Horrors in the Mainstream
The Deluge: British and European Branch
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century
Increasingly, during this period, a number of authors who had established themselves as writers of mainstream fiction tried their hands, either singly or on several occasions, at the supernatural. The end result is that some of these figures have established themselves as significant contributors to the weird, because of both the quality and the quantity of their work. It would take considerable space to specify exactly why these writers turned to the supernatural, but overall it can simply be stated that they found the mode particularly felicitous in embodying the aesthetic and philosophical concerns that dominate their mainstream work.
The entire literary output of Rudyard Kipling (1865—1936) is more intimately connected with his life than that of many other writers; in a real sense, every single work is a fragment of autobiography. The most significant things about him are his birth in Bombay and the fact that the majority of his early life was spent shuttling between England and India, with the result that he gained a powerful sense of the richness and the terror of the Indian subcontinent and of his own place as a member of the colonial ruling class. His return to India in 1882, following years of schooling in England, spelled the beginning of his literary career. The Kipling family was now settled in Lahore, in the then Indian province of the Punjab (now a part of Pakistan), and Rudyard became an assistant editor of the Civil and Military Gazette. By 1884 he was already writing short sketches for the paper; one of the earliest, “The Dream of Duncan Parrenness” (25 December 1884), is his first tale of the supernatural. This story of a doppelgänger could be read as a kind of anticipation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) in its suggestion of a “double” whose features reveal both the years and the sins of the protagonist.
Another effective story, though not strictly a weird tale, is the brooding prose poem “’The City of Dreadful Night’” (10 September 1885). The title derives from the pessimistic poem of that name by the Victorian poet James Thomson (“B. V.”)—a poem that, as Kipling admits in his autobiography, Something of Myself (1937), “shook me to my unformed core” (37) when he read it as a teenager. Kipling’s haunting account of the thousands of men and women who sleep in the streets of Lahore because of the oppressive heat conveys much of the exoticism he found in the land of his birth. He knew India better than he knew England, and yet he was not himself an Indian: the barrier between Caucasian and “colored,” between ruler and ruled, was unbridgeable.
In the winter of 1885 the Kiplings produced a family magazine, Quartette, published by the Civil and Military Gazette. It contained several more of Kipling’s weird tales, including “The Phantom ’Rickshaw” and “The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes.” These stories were collected in The Phantom ’Rickshaw and Other Tales (1888). The original preface to that volume—rarely reprinted in later editions—supplies what few hints we have regarding Kipling’s intentions or purposes in writing weird tales:
This is not exactly a book of downright ghost stories, as the cover makes belief. It is rather a collection of facts that never quite explained themselves. All that the collector is certain of is, that one man insisted upon dying because he believed himself to be haunted [“The Phantom ’Rickshaw”]; another man either made up a wonderful lie, or visited a very strange place [“The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes”]; while the third man was indubitably crucified by some person or persons unknown, and gave an extraordinary account of himself [“The Man Who Would Be King”].
The peculiarity of ghost-stories is that they are very seldom told first-hand. I have managed, with infinite trouble, to secure one exception to this rule [“My Own True Ghost Story”]. The other three stories you must take on trust; as I did. (ix—x)
Brief and reserved as this is, it perhaps tells us more than is evident at first glance. The comment on “The Phantom ’Rickshaw” plainly suggests that a supernatural interpretation is not necessitated by the “facts” of the story. This chilling tale of a man apparently haunted by the ghost of a woman whom he jilted can be accounted for on strictly naturalistic grounds, as hallucinations engendered by the man’s consuming guilt. (One wonders, too, whether the scenario is meant in some way to echo an unrequited love affair on Kipling’s own part: he had fallen in love with an Englishwoman, Flo Gerrard, just prior to returning to India in 1882, but was prevented by her family from marrying her.) The horror in this tale rests in the fact that the ghost, far from being vengeful, seeks only to ingratiate herself back into her loved one’s favour—an anticipation of Robert Hichens’s masterful “How Love Came to Professor Guildea” (1900).
“The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes” is similarly a non-supernatural suspense tale; here there is not even a pretence at the supernatural. “My Own True Ghost Story” might be termed pseudo-supernatural, in that the supernatural is suggested throughout but in the end is explained away naturalistically. Are we to believe that the incident actually happened to Kipling? There is no reason to doubt it, and his preface to The Phantom ’Rickshaw explicitly asserts that it did.
In the end, the most prominent feature in Kipling’s earlier weird tales is neither character nor language, but place—specifically, India. The fact that the first nine of his horror stories were written while Kipling was in India, and that thirteen of the first fourteen are set either there or in neighbouring Afghanistan, points to the consuming fascination that this exotic realm exercised upon Kipling’s imagination. In Something of Myself he provides hints of how India drew out his penchant for the strange:
The dead of all times were about us—in the vast forgotten Muslim cemeteries round the Station, where one’s horse’s hoof of a morning might break through to the corpse below; skulls and bones tumbled out of our mud garden walls, and were turned up among the flowers by the Rains; and at every point were tombs of the dead. Our chief picnic rendezvous and some of our public offices had been memorials to desired dead women; and Fort Lahore, where Runjit Singh’s wives lay, was a mausoleum of ghosts. (48)
The prevalence of heat, of death, of disease (chiefly cholera, typhoid, and dysentery), and of the ancient, brooding, mystical civilisation of India—these things are perhaps all we need to account for Kipling’s tendency toward the weird. His first-hand knowledge of India is evident on every page of his tales, whose realism is also enhanced by the liberal use of numerous Indian words that had so thoroughly entered the English vocabulary at this time that Kipling did not bother to define them. At the same time, the loneliness and homesickness that he must have felt, and which were certainly felt by many of the English civil servants in India—poignantly conveyed in “At the End of the Passage” (Lippincott’s, August 1890)—are constantly in evidence.
In 1891 two substantial story collections, containing several weird items, appeared: Mine Own People and Life’s Handicap. The former contained one of Kipling’s grisliest ghost stories, “The Recrudescence of Imray” (whose original title I prefer to the bland later title, “The Return of Imray”), while the latter features what is without question Kipling’s most accomplished horror tale, “The Mark of the Beast” (Pioneer, 12 and 14 July 1890). Although the “moral” of the story—an Indian magician seeks revenge upon a hapless Englishman who had wronged him—is elementary, many of the details are uncommonly fine. The gradual transformation of the man into a beast is signaled at one point by his grovelling in the dirt and his blunt assertion, “The smell of the earth is delightful” (75); and upon his complete transformation he is suddenly referred to by the narrator as “it” rather than “he.”
In 1902, Kipling and his wife settled in his final home—“Bateman’s,” in Etchingham, Sussex. The bittersweet ghost story “’They’” (Scribner’s Magazine, August 1904) was largely inspired by their drives around the English countryside—in a primitive vehicle called a “Locomobile”—while searching for a house. Again, the ghosts of the children in this story are not seeking to inspire fear, but rather love—the love they failed to receive in life.
The outbreak of World War I saw Kipling write several stories about the war, including his final weird tale, “’Swept and Garnished’” (Nash’s Pall Mall Magazine, January 1915). This moving tale of the ghosts of children killed in the war manages to extend at least a modicum of sympathy toward the lonely German woman at the centre of the narrative, although Kipling’s loyalties clearly lay with the Allies.
Rudyard Kipling’s horror stories are a small but distinctive facet of his diverse work. He wrote several works of pure fantasy (preeminently the Jungle Books and Just So Stories, but also Puck of Pook’s Hill) and even a few tales that might be considered early excursions into science fiction (“Wireless,” “With the Night Mail”); but his horror tales—many of them evocative of the India and England he knew so well—represent a form to which he returned again and again during the first twenty years of his literary career. They vary widely in tone, style, and subject matter—from comic ghost stories (“Haunted Subalterns” [Civil and Military Gazette, 27 May 1887]) to grim tales of psychological terror (“The Wandering Jew” [Civil and Military Gazette, 4 April 1889]) to chilling stories of revenants (“The Lost Legion” [Strand, May 1893]). Hovering over them all is a fine sense of the psychological effects of the supernatural upon sensitive individuals, a ruggedly “masculine” prose style that enhances the no-nonsense realism of the scenario, and above all a sense of place that firmly grounds the tales in the distinctive locales in which they are set.
Kipling never incorporated the supernatural in a novel, but two authors who did do so produced imperishable classics within five years of each other—Robert Louis Stevenson (1850—1894) and Oscar Wilde (1854—1900). But both The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (Lippincott’s, July 1890; book publication 1891) are seriously flawed, although in almost opposite directions. Both, of course, are classic tales of doppelgängers, and both would appear to have derived some benefit from previous instances of this theme, notably Poe’s “William Wilson.”
To write about both these novels now, given how familiar their plots are and how little of a surprise their purportedly cataclysmic revelations engender, is a difficult proposition; but there is every reason to believe that the initial readers of both works found both their fundamental themes titillatingly appalling and their “surprise” endings strikingly effective. Accordingly, our judgment of these works should not be affected by our familiarity with their conclusions, although Stevenson comes close to giving the game away at several points, especially when a document presumably by Hyde is found to be written in a handwriting identical to Jekyll’s.
As it is, Stevenson himself lets the cat out of the bag about two-thirds the way through the novella, presenting a lengthy statement by Jekyll that constitutes the final segment of the text. It is here that whatever moral or aesthetic value exists in the work resides; for up to this point we have been merely reading a cleverly executed suspense narrative in which the apparently separate individuals Dr. Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde are becoming increasingly fused. Hyde’s nefarious actions—we are introduced to him at the very beginning of the narrative as stepping heedlessly on a child who has gotten in his way, and later he flies into a rage and kills with a cane an elderly man who proves to be no less a figure than the M.P. Sir Danvers Carew—may seem a trifle tame in our day of serial killers and worse, but Stevenson has accomplished his overall mission in portraying the fundamental moral divergence of Jekyll and Hyde.
What Jekyll states, both in elucidation and, implicitly, in exculpation of his actions, is that, having come to realise “the profound duplicity of life” (56)—that is, that every human being “is not truly one, but two”—he wonders whether these elements or facets of one’s personality could be separated by science, specifically by drugs. Jekyll’s ostensible purpose in doing so is altruistic: if the “evil” side of a person could somehow be suppressed or eliminated, only the “good” would remain.
There are a number of problems with this formulation, chief of which is the naïveté of thinking that it is so easy to distinguish what is “good” and what is “evil” in man, especially when it is by no means clear whether moral “good” and “evil” have any genuine meaning aside from what is or is not socially acceptable to a given society at a given moment of its history. But Stevenson does not wrestle with moral conundrums of this kind; indeed, it could be said that his philosophically shallow presentation of human morality is a large part of the reason why Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has enjoyed such popularity over the years, since it corresponds exactly with the philosophically shallow views of the average individual.
There are also problems with Stevenson’s execution of the plot. Jekyll manages to manufacture the drug—the chief component of which he refers to as “a particular salt which I knew, from my experiments, to be the last ingredient required” (58)—remarkably easily. If he had come up with this formula with such effortlessness, why had it not been discovered decades or centuries before? Only much later does Jekyll provide a lame qualification, stating that it was the “impurity” (71) of the salt in the first batch of his potion that caused his transformation into Hyde.
It should be noted that Stevenson, to his credit, is not maintaining that Jekyll is all “good” and Hyde all “evil.” The latter may be the case, but the former is not. Indeed, in the earlier part of the narrative we are told that Jekyll had “sinned” (21) in youth; evidently, this is a reference (as Jekyll confesses) to a “certain gaiety of disposition” (56) that conflicted with the scholarly seriousness he wished to present to the world. All this seems to us harmless enough, but to Jekyll it is clearly a matter of concern: “I was in no sense a hypocrite; both sides of me were in dead earnest; I was no more myself when I laid aside restraint and plunged in shame, than when I laboured, in the eye of day, at the furtherance of knowledge or the relief of sorrow and suffering” (56). I suppose we are obliged to make allowances for Victorian reticence in Stevenson’s refusal to spell out exactly what “shame” Jekyll engaged in. In any event, the result is that Jekyll, even before he takes the potion, is a kind of double in himself, the “good” and “evil” elements already battling within his personality for dominance. After he begins taking the potion, he is alarmed not only at the radical transformation of his personality as represented by Hyde but by the fact that, at a later juncture, the transformation occurs without his taking the potion at all. It was, indeed, after he succumbed to the potion after two months of resisting it that he, as Hyde, killed the M.P. There may, again, be a certain logical difficulty at this point. Becoming Jekyll again, he is naturally remorseful at the death he has caused; but when, again without the potion, he becomes Hyde, he as Hyde gets in touch with a doctor, Hastie Lanyon, and asks him to bring a fresh supply of drugs to change himself back again. If Hyde, who has been consistently portrayed as entirely “evil,” is dominant in the man’s personality at this moment, why would he wish to change back to Jekyll? Is it merely to evade the authorities for the murder of the M.P., since a number of individuals had identified Hyde as the murderer and forced him to go into hiding? Whatever the case, the new potion does not work, leading Jekyll/Hyde to come up with the contrived “impurity” argument.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is, in truth, a novella that should have been a novel. Stevenson has a potentially rich and complex idea at his disposal, but he has expressed it in a disappointingly conventional and morally unadventurous manner, and the work is so compressed that the full ramifications of the concept fail to appear. Possibly Stevenson—who, quite frankly, occupies no higher than the second rank of literary greatness, his work in general aesthetically crippled by a jaunty glibness of style, an evil facility in plot construction, and a general absence of profundity—was incapable of giving the idea more detailed treatment; and even though the idea is now in the public domain, it is not clear that anyone else has done so either.
The Picture of Dorian Gray suffers, conversely, from being a novella in conception that is a long-winded and meandering novel in execution. Wilde probably erred in expanding the original Lippincott’s serialisation into a longer novel, although the serialisation itself is beset by the same aesthetic deficiencies that plague the novel. In essence, Wilde is too much the wit and satirist to buckle down to the difficult task of creating a unified supernatural novel that develops cumulative power and atmosphere. Its conclusion is spectacular, but the longueurs that the reader must endure before reaching it render the work overall an aesthetic failure.
There is also a serious difficulty in ascertaining exactly why the supernatural mechanism works as it does. The painter Basil Hallward has produced a splendid portrait of the attractive young Dorian Gray; it is, indeed, a picture that, as the artist confesses, shows “the secret of my own soul” (9). As we all know, Dorian gradually deteriorates morally, but the deterioration only shows up in the picture. The question is: Why? What is it about this particular picture that has caused this result? Whether or not the secularist Wilde could have seriously envisioned, even for aesthetic purposes, the notion of a man selling his soul to the Devil to obtain his desired ends, there is virtually nothing in the novel that would lead one to believe that such a thing has occurred. At the very end, Dorian confesses, “The soul is a terrible reality. It can be bought, and sold, and bartered away” (177), but that is all. The only other thing we are told is that the portrait “had changed in answer to a prayer” (89), specifically a prayer by Dorian that he remain eternally youthful in appearance. The matter is elaborated at the end:
Ah! in what a monstrous moment of pride and passion he had prayed that the portrait should bear the burden of his days, and he keep the unsullied splendour of eternal youth! All his failure had been due to that. Better for him that each sin of his life had brought its sure, swift penalty along with it. There was purification in punishment. Not “Forgive us our sins” but “Smite us for our iniquities” should be the prayer of man to a most just God. (181)
But if this “prayer” is the mechanism, then why don’t other portraits change in the manner in which Dorian’s does? Surely Dorian is not the only one who has fervently wished to retain his youth. This confusion—or, rather, absence of a valid accounting for the supernatural phenomenon—cripples the novel from beginning to end.
There are, however, some other redeeming elements, notably the suggestion that it is in fact the debonair Sir Henry Wotton who is the chief catalyst in Dorian’s moral degradation. It is Wotton who contends that “youth is the one thing worth having” (22)—a point that Dorian does not yet accept, but gradually comes to embrace. Then there is the issue of Sibyl Vane. This actress in a music hall inspires deep love—or infatuation—in Dorian, and he proposes to her after knowing her only three weeks. Although warned against such a mésalliance, he persists in the relationship—until the day when he sees her deliberately acting badly on stage (she did so out of love for Dorian), after which he breaks off all relations with her. It is at this juncture that Dorian first notices that the picture has altered: “there was a touch of cruelty in the mouth” (77). He later repents and vows to go ahead with the marriage—but in the meantime Sibyl has killed herself. Dorian reflects ruefully: “So I have murdered Sibyl Vane” (83). Note that at this point his moral decline has apparently not yet begun; but it is Wotton who blandly urges Dorian not to grieve over Sibyl. By this time, Basil Hallward notes with dismay: “Something has changed you completely,” going on to add significantly, “It is all Harry’s influence” (91).
It is, however, only when Wotton gives Dorian a French book about a man who engages in the exploration of sin (probably an allusion to Huysmans’s A Rebours, although there is now reason to think that Wilde was not thinking specifically—or, at any rate, exclusively—of that book) that “strange rumours about his mode of life” (106) begin. Dorian is now thirty-eight years old, and his speech, full of cynical witticisms, is now virtually indistinguishable from Wotton’s. It is now that Hallward declares: “Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face. It cannot be concealed” (126). Hallward then sees the altered portrait and is appalled; Dorian kills him in a fit of anger, then compounds his crime by blackmailing a chemist friend, Alan Campbell, into destroying the body.
The spectacular conclusion—Dorian, appalled by his moral corruption, takes up the very knife with which he had killed Hallward and proposes to destroy the portrait; a scream is heard; Dorian is found dead, his face old and wrinkled, while the portrait has returned to its pristine condition—is a clever variant of the self-murder of “William Wilson.” But the long stretches of inessential maundering in The Picture of Dorian Gray—especially chapter 15, unwisely added for the 1891 book publication, and relating the idle chatter of Dorian and other guests at a dinner party—destroys whatever atmosphere of terror has so far been engendered, with the result that this novel, like Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, is a work fueled by a powerful conception but marred by its bungling treatment.
Wilde did not write any other weird specimens aside from “The Canterville Ghost”—his exquisite fairy tales can at best be considered contributions to the literature of fantasy—but Stevenson did produce some able shorter specimens. Probably the most central tale, from a supernatural perspective, is “The Bottle Imp” (New York Herald, 8 February—1 March 1891), a story that evokes the old-time Gothic novel in its account of a curse handed down by means of an imp in a bottle. Set in Hawaii (which Stevenson first visited in 1888), the tale deals with a bottle that has an imp from hell in it; the imp can do wondrous things for its owner, such as making him fabulously wealthy, but there is a catch: the owner must sell the bottle before he dies, and at a loss (i.e., for less than what he paid for it) or else “he must burn in hell for ever” (104). At the outset, there is no reason why we should believe this statement—made by the current owner of the bottle—and the buyer of the bottle, a Hawaiian named Keawe, is himself sceptical. But when Keawe’s uncle dies, making him wealthy, he begins to wonder. Then something dreadful happens: he finds he has leprosy. He begins to think that the bottle (like Jacobs’s monkey’s paw) brings disadvantages along with benefits. Keawe now undertakes a long search to buy the bottle back, since he feels it is his only means to cure himself; he does so at last, but finds that he can purchase it only for a single penny, thereby apparently condemning himself to everlasting perdition. His wife, Kokua, ultimately comes to his rescue. The tale is clever and suspenseful, and laced within the supernatural scenario is the self-sacrifice of both Keawe and Kokua, who are each willing to undergo an eternity in hell merely so that the other can survive and be comfortable.
Other of Stevenson’s tales are either non-supernatural or tread close to the borderline of parable or allegory. Of the latter, “Markheim” (in The Broken Shaft, ed. Sir Henry Norman, 1886) is representative. Markheim kills the owner of an antique shop, apparently for money. Before he can find it, another man comes in—he knows Markheim and addresses him by name. It does not take long for both the reader and Markheim to ascertain that this is the Devil. The Devil’s offer to help Markheim to escape his difficulty is made on a very simple premise: “The bad man is dear to me; not the bad act” (107). The Devil recommends that Markheim kill the maid who, having heard the commotion, is about to enter the shop; this will give Markheim more time to search for the shop owner’s money. But instead Markheim turns himself in.
As for “The Body-Snatcher” (Pall Mall Christmas Extra, 1884), there is never any suggestion that this is anything other than an expression of loathing at the practice of unearthing the freshly dead from their graves—in this case, to supply cadavers for medical colleges. The protagonist, Fettes, finds it bad enough that economic necessity compels him to engage in purchasing cadavers in this manner; but he is horrified when one of the corpses brought to him is of a woman acquaintance who had been alive just the day before. When he consults a doctor, Wolfe Macfarlane, about the possible nefariousness of the body-snatchers, he is appalled that Macfarlane blandly advises him to pay no attention. Matters turn for the worse when another cadaver brought in proves to be that of a man named Gray, who had lorded it over Macfarlane sometime earlier. Is Macfarlane himself engaged in evil practices? The most memorable features of the story are a vivid description of the act of grave-robbing—
To bodies that had been laid in earth, in joyful expectation of a far different awakening, there came that hasty, lamp-lit, terror-haunted resurrection of the spade and mattock. The coffin was forced, the cerements torn, and the melancholy relics, clad in sackcloth, after being rattled for hours on moonless by-ways, were at length exposed to uttermost indignities before a class of gaping boys. (146)
—followed by a memorable tableau wherein Fettes and Macfarlane, going to a rural cemetery to disinter an elderly woman who has died, dig her up and place her between themselves as they ride back in their cart in the driving rain. (In a rather contrived trick ending, the body in question proves to be that of Gray.) “The Body-Snatcher” makes as good a case as any for regarding non-supernatural horror tales as legitimately within the purview of weird fiction.
And what do we make of “Ollala” (Court and Society Review, Christmas 1885)? There is a suggestion of vampirism here, but the dénouement does not render the story supernatural. The focus is not in fact on Ollala—the daughter of a Spanish family with whom an English soldier is recuperating from his wounds—but upon Ollala’s mother. The story is, ultimately, one of hereditary degeneration: the family was once high-born but has now fallen into a state of decadence. When the soldier cuts his finger, the mother seizes it and sucks his blood. But again there is no suggestion that the mother engages in the practice to extend her life supernaturally; it is, as Ollala at last testifies, simply the result of a decline on the evolutionary scale: “the seed passed on, it was wrapped in flesh, the flesh covered the bones, but they were the bones and the flesh of brutes, and their mind was as the mind of flies” (185). It is true that, earlier in the narrative, the soldier heard a strange cry that he thought came from a wild beast; but even here, we are not led to believe that the mother is some kind of shape-changer and has literally become an animal.
We cannot leave Stevenson without touching upon “Thrawn Janet” (Cornhill Magazine, October 1881), a tour de force of sorts in being written almost entirely in Scots dialect. The device is clever in creating verisimilitude in what might otherwise be a luridly flamboyant tale of the corpse of a witch reanimated by the Devil. Stevenson mars the story, however, at the end by an implausible contrivance whereby the hand of God comes to the rescue.
What exactly we are to do with Vernon Lee (pseudonym of Violet Paget, 1856—1935) is a vexing question. Although the author of two volumes of short fiction, Hauntings: Fantastic Stories (1890) and Pope Jacynth and Other Fantastic Tales (1904), that would appear to be central to the supernatural tradition, not to mention a thought-provoking essay, “Faustus and Helena: Notes on the Supernatural in Art” (Cornhill Magazine, August 1880), Lee’s work is of a curious and indefinable sort: heavily influenced by the aesthetic theories of Walter Pater, her tales to my mind are written with panache but are, from a strictly supernatural perspective, largely unsatisfactory. Many of them, in any case, are only on the borderline of the weird. Such a tale as “Pope Jacynth,” about Satan’s attempt to tempt the Pope, is merely a religious parable. “Dionea” (in Hauntings) is a meandering and not entirely coherent tale of a strange girl found floating in the sea who, as she grows up, is suspected of being a witch—or perhaps some kind of avatar of a pagan goddess. “Winthrop’s Adventure” (first published as “A Culture-Ghost,” Fraser’s Magazine, January 1881), is an interesting experiment in attempting to evoke horror from music. A man, Julian Winthrop, hears someone playing a little-known musical composition that apparently dates to c. 1780. He recounts how, a year earlier, he had been travelling in Lombardy and come upon an old painting (dating to 1782) of a male singer holding a musical score; this singer, Ferdinanda Rinaldi, had been assassinated. Winthrop finds Rinaldi’s house and stays in it on St John’s Eve—the night when the dead arise from their graves. Sure enough, that night he sees a ghostly figure playing at the harpsichord and singing—the same song he later hears at the outset of the story.
Lee will probably be remembered chiefly for “Oke of Okehurst,” first published as A Phantom Lover (1886). This is in fact not a tale of the supernatural, although there are suggestions of it. Oke of Okehurst wants the narrator, a painter, to paint portraits of him and of his wife, Alice. Alice strikingly resembles the portrait of a seventeenth-century ancestor, also named Alice. It turns out that this Alice and her husband, Nicholas, had murdered a poet, Lovelock, who had been paying too much attention to Alice. Can the present-day Alice be some kind of revenant? She is manifestly fascinated by her ancestor, and the painter himself regards her as “perverse and dangerous” (176). When someone suggests that the residents of the house hold a fancy-dress ball, Alice dresses up in a riding outfit that the seventeenth-century Alice had worn when she had helped to kill Lovelock. Oke in fact thinks he sees Lovelock here and there around the house; Alice teases him about it. In the end, Oke kills his wife when he fancies that Lovelock is sitting next to her on the couch, then kills himself. There is, as I say, nothing supernatural here, but the suggestions of it are intriguing; and the tale provides an able psychological dissection of the personalities of both occupants of the house.
Another woman writer, Clemence Housman (1861—1955), the sister of A. E. and Laurence Housman, wrote one imperishable work of the supernatural—the novella The Were-Wolf (1896). It has frequently been lamented that the werewolf trope does not have a canonical literary treatment, unlike the vampire (Stoker’s Dracula) and other tropes; but The Were-Wolf comes very close to being unsurpassable. With a seriousness of treatment far beyond that of the hack George W. M. Reynolds, Housman writes a tale that dances delicately on either side of the boundary separating the supernatural from the fairy or folk tale. It is, perhaps, somewhat transparent that the werewolf, a strikingly beautiful woman who calls herself White Fell, is opposed by a man named Christian; but the work is saved from descending into religious allegory by the tense depiction of the conflict between Christian and his brother, Sweyn, who has fallen into an infatuation with White Fell and violently opposes Christian’s attempt to reveal her true nature. The most gripping scene in the story is its climax, where we witness a mesmerising chase of White Fell (still in the form of a woman) by Christian: he cannot strike a woman, but at midnight she will turn into a wolf and at that point will be fair game for him: “You may live till midnight” (42), he tells her grimly. Her transformation is spectacular, after she herself has mortally wounded Christian with an axe: “And before the final blank overtook his dying eyes, he saw that She gave place to It; he saw more, that Life gave place to Death—incomprehensibly” (48—49). Christian has managed to kill White Fell, and he is found by his brother in the position of Christ on the cross.
Housman wrote an interesting novel, The Unknown Sea (1898)—in which a sailor is torn between the placid life of his home in a coastal village and a possibly supernatural woman on an offshore island—but it pales in comparison with the pathos, delicacy, and withal the clutching horror of The Were-Wolf.
Some attention should probably be given to the Scottish writer William Sharp (1855—1905). Under his own name he wrote a superb tale of a revenant, “The Graven Image,” as well as a curiously powerful novelette about religious mania, “The Gypsy Christ”; both stories are collected in The Gypsy Christ and Other Tales (1895). But Sharp deserves notice for the powerful array of tales and poems written under the female pseudonym Fiona Macleod, which he made elaborate efforts to portray as a real person. The Macleod tales, uneasy combinations of supernaturalism, fantasy, and Celtic myth and legendry (some of it perhaps invented or altered out of recognition), are unique in the literature of their time. For our purposes the most significant work is the long short story “The Sin-Eater” (in The Sin-Eater and The Washer of the Ford and Other Legendary Moralities,1895), an evocative account of that curious Celtic myth of the sin-eater—the stranger who, coming upon a body laid out for burial, must consume the cake placed on the corpse’s body as a means of “eating” the sins of the deceased so that he or she can be properly interred. It is not clear that anything supernatural occurs in this haunting narrative, but the atmosphere of primitive morbidity is unmatched.
Toward the end of the century, perhaps under the influence of Wilde and others, a number of eccentric works emerged from the press that to this day evoke the decadence, esoteric learning, and bizarre imagination typical of one phase of the Yellow Nineties. Two such works appeared in 1894. The Stone Dragon and Other Tragic Romances by R. Murray Gilchrist (1867—1917) is only on the borderline of the weird. Gilchrist was a prolific novelist and regional writer, but is now chiefly remembered for this single volume of tales, whose chief focus is the fusion of love and death. The supernatural rarely enters his work except in random tales such as “The Return,” about the return of a lover from the dead to reclaim his mistress. I don’t find the volume quite as piquant as its devotees apparently have, and it has nowhere near the demonic power of Robert W. Chambers’s The King in Yellow (1895); but it is a work to be reckoned with.
Somewhat more interesting is Aut Diabolus aut Nihil and Other Tales by an American, Julian Osgood Field (1852—1925), who spent most of his adult life in England. Aside from being a bit of a scoundrel—he spent some time in jail after involving Lady Ida Sitwell (mother of Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell Sitwell) in a financial scandal—he seems to have enjoyed parading his learning in his tales, some of which are genuinely supernatural. Perhaps the most notable is “A Kiss of Judas,” a vampire tale that contains some striking anticipations of Dracula in its depiction of a hideous-visaged Moldavian man who may be one of the descendants of Judas and who can kill with a kiss. This Moldavian later transforms himself into a lovely woman and kisses (that is, bites) the narrator in the neck and kills him. Other tales in the volume are non-supernatural but contain their elements of charm, but Field’s verbosity and his parading of erudition tend to dilute the overall effect.
Then there is The Lost Stradivarius (1895) by J. Meade Falkner (1858—1932), a mystical novel that attempts to evoke supernatural terror from music. Although not without power, the novel is ultimately slight and ephemeral; it fails to justify the excessive praise of some of its partisans. Falkner wrote other novels, one or two of which might be considered weird, but none has survived except The Lost Stradivarius.
The degree to which elements of horror entered into the literary mainstream in this and later eras is exemplified in no greater example than in Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness” (Blackwood’s, February—April 1899). Among the bewildering plethora of interpretations to which this landmark tale has been subject, the claim that it constitutes a contribution to the literature of horror has not infrequently been made. E. H. Visiak, as an occasional fantastic novelist, was an early Conrad scholar particularly keen on this point; for him, “Heart of Darkness” is “the story of an appalling transformation in a man’s soul, and it is as horrific—and as symbolic—as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but it is not, as is Stevenson’s nightmare story, an extravaganza, for it is true in a realistic way and, in the general circumstances, at least, is faithful to Conrad’s own experience” (224). But in my judgment, although it draws upon the horrific tradition to some extent, it cannot be classified as a work of horror tout court. To be sure, nothing supernatural occurs in the tale, for all the hauntingly dreamlike features of Marlow’s journey into the depths of Africa to encounter the enigmatic Kurtz. And although Marlow sporadically portrays Kurtz as a kind of quasi-supernatural figure—“This initiated wraith from the back of Nowhere” (122); “an animated image of death” (135); “His was an impenetrable darkness” (147)—these comments are so manifestly meant metaphorically that their relevance to the traditions of supernatural horror are by no means clear. And as for Kurtz’s celebrated concluding utterance—“The horror! The horror!” (147)—Marlow himself provides his insight into its significance: “Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that could not see the flame of the candle, but was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness. He had summed up—he had judged. ’The horror!’” (148—49). That, on one level, “Heart of Darkness” expresses a kind of shuddering loathing of the inscrutable darkness of the cosmos certainly brings it close to the realm of horror literature; but to restrict it to that realm would be a cruel limiting of its aesthetic richness.