The Lure of the Occult
It was probably the cave man who told the first ghost story, and he almost certainly told it very well, because he believed in it. To him, consciously at war with nature, the presence of an inimical force external to nature seemed an obvious thing, and he evolved his theology from his theories concerning it, just as he evolved his religious ritual from the ceremonies he devised to circumvent or placate it. We men of a later age stand where the cave man did in our relations to the unknown; the same problems that perplexed him perplex us, except that we recognise in them far greater complications and are a little less serious in approaching them. His witch doctors dwelt remote, clothed in awful mystery, with every appurtenance of terror skull and bones and snakeskin and filth about them; ours wear top hats and frock coats and are grocers and other respectable things in the day time. He worked charms with dried blood and potent herbs; our masters of the occult do conjuring tricks with tambourines and Iittle tables.
It is, however, to literature that we must turn if we are to realise the essential elements of man's attitude to the unknown. Not merely to the written records of man's experiences and investigations, not to the journals of psychical research societies, which are, generally speaking, inexpressibly dull, but to those imagined things, those “ghost stories" which now and again capable artists give us, and which we read in the profound hope that they are not true. All such stories, all that count at any rate, concern themselves with terror. Their aim is the recherche du frisson, they are the modern counterpart of the ancient witch doctor's hymn to his spirits; they are, the expression of the wild, unreasoning fear that numbs the heart of man when he feels that presently something may spring at him out of the dark.
There are very few ghost stories which possess this authentic thrill, and the fashion of them changes, for we are more sophisticated nowadays than we used to be. Our great grandfathers could extract an enjoyable horror from spirits that walked about in moated granges satisfactorily clanking chains. All that these simple souls required to make them happy was a headless horror in a dark passage outside a panelled chamber carrying its eyes in its hand. For such robust susceptibilities Mrs. Radcliffe, the Rev. Charles Maturin and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley catered; but to day our scepticism of anything so concrete as their phantoms destroys our enjoyment; we must needs dignify our tremors by a quasi scientific explanation. We have classified our ghosts, so that young ladies in drawing-rooms can talk glibly of elementals, poltergeists, etherical projections, Barrovians, Vagrarians, Semi, and all the rest of it, in appropriate jargon.
The shortest and perhaps the most perfect ghost story in the world is told by Dr. M. R. James in his " Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.” It is the tale of a woman who was staying in a strange house. She was shown her room; she entered, locked the door, undressed, blew out the candle and got into bed. Then, as she lay there in the dark, came a little, horrible voice from above: "Now we're safely shut in for the night!" . . .
If that story does not produce a thrill, no more sophisticated tale will do so. It is the ghost story reduced to its lowest terms the essential ghost story, the effect of which is to rouse those unreasoning terrors which lie dormant in all of us, and which wake to life in the presence of the unknown. There are many ways of sounding these depths of terror. The effective ghost story must be mysterious, yet mystery is not enough. One of the most mysterious things in the world is an equilateral triangle, but only the crazed soul of a Futurist artist is likely to be haunted by a thing like that. The effective ghost story must be horrible, yet horror is not enough; there is a certain horror in the thought of a comet plunging for ever into the depths of space, but the tranquil mind is not disturbed thereby. The horror of the occult must be symbolistic, portentous; it must carry with it a sense of loathing and unspeakable obscenity. The sought for frisson, hardly attained, must be a very shudder of the soul, the awful gesture of life threatened by malign and desolating forces.
Masterpieces in this genre are of course very few. One may indeed count them on the fingers of a hand. Some of Edgar Poe's tales ought certainly to be included in any list of the greatest ghost stories, especially "The Fall of the House of Usher," a tale which for sheer concentrated horror is unequalled in literature. The opening passages of that wonderful tale strike upon the consciousness like a knell. Material things dissolve, and one steps across the borderland. Place should be given also to the one or two somewhat more complex and ambitious studies made by Bulwer Lytton, particularly in "Zanoni" and "A Strange Story," but like most of his other work, Lytton's tales of the supernatural are more than a little exotic, and we of the present age may be forgiven if we regard them, as some what pretentious. It is however the modern writer who has excelled pre eminently in the tale of the occult. Dr. M. R. James's "Ghost Stories of an Antiquary," two volumes of which were published by Mr. Edward Arnold five or six years ago, contain some of the eeriest tales ever written. You may sup full of horrors if you sup with Dr. James. He never bothers with the dreary scientific kind of tale, but is frankly at home with medieval superstitions and black magic; his properties are familiar spirits, anthropophagous, with clutching hairy paws, and spiders especially spiders. A cold shiver runs down the spine even when one thinks in retrospect of that horrible old gentleman of his whose face was a mass of cobwebs.
Mr. Algernon Blackwood has written a great many stories of the occult but few of them can be classed in the first rank of ghost stories. He began well with “The Whisperer and Other Tales," but some of his later books read like extracts from the proceedings of the Psychical Research Society. He peers forward amiably into the unknown blinking benevolently, and tightly clutching a volume of Bergson.
Very different, and far finer from an artistic point of view, are the stories of Mr. Arthur Machen, collected in the volume called "The House of Souls " (published by Grant Richards some years ago, but now, I believe, out of print). Nor must Mr. Oliver Onion's "Widdershins" (Martin Secker) be forgotten, and those masterpieces of Rudyard Kipling's, scattered about in various volumes – “The Mark of the Beast," "They," and "The Brushwood Boy." In a place very little after these I would put three books by William Hope Hodgson, whose pen, alas, is laid down for ever: "The House on the Borderland," "The Ghost Pirates,” and "The Boats of the Glen Carrig."
And so we come, by devious degrees, to the supreme masterpiece of all the literature of the supernatural, the story called "The Turn of the Screw," which you shall find in the volume by Henry James entitled "The Two Magics." Fastidious artist as he was, Henry James approached even a conte of the horrible with delicacy. He knew that the crowning horror of horrible things is achieved when they are placed in close juxtaposition with the commonplace, and he knew, too, that the sense of horror is best awakened and maintained by means of a subjective study. “The Turn of the Screw” may be described as the story of the corruption of the souls of two children by malign influences exercised through the spirits of the dead, but it is something far more than this. The significance of it glows and fades, changing with the mood so that, on a second or third reading one wonders whether it is intended as a ghost story at all whether it is not rather a profound study of the effect of fear upon a delicate and sensitive nature. One may never know why the boy Miles left his bed at night to stare in horrible entrancement at that figure on the lawn, or whether the ghost of Peter Quint really walked to work evil. One is not sure whether the girl Flora held fearful communings in the wood with the spirit of the governess, dead and for ever damned, or whether the whole thing was not merely the overstrained imagination of the narrator. In either case, the sense of horror is insistent, and in some obscure way the author has managed to hint at a significance which is revolting and obscene.
Outside art, there is another kind of writing of the occult which has become increasingly common in recent years the record of so called personal experience in the realm of the unknown. This branch of literature has a jargon of its own. People do not die, they “pass over," and their spirits hold of telephonic communication with the living through the agency of “mediums,” and with the help of a whole paraphernalia of cabinets am tambourines and ouija boards and planchette. Of all branches of literature there is none that is less calculated to appeal to the imagination than this. It is associated with material accessories which are almost symbolically unbeautiful –oilcloth, and the smell of paraffin oil, cheap American organs and concertinas, stout and stupid middle aged women, Americans with names like Hiram K. Brown, squalor, and confusion, and untidiness of mind. Everybody has seen the kind of book I mean with the portrait of the "subject" in the front looking like the lady who proclaims from the back page of the newspaper, “I had bad legs and dropsical swellings, but Billions' Pills cured me!" In the face of this feeble nonsense the strongest souls turn sceptic, and beside it the witchcraft of ancient days seems a dignified and even a worthy belief.
I have said enough about books on the occult to render the detailed reviewing of the newest batch of them unnecessary. “Patience Worth, a Psychic Mystery," by Caspar Yost, comes to us from America and is one of those authentic documents. The less one says about it the better, except that judging from the specimens of Patience Worth's literary exercises, as communicated to the medium and duly recorded, the lady would have done better to have rested mute and inglorious on the “other side." Patience Worth speaks in a kind of debased Wardour Street English which must be distressing to those of her spirit companions whose souls are still sensitive to the beauties of language.
"The Ghost World," by J. Wickwar, is a collection of anecdotes of the occult. Violet Tweedale's “Ghosts I Have Seen" is a volume of literary tittle tattle with an occult bias. The author is a daughter of one of the Chambers of Edinburgh, and she has much that is interesting to say, but ghosts must by this time be three a penny in her household. The only thrill I got from the book was produced by the two awful eyes on Mr. Jenkins's wry effective cover. But perhaps the author did not write the book with the object of pleasing epicures in sensation.
"The Eternal Question,'' by Allan Clarke, is obviously a sincere outpouring from the heart of a man who has suffered the grief of a great loss; it would he indecent to be flippant about it. And "Voices from the Void." by Hester Travers Smith, is void of any convincing voices.
I cannot like these books, but Mr. Edward Arnold has promised us a new volume of the "Ghost Stories of an Antiquary," and already I feel the pleasant shivers running down my spine. . . . There was that horrible creature that moved across the picture to the windows of the house. I shall turn on all the lights before I go to bed.