Writers for Conservatives, 61: Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural
The above title is a title within Modern Library Giant, edited by Herbert Wise and Phyllis Fraser, published in 1944, still in print, and which I, something of a connoisseur in such matters, can recommend as the best such anthology I know. I could wish for a different selection here and there, but no single anthology can please all tastes. This is an excellent collection.
My readers will recognize that once again, as when I wrote about Westerns and detective stories, I am writing about a subject beneath the notice of high-minded lovers of literary culture. Before we’re done, however, I think we’ll find that there’s more of literary interest in the subject than is immediately obvious. When ghost stories (to give them a generic name, though ghosts may not be involved) are occasionally considered by critics they always begin by asking what the attractions are, and then they offer various silly answers. Edmund Wilson, who wrote a couple of essays about these stories, did not really appreciate or understand them, and he recommended works like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” psychologically interesting but quite without scariness, which is the essential attractive element in the best of ghost stories. It is not that the reader is afraid, but he is made to feel the fear of the characters, and it must be justified. The writer must be able to make the reader feel that the characters are afraid of something of which they are right to be afraid.
Some tales are about a fear that can exist outside the story, as I shall explain. In Geoffrey Household’s masterly story “Taboo,” which is both a straightforward story about fear and also a story about the psychology of repression, the narrator recounts a story told by Shiravieff. Although nearly every word in the story is Shiravieff’s, the device of the narrator is important because it allows him to comment at crucial points. Shiravieff, vacationing in the Carpathians not long after World War I, met Vaughan, an Englishman, and his American wife Kyra. In a short space of time two local men disappear while travelling in the wooded hills, and then a searcher also disappears. There is general dismay and fear in the area. Vaughan and Shiravieff go searching themselves and, discovering a place where a scuffle has taken place, and decide to set a trap. One man with a rifle will be posted on a high ledge overlooking the spot while the other acts as bait by walking back and forth on the path in the moonlight. We feel the fear of the men, a wholly rational fear given the facts. What’s even more scary is that, to preserve the illusion, they must leave separately, first the bait, later the watcher. After a few suspenseful nights the trap is sprung and the murderer is killed. He is a forester who has sold cuts of “venison” in the village, and the evidence in his cabin shows that the villagers, as well as the characters, have been eating human flesh. Kyra reacts instinctively and is semi-hysterical, thus ridding herself of the shock, but Vaughan, the impeccably repressed Englishman, keeps his feelings under control. Shiravieff meets them some years later and they have dinner together. Vaughan has become a vegetarian, but he couldn’t think why he had “this distaste for meat.”
“I tell you the man was absolutely serious. He could not think why. Shock had lain hidden in him for ten years, and then had claimed its penalty.”
“‘And you,’ asked Banning. ‘How did you get clear of shock? You had to control your emotions at the time.’”
“‘A fair question,’ said Shiravieff. ‘I’ve been living under a suspended sentence. . . . If I could only have got the story out of my system, it would have helped a lot — but I couldn’t bring myself to tell it.’”
“‘You have just told it,’ said Colonel Romero solemnly.”
That Romero is an admirer of English reticence and a scoffer at Shiravieff’s theory of repression in the beginning of the story and the man with the last convinced word gives a very satisfactory ending, is a tribute to the author’s skill. What is so good about it is that the story is mainly about the real rational fears of the characters and then ends with a psychologically sound idea about the effects of fear and shock.
Edmund Wilson had some scornful remarks about the fashion in the early 20th century for ghost stories that relied, not on ghosts but on mysterious entities just outside ordinary reality. H. P. Lovecraft’s writings were so based, and “The Dunwich Horror” in this volume is a typical example, quite unreal, very second rate. Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” is another unconvincing example. These stories are filled with adjective-laden passages like this:
“The most awful, most secret forces which lie at the heart of all things, forces before which the souls of men must wither and die and blacken. . . ”
and so on, not only unconvincing but finally laughable.
There are, however, better efforts in this mode, and now let me describe tales in which the characters are afraid of something that the reader, standing outside the story, knows is nonsense, but as we read it the author induces in us that “willing suspension of disbelief” Coleridge spoke of. The fear is justified by the way it is described. It is not so real or acute as in “Taboo” because the situation in that story would have been fearful outside the story. M. R. James is a master of this sort of tale, and two are in this volume. “Casting the Runes” is about a practitioner of witchcraft who conducts fatal vendettas against presumed enemies, making their lives a frightening burden, leading them to an early death. Here is an example of what might be called “induced rational fear.” The character, victim of the “runes,” puts his hand under his pillow:
“What he touched was, according to his own account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being.”
I have read this story aloud to listeners on several occasions, and that passage makes them gasp every time. It does not matter that outside the story we regard the runes with the smile of incredulity; once the writer has by his skill induced us to believe that a character struck his hand under his pillow into a mouth, we share the character’s fear. A clever author can make us believe anything — while the spell of his words is upon us.
There are 53 stories here in more than 1,000 pages, and while some are not to my taste, most are eminently readable. In fact, I had a difficult time writing this essay because I kept dipping into the book to relish again old favorites. In addition to the ones I’ve already mentioned, here are some other authors and tales I recommend: Balzac, Hardy, Wells, Saki, Dorothy Sayers, “The Most Dangerous Game”, “Leinigen versus the Ants,” Faulkner, Hemingway, John Collier, Bulwer-Lytton, Hawthorne, Henry James, Edith Wharton, W. W. Jacobs, “How Love Came to Professor Guildea,” Kipling (“The Return of Imray” as well as the superb They), E. L. White’s “Lukundoo,” E. F. Benson, Algernon Blackwood, A. E. Coppard, The Celestial Omnibus, Isak Dinesen’s “The Sailor-Boy’s Tale.”
A word about ghost stories — I have just read three collections, and I can testify that they are dreadful bores. To tell a supernatural story convincingly, as is done in this anthology, you have to be a terrific writer. The best anthology of ghost stories I know is the Oxford anthology. *