Some of the stories in Blackwood are the more striking because they depend for their effect on natural, not supernatural, horror. We may feel we are immune from the visits of ghosts, but the accident in The Man in the Bell (1821) is one which might happen to anyone. The maddening clangour of sound, the frightful images that crowd into the reeling brain of the man suspended in the belfry, are described with an unflinching realism that reminds us of The Pit and the Pendulum. To the same class belongs the skilfully constructed Iron Shroud (1830), by William Mudford, an author who, as Scott remarks in his journal, “loves to play at cherry-pit with Satan.” The suspense is ingeniously maintained as, one by one, the windows of the iron dungeon disappear, until, at last, the massive walls and ponderous roof contract into the victim’s iron shroud. Wilkie Collins’ story, A Terribly Strange Bed, which describes the stratagem of a gang of cardsharpers for getting rid of those who happen to win money from them, is in the same vein. The canopy slowly descends during the night, and smothers its victim. A similar motive is used, with immeasurably finer effect, by Joseph Conrad in his story of the disappearance of the sailor at the lonely inn in the mountains of Spain. The experience of Byrne in The Inn of the Two Witches is a masterpiece in the psychology of terror. The dense darkness, in which the young naval officer “steers his course only by the feel of the wind,” the scene when the door of the inn bursts open and reveals in the candlelight the savage beauty of the gipsy girl with evil, slanting eyes, and the inhuman ugliness of the old hags, are a fitting prelude to the horrors of the chamber, where the corpse of the missing sailor is found in the wardrobe. We pass with Byrne through the different stages of suspicion and dread until, completely baffled in his attempt to account for the manner in which Tom Corbin was done to death, we feel “the hot terror that plays upon the heart like a tongue of flame that touches and withdraws before it turns a thing to ashes.”
In the short stories of the latter half of the nineteenth century, it is hard to escape from the terrible. We light upon it suddenly, here, there and everywhere. We find it in Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights, in his Merry Men, and his stories of the South Seas, as indeed we should expect, when we recall the tapping of the blind man’s stick in Treasure Island, the scene with the candles in the snow after the duel between the two brothers in The Master of Ballantrae, or David Balfour’s perilous adventure on the broken staircase in Kidnapped. Kipling is another expert in the art of eeriness, and has a wide range. His Indian backgrounds are peculiarly adapted for tales of terror. The loathsome horror of The Mark of the Beast, with its intangible suggestion of mystery, the quiet restraint of The Return of Imray, in which so much is left unsaid, are two admirable illustrations of his gift.