The Tale of Terror eBook

Edith Birkhead
This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 261 pages of information about The Tale of Terror.
Acre Monastery, The Tomb of Aurora, or The Mysterious Summons, The Mysterious Spaniard, or The Ruins of St. Luke’s Abbey, and lastly, as a bonne bouche, Barbastal, or The Magician of the Forest of the Bloody Ash.[127] There are many collections of this kind, some of them dating back to 1806, among the chapbooks in the British Museum.  It is in these brief, blood-curdling romances that we may find the origin of the short tale of terror, which became so popular a form of literature in the nineteenth century.  The taste for these delicious morsels has lingered long.  Dante Gabriel Rossetti delighted in Brigand Tales, Tales of Chivalry, Tales of Wonder, Legends of Terror; and it was in search of such booty, “a penny plain and twopence coloured” that, more than fifty years later, Robert Louis Stevenson and his companions ransacked the stores of a certain secluded stationer’s shop in Edinburgh.

It was probably the success of the chapbook that encouraged the editors of periodicals early in the nineteenth century to enliven their pages with sensational fiction.  The literary hack, who, if he had lived a century earlier, would have been glad to turn a Turkish tale for half-a-crown, now cheerfully furnished a “fireside horror” for the Christmas number.  In his search after novelty he was often driven to wild and desperate expedients.  Leigh Hunt, who showed scant sympathy with Lewis’s bleeding nun and scoffed mercilessly at his “little grey men who sit munching hearts,” was bound to admit:  “A man who does not contribute his quota of grim story, now-a-days, seems hardly to be free of the republic of letters.”  Accordingly, so that he too might wear a death’s head as part of his insignia, he included in The Indicator (1819-21) a supernatural story, entitled A Tale for a Chimney Corner.  Scorning to “measure talents with a leg of veal or a German sausage,” he unfortunately dismissed from his imagination the nightmarish hordes 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 Keyholes; and Plaintive Heads and Shrieking Statues and Shocking Anomalies of Shape and Things, which, when seen, drove people mad,”

and in their place he conjured up a placid, ladylike ghost from a legend quoted in Sandys’ commentary on Ovid.  Leigh Hunt’s story has the air of having been written by one who cared for none of these things; but there were others who wrote with more gusto.

Many of the tales in such collections as The Story-Teller (1833) or The Romancist and Novelist’s Library (1839-42) show the persistence of Gothic story.  In these periodicals the grave and the gay are intermingled, and when we are weary of dark intrigues and impenetrable secrets we may turn to lighter reading.  Yet it is significant of the taste of our ancestors that we cannot venture far without encountering a spectre of some sort, or a villain with the baleful eye, disguised, it may be, as a Spanish gipsy, a German necromancer or a Russian count.  Many of the stories are Gothic novels, reduced in size, but with room for all the old machinery: 

Project Gutenberg
The Tale of Terror from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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