A TALE FOR A CHIMNEY CORNER
Leigh Hunt was a champion of liberal and radical thinking, and a friend of Byron and Shelley. This tale and its prologue appeared in his periodical The Indicator in December 1819; I have omitted the actual ghost story. His introductory essay raises issues about evaluating Gothic fiction, in the context of female terror versus male horror, and in the context of uniting realism with supernaturalism.
A man who does not contribute his quota of grim story nowadays, seems hardly to be free of the republic of letters. He is bound to wear a death's head as part of his insignia. If he does not frighten everybody, he is nobody. If he does not shock the ladies, what can be expected of him?
We confess we think very cheaply of these stories in general. A story, merely horrible or even awful, which contains no sentiment elevating to the human heart and its hopes, is a mere appeal to the least judicious, least healthy, and least masculine of our passions fear. They whose attention can be gravely arrested by it, are in a fit state to receive any absurdity with respect; and this is the reason why less talents are required to enforce it, than in any other species of composition. With this opinion of such things, we may be allowed to say, that we would undertake to write a dozen horrible stories in a day, all of which should make the common worshippers of power, who were not in the very healthiest condition, turn pale. We would tell of Haunting Old Women, and Knocking Ghosts, and Solitary Lean Hands, and Empusas on One Leg, and Ladies growing Longer and Longer, and Horrid Eyes meeting us through Keyholes, and Plaintive Heads, and Shrieking Statues, and shocking Anomalies of Shape, and Things which when seen drove people mad; and Indigestion knows what besides. But who would measure talents with a leg of veal or a German sausage?
Mere grimness is as easy as grinning; but it requires something to put a handsome face on a story. Narratives become of suspicious merit in proportion as they lean to Newgate-like offences, particularly of blood and wounds. A child has a reasonable respect for a Raw-head-and-bloody-bones, because all images whatsoever of pain and terror are new and fearful to his inexperienced age; but sufferings merely physical (unless sublimated like those of Philoctetes) are commonplace to a grown man. Images, to become awful to him, must be removed from the grossness of the shambles. A death's head was a respectable thing in the hands of a poring monk, or of a nun compelled to avoid the idea of life and society, or of a hermit already buried in the desert. Holbein's Dance of Death, in which every grinning skeleton leads along a man of rank, from the Pope to the gentleman, is a good Memento Mori; but there the skeletons have an air of the ludicrous and satirical. If we were threatened with them in a grave way, as spectres, we should have a right to ask how they could walk about without muscles. Thus many of the tales written by such authors as the late Mr Lewis, who wanted sentiment to give him the heart of truth, are quite puerile. When his spectral nuns go about bleeding, we think they ought in decency to have applied to some ghost of a surgeon. His little Grey Men, who sit munching hearts, are of a piece with fellows that eat cats for a wager.
Stories that give mental pain to no purpose, or to very little purpose compared with the unpleasant ideas they excite of human nature, are as gross mistakes, in their way, as these, and twenty times as pernicious; for the latter becomes ludicrous to grown people. They originate also in the same extremes, of callousness, or of morbid want of excitement, as the others. But more of these hereafter. Our business at present is with things ghastly and ghostly.
A ghost story, to be a good one, should unite, as much as possible, objects such as they are in life with a preternatural spirit. And to be a perfect one, at least, to add to the other utility of excitement a moral utility, they should imply some great sentiment, something that comes out of the next world to remind us of our duties in this; or something that helps to carry on the idea of our humanity into afterlife, even when we least think we shall take it with us. When 'the buried majesty of Denmark' revisits earth to speak to his son Hamlet, he comes armed, as he used to be, in his complete steel. His visor is raised; and the same fine face is there; only, in spite of his punishing errand and his own sufferings, with
A countenance more in sorrow than in anger.
When Donne the poet, in his thoughtful eagerness to reconcile life and death, had a figure of himself painted in a shroud, and laid by his bedside in a coffin, he did a higher thing than the monks and hermits with their skulls. It was taking his humanity with him into the other world, not affecting to lower the sense of it by regarding it piecemeal or in the framework. Burns, in his 'Tam O'shanter', shows the dead in their coffins after the same fashion. He does not lay bare to us their skeletons or refuse, things with which we can connect no sympathy or spiritual wonder. They still are flesh and body to retain the one; yet so look and behave, inconsistent in their very consistency, as to excite the other.
Coffins stood round like open presses,
Reanimation is perhaps the most ghastly of all ghastly things, uniting as it does an appearance of natural interdiction from the next world, with a supernatural experience of it. Our human consciousness is jarred out of its self-possession. The extremes of habit and newness, of commonplace and astonishment, meet suddenly, without the kindly introduction of death and change; and the stranger appals us in proportion. When the account appeared the other day in the newspapers of the galvanized dead body, whose features as well as limbs underwent such contortions, that it seemed as if it were about to rise up, one almost expected to hear, for the first time, news of the other world. Perhaps the most appalling figure in Spenser is that of Maleger ('Faerie Queene', b. ii. c. II):
Which showed the dead in their last dresses:
And by some devilish cantrip sleight,
Each, in his cauld hand, held a light.
Upon a tygre swift and fierce he rode,
Mr Coleridge, in that voyage of his to the brink of all unutterable things, the Ancient Mariner (which works out, however, a fine sentiment), does not set mere ghosts or hobgoblins to man the ship again, when its crew are dead; but reanimates, for awhile, the crew themselves. There is a striking fiction of this sort in Sale's Notes upon the Koran. Solomon dies during the building of the temple, but his body remains leaning on a staff and overlooking the workmen, as if it were alive; till a worm gnawing through the prop, he falls down. The contrast of the appearance of humanity with something mortal or supernature, is always the more terrible in proportion as it is complete. In the pictures of the temptations of saints and hermits, where the holy person is surrounded, teased, and enticed, with devils and fantastic shapes, the most shocking phantasm is that of the beautiful woman. To return also the poem above-mentioned. The most appalling personage in Mr Coleridge's Ancient Mariner is the Spectre-woman, who is called Life-in-Death. He renders the most hideous abstraction more terrible than i could otherwise have been, by embodying it in its own revers. 'Death' not only 'lives' in it, but the 'unutterable' becomes uttered. To see such an unearthly passage end in such earthliness, seems to turn commonplace itself into a sort of spectral doubt. The Mariner, after describing the horrible calm, and the rotting sea in which the ship was struck, is speaking of a strange sail which he descried in the distance:
That as the winde ran undrneathe his lode,
Whiles his long legs nigh raught unto the ground:
Full large he was of limbe, and shoulders brode,
But of such subtile substance and unsound,
That like a ghost he seemed, whose grave-clothes were unbound.
The western wave was all a-flame,
But we must come to Mr Coleridge's story with our sublest imaginations upon us. Now let us put our knees a little near the fire, and tell a homelier one about Life in Death . . . [story omitted]
The day was well nigh done!
Almost upon the western wave
Rested the broad bright sun;
When that strange ship drove suddenly
Betwixt us and the sun.
And straight the sun was flecked with bars,
(Heaven's Mother send us grace!)
As if through a dungeon-grate he peer'd,
With broad and burning face.
Alas! (thought I, and my heart beat loud)
How fast she neers and neers!
Are those her sails that glance in the sun
Like restless gossamers?
Are those her ribs, through which the sun
Did peer as through a grate?
And is that Woman all her crew?
Is that a death? and are there two?
Is Death that Woman's mate?
Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold,
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Night-Mare Life-in-Death was shee,
Who thicks man's blood with cold.
[SOURCE: The Indicator, No. 10, 15 December 1819]
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