Occasional 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

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

A host of mid-Victorian writers in England, chiefly known for mainstream work of a very different sort, chose to dip into supernatural or non-supernatural horror in the course of a short story or a novella. The mere fact that not one of them—including the two most notable figures of the group, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins—felt the inclination to write a full-scale supernatural novel is in itself instructive: in a significant sense it constitutes an implicit repudiation of the aesthetic of the Gothic novel, which many novelists of the post-Gothic period must have recognised was seriously flawed in its attempt to engage an intrinsically fleeting emotion—the emotion of fear—over the length of a novel. While it is unclear to what extent these writers actually read the Gothic novels, their restriction of the terror tale to the short story would have long-lasting ramifications, extending in truth to the horror “boom” of the 1970s.

In the case of Dickens (1812—1870)—as we have already seen in the case of Poe—this reliance on the short story for supernatural terror was in a sense making a virtue of necessity, for the increasing magazine markets for short stories of all kinds—especially the periodical he himself founded and edited, Household Words (1850—59), later All the Year Round (1859—70)—provided a ready source of income for a resolutely professional writer. And yet, it is of interest that one of Dickens’s first ghost stories (virtually all his supernatural tales are ghost stories in the strictest and most literal sense) is a parody. “The Lawyer and the Ghost” (Pickwick Papers, 1837) tells of a clever lawyer who, when encountering a ghost in his chambers, engages in disputation with the entity, pointing out the folly of returning “exactly to the very places where you have been most miserable” (35) and thereby causing the ghost to withdraw. The scepticism of ghostly phenomena that this tale implies speaks volumes for the increasing rationalism of the age.

In several tales Dickens deliberately plays with the possibility that the ghostly manifestations are the result of hallucination, error, or other naturalistic causes. For example, in “The Queer Chair” (Pickwick Papers; also titled “The Story of the Bagman’s Uncle”) the protagonist, Tom Smart, staying at an inn, appears to see a chair turn miraculously into an old man—but the narrative has made it abundantly clear that Smart has imbibed a considerable amount of alcohol and that his vision may simply be a drunkard’s dream. But the supernatural is confirmed when, through the ghost’s intercession, Smart finds a letter that shows that a man who is wooing the widow innkeeper is already married.

Dickens was, indeed, not averse to using tried-and-true Gothic formulae for his own purposes, but on occasion his handling of them was not entirely sound. Consider The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain (1848). This very long story tells of a ghost who comes to an old man, Mr. Redlaw, who gradually realises that it may well be the “evil spirit of myself” (167). The ghost offers to wipe Redlaw’s memory of all the misdeeds of his past, but on condition that he must pass on this dubious gift to another if his soul is to rest in peace. This manifest borrowing of the Melmoth the Wanderer scenario plays out in a conventional manner; moreover, the story is so staggeringly verbose, and so full of inessential details and episodes, that the overall effect is severely weakened.

In other instances, Dickens chooses a supernatural framework for a conception that would probably have profited from a non-supernatural treatment. “The Ghost Chamber” (Household Words, October 1857) supplies a powerful portrayal of the brutalisation of a young woman by her tyrannical husband, who repeatedly orders her to die (he cannot be put to the trouble of actually killing her):

Shut up in the deserted mansion, aloof from all mankind, and engaged alone in such a struggle without any respite, it came to this—that either he must die, or she. He knew it very well, and concentrated his strength against her feebleness. Hours upon hours he held her by the arm when her arm was black where he held it, and bade her Die! (252)

The wife does die, and the husband is ultimately brought to justice and dies; but then Dickens drags in some ghostly phenomena that have no real bearing on the narrative, with the result that the grim depiction of marital hostility is diluted.

As for the celebrated novella A Christmas Carol (1843), I fear the only way to salvage this work aesthetically is to assume that it is a parody—a parody, specifically, on all the sentimental boobs over the decades who have swallowed this narrative as a pious moral exemplum. For the satire on poor Ebenezer Scrooge is so broad (“Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster” [90]), and the portrayal of the Cratchit family so preposterously saintly, that one would desperately like to see some hint of self-parody in the tale. But, alas! it is all too plain that Dickens took the tale seriously and wished others to do so.

What is striking about A Christmas Carol is the extraordinarily mundane and materialistic nature of its moral. Dickens makes it clear that Scrooge’s miserliness derives from the fact that he himself was haunted by the spectre of povery in his youth; and Scrooge makes a shrewd point on this subject: “’This is the even-handed dealing of the world!’ he said. ’There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!’” (113). The irony is that this is very much Dickens’s own apparent position, at least as far as this tale is concerned: the loving description of the bountiful Christmas dinner that the Cratchits enjoy focuses entirely on the abundance and variety of the foodstuffs; nowhere is there the faintest appreciation of the religious nature of the holiday (aside, of course, from Tiny Tim’s formulaic “God bless us every one!” [125]). And the only thing Scrooge can do, after he has seen the various ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future, is to give Cratchit a larger turkey—and this is portrayed as some kind of moral transformation on Scrooge’s part. After reading this wretched piece of sentimentalism, one is heartily inclined to agree with Ambrose Bierce’s fiery remark in a letter:

How I hate Christmas! I’m one of the curmudgeons that the truly good Mr. Dickens found it profitable to hold up to the scorn of those who take such satisfaction in being decent and generous one day in 365. Bah! how hollow it all is! Always on Christmas, though, I feel my own heart soften—toward the late Judas Iscariot. (A Much Misunderstood Man 59)

Toward the end A Christmas Carol descends into transparent allegory (“This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want” [134]), a fittingly trite conclusion to a story that is an aesthetic débâcle. But, crude and blundering as it may be, the tale does suggest as clearly as any in the history of literature how the supernatural can be used to point a moral. While it is conceivable that the visions shown by the ghosts of Christmas past and present could have been narrated non-supernaturally, the scenes revealed by the ghost of Christmas future—notably Scrooge’s own death—would have been difficult to encompass in a conventional mimetic manner, especially if these visions are, as here, meant as a means for a revision of Scrooge’s moral compass.

A Christmas Carol has an obvious, and no less sorry, antecedent in “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton” (Pickwick Papers, 1837), where goblins show a sexton various allegorical scenes for his own spiritual regeneration. The moralism here is just as heavy-handed as in its successor: “… he saw that men like himself, who snarled at the mirth and cheerfulness of others, were the foulest weeds on the fair surface of the earth; and setting all the good of the world against the evil, he came to the conclusion that it was a very decent and respectable sort of a world after all” (78).

But Dickens should be judged by his best, not his worst, specimens. Two late items stand out: “The Trial for Murder,” a.k.a. “To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt” (All the Year Round, Christmas 1865 [not cowritten with Charles Allston Collins, as frequently believed]), an effective tale of a murdered man whose ghost haunts the trial of his murderer; and, especially, “The Signalman” (All the Year Round, Christmas 1866), a poignant account of a spectral figure who appears to a railroad signalman and predicts three train disasters in succession—the third constituting the signalman’s own death.

Dickens’s contemporary and sometime collaborator Wilkie Collins (1824—1889) dabbled in both supernatural and non-supernatural horror throughout his long career. Collins is, justifiably, better known for the pioneering and extraordinarily clever detective novel The Moonstone (1852) and the post-Gothic thriller The Woman in White (1860), but his ventures into terror in short form are not to be despised. It may well be the case that the best of them—“A Terribly Strange Bed” (Household Words, 24 April 1852), a compelling account of a man who, after winning a fortune at gaming, unwisely stays overnight in the gaming house and is nearly killed by a four-poster bed whose top inexorably descends upon him; “The Dead Alive” (All the Year Round, December 1873), a clever detective story set in the United States—are non-supernatural, but others are of some interest.

Two of the most effective of these fall into the category of ambiguous horror tales, where it is impossible to determine whether the supernatural has come into play or not. In “Mad Monkton” (Fraser’s Magazine, November—December 1855) we are presented with a seemingly deranged individual, Alfred Monkton (his family, as the narrator makes abundantly clear, has had a history of hereditary insanity), engages in a desperate attempt to find the body of his uncle, who had died in a duel in Italy. Only after the narrative has progressed apace do we understand the reason for this desperation: Monkton is following a family tradition whereby all members of his family must be buried at his estate, Wincot Abbey, lest the line die out. The narrator falls in with Monkton’s quest and finds the body in the outhouse of a convent; but the ship taking the body back to England springs a leak, causing it to be abandoned by the crew. Monkton wished to stay on board and go down with the ship (and the corpse), but he is saved against his wishes and forced into a lifeboat. Sure enough, he later dies in England without issue, ending the Monkton line. We are left with the unanswerable puzzle: Is the family legend (or curse) true? Moreover, was there some supernatural hand guiding the entire series of events, including the sinking of the ship? Is it the purpose of some supernatural force or entity to extinguish the Monkton family? Collins leaves these questions deliberately unanswered.

As for “The Dream-Woman” (Temple Bar, November—December 1874), one might suspect that the numerous coincidences upon which this tale is built would be implausible unless the supernatural is brought into play, but again Collins refuses to tip his hat one way or the other. A man, Isaac Scatchard, at an inn seems to fancy (perhaps it is a dream) that a woman attacks him with a knife while he is lying in bed; but the next morning, the sheets are not torn, the locks are not broken, and he himself is uninjured. His mother, hearing the tale, tells him that the incident must have occurred on the anniversary of the very moment of his birth. Years later Isaac meets a woman, Rebecca Murdock, and marries her. The moment his mother meets her, she recognises her (from descriptions Isaac had given of his dream or hallucination) as the “dream-woman.” The marriage gradually deteriorates, and sure enough Rebecca attempts to stab her husband with a knife—on his birthday, exactly as in the dream. He leaves her, but is subsequently haunted by the thought of her returning, ending his life emotionally shattered. This is a powerful tale of domestic infelicity, augmented by the possibility of supernaturalism.

Other of Collins’s tales descend to Radcliffe’s “explained supernatural.” “The Dead Hand” (Household Words, 10 October 1857) tells of a man, Arthur Holliday, desperately looking for a room for the night and agreeing to stay in a room occupied by a dead man (a guest who had apparently died the previous day). While there are some effective passages dealing with the age-old human fear of close proximity with the dead, and at one point the corpse’s hand appears to move of its own accord, it is later revealed—deflatingly—that the fellow was not in fact actually dead. Collins compounds his error by making the erstwhile dead man the illegitimate half-brother of Holliday, an astounding coincidence that even the supernatural would be hard-pressed to account for.

The short novel The Haunted Hotel (Illustrated London News, Christmas 1877) has occasional points of effectiveness but, overall, does not quite justify the space it occupies. Lord Montbarry marries a Countess Narona, about whom much is whispered to her discredit. While staying in a villa in Venice, he dies of bronchitis, leaving his fortune to his widow. Insurance investigators studying the case seem to find no hint of foul play; but neither they nor others can account for the sudden disappearance of one Ferrari, a courier in the lord’s employ. The villa is later turned into a hotel, and relatives of the lord staying there seem to have bad dreams and experience other possible supernatural manifestations. The countess has arranged for an old flame of the lord’s, Agnes Lockwood, stay in the exact room where the lord died. At night she sees a horrible sight—a severed head seemingly hanging in mid-air:

The flesh of the face was gone. The shrivelled skin was darkened in hue, like the skin of an Egyptian mummy—except at the neck… . Thin remains of a discoloured moustache and whiskers, hanging over the upper lip, and over the hollows where the cheeks had once been, made the head just recognisable as the head of a man. Over all the features death and time had done their obliterating work. (113)

There is quite a bit more of this. It is an effective scene while it lasts—but it doesn’t last long. Very quickly it is shown that the severed head—that of Lord Montbarry—is a makeshift contrivance to terrify the occupants of the room. The full story is soon revealed: the countess’s brother, Baron Rivar, had desperately needed money for his alchemical experiments (the specifics of which the narrative never makes clear), and he had urged the countess to marry Lord Montbarry. They had killed him and substituted the body of Ferrari in his place. But what of the bad dreams that the relatives had suffered while in the hotel? These are casually brushed off as “delusions” (147) by Montbarry’s brother.

There are, as I say, moments of power in The Haunted Hotel, and there is an emotional intensity in the narrative that contrasts with much of the rest of Collins’s work; but here, as elsewhere, even in his short stories, there is a nagging suggestion of prolixity that weakens the overall effect. Collins is manifestly more comfortable with scenarios involving crime, suspense, and adventure, and his handling of the supernatural is shaky at best.

Dickens’s great contemporary, William Makepeace Thackeray (1811—1863), dabbled in the weird far more sporadically than Dickens and Collins. Possibly his inveterate tendency toward humour and satire rendered him unwilling (it would be impertinent to suggest he was unable) to engage in the atmospheric intensity required for success in supernatural or non-supernatural horror. It is, therefore, not surprising that what few weird tales there are in Thackeray’s repertoire are generally of a comic or deflationary type. Consider “The Painter’s Bargain” (Fraser’s Magazine, December 1838). Here a painter, trapped in an unhappy marriage, whimsically summons the Devil to escape his predicament (“Let me … sell myself to the Devil, I should not be more wretched than I am now!” [81]). An anomalous creature suddenly appears: “When first born he was little bigger than a tadpole; then he grew to be as big as a mouse; then he arrived at the size of a cat; and then he jumped off the palette, and, turning head over heels, asked the poor painter what he wanted of him” (83). It is significant that the painter remarks, “To tell the truth, I did not even believe in your existence” (83)—a sceptical sentiment no doubt shared by many of the educated class of the 1830s. The upshot of the story is that the painter urges the Devil to spend half a year with his wife, to see how much he likes it; at the end of that time, the Devil is happy to release the man from his contract. It is all very amusing, and the scepticism is significantly augmented by the Devil’s casual dismissal of a document by the Pope absolving the painter from all sin (“though the Pope’s paper may pass current here, it is not worth twopence in our country” [93]). Not much is changed by the final twist that it was all a dream.

“Bluebeard’s Ghost” (Fraser’s Magazine, October 1843) is a clever instance of the “explained supernatural”: Bluebeard’s widow, thinking of marrying again, is confronted by the ghost of her redoubtable husband—but this proves to be one of her suitors in disguise. The lengthy story “The Notch on the Ax” (Cornhill Magazine, April—June 1862) is full of varied supernatural phenomena, but the overall effect is insubstantial.

Even George Eliot (1819—1880), whose densely written novels of domestic life would seem the polar opposite of the supernatural, indulged in the weird on at least one occasion—the lengthy novella “The Lifted Veil” (Blackwood’s, July 1859). The protagonist, a boy named Latimer, appears to have not only visions of the future, but the ability to read other people’s minds; as he memorably puts it, thoughts from others “would force themselves on my consciousness like an importunate, ill-played musical instrument, or the loud activity of an imprisoned insect” (269). He is attracted to Bertha, who is engaged to his hated brother Alfred; and although this vision depicts Bertha as married to himself and being shrewish and bitter, he nonetheless continues to long for her. Sure enough, Latimer’s brother dies in an accident and he marries Bertha; their marriage deteriorates. The novella takes a somewhat awkward turn into pseudo-science when a friend, Charles Meunier, performs an experiment on Bertha’s maid that involves reviving her after her death by an influx of blood and other procedures; she revives, accuses Bertha of planning to kill Latimer by poison, and dies again. This grim tale, told with all the skill in character portrayal and psychological insight that distinguish Eliot’s novels, shows what a competent novelist can do with a supernatural subject.

Two other women who dallied with the supernatural in this period are worth a little—but only a little—notice. Elizabeth Gaskell (1810—1865) wrote a handful of ghost stories and mystery tales, chiefly at the urging of Dickens, but few of them amount to much. “The Old Nurse’s Story” (Household Words, Christmas 1852) is the only unequivocal supernatural tale in Gaskell’s oeuvre, and although it promises much it fails to deliver. When the old nurse who tells the story comes with her young charge, Miss Rosamund, to Furnivall Manor upon the death of Rosamund’s parents, she hears some mysterious organ playing and is told that it is the (dead) “old lord”—for the organ itself is “broken and destroyed inside” (26). But the relation of this phenomenon to the spectral young girl who leads Rosamund out into the snow, where she almost dies, is never clarified. In the end we are given a laborious “explanation” of the supernatural events with a mechanical and twice-repeated moral tacked on: “Alas! alas! what is done in youth can never be undone in age! What is done in youth can never be undone in age!” (38).

Other of Gaskell’s tales are still sorrier specimens. “The Ghost in the Garden Room” (Household Words, Christmas 1859) is a long, tedious story about a son who returns to rob his own family; but it contains an extraneous supernatural prologue that has nothing whatever to do with the actual narrative. This prologue was evidently added (and possibly written) by Dickens, who was planning a story cycle entitled “The Haunted House” in the Christmas 1859 issue of Household Words. The story has been reprinted without the prologue as “The Crooked Branch.” “Lois the Witch” (in Lois the Witch and Other Tales, 1861) is another long and tiresome story about the Salem witchcraft trial, focusing around a young Englishwoman who leaves Warwickshire to come to stay with relatives in Salem and is eventually tried and hanged as a witch. Gaskell follows the facts of the witchcraft panic faithfully enough, changing names (the Indian woman Tituba becomes Hota, and one Prudence Hickson is one of the teenagers who accuses Lois Barclay of being a witch), and along the way Gaskell utters the fairly routine sentiments of a now rationalist age regarding the appalling superstitiousness and hysteria of the Puritans; but the tale overall has little to recommend it.

“Curious If True” (Cornhill Magazine, February 1860) is of slightly greater interest in suggesting that the protagonist’s dreams of coming upon a chateau in France point to his having travelled back in time. But Gaskell telegraphs the punch by an early mention of “M. de Retz” (223), which any astute reader could puzzle out as the notorious fifteenth-century nobleman Gilles de Retz.

Gaskell’s work contains some fine descriptions of the rural countryside, and her interest in familial interrelations—the subject of Cranford (1853) and her other novels—is manifest; but her handling of the supernatural is clumsy and laborious, and its use in pointing elementary morals is unadventurous.

Not much more can be said of a much more significant—or, at any rate, prolific—dabbler in the supernatural, Amelia B. Edwards (1831—1892), who is of much greater interest to literature and culture by her fascination with Egypt in the 1870s, resulting in several pioneering books of Egyptian exploration. Although she spent much of her literary career writing the occasional weird tale, few rise above the level of routine ghost stories. Among these can be quickly cited such works as “An Engineer’s Story” (All the Year Round, Christmas 1866), about the ghost of a man who returns from the dead to prevent his murderer from wrecking a train as vengeance against the man who had married the woman he and his victim had fought over; and “The New Pass” (Routledge’s Christmas Annual, 1870), a tale of ghostly warning.

Some of Edwards’s tales are not even well thought-out or conceived. Consider “The Four-Fifteen Express” (Routledge’s Christmas Annual, 1866), another train story. The narrator sees both the ghost of a dead man (John Dwerrihouse) and the ghost of a living person (Augustus Raikes) on a train and on the station platform. Later it is ascertained that Raikes had killed Dwerrihouse. It is never clarified how a living person can have a ghost associated with him; but since Edwards sees no reason to account for the ghost of a dead person, it seems she has no trouble envisioning the other kind of ghost. This same scenario occurs in “Was It an Illusion?” (Arrowsmith’s Magazine, Christmas 1881), where the ghost of a living person (a cleric) and the ghost of a dead person (a small boy) are manifested: the cleric had murdered the boy, his illegitimate son. Nor should much attention be devoted to the novella Monsieur Maurice (1873). The ghostly phenomenon here is the appearance of a “brown man” (251) who turns out to be the spirit of an Arab who acts as a kind of guardian or protector of M. Maurice, a state prisoner staying at the house of Johann Ludwig Bernhard. The chief focus of the tale, indeed, is not on the supernatural but on the engaging friendship of Maurice and Bernhard’s nine-year-old daughter, who narrates the tale in her old age.

Only two stories by Edwards can be said to be noteworthy—and it is not insignificant that both of them eschew the already hackneyed ghost story formula. “The Discovery of the Treasure Isles” (Every Boy’s Magazine, March—July 1864) tells of the captain of a ship heading to Jamaica who hears of fabulous wealth obtainable in a mysterious realm called the Treasure Isles. Locating the island, he finds pearls, gold, and much other wealth; but then comes upon the old wreck of his own ship. He ages twenty years in a day. The captain’s slow realisation of the true state of affairs is genuinely chilling; and his return to England, his fabled wealth turned to sand and rock, his friends and family old or dead, is quietly poignant.

Even more striking is “The Recollections of Professor Henneberg” (in Miss Carew, 1865). A German professor is convinced that he has been reincarnated. Later he stumbles upon the manuscript of an old book written in his own handwriting by a German who died on the day of his birth. (It is not likely that Lovecraft borrowed this ending for “The Shadow out of Time,” since it is extremely improbable that he ever read Edwards’s story.)

Edwards’s work is noteworthy only in its vivid depictions of the topography of continental Europe. The great majority of her tales are set on the Continent, and she displays a fine sense of the customs and culture of France, Germany, and especially Italy. But her handling of the supernatural is unadventurous, and her narrative skills, like those of Elizabeth Gaskell, are not up to the task of engendering a genuine sense of supernatural terror.