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.

Such novels as Maturin’s Family of Montorio, though “full of sound and fury,” fail piteously to vibrate the chords of terror, which had trembled beneath Mrs. Radcliffe’s gentle fingers.  The instrument, smitten forcibly, repeatedly, desperately, resounds not with the answering note expected, but with an ugly, metallic jangle. Melmoth the Wanderer, Maturin’s extraordinary masterpiece, was to prove—­as late as 1820—­that there were chords in the orchestra of horror as yet unsounded; but in 1816, when Mary Shelley and her companions set themselves to compose supernatural stories, it was wise to dispense with the shrieking chorus of malevolent abbesses, diabolical monks, intriguing marquises, Wandering Jews or bleeding spectres, who had been so grievously overworked in previous performances.  Dr. Polidori’s skull-headed lady, Byron’s vampire-gentleman, Mrs. Shelley’s man-created monster—­a grotesque and gruesome trio—­had at least the attraction of novelty.  It is indeed remarkable that so young and inexperienced a writer as Mary Shelley, who was only nineteen when she wrote Frankenstein, should betray so slight a dependence on her predecessors.  It is evident from the records of her reading that the novel of terror in all its guises was familiar to her.  She had beheld the majestic horror of the halls of Eblis; she had threaded her way through Mrs. Radcliffe’s artfully constructed Gothic castles; she had braved the terrors of the German Ritter-, Raeuber- und Schauer-Romane; she had assisted, fearful, at Lewis’s midnight diablerie; she had patiently unravelled the “mystery” novels of Godwin and of Charles Brockden Brown.[117] Yet, despite this intimate knowledge of the terrible and supernatural in fiction, Mrs. Shelley’s theme and her way of handling it are completely her own.  In an “acute mental vision,” as real as the visions of Blake and of Shelley, she beheld her monster and the “pale student of unhallowed arts” who had created him, and then set herself to reproduce the thrill of horror inspired by her waking dream. Frankenstein has, indeed, been compared to Godwin’s St. Leon, but the resemblance is so vague and superficial, and Frankenstein so immeasurably superior, that Mrs. Shelley’s debt to her father is negligible.  St. Leon accepts the gift of immortality, Frankenstein creates a new life, and in both novels the main interest lies in tracing the effect of the experiment on the soul of the man, who has pursued scientific inquiry beyond legitimate limits.  But apart from this, there is little resemblance.  Godwin chose the supernatural, because it chanced to be popular, and laboriously built up a cumbrous edifice, completing it by a sheer effort of will-power.  His daughter, with an imagination naturally more attuned to the gruesome and fantastic, writes, when once she has wound her way into the heart of the story, in a mood of breathless excitement that drives the reader forward with feverish apprehension.

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