for more than forty years, and it has been said that some of his historical Gothics may have influenced Sir Walter Scott. But not one of them is worth reading in its own right, as his entire corpus of work is largely imitative of Radcliffe, Lewis, or other luminaries.

The Marquis von Grosse’s Horrid Mysteries (1796) had the distinction of being cited in both Northanger Abbey and in Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey, but it is a nearly unreadable, interminable, and preposterous piece of work. In its telling a convoluted tale of a secret society of Illuminati it perhaps had some influence on the almost equally unreadable novels of Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Still less need be said of other Radcliffe imitators such as Eliza Parsons, Eleanor Sneath, and Sarah Wilkinson.