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MAN who does not contribute his quota of grim stories
now-a-days 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 their wits off; and this is the cause 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 key-holes, and plaintive heads, and shrieking statues, and shocking anomalies of shape, and things which when seen drive 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 commonplaces 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 complete his talents, 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 gray 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 become ludicrous to grown people. They originate also in the same extremes, either of callousness, or 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 after-life, 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 excite the one; yet so look and behave, inconsistent in their very consistency, as to exite the other.
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 galvanised 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 (“ Faery Queene,” Book II. c. 1):
“Upon a tygre swift and fierce he rode,
That as the winde ran underneath his lode,
But of such subtle substance and unsound,
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 a while, 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 supernatural, 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 to the Ancient Mariner." 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 it could otherwise have been, by embodying it in its own reverse. “ Death" not only “lives” in it, but the “unutterable" becomes uttered. To see such an unearthly passage end in such earthliness, seems at the moment 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 stuck, is speaking of a strange sail which he descried in the distance.
The western wave was all a-flame,
The day was well-nigh done!
Rested the broad bright Sun;
Betwixt us and the Sun.
(Heaven's Mother send us grace !)
With broad and burning face.
How fast she nears and nears!
Like restless gossameres?
Did peer, as through a grate?
Is Death that woman's mate?
Her locks were yellow as gold,
Who thicks man's blood with cold." But we must come to Mr Coleridge's story with all our imagination upon us. Now let us put our knees a little nearer the fire, and tell a homelier one about life-in-death. The groundwork of it is in Sandys's“ Commentary upon Ovid,” and quoted from Sabinus. *
A gentleman of Bavaria, of a noble family, was so afflicted at the death of his wife, that, unable to bear the company
any other person, he gave himself entirely up to a solitary way of living. This was the more remarkable in him, as he had been a man of jovial habits, fond of his wine and visitors, and impatient of having his numerous indulgencies contradicted. But in the same temper, perhaps, might be found the cause of his
* The Saxon Latin poet, we presume, Professor of Belles-Lettres at Frankfort. We know nothing of him except from a biographical dictionary.