Guide Ghosts: Strange Tales of the Unnatural, the Uncanny and the Unaccountable

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There are crystal balls that reveal not only what is going on in distant parts, but show the future as well. These will serve to illustrate the preternatural powers possessed by inanimate objects in the terror literature. In some instances the motif is used with effectiveness, definitely heightening the impression of the weird in a way that human supernaturalism could not accomplish. We do not see here the mechanistic supernaturalism, which is to become important in later tales, and the effects here are crude, yet of interest in themselves and as suggesting later uses of the idea.

In Vathek , where we have a regular array of ghostliness, we see a magic potion that instantly cures any disease however deadly — the progenitor of the modern patent medicine. There is an Indian magician who writes his messages on the high heavens themselves. Vathek has an uncurbed curiosity that leads him into various experiments, to peer into the secrets of astrology, alchemy, sorcery, and kindred sciences.

Do you think you have experienced a ghost?

He uses a magic drink that gives the semblance of death, like that used later in The Monk , as earlier, of course, in Romeo and Juliet , and elsewhere. He tells of chemical experiments where he forces everyone to do his will or die. By his potions he can change hate into love or love into hate, and can give a drug which produces semi-insanity. In Ankerwich Castle a woman lying at the point of death is miraculously cured by a drug whose prescription the author neglects to state. In the same story a child is branded in a peculiar fashion. A new-born babe whose birth must remain secret yet who must be recognizable in emergency, is marked on its side with letters burnt in with a strange chemical, which will remain invisible till rubbed with a certain liquid.

Matilda in The Monk dabbles in satanic chemistry and compounds evil potions in her subterranean experiments. Mary Shelley uses the idea of supernatural biology in her story of the man-monster, Frankenstein , the story of the young scientist who after morbid study and experiment, constructs a human frame of supernatural size and hideous grotesqueness and gives it life.

But the thing created appalls its creator by its dreadful visage, its more than human size, its look of less than human intelligence, and the student flees in horror from the sight of it.

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Shelley describes the emotions of the lonely, tragic thing thrust suddenly into a world that ever recoils shuddering from it. She reveals the slow hate distilled in its heart because of the harsh treatment it meets, till at last it takes diabolic revenge, not only on the man who has created it but on all held dear by him. The struggles that rend his soul between hate and remorse are impressive. The wretched being weeps in an agony of grief as it stands over the body of Frankenstein whom it has harried to death, then goes away to its own doom.

The last sight of it, as the first, is effective, as, in tragic solitude, towering on the ice-floe, it moves toward the desolate North to its death. In the characterization of this being, as in the unusual conception, Mrs. Shelley has introduced something poignantly new in fiction. It was a startling theme for the mind of a young girl, as were Vathek and The Monk for youths of twenty years, and only the abnormal psychological conditions she went through could have produced it.

The employment of the Frankenstein motif in a play produced recently in New York, 24 illustrates anew the vitality of the idea. Leon , by William Godwin, relates the story of a man who knew how to produce unlimited gold by a secret formula given him by a mysterious stranger who dies in his home. Shelley 25 brings in this power incidentally with the gift of endless life. These may illustrate the use of science in Gothicism. The elixir of life is brewed in divers Gothic novels. Dramatic and intense as are the psychological experiences connected with the discovery of the magic potion, the effects of the success are more poignant still.

Leon is a story of the secret of perpetual life. The tiresome Godwinistic hero is visited by a decrepit old man who wishes to tell him on a pledge of incommunicability what will give him the power of endless life and boundless wealth. The impoverished nobleman accepts with consequences less enjoyable than he has anticipated. Events are rather confused here, as the villain falls dead in the presence of the devil but comes to life again as another character later in the story — Shelley informing us of their identity but not troubling to explain it.

The most impressive instance of the theme of fleshly immortality in the early novels is found in Melmoth. Here the mysterious wanderer possesses the power of endless life, but not the right to lay it down when existence becomes a burden. Melmoth can win the boon of death only if he can find another mortal willing to change destinies with him at the price of his soul. He traverses the world in his search and offers the exchange to persons in direst need and suffering the extreme torments, offering to give them wealth as well as life eternal.

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Yet no man nor woman will buy life at the price of the soul. Certain themes appear recurringly as first aids to terror fiction. Some of them are found equally in later literature while others belong more particularly to the Gothic. An interesting aspect of the supernatural visitants is gigantism, or the superhuman size which they assume.

In The Castle of Otranto , the sensational ghost is of enormous size, and his accouterments are colossal. In the last scene he is astounding:. A clap of thunder shook the castle to its foundations; the earth rocked and the clank of more than mortal armor was heard behind. The walls of the castle behind Manfred were thrown down with a mighty force, and the form of Alfonso, dilated to an immense magnitude, appeared in the center of the ruins.

This reminds one of an incident in F. Isaacs , where the Indian magician expands to awful size, miraculously draws down a mist and wraps it round him as a cloak. In most cases gigantism connotes evil power and rouses a supernatural awe in the beholder.

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The giant is an Oriental figure and appears in Vathek , along with genii, dwarfs, and kindred personages, but the Gothic giant has more diabolism than the mere Oriental original. He seems to fade out from fiction, appearing only occasionally in later stories, while he has practically no place in the drama, owing doubtless to the difficulties of stage presentation.

Insanity as contributing to the effect of supernaturalism affords many gruesome studies in psychiatry.

Madness seems a special curse of the gods or torment from the devil and various instances of its use occur in Gothic fiction. When he awakes to the realization of what he has done, real madness drives him to suicide. In The Castle of Caithness the wicked misanthrope goes mad from remorse. He imagines that the different ones he has murdered are hurling him into the pit of hell, until, in a maniac frenzy, he dashes his brains out against the prison walls.


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Melmoth uses the idea with special effectiveness. Maturin also shows us a scene in a mad-house, where a sane man, Stanton, is confined, whom Melmoth visits to offer exchange of destinies. Melmoth taunts him cruelly with his hopeless situation and prophecies that he, too, will go mad from despair.

Do you think you have experienced a ghost?

At her appalling shrieks all other voices are hushed. Another impressive figure in the mad-house is the preacher who thinks himself a demon and alternately prays and blasphemes the Lord. Charles Brockden Brown rivals Maturin in his terrible use of insanity for supernatural effect. The demented murderer in Edgar Huntley gives an impression of mystery and awe that is unusual, while Wieland with its religious mania produced by diabolic ventriloquism is even more impressive.

Brown knew the effect of mystery and dread on the human mind and by slow, cumulative suggestion he makes us feel a creeping awe that the unwieldy machinery of pure Gothicism never could achieve. In studies of the morbid mentality he has few equals. What are the rackings of monkish vindictiveness when set against the agonies of an unbalanced mind turned in upon itself?

Such a tragedy of dethroned reason is intolerably powerful; the dark labyrinths of insanity, the gloom-haunted passages of the human mind, are more terrible to traverse than the midnight windings of Gothic dungeons. We feel that here is a man who is real, who is human, and suffering the extremity of anguish.

Perhaps the most hideous aspect of insanity in the terror novel is that of the lycanthrope in The Albigenses. The tragic wolf-man imagines himself to be a mad wolf and cowers in his lair, glaring with gleaming, awful eyes at all who approach him, gnawing at a human head snatched from the graveyard.


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  • There are various other uses of insanity in the novel of the period, but these will serve to illustrate. The relation between insanity and the supernatural has been marked in later literature.

    The use of portents is a distinct characteristic of the horror romance. Calamity is generally preceded by some sign of the supernatural influence at work, some presentment of dread. Crime and catastrophe are forefelt by premonition of woe and accompaniment of horror. These phenomena are miraculous; when the common laws of nature are violated, the awful portents are not sent in vain. This night an awful messenger sent from that dread tribunal from whose power there is no appeal, by signs terrific foretold my fate approached — foretold my final moment.

    She keeps her appointment promptly. In The Spirit of the Castle , 29 the ghost of the old marquis knocks three times on the door preceding the arrival of the heir, and a black raven flies away as he enters. If these omens be from heaven or hell, Manfred trusts to righteousness to protect his cause. There is much use of portent in Melmoth. Mysterious strains of music sound as heralds of disaster in several Gothic novels, as 30 where the inexplicable strains are heard only by the bride and groom preceding the strange tragedy that befalls them.

    At the approach of a supernatural visitant in the terror novel the fire always burns blue — where there is a fire, and the great hearth usually affords ample opportunity for such portentous blaze. The thermometer itself tends to take a downward path when a ghost draws near. Various other portents of ill appear in Gothic fiction.

    The symbols of dread and the ghostly are used to good effect in the terror romance. The cumulative effects of supernatural awe are carefully built up by the use of gruesome accompaniments and suggestions. The triple veil of night, desolation, and silence usually hangs over the haunter and the haunted, predisposing to an uncanny psychosis.

    The Gothic ghost does not love the garish day, and the terror castle, gloomy even under the brightest sun, is of unimaginable darkness at night. Certain houses add especially to the impression of fear. In addition to its services as time-keeper, the bell has a predisposition to toll.