October 2011

Greer Mansfield


Horror Made Delightful: The Strange Stories of Sheridan Le Fanu, M.R. James, and Robert Aickman

Literature begins with frightening supernatural beings. Characters in Gilgamesh and Homer’s epics contend with gods and monsters and descend into the underworld (some of them emerging to tell the living what they saw). “Fear of God” in a very direct sense recurs again and again in the Bible. The eruption of God’s presence into the everyday human world is a source of terror: a floating hand writing cryptic warnings on a wall; an empty tomb. As the Gospel of Mark originally ended: “And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulcher; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.”

Alongside the supernatural terrors of religion and mythology (and the epic poems that make use of them), every culture has developed its own eerie folklore about supernatural beings quite different from the gods: ghosts, goblins, sprites, witches, yurei, banshees, vampires, djinns, revenants, and not-fully-human hybrids. Like the Greek or Norse gods, these creatures can be mischievous and even vicious. Like the God of the Bible or the otherworldly characters of the Arthurian legends, their presence sometimes has the effect of waking people up, rattling them out of some complacent or empty state and forcing them to see a new, chastening reality. Like the pagan gods and the biblical God, they sometimes remind human beings of certain limits that should never be transgressed.

But their relationship to human beings is different from that of the gods of Greek and Norse mythology, or the God of the three great monotheisms. Their main purpose is not to compete with us, trick us, punish us, befriend us, or redeem us. What they want, above all, is to scare us.

Every culture has its tales of these creatures, and they usually find their way into literature of all kinds, from the Arabian Nights to Pu Songling’s witty Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio to 19th century European masters of the uncanny tale like E.T.A Hoffmann and Prosper Merimee. It is curious, though, that the island nations of Japan, Britain, and Ireland seem to have the most intense attachment to spooky tales, especially ghost stories.

Literature in English has always relished the ghastly and the macabre. In the Elizabethan era, the ghostly superstitions of folk tales and border ballads that had bubbled under the surface of the high literary culture for centuries burst into the middle of the stage. Shakespeare filled his plays with ghosts and witches and shocking violence, and even put peasant superstitions (which turn out to be all too true, of course) into the mouth of his intellectual Danish prince:

‘Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world; now could I drink hot blood,
And do such bitter business
As the day would quake to look on…

The morbid note is struck even more insistently by Jacobean playwright John Webster, whose dramas of blood, madness, and terror contain haunting dirges like this:

Call for the robin-redbreast and the wren,
Since o'er shady groves they hover,
And with leaves and flowers do cover
The friendless bodies of unburied men.
Call unto his funeral dole
The ant, the field-mouse, and the mole,
To rear him hillocks that shall keep him warm,
And (when gay tombs are robb'd) sustain no harm;
But keep the wolf far thence, that's foe to men,
For with his nails he'll dig them up again.

The Gothic novel titillated the 18th century, clearing the way for later masterpieces of horror like Frankenstein and Dracula. With the Romantics, interest in folklore and the supernatural became more intense than ever, resulting in macabre glories like Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the entire corpus of the death-obsessed and often-funny Thomas Lovell Beddoes. The 19th century relished what it called “chillers” and “shockers” and “sensation novels,” and it was in that atmosphere that a new genre of dark storytelling emerged. Its first great practitioner was the Irishman Sheridan Le Fanu, who called it the “weird tale.”

Le Fanu wrote stories about ghosts, lesbian vampires, demonic monkeys, sinister dwarves, doppelgangers, ruined castles, people with dark secrets, people losing their minds, and villages whose tranquility is disturbed by mysterious visitors (perhaps returned from the grave). His “weird tales” differ from previous Gothic fiction, and from folk legend, in that they are presented as impartial and objective accounts by empirically minded narrators like the “occult detective” Dr. Martin Hesselius. Le Fanu’s best story collection, In a Glass Darkly, is presented as the posthumous papers of Dr. Hesselius, and some of the stories are told at several removes from the action (in one, a client of Hesselius relates a strange story that he heard from an elderly friend). The dark romance of the stories is filtered through a modern, skeptical sensibility -- the uncanny drifting into everyday life and leaving the human characters badly shaken. Most of the stories are set in the past, and at the end of them the reader can never be sure quite what happened. There might be some rational explanation for these strange events, one feels, though one can’t help but wonder.

Le Fanu’s other (and greater) innovation was that the plots of his stories are not their important feature. Atmosphere is. The details of a wintry landscape, the character of an inn or a tavern, a slight change in the wind -- these are what give the tales their beauty and mystery. The opening paragraphs of “The Dead Sexton” give you the signature Le Fanu tone:

The sunsets were red, the nights were long, and the weather pleasantly frosty; and Christmas, the glorious herald of the New Year, was at hand, when an event -- still recounted by winter firesides, with a horror made delightful by the mellowing influence of years -- occurred in the beautiful little town of Golden Friars, and signalized, as the scene of its catastrophe, the old inn known throughout a wide region of the Northumbrian counties as the George and Dragon.

Toby Crooke, the sexton, was lying dead in the old coach-house in the inn yard. The body had been discovered, only half an hour before this story begins, under strange circumstances, and in a place where it might have lain the better part of a week undisturbed…

“Horror made delightful” is a good description of Le Fanu’s stories. It also describes the stories of his disciple M.R. James, the author of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. James’s tales usually feature a quiet scholar doing research in an unfamiliar place: examining a medieval cathedral, perhaps, or a mausoleum on the estate of an ancient Swedish baronial family. Their studies lead them into encounters with alarming, unexplainable forces.

As in Le Fanu, it is atmosphere that counts:

The wind had fallen, and there was a still night and a full moon. At about ten o’clock Stephen was standing at the open window of his bedroom, looking out over the country. Still as the night was, the mysterious population of the distant moonlit woods was not yet lulled to rest. From time to time strange cries as of lost and despairing wanderers sounded from across the mere. They might be the notes of owls or water-birds, yet they did not quite resemble either sound. Were they not coming nearer?

There are plenty of other masters of the weird or macabre story: Vernon Lee, Walter de la Mare, Algernon Blackwood, H.P. Lovecraft, to name a few. One of the best and most original 20th century authors of weird fiction -- he called them “strange stories” -- was Robert Aickman. His stories are written in a subtle, measured, quietly witty style, but the content is harrowing: visions of men and women -- usually introverted and intellectual types -- whose lives are transfigured by an encounter with the uncanny. Sometimes the strange intruders in these stories are ghosts, but usually they’re far more baffling and unsettling than a mere ghost.

In the truly creepy and bizarre “The Cicerones,” a man named Trant is visiting a Belgian cathedral (echoes of M.R. James?) and is unexpectedly led on a “tour” by one enthusiastic “guide” after another. Along the way there are terrifying paintings of the Last Judgment, disturbing relics, and distant figures that appear out of nowhere and then seem to vanish. The most bizarre part of the story, though, comes at the end, when Trant and his guides find themselves in the crypt.

Aickman never spells out his meaning. His stories end abruptly and inconclusively, and in fact the “meaning” is less important than the utter mysteriousness of what happens. Like a true poem or a vivid dream, Aickman’s stories hover on the edge of being understood, but never quite are. They are meant to be listened to and wondered at, and their mystery grows stronger the more one puzzles over them. His closest analogue might not be any writer, but instead a master of unsettling, unexplainable cinematic images, like David Lynch.

His tales also capture the inhospitableness that sensitive people can experience in the noisy and cutthroat modern world. Aickman’s protagonists find modern life either tedious or sickening: most jobs are pointless but convenient slavery, most relationships are an elaborate charade that one repeats with different versions of the same person, society is tawdry and empty, and industry, politics, and technology are downright sinister. It almost seems that the truly malevolent force in “Your Tiny Hand is Frozen” isn’t the ghost, but the telephone. The opening line of that story is memorably ominous: “It was on the third night that the trouble with the telephone started.”

This skepticism about modernity, incidentally, is something Aickman shared with M.R. James. In the stories of both men, the past has a way of intruding into the present in very uncomfortable ways.

In “Never Visit Venice,” a cultured and introverted (but not particularly abnormal or remarkable) Englishman named Henry Fern has a recurring dream in which he’s in a gondola floating down Venice’s Grand Canal, in the company of a beautiful dark-haired woman. This leads him to visit Venice in real life; he finds the buildings magnificent but everything else induces a sense of vertigo:

There was something terrifyingly insane about the total breakdown of the place: the utter discrepancy between the majesty and mystery of the monuments and the tininess of all who dwelt around them or came supposedly to gaze upon them. Fern looked upon these mighty works and despaired.

Later in the story, a striking reflection: “Venice was rotted with the world’s new littleness. To many her beauty was actually antagonistic, as imposing upon them a demand to which they were unable to rise.”

But on his final night there, Fern encounters a beautiful dark-haired woman, wearing an 18th century dress and a hooded robe, who invites him onto a gondola. Then the story becomes truly dreamlike, and nightmarish.

As Peter Straub says, there is a “stifled eroticism” in many Aickman stories. An encounter with a ghost or some terrifying other realm is a gateway into a wild, dizzying, almost erotic freedom. The events of an Aickman story bring on terror or bewilderment, but the terror and bewilderment are often epiphanies (sometimes very grim ones), contrasts to the grind of a pitiless, drab, and monotonous modern world.

This is made explicit in “Never Visit Venice,” while in “ Your Tiny Hand is Frozen” the inertia and emptiness of Edmund’s life -- and the lunatic obsessiveness and claustrophobia he surrenders to -- are more terrifying than the gruesome discovery at the end.  

Robert Aickman is a neglected genius, but those who read him often say that his strange stories are “dreamlike.” They are; they have the intensity of a dream and a dream’s misty, fleeting insubstantiality. When they end, they dissipate, and there’s not much one can say about them other than “What just happened?"