The Weird Short Story - Interregnum - Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

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

The Weird Short Story
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

Poe is often called the inventor of the short story, and if we are considering the short story as a meticulously crafted aesthetic entity that is certainly the case; but shorter tales did, as we have already noticed sporadically, make their appearance before Poe initiated his career in the 1830s. Whether we are to regard M. G. Lewis’s Romantic Tales (1808) as the first “horror short story collection” is debatable, especially in light of the facts that (a) the stories are all translations or paraphrases from the German, and (b) most of them are hardly short. But short fiction was triggered not by novelists assembling stories in book form but by the emergence, in the early nineteenth century, of periodicals that welcomed short fiction. Chief among them, from our perspective, was Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine.

Blackwood’s, founded in 1817, from the outset included a (relatively small) number of “sensational tales” as a means of attracting a wider readership than the relatively few who read their political articles or literary reviews. These tales, clearly deriving their imagery from the Gothic novel, were by no means consistently supernatural, and in fact a good many of them were merely excursions into gruesomeness; but in the course of time their appearance did encourage some of the leading supernaturalists of the period to contribute short fiction to the magazine. Annuals like the Keepsake also contained the occasional supernatural specimen; and because these volumes generally were issued around Christmas, the tradition of the “Christmas ghost story” was born. In this interregnum period, three noteworthy writers began contributing short fiction in some quantity, although from the viewpoint of craftsmanship they remain markedly inferior to Poe.

Mary Shelley, after writing Frankenstein (and, incidentally, recovering from the early death of her husband in 1822), wrote more than two dozen tales in the succeeding two decades (the last of them dates, apparently, to the late 1830s), although only a relatively small number of these need concern us here. She made no effort to collect the tales herself, and a posthumous edition, Tales and Stories (1891), although seriously deficient, had to suffice until Charles E. Robinson’s definitive edition of her Collected Tales and Stories (1976).

Perhaps the most notable of these is “The Mortal Immortal” (Keepsake for 1834 [1833]), whose very premise would appear to be supernatural: we are at the outset introduced to a man who claims to be 323 years old. But what is of interest is the degree to which the first-person narrator systematically dispenses with many of the obvious supernatural causations that would account for his anomalous longevity. He first rejects out of hand the notion that he is the Wandering Jew (“certainly not… . In comparison with him, I am a very young Immortal” [219]) and then doubts whether he is in fact destined to be immortal. He has, it is true, studied with Cornelius Agrippa, but he pokes ribald fun at the prospect that Agrippa was a kind of Satan-figure who had tempted him to renounce his soul for forbidden knowledge (“In spite of the most painful vigilance, I had never detected the trace of a cloven foot; nor was the studious silence of our abode ever disturbed by demoniac howls” [221]). He similarly doubts whether Agrippa “could command the powers of darkness” (226). He does take an elixir from Agrippa—but this appears to be merely a tonic: “longevity was far different from immortality” (226). Granted, the elixir appears to have given the narrator greater vigour and energy, and it is only gradually that he—along with the reader—determines that it has actually bestowed upon him, at the very least, some kind of extended life: he is mortified to find that at one point he looks twenty years old whereas his wife is fifty. The world-weariness that comes upon him with the passage of years may reflect the influence of Godwin’s St. Leon.

Two other stories of elongated life can be noted briefly. “Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman” (written in late 1826 but not published until 1863) is a pseudo-fictional account of an actual hoax of the time, when one Roger Dodsworth claimed to have been frozen since 1654 and reanimated in 1826. Shelley presents the matter as a scientific phenomenon:

Now we do not believe that any contradiction or impossibility is attached to the adventures of this youthful antique. Animation (I believe physiologists agree) can as easily be suspended for a hundred or two years, as for as many seconds. A body hermetically sealed up by the frost, is of necessity preserved in its pristine entireness. That which is totally secluded from the action of external agency, can neither have any thing added to nor taken away from it: no decay can take place, for something can never become nothing; under the influence of that state of being which we call death, change but not annihilation removes from our sight the corporal atoma; the earth receives sustenance from them, the air is fed by them, each element takes its own, thus seizing forcible repayment of what it had lent. (44)

The rest of the tale is merely a political satire, but the gesture toward scientific verisimilitude is of significance. “Valerius: The Reanimated Man” (probably written in 1819; unpublished in Shelley’s lifetime) is similar, but here no explanation whatever is offered in regard to the reanimation of a man from Roman times.

“Transformation” (Keepsake for 1831 [1830]) is of some interest in its relation to Frankenstein. Here a hideous-looking dwarf offers money to a handsome young man to exchange bodies with him for a period of three days only. The young man accepts the offer and finds himself in the twisted body of the dwarf; but three days pass, and the man feels he has been betrayed. The dwarf, true enough, has gone to marry the young man’s fiancée, Juliet. It is at this point, as the young man in the dwarf’s body proceeds to Genoa, that the parallels to Frankenstein accumulate: he is forced to proceed covertly, “for I was unwilling to make a display of my hideousness” (131); he has momentary thoughts of carrying Juliet off by force, just as the creature arrives for his baleful purpose on Frankenstein’s wedding night. In this instance, however, the two merely have a tussle, during which both are stabbed and forthwith return to their own bodies.

Some attention should be given to Shelley’s very long novel The Last Man (1826), for although it may not strictly speaking be supernatural—it is, if anything, a work of proto-science fiction—it probes issues that would be taken up by later supernatural writers. It opens in the year 2073, at which time the last king of England has abdicated and republicanism has been established. It would be profitless to examine in detail the plot of this prolix, rambling work, told from the point of view of Lionel Verney, a friend of the son of England’s last king; but, after a very slow beginning, the novel does gain power in its account of the spread of a plague—initially emerging out of Egypt, apparently—throughout the whole world. Eventually, the plague reaches England; after Verney and others battle marauders from North America and Ireland, they are forced to abandon the island. An unfortunate encounter with religious fanatics in France compels them to go to Switzerland, by which time there are only 50 left. Ultimately, this number is reduced to four: Lionel, his friend Adrian, Clara (Adrian’s daughter), and Evelyn (Lionel’s son). It is thought at one point that the plague might have exhausted itself, but then Evelyn is stricken and dies. There may still be a possibility for the revival of the human race, if Lionel and Clara can survive; but, as they make their way to Greece, a storm at sea renders Lionel the only survivor on the planet.

The Last Man is crippled by its slow-moving pace and its deficiency in extrapolating technological and other advances a century and a half beyond the novel’s date of writing; and even the sociopolitical implications are relatively undventurous. Many features of the novel, including its conclusion, are clear reflections of events in the life of Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Nevertheless, the novel does gain a cumulative power in spite of its handicaps. The plague is of course not presented as anything approaching a supernatural phenomenon, but its inexorable progress creates a kind of shuddering terror not found in any previous work of Gothic fiction. It may not stand up well in comparison with M. P. Shiel’s infinitely more skilful novel on the same idea, The Purple Cloud (1901), but it is a commendable feat of the imagination.

Two Scotsmen, Sir Walter Scott (1771—1832) and James Hogg (1770—1835), also fostered the evolution of the supernatural short story. Scott’s weird short fiction consists chiefly of only two stories, “The Tapestried Chamber” and “Wandering Willie’s Tale” (a chapter in Redgauntlet, 1824), but other tales are of ancillary interest, not to mention several of his Waverley novels. Scott, as we have seen, was perhaps the acutest critic of the Gothic tale in his time, certainly among those who were practising fiction writers; and his many historical novels and long poems betray Gothic influences from beginning to end. The Black Dwarf (1816), a somewhat crude and undeveloped early work, is a kind of proto-Frankenstein novel in its depiction of a dwarf whose physical repulsiveness embitters him against the human race; but the general effect is more that of a fairy tale than of a Gothic novel. The Bride of Lammermoor (1819) has been referred to as Scott’s most Gothic work from an atmospheric point of view, although it is entirely non-supernatural. But supernaturalism does enter into The Monastery (1820), set in the reign of Elizabeth and focusing simultaneously on Catholic-Protestant troubles and disputes between the English and the Scots, in which the former are, naturally, portrayed as the villains. A benign spectre, the Lady of Avenel, manifests itself at frequent moments and takes an active hand in the advancement of the plot. A pendant to this novel is The Abbot (1820), a novel centring around the escape of Mary Queen of Scots from her imprisonment in Lochleven Castle. The influence of Sophia Lee’s The Recess and Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto is particularly evident here.

But in the end there is little reason to consider Scott as a supernaturalist beyond his several short stories. “Wandering Willie’s Tale,” written entirely in Scots dialect, tells of the temptation of Steenie Steenson to sell his soul to the Devil; its most effective scene is his venturing into a strange castle where he comes upon the revels of a party of dead men restored to life. Although the at times difficult dialect enhances the verisimilitude of the tale, its general effect is that of a bit of folklore, and to that degree it lacks a certain immediacy and potency.

That can hardly be said for “The Tapestried Chamber” (Keepsake for 1829 [1828]), an earlier version of which had appeared as “Story of an Apparition” (Blackwood’s, April 1818). This may be the most effective supernatural short story written up to this time. A very simple account of an apparition—that of a woman of the seventeenth century “of whose crimes a black and fearful catalogue is recorded in a family history” (30)—the tale gains strength from the bluff, imposing figure of the protagonist, General Browne, who is staying with his friend Lord Woodville and who clearly reveals himself as no “weak-minded, superstitious fool” (24). The spectre is introduced very gradually; first only a sound of a rustling gown is heard, then an old woman is seen from a distance in the General’s bedroom, and then finally her hideous face is glimpsed: “Upon a face which wore the fixed features of a corpse were imprinted the traces of the vilest and most hideous passions which had animated her while she lived. The body of some atrocious criminal seemed to have been given up from the grave, and the soul restored from the penal fire, in order to form, for a space, an union with the ancient accomplice of its guilt” (26). This rather curious passage suggests that it is the woman’s moral evil that has rendered her an apparition, not the lack of Christian burial, her death at the hands of a criminal who has escaped punishment, or anything of the sort.

Three other stories are of some interest. In “My Aunt Margaret’s Mirror” (Keepsake for 1829 [1828]) the wife of Sir Philip Forester, who has gone off to war, consults a Dr. Baptista Damiotti, who claims to have the ability to tell the fates of absent friends. After an elaborate hocus-pocus, Sir Philip’s wife sees in a mirror her husband actually leading a young woman down the altar in a marriage ceremony that is interrupted by a sword-fight. Sure enough, later they hear of a sword-fight in which Sir Philip kills a relative and flees to the Continent. “The Two Drovers” (a segment of Chronicles of Canongate [1827]) is really a mainstream story of the deadly conflict between two drovers, but it features a single supernatural episode, where an “auld Highland witch” (104) makes a baleful prediction to one of the drovers: “There is blood on your hand, and it is English blood” (106). A still uncollected early tale, “Phantasmagoria” (Blackwood’s, May 1818), is an effective short tale of a benign apparition.

Scott’s greatest contribution to the weird—aside from his critical essays and the biographical sketches of Gothic writers in Lives of the Novelists (1825)—may perhaps be Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830), an exhaustive treatment of witch legendry, told from a markedly sceptical point of view. Although sophistically maintaining that the witchcraft persecutions of mediaeval Europe were derived from a misconstrual of biblical texts (it is hard to know how else to interpret “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” [Exod. 22:18] except in the straightforward manner in which centuries of popes and their underlings did in fact interpret it), Scott nonetheless condemns the ignorance and brutality of the persecutors; along the way, he features interesting discussions of the lore surrounding fairies, elves, ghosts, and evil spirits. The treatise was reprinted throughout the nineteenth century and could well have supplied plot kernels for Victorian weird writers on both sides of the Atlantic.

In terms of quantity, Hogg wrote the most sizeable body of short weird fiction prior to Poe, with the possible exception of Washington Irving. More than a dozen tales can be said to utilise the supernatural as either the core of the plot or as a significant component of it. These tales appeared variously in Blackwood’s, the Keepsake, Fraser’s Magazine, and elsewhere, and many of the best were gathered in The Shepherd’s Calendar (1829). Hogg clearly drew extensively upon Scottish myth and legendry, with its accounts of elves, fairies, brownies, and evil spirits, and made no secret of his faithful reflections of tradition. “Mary Burnet” begins with an elaborate apology for presenting the reader with “such antiquated breathings of tradition” (200), going on to say: “I pledge myself to relate nothing that has not been handed down to me by tradition” (200). “The Laird of Cassway,” we are told, is related “wholly from tradition” (199), and Hogg adds, a bit naively, “if the story was not true, the parties believed it to have been so” (199). In a sense, this reliance on tradition to establish verisimilitude is analogous to the Gothic novelists’ bland assertions that they are merely relating the superstitions of the mediaeval era without passing judgment upon their truth or falsity, and Hogg’s tales are rendered the more vivid by his striking evocations of the Scottish landscape and character.

From a modern perspective, it could be said that Hogg’s weird tales contain rather an excess of supernaturalism and are not as aesthetically finished as Poe’s tales; several of them tend to meander and take odd turns. “Mary Burnet,” although it has moments of power, is subject to these criticisms. In this tale, John Allanson asks a “witch or fairy” (72) to make Mary Burnet, a woman he fancies, appear to him; she does so, but presently leaps into a loch and drowns. She is, however, later found awake in her bed—or is this in fact merely a “fairy or evil spirit” (80)? From this point on, the tale becomes increasingly bizarre: at one point John, at a hiring fair, meets seven different women who say they are Mary. Later, we are treated to an entire castle that appears and then vanishes. To be sure, as a friend of John’s states, “We are wandering in a world of enchantment” (87). John dies, but years later Mary reappears, stepping out of a lavish chariot. What is striking about this tale is the constant interaction of fairies and brownies with the human characters of the tale—an apparent reflection of rural superstition regarding these enigmatic figures.

“The Witches of Traquair” also contains excessive supernaturalism, featuring an entire village full of witches as well as appearances by the Devil (as the “Master Fiend” [234]) and, as a kind of balance, two “damsels” (227) who prove to be Faith and Charity. It does not surprise us to learn that “The tale is a very old one” (223), dealing with Colin Hyslop’s desire to use witchcraft to win over the fetching Barbara Stewart but fearing damnation for so doing.

Several of Hogg’s tales hew closely to religious belief, suggesting that the supernatural is a violation or contravention of Christian doctrine. “The Mysterious Bride” tells how the laird of Birkendelly comes upon a lovely woman he has dreamed about (“the laird was very much like one bewitched” [149]). She proclaims: “My name is Jane Ogilvie and you were betrothed to me before you were born” (152). They exchange rings, but the laird’s sister declares that this is “not a ring befitting a Christian to wear” (154). Ultimately we learn that the woman is the spirit or reincarnation of a woman who had been betrothed to the laird’s grandfather, who had murdered her and married someone else.

“The Barber of Duncow—A Real Ghost Story” contains some fascinating bits of primitive superstition. A ghost tells the barber’s wife that her husband has dallied with several women in a nearby village and has had a number of illegitimate children. The wife disappears, but reappears as a ghost to her aunt, saying that she was murdered by two women. The body of the wife is found, and at this point it is decreed that everyone in the community must touch the corpse—evidently the guilt of the culprit or culprits will somehow become manifest by this procedure. However, when the woman accused of the crime touches the body, nothing happens. When the barber himself touches it, it becomes “bathed in a flood of purple blood that streamed from the wound, as if it had been newly inflicted” (178—79). It transpires that the accused woman and the barber had dressed up as two witches, but that the barber himself had done the actual killing.

Other tales of Hogg’s are less substantial but contain some striking passages. “George Dobson’s Expedition to Hell” ponders upon the mystery of dreams; in the judgment of the narrator, “they prove to the unlettered and contemplative mind, in a very forcible manner, a distinct existence of the soul, and its lively and rapid intelligence with external nature, as well as with a world of spirits with which it has no acquaintance, when the body is lying dormant, and the same to it as if sleeping in death” (41—42). The tale appears to instantiate this dictum, for the coach-driver George Dobson seems to find himself in Hell, but later believes it to have been a dream—but since we have been told that dreams somehow allow the soul access to other realms of entity, we are not surprised to come upon evidence that the event was real after all. In “The Brownie of the Black Haggs,” the evil Lady Wheelhope is plagued by a wicked servant who may be a brownie. The tale ultimately becomes one of bizarre obsession, as the Lady cannot keep herself away from the servant she loathes. In a striking anticipation of Poe, “Strange Letter of a Lunatic” (Fraser’s Magazine, December 1830) tells of a man plagued by a double to such an extent that he doubts his own identity.

Hogg’s greatest contribution to weird fiction, however, is the bizarre novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824). An earlier novel, The Brownie of Bodsbeck (1820), is a rambling and confused work of the explained supernatural, in which a creature thought to be a brownie is ultimately revealed to be a reformer named John Brown. But the Confessions of a Justified Sinner is a tale of a very different order of genius and is clearly the pinnacle of Hogg’s work in the supernatural, if not of his work as a whole. The pecularity of the novel begins with “The Editor’s Narrative,” which takes up more than a third of the text. Here we learn of George Colwan, who had the misfortune to marry a woman who was a religious fanatic. She bore him two sons, George and Robert; but the senior George comes to doubt that Robert is his own son and therefore banishes him from the house. Robert is raised by a fanatical clergyman, Robert Wringim. The two brothers nonetheless meet frequently, clashing constantly. The younger George is then found dead: was he killed by Robert, or by another man named Drummond? The elder George dies soon thereafter, and witnesses eventually come forth to confirm that Robert is in fact the murderer.

Robert’s own “confession” now commences. He tells of how he one day met his exact look-alike: is this his brother, or some kind of guardian angel? Gradually we are led to suspect that he is the Devil. The man states that his name is Gil-Martin, going on to say that “It is not my Christian name; but it is a name which may serve your turn” (134). Gil-Martin continues Robert’s indoctrination into religious fanaticism, declaring that it is Robert’s duty to kill a clergyman, Mr. Blanchard, who had criticised him; Robert does so, whereupon Gil-Martin exults: “’Thou hast done well for once; but wherefore hesitate in such a cause? This is but a small beginning of so great a work as that of purging the Christian world. But the first victim is a worthy one, and more of such lights must be extinguished immediately’” (146). He goes on to add pregnantly: “I never go but where I have some great purpose to serve … either in the advancement of my own power or in thwarting my enemies” (149—50). Gil-Martin now declares that Robert must kill his brother and father. Robert attempts to do so on several occasions but fails. Gil now shapes himself in the form of Drummond and provokes an argument with George; Robert appears and (apparently) kills George.

It is at this point that Robert, if he has not been so already, becomes a thoroughly unreliable narrator. On several occasions his account of events clashes with that of the “Editor,” and at the climatic moment of the death of George, Robert openly admits that he is not at all certain what actually happened:

I will not deny, that my own immediate impressions of this affair in some degree differed from this statement [i.e., that Robert killed George]. But this is precisely as my illustrious friend [Gil-Martin] described it to me afterwards, and I can rely implicitly on his information, as he was at that time a looker-on, and my senses all in a state of agitation, and he could have no motive for saying what was not the positive turth. (178)

Robert has little justification for being so sanguine on the matter; he presently begins to wonder whether Gil is not some kind of “powerful necromancer” (191). As the tale concludes, Gil appears to Robert in the guise of his dead brother, and Robert flees, experiencing various bizarre manifestations along the way. One of the final entries in what has become his diary is as follows: “If the horrors of hell are equal to those I have suffered, eternity will be of short duration there, for no created energy can support them for one single month, or week. I have been buffeted as never living creature was. My vitals have all been torn, and every faculty and feeling of my soul racked, and tormented into callous insensibility” (250).

In a rather odd conclusion, the “Editor” resumes the narrative, reprinting a letter signed by one James Hogg that appeared in Blackwood’s for August 1823 (as, in fact, it did) giving details on Robert’s apparent suicide. The Editor declares that he now doubts that Robert in fact killed George, leaving us with the implication that Gil-Martin actually did so.

In spite of the stilted and at times archaic diction, there is a striking sense of contemporaneousness to the Confessions of a Justified Sinner. It may be one of the earliest genuine examples of the unreliable narrator; but more than that, it is a remarkable anticipation of Poe’s ventures into psychological horror. It is, indeed, the first psychological horror novel ever written, and Robert’s confession has all the gripping power of incipient mania and insanity. But the presence of what is clearly the Devil allows the novel to be also authentically supernatural, and in this sense it represents a rare fusion between these two ordinarily disparate modes. Much more so than Brown’s Wieland, it tells of the baneful effects of religious fanaticism—Louis Simpson (171—72) suggests that the core of the plot, from this perspective, was derived from an actual religious controversy in Scotland a few generations before Hogg’s time—but its true power rests in its exhibiting to the reader the step-by-step disintegration of an already diseased mentality.