High and Low - 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

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

It is somewhat uncanny that four novels, all published in 1847, embraced the supernatural in a multitude of manners and degrees. It is also of interest that two of these manifestly appealed to highbrow readers while the other two consciously sought to attract the masses, whose taste for the weird and flamboyantly supernatural had already been whetted by the penny dreadfuls, which had commenced in the 1830s. It is no surprise that the latter two considerably outsold the former two, but it is similarly no surprise that the latter would never have been rescued from the oblivion that was their due had they not featured the supernatural, and therefore caught the attention of the diligent scholars who have combed both the highs and the lows of our literary patrimony for specimens of their chosen field.

Of Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1818—1848) it is difficult to speak in small compass, and even a discussion of its specific supernatural manifestations requires some study of the book’s overall scope and purpose. The degree to which Wuthering Heights itself is a kind of Gothic castle may perhaps have been exaggerated by critics; Brontë very likely did absorb Gothic novels in her youth, but aside from random touches such as Nelly Dean’s offhand remark “I could not half tell what an infernal house we had” (65), not a great deal of emphasis is placed on the house’s supernaturalism, either potential or actual. More might be made of the demonic qualities of Heathcliff himself, although in the end much of the turmoil he causes is either a result of his flouting of Victorian social conventions or, more pertinently, of his carefully planned and ultimately successful quest to secure the Earnshaw/Linton property for himself as vengeance for his scornful treatment by these families and, especially, for Catherine’s refusal to marry him. Indeed, when Catherine Earnshaw writes a letter to Nelly asking, “Is Mr. Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? And if not, is he a devil?” (136), it is not entirely clear what led her to make such a statement, just as it is not entirely clear whether the emotional unity of Catherine and Heathcliff (“Nelly, I am Heathcliff” [82], Catherine says at one point) has been thoroughly established by the actual course of the narrative. Heathcliff, for his part, once accuses Catherine herself of being “possessed with a devil” (159) and later, after Catherine dies, states flamboyantly that he wants Catherine to haunt him: “You said I killed you—haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe—I know that ghosts have wandered on earth” (167). That last statement is augmented by Heathcliff’s much later remark that “I have a strong faith in ghosts” (289).

Supernaturalism presumably enters at the very end of the novel, when Heathcliff hears a sigh when he madly attempts to dig up Catherine’s grave, and then, after his own death, when rumours begin to emerge that both a male and a female ghost are seen around the graves. But the most striking supernatural incident is at the very beginning, when the man who hears the entire tale from Nelly Dean, Mr. Lockwood, hearing a tapping on the window, stretches out his hand to investigate: “my fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand!” (23). It is Catherine, of course. Lockwood first dismisses the incident as a nightmare, but later admits that “the place was haunted … it is—swarming with ghosts and goblins!” (25). The striking physicality of the ghost is not the least of its remarkable features.

The supernatural is even more fleeting in the most celebrated work, Jane Eyre, of Emily’s sister, Charlotte Brontë (1816—1855). And yet, what is of interest, from our perspective, is how Brontë stresses, especially in regard to Jane Eyre’s youth and upbringing, the degree to which she is sensitive to incursions of the supernatural. Consider her reaction when, as a child, she read “Bewick’s History of British Birds,” especially some of the pictures in the book, described as follows:

The two ships becalmed on a torpid sea, I believed to be marine phantoms.

The fiend pinning down the thief’s pack behind him, I passed over quickly: it was an object of terror.

So was the black, horned thing seated aloof on a rock, surveying a distant crowd surrounding a gallows. (9)

Not long thereafter, catching a glimpse of herself in a mirror, she sees the following:

the strange little figure there gazing at me, with a white face and arms specking the gloom, and glittering eyes of fear moving where all else was still, had the effect of a real spirit: I thought it like one of the tiny phantoms, half fairy, half imp, Bessie’s evening stories represented as coming up out of lone, ferny dells in moors, and appearing before the eyes of belated travellers. (14)

And finally, in the celebrated passage when young Jane is incarcerated in the dreaded “red room,” she reflects on what might ensue, given that her harsh aunt, Mrs. Reed, was not following her dead husband’s orders to treat Jane as one of her own children:

… as I sat looking at the white bed and overshadowed walls—occasionally also turning a fascinated eye towards the dimly gleaming mirror—I began to recall what I had heard of dead men, troubled in their graves by the violation of their last wishes, revisiting the earth to punish the perjured and avenge the oppressed; and I thought Mr. Reed’s spirit, harassed by the wrongs of his sister’s child, might quit its abode—whether in the church vault or in the unknown world of the departed—and rise before me in this chamber. (16—17)

The general implication is that this penchant for seeing ghosts and goblins—shared by Jane and others—is a product not only of the ghostly stories her nurse and others had told her as a child, but of the oppressive Christian environment that induces a belief in spirits around every corner.

The tendency continues as Jane matures. As she first comes to Thornfield Hall to take up her occupation as governess, she wonders whimsically “if there were a ghost at Thornfield Hall,” to which the sober Mrs. Fairfax replies: “None that I ever heard of” (107). In her first encounter with Edward Rochester she momentarily takes him for a goblin (113). The passing remark that Rochester spends little time at Thornfield because “he thinks it gloomy” (129) at once evokes the Gothic castle of Radcliffean provenance—a connexion that Brontë was well aware her readers would make.

Of course, there is no actual supernaturalism in the core “mystery” of Thornfield Hall—the incarceration, in the attic, of Rochester’s mad first wife, Bertha. There are fleeting attempts at suggesting (purely metaphorically) that Bertha is a kind of supernatural entity: at one point Jane hears a “demoniac laugh” (149); and much later she sees a “fearful and ghastly” (286) face. She elaborates to Rochester:

“It was a discoloured face—it was a savage face. I wish I could forget the roll of the red eyes and the fearful blackened inflation of the lineaments!”

“Ghosts are usually pale, Jane.”

“This, sir, was purple: the lips were swelled and dark; the brow furrowed; the black eye-brows wildly raised over the blood-shot eyes. Shall I tell you of what it reminded me?”

“You may.”

“Of the foul German spectre—the Vampyre.” (286)

This entire passage is of consuming interest in suggesting the readiness with which even educated persons of the period resorted to supernatural causation in explaining anomalous phenomena.

But supernaturalism does enter into Jane Eyre at a critical moment at the end. After she has left Thornfield in the wake of discovering Rochester’s still-living wife, she comes (by one of the most whopping coincidences that ever disfigured a great novel) to the home of the man who proves to be her first cousin, the clergyman St John Rivers. As St John relentlessly presses her to marry her and go with him on a missionary jaunt to India, she is on the point of yielding when she hears Rochester’s voice calling “Jane! Jane! Jane!” (424). At this point we are almost prepared to think that Brontë has engineered another whopping coincidence—but it quickly becomes apparent that Rochester is not there. So then are we to assume that the cry was merely a hallucination on Jane’s part—perhaps a psychological trick that her mind engendered, since she clearly does not wish to marry Rivers? It seems likely … until Rochester, now blinded and crippled following the burning of Thornfield and the death of Bertha, admits that he himself made such a cry at the exact time when Jane must have heard it (429). Jane observes: “The coincidence struck me as too awful and inexplicable to be communicated or discussed” (453). This telling use of the supernatural is clearly designed to underscore the psychic unity of Jane and Rochester—a unity that is, in many ways, far more convincing than that of Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. Rochester, indeed, is a kind of Heathcliff Lite—brooding, irascible, and occasionally violent, but nothing like the demon that Emily Brontë makes of her changeling; and there is reason to believe that Charlotte Brontë, who read Wuthering Heights in manuscript while writing Jane Eyre, picked up a few tips in characterisation from her sister. The novel has, of course, suffered perhaps the most catastrophic posthumous fate ever visited upon a noble work of literature by serving as the ultimate fount of the tens of thousands of wretched “women’s gothics” of our own day.

With Varney, the Vampyre we are in a different world altogether. This staggeringly immense shambles of a novel—running, by my count, in excess of 950,000 words—is the most celebrated example of the “shilling shocker”: it was in fact sold in “parts,” like Dickens’s novels, that sold for a shilling, although these “parts” actually postdate the three-volume book publication. I am hardly concerned with the debate as to whether Thomas Preskett Prest or James Malcolm Rymer was the actual author; E. F. Bleiler’s argument, in the preface to the 1972 Dover edition of the work, has convinced most scholars that Rymer is the author, but whether the one hack or the other wrote it is of no consequence. There is no doubt that the author—let us assume it is Rymer—wished to spin out his tale as long as he could purely for the added revenue it would bring. The novel has no structure, no focus, no direction, and almost nothing to recommend it. That it is somehow regarded as a “classic” of vampire literature only testifies to the relative mediocrity of most vampire literature, Dracula not excepted.

As with Bulwer-Lytton’s novels, the author of Varney is clearly unaware either that Poe exists or that the Gothic movement is dead as a doornail. The temporal setting of the novel is not entirely clear, but it eventually becomes more or less clear that we are in the early eighteenth century: Sir Francis Varney, who was apparently born in the reign of Charles I (1625—49), admits to being 180 years old (771). The great majority of the action takes place in England. One of the first scenes in the book is Sir Francis Varney invading the bedroom of a young woman, Flora Bannerworth, and sucking her blood—a sexual element that, after a fashion, shapes the entire work. Much, much later, Varney laments that “I have not been able to obtain the consent of one that is young, beautiful, and a virgin; I might then for a season escape the dreaded alternative” (686). This statement is itself unclear: it appears to account for Varney’s increasingly desperate attempts not merely to victimise a succession of young, beautiful, and (presumably) virginal women, but also to marry one of them; but what then? If some young woman were to marry him, would she voluntarily allow him to suck her blood from time to time? How is this any less awful than the “dreaded alternative” of sucking someone’s blood by force?

Indeed, the central issue of how Varney became a vampire is never properly clarified. At one point he tells the tale of his early life, stating that he had once been addicted to gambling, had lost a considerable sum of money to a professional gambler, and had then killed that person. He was subsequently tried for his various crimes and hanged. At this point he is resurrected galvanically by a surgeon named Chillingworth. Later Varney meets a Hungarian nobleman who tells him about vampires, and Varney becomes convinced that he is one. But it is by no means clear whether he is or isn’t, and Rymer never explains how being revived galvanically can turn one into a vampire.

Varney does introduce some curious “powers” of the vampire that the subsequent literary tradition either ignored or jettisoned. Varney experiences no difficulty in going about by day or night. Although he claims that his “horrible nature … forbade him any nourishment but human blood” (772), there are a few occasions where he appears to partake moderately of food and drink. But the most curious feature of all, in this regard, is Varney’s ability to be revived by moonlight—a feature that Rymer apparently lifted from H. A. Marschner’s German opera Der Vampyr (1828). One character maintains that a vampire is “tangible and destructible” (48), unlike other supernatural entities, and this indeed appears to be the case. On several occasions Varney is in fact killed—but the moonlight revives him. This is, indeed, a rather effective touch, and one of the few powerful moments in the novel is an episode where Varney is placed in a mausoleum, seemingly dead, and is slowly brought to life as the moonlight gradually creeps over him.

Otherwise, Varney, the Vampyre is a wretchedly confused and incoherent work. Its characters are all stereotypes—most notably Flora Bannerworth, the very image of the insipid Gothic heroine, who can do nothing but faint and requires her menfolk to come repeatedly to her rescue—and the novel’s dragging prolixity destroys anything remotely akin to a cumulative denouement. Varney’s increasing disgust for his anomalous condition finally leads him to commit the spectacular suicide of jumping into Mt. Vesuvius, but by this time we have lost all interest in his condition or his fate.

Marginally better, at least from the standpoint of prose style and construction, is Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf by George W. M. Reynolds (1814—1879), serialised in Reynolds’s Miscellany (6 November 1846—24 July 1847) before appearing in book form. The novel is, in an insignificant sense, a sequel to Reynolds’s earlier supernatural work, Faust: A Romance of the Secret Tribunals (serialised 1845—46; book publication 1847), a relatively straightforward retelling of Goethe’s Faust its depiction of Wilhelm Faust, who is granted twenty-four years of supernatural power by the Devil, who at the end tosses him into Mt. Vesuvius—whence the ever-resourceful James Rymer pillaged the culminating scene of Varney. In Wagner, Faust (not named until several chapters into the book) comes to Fernand Wagner, a ninety-year-old man leading a wretched life, and persuades him to accept an offer to become a werewolf in exchange for regained youth, power, and wealth. Wagner does so by drinking a potion.

It is unclear what earlier werewolf literature or tradition Reynolds was following, but one of the curiosities of Wagner’s transformation is that it has nothing to do with the moon; rather, he becomes a werewolf on the last day of the month at sunset, so that it is the sun rather than the moon that is the governing element of his metamorphosis. This point is never explained or elaborated, merely accepted. The first time Wagner is so transformed (ch. 12) is indeed an effective and virtually self-standing horrific episode—more effective, indeed, than the corresponding chapter in Marryat’s Phantom Ship—but the fact that Wagner kills an innocent child while in his wolfish state creates a moral dilemma for readers and renders him an unwittingly unsympathetic character.

But the overriding flaw in Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf is simply that, even more so than Faust (in which the central character merely engages in a succession of non-supernatural adventures, including an affair with Lucretia Borgia), the overwhelming bulk of the action is not supernatural and has nothing to do with Wagner’s condition. Most of the work revolves around the efforts of Nisida, a determined and ruthless young woman who falls in love with Wagner, to prevent her brother, Francisco, Count of Riverola, from marrying Agnes, Wagner’s granddaughter. There is also an ancillary story of the Countess of Arestino and her affair with one Manuel d’Orsini. The end result is that Wagner and the supernaturalism inherent in his state become a virtual side issue in the dynastic fortunes of the noble families at the centre of the action.

Reynolds, too, writes as if the Gothic novel were a thriving rather than a hackneyed and passé tradition. There is the obligatory dungeon scene—this time with Agnes, seized at the behest of Nisida and thrust into a convent—and the obligatory band of robbers, generally coming to the aid of the countess and her lover. Then there is the odd episode where Agnes’s brother converts to Islam and becomes the grand vizier for the Arabian Sultan. The Devil appears to Wagner on a few occasions, but to no particular effect. Wagner and Nisida are for a time stranded on an uninhabited island, creating a bizarre Crusoe-like effect.

Reynolds’s prose is, to be sure, infinitely superior to that of Varney, and his talent for story construction—albeit of a slick, almost machine-made sort—is evident; but it is clear that supernaturalism as such was not his interest. His final supernatural novel, The Necromancer (serialised 1851—52; book publication 1852), is heavily reliant on Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer in its story of a man granted the boon of 150 years of power, who can reclaim his soul if he persuades six virgins to give up theirs; but here too the thrust of the action is sensational adventure and political machinations. It has long been lamented that the werewolf theme has never produced a canonical literary work, and Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf does not come close to filling the bill.