The works of Mrs. Radcliffe, Lewis, and Maturin were not unknown to Poe, and he refers more than once to the halls of Vathek. From Gothic romance he may perhaps vivid that they make the senses ache. Like Maturin, he even resorts to italics to enforce his effect. He crashes down heavily on a chord which would resound at a touch. He is liable too to descend into vulgarity in his choice of phrases. His tales consequently gain in style in the translations of Baudelaire. But these aberrations occur mainly in his inferior work. In his most highly wrought stories, such as Amontillado, The House of Usher, or The Masque of the Red Death, the execution is flawless. In these, Poe never lost sight of the ideal, which, in his admirable review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales and Mosses from an Old Manse, he set before the writer of short stories:
“A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale ... having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents—he then combines such events—as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, he has failed in the first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written of which the tendency direct or indirect is not to the one pre-established design.”
While he was writing, Poe did not for a moment let his imagination run riot. The outline of the story was so distinctly conceived, its atmosphere so familiar to him, that he had leisure to choose his words accurately, and to dispose his sentences harmoniously, with the final effect ever steadily in view. The impression that he swiftly flashes across our minds is deep and enduring.
This book is an attempt to trace in outline the origin and development of the Gothic romance and the tale of terror. Such a survey is necessarily incomplete. For more than fifty years after the publication of The Castle of Otranto the Gothic Romance remained a definitely recognised kind of fiction; but, as the scope of the novel gradually came to include the whole range of human expression, it lost its individuality, and was merged into other forms. To follow every trail of its influence would lead us far afield. The Tale of Terror, if we use the term in its wider sense, may be said to include the magnificent story of the Writing on the Wall at Belshazzar’s Feast, the Book of Job, the legends of the Deluge and of the Tower of Babel, and Saul’s Visit to the Witch of Endor, which Byron regarded as the best ghost story in the world. In the Hebrew writings fear is used to endow a hero with superhuman powers or to instil a moral truth. The sun stands still in the heavens that Joshua may prevail over his enemies. In modern days the tale of terror is told for its own sake. It has become an end in itself, and is probably appreciated most fully by those who are secure from peril. It satisfies the human desire to experience new emotions and sensations, without actual danger.