Christian Supernaturalism - 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

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

It is no surprise that supernatural writing that was based on explicitly Christian premises actually increased in this and a later period at the exact time when religious scepticism was leading to the radical increase, especially in England, of agnosticism and outright atheism. Writers who endorsed Christian notions of dualism, the efficacy of religious symbols and ritual, and the like found in supernatural fiction a means to validate their beliefs even if it meant invoking the terrors of Satan and his accompanying demons; for the defeat of these evil forces could then be shown to be a triumph of the religion they supported. Two of the most prominent writers of this sort were Captain Marryat and Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

There is no question of the Christian orientation of The Phantom Ship (1839), the chief supernatural work of Captain Frederick Marryat (1792—1848), and a fairly conventional retelling of the “Flying Dutchman” legend. The basic thrust of the legend, faithfully reported by Marryat, is the impiety of Philip Vanderdecken, as he attempts to round the Cape of Good Hope. His wife remembers what he told her:

“’For nine weeks did I try to force my passage against the elements round the stormy Cape, but without success; and I swore terribly. For nine weeks more did I carry sail against the adverse winds and currents, and yet could gain no ground; and then I blasphemed—ay, terribly blasphemed. Yet still I persevered. The crew, worn out with long fatigue, would have had me return to the Table Bay; but I refused; nay, more, I became a murderer—unintentionally, it is true, but still a murderer. A pilot opposed me, and persuaded the men to bind me, and in the excess of my fury, when he took me by the collar, I struck at him; he reeled; and, with the sudden lurch of the vessel, he fell overboard, and sank. Even this fearful death did not restrain me; and I swore by the fragment of the Holy Cross preserved in that relic now hanging round your neck, that I would gain my point in defiance of storm and seas, of lightning, of heaven, or of hell, even if I should beat about until the Day of Judgment.” (10—11)

The upshot is that Vanderdecken can only be absolved if he expresses contrition on that holy relic.

All this, in essence, is backstory. The bulk of the actual narrative is taken up with the not particularly compelling story of the attempt by Vanderdecken’s son, also named Philip, to track down his father and present him with the holy relic (one of the seemingly infinite fragments of the Cross that seem to survive here and there) that will lead to Vanderdecken’s absolution. In actuality, this quasi-supernatural premise is merely the makeshift catalyst for a variety of nautical adventures that was the real focus of much of Marryat’s work. Along the way, we meet a particularly insipid heroine, Amine Potts, whom Philip has married, along with all kinds of eccentric nautical characters, among them the one-eyed pilot Schriften, who himself seems not entirely human (Amine says of him: “That creature must be supernatural” [206]). Philip, for his part, believes that Schriften “has his part to play in this wondrous mystery” (246), and, of course, proves to be correct.

That The Phantom Ship is nothing more than a post-Gothic pastiche is signified by, among other things, Amine’s seizure by the Inquisition, since she at one point practises a kind of magic (learned from her mother) in order to learn the fate of her husband. Philip spans the globe—or at least a wide arc around the Cape, from Madagascar to Goa—in search of his father. The one effective scene in the novel is the actual encounter of the Flying Dutchman by Philip’s ship, the Utrecht. The two ships seem to be on a collision course:

[Philip] said no more; the cutwater of the stranger touched their sides; one general cry was raised by the sailors of the Utrecht—they sprang to catch at the rigging of the other vessel’s bowsprit, which was now pointed between their masts—they caught at nothing—nothing—there was no shock—no concussion of the two vessels—the stranger appeared to cleave through them—her hull passed along in silence—no cracking of timbers—no falling of masts—the foreyard passed through their mainsail, yet the canvas was unrent—the whole vessel appeared to cut through the Utrecht, yet left no trace of injury—not fast, but slowly, as if she were really sawing through her by the heaving and tossing of the sea with her sharp prow. (215)

Philip actually catches sight of his father on board the phantom ship—but, alas! we have many more chapters to go, so the predictable denouement is put off yet again. In the end the elder Vanderdecken, by forgiving his enemy Schriften, thereby “conformed to the highest attributes of Christianity” (349) and is absolved; the Flying Dutchman crumbles to dust.

The Phantom Ship has a celebrated episode (ch. 39) that has been printed as a separate narrative entitled “The Werewolf.” This is itself an orthodox werewolf story of no particular distinction, and its sole purpose is to show that one Krantz, a ship captain encountered by Philip, has a legitimate reason for credence in the supernatural. Otherwise, the novel is an aesthetic disaster—appallingly prolix, and written in a stiff, cumbersome style that reads like a bad translation from a foreign language. The Phantom Ship is actually the central component of a loose trilogy of novels by Marryat. The first is Snarleyyow; or, The Dog Fiend (1837), one of the most unintentionally comic titles ever devised, and dealing with a ship captain named Vanslyperken who is accompanied by a particularly vicious dog whom the crewmen believe to be a demon of some kind. These two novels are set in the late seventeenth century, and they are followed by The Privateersman (1846), a non-supernatural historical novel that carries the action forward into the early eighteenth century. That such an accomplished writer as Joseph Conrad (see “Tales of the Sea,” Outlook, 4 January 1898) found some merit in Marryat’s work will, I suppose, keep it alive after a fashion.

A far more polished craftsman and prose stylist than Marryat, Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803—1873) wrote, among his prodigal output, two immense supernatural novels that today make pretty sad reading, along with a masterful short story that will be read as long as supernatural literature remains of compelling interest to the literary public. Of Zanoni (1842) and A Strange Story (serialised in All the Year Round, 10 August 1861—8 March 1862; book publication 1862) there is no need for laborious discussion. Curiously enough, in spite of the widely varying scenes, characters, and events in the two books, they are united by a single thread—the perceived need to combat atheism and freethought. Bulwer-Lytton, himself deeply learned in occultism and mysticism, found himself increasingly out of step with the growing scientific materialism of his age, and he used these novels to wage a rearguard attack upon what he believed to be the increasingly dismissive attitude of scientists and philosophers in regard to Christian notions of God, soul, and the afterlife.

On the surface, the battle against atheism does not seem to be at all what is at stake in Zanoni, an elaboration of a novella, “Zicci,” that had appeared in 1838. In an introduction the author maintains that the work is a romance, but that it is “a truth for those who can comprehend it, and an extravagance for those who cannot” (xvi)—in other words, that the wild, histrionic, and supernatural events of the tale can be read merely as sensationalism by the ignorant, but as divine truth by the initiated. The novel chiefly revolves around a love triangle between Zanoni, a mysterious figure who appears to have discovered the elixir of life; Clarence Glyndon, a young Englishman who yearns for occult knowledge (one of his ancestors, we are told, had been an alchemist [75]); and Viola Pisani, an Italian woman with whom both Glyndon and Zanoni are in love. Bulwer-Lytton’s overall agenda is not slow in manifesting itself. The conflict of science and occultism (which Bulwer-Lytton sees as some kind of higher truth) is stated bluntly:

Real philosophy seeks rather to solve than to deny. While we hear, every day, the small pretenders to science talk of the absurdities of Alchemy and the dream of the Philosopher’s Stone, a more erudite knowledge is aware that by Alchemists the greatest discoveries in science have been made, and much which still seems abstruse, had we the key to the mystic phraseology they were compelled to adopt, might open the way to yet more noble acquisitions. The Philosopher’s Stone itself has seemed no visionary chimera to some of the soundest chemists that even the present century has produced. Man cannot contradict the Laws of Nature. But are all the Laws of Nature yet discovered? (93—94)

The reasoning here is of some interest: in effect, Bulwer-Lytton is appealing to science itself to refute science—or, at least, to show that future scientific discovery may triumphantly reveal that the alchemists and other occultists were right all along.

The vehicle through which Bulwer-Lytton makes his point is Rosicrucianism. This movement, emerging out of Germany in the early seventeenth century, was a confused mixture of alchemy, astrology, cabbalism, and much else, and was taken seriously by a wide array of thinkers, including Descartes. Bulwer-Lytton seizes upon the notion of the Rosicrucians as a secret society, maintaining that Zanoni and his colleague (or teacher), Mejnour, are the last remaining members of a society that originated, according to Zanoni, in the classical period with the Neoplatonists. Zanoni portrays the society as wholly benevolent—they are seekers after knowledge and also of “the Fount of Good” (347), whatever that may mean. Mejnour, for his part, wishes to create a race of beings that will be “the true lords of this planet” (174)—a plan that sounds sinister enough but is ultimately portrayed as quite the reverse. The secret of extending life is itself depicted as a kind of benign medical knowledge.

The danger in all this, as Zanoni warns the eager Glyndon, is the possibility of encountering “the terrible Dweller of the Threshold” (221). What kind of an entity is this? Glyndon finds out: in his impetuous haste to gain “preternatural knowledge” (158), he unwittingly summons the Dweller after imbibing the elixir of life:

By degrees, this object shaped itself to his sight. It was as that of a human head, covered with a dark veil, through which glared, with lurid and demoniac fire, eyes that froze the marrow of his bones. Nothing else of the face was distinguishable—nothing but those intolerable eyes; but his terror, that even at the first seemed beyond nature to endure, was increased a thousand-fold, when, after a pause, the phantom glided slowly into the chamber… . Its form was veiled as the face, but the outline was that of a female; yet it moved not as move even the ghosts that simulate the living; it seemed rather to crawl as some vast misshapen reptile … All fancies, the most grotesque, of Monk or Painter in the early North, would have failed to give to the visage of imp or fiend that aspect of deadly malignity which spoke to the shuddering nature in those eyes alone. (232—33)

All this is quite effective as a horrific set-piece, but it is plain that Bulwer-Lytton intends it symbolically. But what is the Dweller a symbol of? Evidently we are to regard him (or it) as a kind of punishment inflicted upon Glyndon because he drank the elixir merely for the purpose of extending his life, without gaining sufficient wisdom to use that extension prudently. In this sense, the Dweller is a symbol of hubris.

The fact that the novel is set in the Reign of Terror is no accident. Bulwer-Lytton has chosen this setting to underscore his point that rampant atheism (which he conceives to be the ultimate root of the French Revolution) can only lead to horror and bloodshed; in essence, the Reign of Terror is a kind of political Dweller of the Threshold. It is significant that Zanoni banishes the Dweller—which has been haunting Glyndon incessantly ever since he summoned it—by an appeal to his religious faith:

“Rejoice, then!—thou hast overcome the true terror and mystery of the ordeal. Resolve is the first success. Rejoice, for the exorcism is sure! Thou art not of those who, denying a life to come, are the victims of the Inexorable Horror. Oh, when shall men learn, at last, that if the Great Religion inculcates so rigidly the necessity of FAITH, it is not alone that FAITH leads to the world to be; but that without faith there is no excellence in this—faith is something wiser, happier, diviner, than we see on earth!—the Artist calls it the Ideal—the Priest Faith. The Ideal and Faith are one and the same. Return, O wanderer! return. Feel what beauty and holiness dwell in the Customary and the Old.” (350)

If this somewhat incoherent message signifies anything, it is that smug British attitude of the post-revolutionary period (embodied as well in Burke) that the pieties and political conservatism embodied in British Christianity are superior to the wild radicalism of the philosophes. Glyndon also engages in a rather grotesque attempt to kill Robespierre, failing miserably; but Zanoni succeeds, inciting Robespierre’s enemies to kill him. And in a final act of altruistic piety, Zanoni summons the “Evil Omen, the dark Chimera” (361), who tells him that Viola, now in prison and about to be guillotined, will be saved only if Zanoni sacrifices himself for her. In a final lecture Zanoni tells her “of the sublime and intense faith from which alone the diviner knowledge can arise—the faith which, seeing the immortal everywhwere, purifies and exalts the mortal that beholds—the glorious ambition that dwells not in the cabals and crimes of earth, but amid those solemn wonders that speak not of men, but of God” (379).

If Zanoni is marred by its longwindedness and by Bulwer-Lytton’s fatal penchant for schoolroom lecturing, A Strange Story is still more crippled by dragging verbosity. Its religious and philosophical agenda is even clearer. Its protagonist is Allen Fenwick, a physician who settles in a small English town. His philosophical orientation is announced at the outset: “I had espoused a school of medical philosophy severely rigid in its inductive logic. My creed was that of stern materialism” (7). The tone of this passage makes it plain that Fenwick is due for an intellectual fall. Fenwick is, in some sense, a mere observer in the conflict between a curious figure named Margrave, who shows up in the town, and Sir Philip Derval, a mystic and occultist who wishes to “discover and to bring human laws to bear upon a creature armed with terrible powers of evil” (138)—presumably Margrave. One of the few virtues of the novel is the effective portrayal of Margrave as a being both subhuman and superhuman. At one point he exclaims: “Man! man! could you live but an hour of my life you would know how horrible a thing it is to die!” (102)—can this mean that Margrave himself has found the elixir of life? This turns out to be the case, but the real thrust of the remark is a metaphysical one: the denial of the immortality of the soul leads to unbearable horror at the thought of extinction, which then pollutes and corrupts life itself. One of the major foci of the novel is to convince the reader that the immortal soul actually exists, and Bulwer-Lytton performs the task in a particularly crude manner: Fenwick, who has expressed doubts as to whether the soul is distinct from the mind, conveniently goes into a trance and sees the tripartite essence of Margrave (body, mind, soul, each in a different colour). Well, I guess that settles that!

Derval—who had declared that “there is truth in those immemorial legends which depose to the existence of magic” (152)—is found murdered, and a steel casket containing certain “medicines” is missing. Fenwick is actually arrested on suspicion of murdering Derval; evidently he has been framed by Margrave. Margrave’s “Shadow” comes to Fenwick in the prison, declaring that he can free Fenwick upon his agreeing to certain conditions. Fenwick agrees and is released. At this point Julius Faber, the physician whom Fenwick replaced, returns to the scene. Although Faber presents a convincing case that all the seemingly supernatural phenomena that Fenwick has experienced can be accounted for psychologically, Faber himself spends much time expressing his own belief in God, the soul, the afterlife, and so forth. Fenwick, however, is not yet ready to accept this aspect of Faber’s teaching.

Many of Fenwick’s actions are inspired by his love for Lilian Asheigh. She is a relatively colourless creature who serves merely as the catalyst of certain phases of the novel’s action. After Fenwick has married Lilian, she receives a poison pen letter from someone in the community accusing her of moral improprieties of various sorts. Incredibly, she goes mad as a result, and much of the rest of the novel is spent in Fenwick’s increasingly harried attempts to cure her. (A woman in the town later admits to writing the letter—under Margrave’s influence.) Fenwick then decides to take Lilian away from England, joining Faber in Australia. The motive for this action will become evident in due course. Faber delivers a ponderous lecture:

“… whenever I look through the History of Mankind in all ages and all races, I find a concurrence in certain beliefs which seems to countenance the theory that there is in some peculiar and rare temperaments a power over forms of animated organization, with which they establish some unaccountable affinity; and even, though much more rarely, a power over inanimate matter.” (329—30)

This is presented as a kind of pseudo-scientific accounting for some of the seemingly supernatural phenomena associated with “magic,” as well as with mesmerism and witchcraft. In effect, Bulwer-Lytton is reverting to the idea expressed in Zanoni that “magic” may simply be a kind of science whose laws orthodox science has not yet discovered. What relevance this has to the overall thrust of the novel is not entirely clear. In any event, Margrave suddenly appears on the scene, declaring that he has discovered the “elixir of life” (371), stating later that his “faculties … are given to all men, though dormant in most” (394). As Lilian is now dying, Fenwick agrees to help Margrave make more of the elixir, which is running short, so that he can continue life and also so that Lilian can be saved. Gold is needed, it would appear—hence the transparency of the need to shift the locale to Australia, where an abundance of gold can be had with little difficulty. Unfortunately, after laborious attempts to collect the gold and fashion the elixir, a stampede of animals fleeing a fire causes most of the elixir to be spilled.

This seemingly lamentable eventuality proves, however, to be Fenwick’s salvation. He now reflects on the situation: he had (in his earlier stance as a materialistic physician) tried reason; he had just now tried magic; but both had failed. “Where yet was Hope to be found? In the soul” (430):

“All my past, with its pride and presumption and folly, grew distinct as the form of a penitent, kneeling for pardon before setting forth on the pilgrimage vowed to a shrine. And, sure now, in the deeps of a soul first revealed to myself, that the Dead do not die forever, my human love soared beyond its brief trial of terror and sorrow. Daring not to ask from Heaven’s wisdom that Lilian, for my sake, might not yet pass away from the earth, I prayed that my soul might be fitted to bear with submission whatever my Maker might ordain.” (431)

But never fear: in a contrived happy ending, Lilian recovers.

A Strange Story is, in some senses, an impressive achievement, but its philosophical agenda is too plain to make it a convincing weird tale in its own right. The narrative is so relentlessly symbolic—down to its characters, each of whom merely represents not much more than an intellectual idea—that the supernatural is not, and cannot be, regarded as significant in itself. Marie Roberts maintains that “A Strange Story presents a powerful philosophical argument for the immortality of the soul” (189), but in fact Bulwer-Lytton’s arguments are quite unconvincing and easily refuted.

What is remarkable in all this is that Bulwer-Lytton, in one instance, did finally get down from his hobby-horse (and also reined in his habitual prolixity) and produced a gem of the supernatural in “The Haunted and the Haunters; or, The House and the Brain” (Blackwood’s, August 1859), possibly the single most reprinted story in the history of supernatural fiction. If nothing else, as an aesthetic accomplishment the tale would be difficult to excel. In announcing his intention to explore a reputedly haunted house (based on an actual house in Berkeley Square), the first-person narrator not only makes an elaborate protestation of scepticism but treats the whole adventure as a lark: he speaks to his servant with delighted relish, “From what I hear there is no doubt that something will allow itself to be seen or to be heard—something perhaps excessively horrible” (287). The gradualness with which the supernatural phenomena manifest themselves—first, the footprints of a child appear; then a chair moves; then the servant flees the house, crying, “Run! Run! It is after me!” (294)—creates a powerful sense of cumulative horror. At this point the narrator anticipates what Allen Fenwick would say in A Strange Story:

Now, my theory is that the supernatural is the impossible, and that what is called supernatural is only a something in the laws of nature of which we have been hitherto ignorant. Therefore, if a ghost rises before me, I have not the right to say, “So, then, the supernatural is possible,” but rather, “So, then, the apparition of a ghost is, contrary to received opinion, within the laws of nature, namely, not supernatural.” (295—96)

This is all very clever, and this time it is not dynamited by subsequent events, but rather confirmed by them. The narrator goes on to say—again in anticipation of A Strange Story—that a ghost is not the soul of a dead person, but “the eidolon of the dead form” (305). In the end, we learn that the ghostly phenomena were brought on by a former tenant who, with her husband, murdered her brother and nephew for inheritance money. But this somewhat mundane “explanation” is further augmented by a subsequent passage—one inexplicably omitted from many printings of the story, even though it validates the subtitle—that the true origin of the phenomena is the mesmeric influence of a preternaturally aged individual (the “brain” of the subtitle).

Whether William Harrison Ainsworth (1802—1882) is worth discussing in this context, or any context, is an open question. Amidst his appalling array of dreary and unreadable historical novels we find occasional ghosts, curses, and the like, but they all amount to nothing. The Lancashire Witches (1849) still retains some vestige of a reputation, but it is an entirely non-supernatural historical account of a seventeenth-century witch trial.