THE PRETERNATURAL IN WORKS OF FICTION (1818)
Some have thought that, in modern works of fiction, there should be no gratuitous introduction of the preternatual, and that superstitious tales are only to be tolerated when they form a part of some picture of past ages, during which such things were universally believed. But, even in the most enlightened age, so desirous is the human mind of an outlet by which to escape from the narrow circle of visible things into the unknown and unlimited world, that surely poets should be permitted to feign all wonders which cannot be proved to be impossible, and which are not contradictory to the spirit of our religion.
To this class belong the re-appearance of the dead, and the struggle of evil beings for an ascendancy over human nature. The eastern talismanic theory of sorcery supposed that super-human powers were acquired by discovering and taking advantage of the occult laws of nature to compel the service of spirits; but the notion of a voluntary assistance lent by wicked angels to wicked men is much more sublime, and agrees better with the spirit of modern thought. The one is a childish idea founded on the mechanical operation of causes which have never been proved to exist; but the other has a moral interest, being conformable to our knowledge of character and passion.
That there exists in this country that strength of imagination which delights in the feeling of superstitious horror, is proved by the practice of our ancient dramatists; and of all those authors who wrote in the original English spirit down to the end of last century, when, partly from the revival of old ballads, and partly from the importation of German books, there sprung up an immense number of romances and fictions, the interest of which was founded almost entirely upon apparitions and the mysteries of haunted castles, or prophecies, dreams, and presentments [sic].
Every sort of machinery of this kind was put in requisition; till, by the unskilfulness of the artists, and the unsparing manner in which their resources were employed, the superstitious branch of romance writing fell gradually into disrepute; and probably among the immense number of novels published, there are now six that represent modern manners, for one that resorts to the old machinery of spectres and mysteries. The greatest poets of the present time, however, have not disdained to continue the use of it; and indeed some of Scott’s works excite the feelings of superstitious fear and traditional awe in a degree that has never been surpassed. Wordsworth’s fictions in this line have exquisite beauty, and may be said to represent the spontaneous and creative superstition of the human mind, when acted upon by impressive circumstances. The poems of the Thorn, Lucy Gray, and Hartleap Well, are instances of this. The poem of the Danish Boy is a beautiful superfluity of fancy, but is too entirely poetical to please common readers. Lord Byron’s strength lies in a different direction; and the spectres which appear in his poetry are not the product of imagination working upon what is unknown and invisible, but are created by the passions of the heart striving to embody their own objects. The world of spirits is not an object of interest to him for its own sake, and when he resorts to it, he does so only for the images of what he loved or hated on earth. Mr Coleridge has perhaps the finest superstitious vein of any person alive. The poem of Christabel is the best model extant of the language fit to be employed for such subjects. It was the greatest attempt, before Walter Scott’s poems, to turn the language of our ancient ballads to account in a modern composition, and is perhaps more successful in that respect than the Lay of the Last Minstrel itself. Indeed Christabel may be considered as a test by which to try men’s feeling of superstition, and whoever does not perceive the beauty of it, may rest assured that the world of spectres is shut against him, and that he will never see ‘any thing worse than himself.’
To make the marvellous a means of producing the ludicrous; that is to say, to arrive at new and diverting situations, by feigning a suspension of the laws of nature, has not been much attempted in English literature, and is perhaps rather a cheap species of wit, since it supposes more fancy than knowledge or penetration. At the same time it has its attractions; for it gives the mind a pleasing respite from the inexorable tyranny of facts, and flatters us for a time with the appearance of vivid and immoveable nature relaxing from its severity, and ceasing to present the usual barriers to our wishes. The tale of Vathek [by Beckford], in which these things are well exemplified, has never been very popular in this country. It would appear that such painted air-bubbles are too childish for our taste, and that the marvellous is only relished here when linked to the higher and more serious feelings. . . .
Upon the whole, romance writers ought to look jealously after their privileges, and prevent the use of apparitions from incurring proscription in these latter days of the scoffers, who think it no great matter to take the bread out of the mouths of an hundred industrious persons in Grub Street, for the sake of shewing themselves above vulgar prejudices. Surely romance writers are far more numerous than philosophers, and might be well able to mob any prating son of Epicurus who attempted to undermine the credit of their machinery.
‘Some Remarks on the Use of the Preternatural in Works of Fiction’, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 3(18) (September 1818), pp. 64850]
Return to Theory and Criticism
Return to Index of Gothic Readings