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.

The tale of terror wins its effect by ever-varying means.  Scientific discoveries open up new vistas, and the twentieth century will evolve many fresh devices for torturing the nerves.  The telephone set ringing by a ghostly hand, the aeroplane with a phantom pilot, will replace the Gothic machinery of ruined abbeys and wandering lights.  The possibilities of terror are manifold, and it is impracticable here to do more than pick up a few threads in the tangled skein.  Terror becomes inextricably interwoven with other motives according to the bent of the author.  It is allied with psychology in James’ sinister Turn of the Screw, with scientific phantasy in Wells’ Invisible Man.  It may enhance the excitement of a spy story, add zest to the study of crime, or act as a foil to a romantic love interest.


In 1797 we are told that in America “the dairymaid and hired man no longer weep over the ballad of the cruel stepmother, but amuse themselves into an agreeable terror with the haunted houses and hobgoblins of Mrs. Radcliffe."[130] In The Asylum, or Alonzo and Melissa, published in Ploughkeepsie in 1811, the Gothic castle, with its full equipment of “explained ghosts,” has been safely conveyed across the Atlantic and set up in South Carolina; and The Sicilian Pirate or the Pillar of Mystery:  a Terrific Romance, is, if we may trust its title, a hair-raising story, in the style of “Monk” Lewis.  Charles Brockden Brown, one of the earliest American novelists, prides himself on “calling forth the passions and engaging the sympathy of the reader by means not hitherto employed by preceding authors,” and speaks slightingly of “puerile superstitions and exploded manners, Gothic castles and chimeras."[131] Brown, who, like Shelley, was an enthusiastic admirer of Godwin, sought to embody the theories of Political Justice in romances describing American life.  The works, which are said by Peacock to have taken deepest root in Shelley’s mind and to have had the strongest influence in the formation of his character, are Schiller’s Robbers, Goethe’s Faust, and four novels—­Wieland, Ormond, Edgar Huntly, and Mervyn—­by C.B.  Brown.[132]

Notwithstanding his lofty scorn for “Gothic castles and chimeras,” even Brown himself condescended to take over from the despised Mrs. Radcliffe the device of introducing apparently supernatural occurrences which are ultimately traced to natural causes.  Like Mrs. Radcliffe he is at the mercy of a conscience which forbids him to thrust upon his readers spectres in which he himself does not believe.  He lacks Lewis’s reckless mendacity.  In Wieland mysterious voices are heard at intervals by various members of the family.  To the hero, who has inherited a tendency to religious fanaticism, they seem to be of divine origin, and when a voice bids him sacrifice

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The Tale of Terror from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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