Mid-Victorian Horrors - Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

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

Mid-Victorian Horrors
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

The influence of Poe was by no means quick to manifest itself, even though his works were widely disseminated in the English-speaking world during and after his lifetime, with Baudelaire contributing significantly to his European reputation with skilful translations beginning in 1852. In large part, however, the supernatural writing in the middle decades of the nineteenth century saw an extension of Gothicism that harked back to the novels of the early part of the century. Increased venues for short story writing on both sides of the Atlantic did lead to a substantial increase in supernatural work in short form, especially in the United States, but many writers embodied the supernatural in novelettes or novellas that ill conceal their verbosity and absence of tight construction.

We will see some slight influence of contemporary scientific developments upon the weird work of this period: it was, let us recall, in 1859 that Darwin unwittingly created an intellectual revolution with The Origin of Species. Indeed, a passage in an otherwise undistinguished work by Amelia B. Edwards, “The Phantom Coach” (1864), betrays the extent to which some supernatural writers were forced to go on the defensive because scientific advance was making conventional ghosts and goblins increasingly implausible and even the butt of jest:

“The world,” he said, “grows hourly more and more sceptical of all that lies beyond its own narrow radius; and our men of science foster the fatal tendency. They condemn as fable all that resists experiment. They reject as false all that cannot be brought to the test of the laboratory or the dissecting-room. Against what superstition have they waged so long and obstinate a war, as against the belief in apparitions? And yet what superstition has maintained its hold upon the minds of men so long and so firmly? … The comparison of causes with effects, however valuable in physical science, is put aside as worthless and unreliable. The evidence of competent witnesses, however conclusive in a court of justice, counts for nothing. He who pauses before he pronounces is condemned as a a trifler. He who believes, is a dreamer or a fool.” (67)

There is no need to point out the fallacies of this position if taken as a straightforward intellectual utterance. What is significant is the degree to which scientific advance was requiring supernatural writers to become ever more subtle and indirect in their display of “apparitions” and other weird phenomena, and to imbue those phenomena with symbolic significance in order to justify their appearance in a tale that claimed aesthetic value.