The Supernatural in Fiction
[Note: This is taken From Andrew Lang's Adventures Among Books.]
It is a truism that the supernatural in fiction should, as a general rule, be left in the vague. In the creepiest tale I ever read, the horror lay in this—there was no ghost! You may describe a ghost with all the most hideous features that fancy can suggest—saucer eyes, red staring hair, a forked tail, and what you please—but the reader only laughs. It is wiser to make as if you were going to describe the spectre, and then break off, exclaiming, “But no! No pen can describe, no memory, thank Heaven, can recall, the horror of that hour!” So writers, as a rule, prefer to leave their terror (usually styled “The Thing”) entirely in the dark, and to the frightened fancy of the student. Thus, on the whole, the treatment of the supernaturally terrible in fiction is achieved in two ways, either by actual description, or by adroit suggestion, the author saying, like cabmen, “I leave it to yourself, sir.” There are dangers in both methods; the description, if attempted, is usually overdone and incredible: the suggestion is apt to prepare us too anxiously for something that never becomes real, and to leave us disappointed.
Examples of both methods may be selected from poetry and prose. The examples in verse are rare enough; the first and best that occurs in the way of suggestion is, of course, the mysterious lady in “Christabel.”
Who was she? What did she want? Whence did she come? What was the horror she revealed to the night in the bower of Christabel?
And then what do her words mean?
What was it—the “sight to dream of, not to tell?”
Coleridge never did tell, and, though he and Mr. Gilman said he knew, Wordsworth thought he did not know. He raised a spirit that he had not the spell to lay. In the Paradise of Poets has he discovered the secret? We only know that the mischief, whatever it may have been, was wrought.
If Coleridge knew, why did he never tell? And yet he maintains that “in the very first conception of the tale, I had the whole present to my mind, with the wholeness no less than with the liveliness of a vision,” and he expected to finish the three remaining parts within the year. The year was 1816, the poem was begun in 1797, and finished, as far as it goes, in 1800. If Coleridge ever knew what he meant, he had time to forget. The chances are that his indolence, or his forgetfulness, was the making of “Christabel,” which remains a masterpiece of supernatural suggestion.
For description it suffices to read the “Ancient Mariner.” These marvels, truly, are speciosa miracula, and, unlike Southey, we believe as we read. “You have selected a passage fertile in unmeaning miracles,” Lamb wrote to Southey (1798), “but have passed by fifty passages as miraculous as the miracles they celebrate.” Lamb appears to have been almost alone in appreciating this masterpiece of supernatural description. Coleridge himself shrank from his own wonders, and wanted to call the piece “A Poet’s Reverie.” “It is as bad as Bottom the weaver’s declaration that he is not a lion, but only the scenical representation of a lion. What new idea is gained by this title but one subversive of all credit—which the tale should force upon us—of its truth?” Lamb himself was forced, by the temper of the time, to declare that he “disliked all the miraculous part of it,” as if it were not all miraculous! Wordsworth wanted the Mariner “to have a character and a profession,” perhaps would have liked him to be a gardener, or a butler, with “an excellent character!” In fact, the love of the supernatural was then at so low an ebb that a certain Mr. Marshall “went to sleep while the ‘Ancient Mariner’ was reading,” and the book was mainly bought by seafaring men, deceived by the title, and supposing that the “Ancient Mariner” was a nautical treatise.
In verse, then, Coleridge succeeds with the supernatural, both by way of description in detail, and of suggestion. If you wish to see a failure, try the ghost, the moral but not affable ghost, in Wordsworth’s “Laodamia.” It is blasphemy to ask the question, but is the ghost in “Hamlet” quite a success? Do we not see and hear a little too much of him? Macbeth’s airy and viewless dagger is really much more successful by way of suggestion. The stage makes a ghost visible and familiar, and this is one great danger of the supernatural in art. It is apt to insist on being too conspicuous. Did the ghost of Darius, in “Æschylus,” frighten the Athenians? Probably they smiled at the imperial spectre. There is more discretion in Cæsar’s ghost—
says Brutus, and he lays no very great stress on the brief visit of the appearance. For want of this discretion, Alexandre Dumas’s ghosts, as in “The Corsican Brothers,” are failures. They make themselves too common and too cheap, like the spectre in Mrs. Oliphant’s novel, “The Wizard’s Son.” This, indeed, is the crux of the whole adventure. If you paint your ghost with too heavy a hand, you raise laughter, not fear. If you touch him too lightly, you raise unsatisfied curiosity, not fear. It may be easy to shudder, but it is difficult to teach shuddering.
In prose, a good example of the over vague is Miriam’s mysterious visitor—the shadow of the catacombs—in “Transformation; or, The Marble Faun.” Hawthorne should have told us more or less; to be sure his contemporaries knew what he meant, knew who Miriam and the Spectre were. The dweller in the catacombs now powerfully excites curiosity, and when that curiosity is unsatisfied, we feel aggrieved, vexed, and suspect that Hawthorne himself was puzzled, and knew no more than his readers. He has not—as in other tales he has—managed to throw the right atmosphere about this being. He is vague in the wrong way, whereas George Sand, in Les Dames Vertes, is vague in the right way. We are left in Les Dames Vertes with that kind of curiosity which persons really engaged in the adventure might have felt, not with the irritation of having a secret kept from us, as in “Transformation.”
In “Wandering Willie’s Tale” (in “Redgauntlet”), the right atmosphere is found, the right note is struck. All is vividly real, and yet, if you close the book, all melts into a dream again. Scott was almost equally successful with a described horror in “The Tapestried Chamber.” The idea is the commonplace of haunted houses, the apparition is described as minutely as a burglar might have been; and yet we do not mock, but shudder as we read. Then, on the other side—the side of anticipation—take the scene outside the closed door of the vanished Dr. Jekyll, in Mr. Stevenson’s well-known apologue:
They are waiting on the threshold of the chamber whence the doctor has disappeared—the chamber tenanted by what? A voice comes from the room. “Sir,” said Poole, looking Mr. Utterson in the eyes, “was that my master’s voice?”
A friend, a man of affairs, and a person never accused of being fanciful, told me that he read through the book to that point in a lonely Highland chateau, at night, and that he did not think it well to finish the story till next morning, but rushed to bed. So the passage seems “well-found” and successful by dint of suggestion. On the other side, perhaps, only Scotsmen brought up in country places, familiar from childhood with the terrors of Cameronian myth, and from childhood apt to haunt the lonely churchyards, never stirred since the year of the great Plague choked the soil with the dead, perhaps they only know how much shudder may be found in Mr. Stevenson’s “Thrawn Janet.” The black smouldering heat in the hills and glens that are commonly so fresh, the aspect of the Man, the Tempter of the Brethren, we know them, and we have enough of the old blood in us to be thrilled by that masterpiece of the described supernatural. It may be only a local success, it may not much affect the English reader, but it is of sure appeal to the lowland Scot. The ancestral Covenanter within us awakens, and is terrified by his ancient fears.
Perhaps it may die out in a positive age—this power of learning to shudder. To us it descends from very long ago, from the far-off forefathers who dreaded the dark, and who, half starved and all untaught, saw spirits everywhere, and scarce discerned waking experience from dreams. When we are all perfect positivist philosophers, when a thousand generations of nurses that never heard of ghosts have educated the thousand and first generation of children, then the supernatural may fade out of fiction. But has it not grown and increased since Wordsworth wanted the “Ancient Mariner” to have “a profession and a character,” since Southey called that poem a Dutch piece of work, since Lamb had to pretend to dislike its “miracles”? Why, as science becomes more cock-sure, have men and women become more and more fond of old follies, and more pleased with the stirring of ancient dread within their veins?
As the visible world is measured, mapped, tested, weighed, we seem to hope more and more that a world of invisible romance may not be far from us, or, at least, we care more and more to follow fancy into these airy regions, et inania regna. The supernatural has not ceased to tempt romancers, like Alexandre Dumas, usually to their destruction; more rarely, as in Mrs. Oliphant’s “Beleaguered City,” to such success as they do not find in the world of daily occupation. The ordinary shilling tales of “hypnotism” and mesmerism are vulgar trash enough, and yet I can believe that an impossible romance, if the right man wrote it in the right mood, might still win us from the newspapers, and the stories of shabby love, and cheap remorses, and commonplace failures.