As a rule, fancies are capable of being arranged in but a few familiar patterns, so that it seems hardly worth while to make the arrangement. But he who looks at things thus will never be a writer of stories. Nay, even of the slowly unfolding tale of his own existence he may weary, for the combinations therein have all occurred before; it is in a hackneyed old story that he is living, and you, and I. Yet to act on this knowledge is to make a bad affair of our little life: we must try our best to take it seriously. And so of story-writing. As Mr. Stevenson says, a man must view “his very trifling enterprise with a gravity that would befit the cares of empire, and think the smallest improvement worth accomplishing at any expense of time and industry. The book, the statue, the sonata, must be gone upon with the unreasoning good faith and the unflagging spirit of children at their play.”
That is true, that is the worst of it. The man, the writer, over whom the irresistible desire to mock at himself, his work, his puppets and their fortunes has power, will never be a novelist. The novelist must “make believe very much”; he must be in earnest with his characters. But how to be in earnest, how to keep the note of disbelief and derision “out of the memorial”? Ah, there is the difficulty, but it is a difficulty of which many authors appear to be insensible. Perhaps they suffer from no such temptations.
It is a truism that the supernatural in fiction should, as a general rule, be left in the vague. In the creepiest tale I ever read, the horror lay in this—there was no ghost! You may describe a ghost with all the most hideous features that fancy can suggest—saucer eyes, red staring hair, a forked tail, and what you please—but the reader only laughs. It is wiser to make as if you were going to describe the spectre, and then break off, exclaiming, “But no! No pen can describe, no memory, thank Heaven, can recall, the horror of that hour!” So writers, as a rule, prefer to leave their terror (usually styled “The Thing”) entirely in the dark, and to the frightened fancy of the student. Thus, on the whole, the treatment of the supernaturally terrible in fiction is achieved in two ways, either by actual description, or by adroit suggestion, the author saying, like cabmen, “I leave it to yourself, sir.” There are dangers in both methods; the description, if attempted, is usually overdone and incredible: the suggestion is apt to prepare us too anxiously for something that never becomes real, and to leave us disappointed.
Examples of both methods may be selected from poetry and prose. The examples in verse are rare enough; the first and best that occurs in the way of suggestion is, of course, the mysterious lady in “Christabel.”
“She was most beautiful to
Like a lady of a far countree.”