Fiction, English Occult

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Fiction, English Occult

The literary form of English-language occult fiction emerged from the folklore of supernatural beings and heroic events and was made possible by the secular understanding of the ancient mythology of gods, devils, and heroes. During the Elizabethan Age, penny balladsheets and prose chapbooks told of sorcerers, ghosts, monsters, and warning signs in the heavens against the sins of the day. A favorite story was that of the sorcerer Dr. Faustus and his pact with the devil. The great witchcraft persecutions from the Middle Ages on provided archetypal themes of terror, wonder, and the eternal play of good and evil.

Themes of magic and enchantment from earlier Arthurian legends were developed in Malory's Morte d'Arthur. There were also magic elements in some of Chaucer's stories: "The Frank-lin's Tale," "The Squire's Tale," and "The Wife of Bath's Tale." Dragons and enchantment occur in Spenser's Faerie Queene. Supernatural elements were common in drama from Elizabethan times on, as amply illustrated by the ghost in Hamlet, the witches in Macbeth, and Marlowe's Tragicall History of Dr. Faustus.

Early collections of ghost stories include Ludwig Lavater's De Spectris (1570), translated in 1572 as Of Ghostes and Spirites Walking by Nyght and of Strange Noyses, Crackes, and Sundry Fore-warnynges and Thomas Nashe's The Terrors of the Night, or, a Dis-course of Apparitions (1594). An influential work was Joseph Glanvil's Saducismus Triumphatus, or, Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions (1681), which includes the famous poltergeist story of the Drummer of Tedworth.

It was in the eighteenth century that occult fiction came into its own in the creation of the Gothic novel genre. Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, first published in 1764, was subtitled "A Gothic Story." Walpole was obsessed with the Gothic. In 1747 he leased the Strawberry Hill estate near Twickenham, where he spent a decade building what he called "a little Gothic castle." He lived in a dream world of revival Gothic architecture and mock medievalism. Other country gentlemen followed Walpole in remodeling their estates with mock castles, follies, and grottoes. Some even employed old men to live as hermits in artificially constructed cavernsa kind of Gothic Disneyland.

Walpole's novel launched a thousand imitations and variations. After Otranto came Clara Reeve's The Old English Baron: A Gothic Story in 1778, Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and Matthew Gregory Lewis's successful sensation The Monk (1794). Such "horrid mysteries" became the mainstay of the rapidly developing circulating libraries that were replacing the old-time ballad and chapbook peddlers in every large town and city in England.

Stock ingredients of the Gothic novel were such plot elements as pure young virgins and chivalrous heroes embroiled with scoundrels of Continental origin (usually Italians), base monks, cruel Inquisitors, and ruthless bandits. They struggled in a fantasy medieval world of gloomy castles, ruined abbeys, dismal dungeons, bloodstained daggers, skulls, sliding panels, secret rooms, magic books, and animated portraits, all in a twilight setting of dark forests, pale moonlight, and nameless terrors lurking behind rocks. Walpole wrote Otranto as a reaction against realism in literature. He initiated a literary form of fantasy fiction, combining mystery, romance, supernaturalism, and sentimentality in a setting of mock medievalism.

The success of the Gothic novel among the upper and middle classes in England soon led to their merchandising at a more popular level, in abridged and pirated versions in cheap paper-covered pamphlets. These forerunners of today's paperback books sold at sixpence or a shilling each and were known as "bluebooks" (from the blue paper covers) or "shilling shock-ers."

Shilling shockers went out of fashion around the opening of the nineteenth century, largely through sheer exhaustion of their stereotyped characters and plots. Meanwhile the Gothic impulse had also passed into serious literature in the romantic movement, which in Britain included poets like Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, and Coleridge and novelists like Sir Walter Scott. For example, in Scott's The Monastery, a mysterious sylph rises from a fountain; astrology is introduced into Guy Mannering, The Fortunes of Nigel and Quentin Durward; a ghost story is told in Redgauntlet; and ghosts figure in Woodstock. In The Bride of Lammermoor, Scott deals with the Scottish belief in prophecy, and in Waverley a Highland chief is awestruck by a peculiar omen.

Perhaps the most influential expression of the Gothic impulse in English literature was formed at that strange opium-soaked literary house party of Shelley, Byron, Mary Wollstonecraft (later Shelley's wife), Claire Clairmont (Mary's stepsister), and J. W. Polidori, at the Villa Diodati, Geneva, in the summer of 1816. Byron had been reading a book of ghost stories by Jean Baptiste Eyriès titled Fantasmagoriana (1812) and proposed, "We will each write a ghost story." Byron himself drafted a fragment that Polidori later expanded into The Vam-pyre ; Polidori produced a trifle about a skull-headed lady who was punished for peeping through a keyhole, but Wollstonecraft began her masterpiece published in 1818 as Franken-stein or the Modern Prometheus. Frankenstein relied less upon Gothic ruins than emotions of wonder and terror generated by the mysterious powers of nature and science, and so led the Gothic novel into a science-fiction genre. Meanwhile folklore themes of monsters and vampires became new stereotypes of the Gothic impulse. In the twentieth century these gave birth to hundreds of horror stories and sensationalist movies.

Another offshoot of the Gothic imagination during the nineteenth century was the mystery novel of such writers as Wilkie Collins. In The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868), a Gothic architectural setting was metamorphosed into a Gothic atmosphere of strange hidden mysteries, motives, crime, and sensational suspense. Out of this was born the romance of large country mansions, culminating at the end of the nineteenth century in such Gothic novels as Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. The country house detective thriller of writers like Agatha Christie also has roots in the Gothic story as developed by writers like Wilkie Collins and Edgar Allan Poe.

In "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Pit and the Pendulum," and "Premature Burial," all published in the 1840s, Poe reverted to a classic Gothic format expressed in the short story rather than the full-length novel.

Three Irish writers made a notable contribution to the Gothic novel with supernatural elements: Charles Robert Maturin (1782-1824), Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873), and Bram Stoker (1847-1912). In Maturin's novel Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) there is strong emphasis on episodes of terror, but the complex plot structure hinges upon the classic theme of a pact with the devil. Le Fanu wrote several short stories on supernatural themes, "Green Tea" being one of the most outstanding, but his Gothic masterpiece was undoubtedly the longer story "Carmilla," in which he developed the vampire theme. It is a story of a female vampire, with a strong suggestion of lesbian love, set in a dreamlike landscape in an old castle in Styria, a region in Austria. "Carmilla," first published in 1871, was read by another Irishman, Bram Stoker, when he was a young part-time drama critic in Dublin. It was to stay in his mind for 25 years before he wove the vampire theme into his own masterpiece, Dracula, first published 1897. Stoker's novel has since had a lasting influence on stories, plays, and movies all over the world.

Other nineteenth-century British writers of notable occult fiction include James Hogg (1770-1835), Frederick Marryat (1792-1848), Bulwer Lytton (1803-1873), Charles Dickens (1812-1870), William Morris (1836-1896), and Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894). Hogg, known as "the Ettrick Shepherd," was a peasant poet and protégé of Sir Walter Scott. Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) is a strange and powerful story of diabolical split personality. Frederick Marryat's Snarleyyow, or the Dog Fiend (1836) contains an episode dealing with a werewolf, often reprinted as a self-contained story; The Phantom Ship (1839) is based on the Flying Dutchman legend.

Lytton published some classic supernatural stories, including the thrilling "The Haunted and the Haunters" (1859), originally titled "The House and the Brain." His book Zanoni (1842) is concerned with a secret occult society; The Coming Race (1871) portrays an underground race.

Dickens wrote a number of short stories on supernatural themes, such as "A Child's Dream of a Star" (1850), "The Haunted House" (1849), "No. 1 Branch Line: The Signalman" (1866), Nurse's Stories (1860), and of course the immortal "A Christmas Carol" (1843).

Morris, a founder of the pre-Raphaelite art movement, translated Scandinavian sagas and also published such fantasy stories as "The Wood Beyond the World" (1894), "The Well at the World's End" (1896), and "The Water of the Wondrous Isles" (1897).

Stevenson, a brilliant stylist, published some excellent stories of the supernatural, including the renowned "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1888). Less well known but equally brilliant are his short stories "Thrawn Janet," "Will o' the Mill," and "Markheim." In the latter story, Stevenson touches a deeper metaphysical note.

The popular novelist H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925) was celebrated for his great adventure stories like King Solomon's Mines, but there are themes of fantasy and reincarnation in his stories She (1886) and Ayesha (1905).

Another great nineteenth-century writer was the playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), who also wrote a whimsical ghost story, The Canterville Ghost (1887), and the terrifying Gothic story The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890).

The ghost short story flourished during the nineteenth century, encouraged by numerous magazines and Christmas supplements. The journal All the Year Round, founded by Dickens, published a number of stories of the supernatural.

At a more popular level, writers like G. W. M. Reynolds (with Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf and The Necromancer ) and Thomas Preskett Prest (with Varney the Vampire, or The Feast of Blood ) had replaced the old sentimental Gothic romances with extravagantly written full-length shockers.

Other writers of the period included Mrs. J. H. Riddell (with Weird Stories, 1884, and The Banshee's Warning, 1894), and Margaret Oliphant (A Beleagered City, 1880, and Stories of the Seen and Unseen, 1889). On a lighter note, F. Anstey (1856-1934) created his own characteristic genre of humorous fantasy with Vice-Versa (1882), The Tinted Venus (1885), and The Brass Bottle (1900). Another innovative writer was E. Nesbit (1858-1924) with her fairy-tale fantasies for children: The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) and The Enchanted Castle (1908). She also published three adult fantasy collections: Something Wrong (1893), Grim Tales (1893), and Fear (1910).

American Gothic

American writers who made important contributions to the English language supernatural story include Washington Irving (1783-1859), F. Marion Crawford (1854-1909), Ambrose Bierce (1842-ca. 1914), Henry James (1843-1916), and Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904).

Irving was persuaded by his friend Sir Walter Scott to publish The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-20), which included "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Other favorite Irving tales include "The Spectre Bridegroom" (1819) and "The Devil and Tom Walker" (1824). Crawford was justly celebrated for his uncanny and horrific short stories such as "The Upper Berth," "For the Blood Is the Life," and "The Screaming Skull" from the late nineteenth century, collected posthumously in Wandering Ghosts (1911). His first novel, Mr. Isaacs (1882), was based upon a real-life wonder worker in India; The Witch of Prague (1891) was concerned with the misuse of hypnotism.

Bierce was famous for his psychological explorations in short story format: "The Death of Halpin Frayser," "The Realm of the Unreal," and "The Middle Toe of the Right Foot." His collections include Can Such Things Be? (1893) and In the Midst of Life (1898).

The great novelist Henry James wrote a classic ghost story in The Turn of the Screw (1898). A posthumously published collection is The Ghostly Tales of Henry James (1948).

Hearn published several strange and macabre stories, many of which were collected in Fantastics (1914).

Into the Twentieth Century

Writers who bridged the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), H. G. Wells (1866-1946), and May Sinclair (1865?-1946).

Many of Conan Doyle's earliest short stories had supernatural themes before he turned his attention to the deductive logic of the great Sherlock Holmes. But after World War I, Conan Doyle became a champion of Spiritualism and his novel The Land of Mist (1925) fictionalizes an investigation into the subject. An early novel The Parasite (1894), deals with a psychic vampire. Some of Doyle's short stories on occult themes were collected in Tales of Twilight and the Unseen and included in The Conan Doyle Stories (1929).

Kipling wrote several impressive short stories of the eerie and supernatural, including "The Mark of the Beast" (1890), "The House Surgeon" (1909), "The Brushwood Boy" (1898), and "They" (1904). These are contained in his various collections.

Wells was a prolific writer of short stories, many of which were on occult and fantasy themes, including "The Red Room," "A Moth," "The Apple," "Under the Knife," "Skelmersdale in Fairyland," "The Door in the Wall," and "A Dream of Armageddon." These are contained in such collections as The Stolen Bacillus (1895), The Red Room (1896), The Plattner Story and Others (1897), and Thirty Strange Stories (1897). Six early collections were reissued in one volume as Famous Short Stories of H. G. Wells in 1938.

Sinclair began writing novels in 1895 and later became interested in Spiritualism. A collection of her short stories on occult themes, Uncanny Stories (1923), contains "Where Their Fire is Not Quenched," a brilliant evocation of the afterlife.

Among minor writers of occult fiction from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries, Richard Middleton (1882-1911) was responsible for the humorous story "The Ghost Ship" (1912) and the more serious "On the Brighton Road" in the same volume. W. W. Jacobs (1863-1943), famous for his humorous "Night Watchman" stories, also wrote the classic story "The Monkey's Paw," which was dramatized. M. P. Shiel (1865-1947) wrote horror and fantasy tales, including Prince Zaleski (1895), Shapes in the Fire (1896), and the posthumously published collections Best Short Stories of M. P. Shiel (1948) and Xelucha and Others (1975).

Twentieth-Century Fiction

Important writers of occult stories during the twentieth century include M. R. James (1862-1936), Arthur Machen (1863-1947), E. F. Benson (1867-1940), Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951), Walter de la Mare (1873-1956), Lord Dunsany (1878-1957), and Charles Williams (1886-1945).

The scholarly M. R. James, provost of Eton, wrote ghost stories for the amusement of his friends. The stories were later published in the collections Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911), A Thin Ghost (1919), and A Warning to the Curious (1925). These classics of the genre are some of the most powerful and disturbing ghost stories in the English language. A later volume, The Collected Ghost Stories (1931), includes most of them.

The stories of Arthur Machen are haunted by fear of natural forces and the horror of evil from an ancient world. One of his best stories is "The Terror" (1917), in which the world of nature rebels against man's destructiveness in war, but his many shorter stories of horror and the supernatural are also masterpieces. These include "The Great God Pan," "The White People," and "The Shining Pyramid." These were reprinted in the collection Tales of Horror and the Supernatural (1949).

Benson is justly regarded as a master of the supernatural short story. "The Room in the Tower" and "Mrs. Amworth" are classic vampire stories; other well-written horror tales include "Caterpillars," "Negotium Perambulans," and "And No Bird Sings." These were published in the collections The Room in the Tower (1912), Visible and Invisible (1923), Spook Stories (1928), and More Spook Stories (1934). A representative selection was published as The Horror Horn (1974).

Blackwood specialized in occult fiction that drew upon his own psychic sensitivity. John Silence (1908) is based on the casebook of an occult detective. Some of Blackwood's best stories are "The Wendigo" (about a demon of lonely places), "Ancient Sorceries" (about cats and their witches), "The Man Whom the Trees Loved" (about the absorption of a man into nature), and "The Transfer" (on psychic vampirism), but he also wrote many other stories with psychic and ghostly themes. These are included in such collections as Tongues of Fire (1924), The Lost Valley (1910), Pan's Garden (1912), Incredible Adventures (1914), and Day and Night Stories (1917). His own selection, Strange Stories was published 1929, but a later comprehensive collection is Tales of Terror and Darkness (1977).

De la Mare was a famous poet of great sensitivity who also published several beautifully written short stories of the super-natural, including "All Hallows," "The Recluse," and "The Looking-Glass." Collections of his short stories include: The Riddle (1923) and On the Edge (1930). A later collection is Ghost Stories (1956).

Williams was a sensitive writer of fantasy stories. "War in Heaven" (1930) and "The Place of the Lion" (1931) deal with demonic themes. Other stories include "Descent Into Hell" (1937), "Witchcraft" (1941), and "All Hallow's Eve" (1945).

The Irish writer Lord Dunsany was an acclaimed master of fantasy fiction. His books include Time and the Gods (1906), The Sword of Welleran (1908), A Dreamer's Tales (1910), The Book of Wonder (1912), The Last Book of Wonder (1916), The King of Elfland's Daughter (1924), and The Blessing of Pan (1927).

Another creator of fantasy worlds was J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973) with his famous The Lord of the Rings trilogy: The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), The Two Towers (1955), and The Return of the King (1955). These books involve a fictitious mythology reminiscent of Arthurian romance and generated a worldwide cult following.

There is a strong element of fantasy mythology in some of the short stories of the American writer H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), who appears to have been strongly influenced by Machen and Lord Dunsany. Lovecraft's style is uneven and mannered, but his stories of ancient evil, monsters, and horror have secured a cult following. Many of his stories were originally published in magazines like Weird Tales; others were collected and published posthumously through the initiative of fantasy writer August Derleth. Representative collections are The Dunwich Horror and Others (1963) and Dagon and Other Macabre Tales (1965).

One important British writer of fantasy and horror fiction much neglected in his lifetime was William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918). His terrifying short stories of the sea include "From the Tideless Sea" (1906), "The Thing in the Weeds" (1912) and "The Voice in the Night" (1907). These are included in the collection Men of the Deep Waters (1914). His full-length stories The House on the Borderland (1908) and The Night Land (1912) are full of terrifying fantasy.

L. P. Hartley (1895-1972) was an established novelist whoalso wrote some macabre supernatural short stories, notably "A Visitor From Down Under" (1927). His first collection was Night Fears (1924); his Collected Short Stories was published in 1968.

Another writer of ghostly short stories was Oliver Onions (1873-1961); his best-known story is "The Beckoning Fair One." Collections of his stories include Widdershins (1911) and Ghosts in Daylight (1924); there is also a Collected Ghost Stories (1935).

Practicing occultists who have also written fiction include Violet M. Firth (best known under her public name, Dion Fortune; 1890-1946) and the famous Aleister Crowley (1875-1947). Fortune was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn occult society and also founded her own Fraternity of the Inner Light. She fictionalized some of her own psychic experiences in The Secrets of Dr. Tavener (1926). Her other occult fiction includes The Demon Lover (1927), The Winged Bull (1935), The Goat-Foot God (1936), The Sea Priestess (1938), and Moon Magic (1956).

Crowley, the most outstanding magician of the twentieth century, was also a member of the Golden Dawn before he founded his own society, the AA, and became the Outer Head of the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO). In addition to his treatises on the practice of occultism, Crowley published two volumes of occult fiction: Moonchild (1929) and The Stratagem (1929). These were inferior to some of his other prose and his brilliant poetry.

One of the most prolific writers on the subject of black magic and occultism was Dennis Wheatley (1897-1977). His most popular books were The Devil Rides Out (1935), Strange Conflict (1941), To the Devil a Daughter (1953), The Satanist (1960), and They Used Dark Forces (1964). As well as these and other novels on occult themes, he edited the Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult, a series of reprints of significant occult books by other writ-ers.

Although the demise of many short story magazines during the period following World War II restricted the market for short stories on occult subjects, the popularity of the horror movie generated a new outlet.

Richard Matheson published many macabre short stories before becoming a prominent scriptwriter of horror films. Some of his most well-known stories include I Am Legend (1954), about vampires, and A Stir of Echoes (1958), dealing with psychic invasion of the mind. As a movie scriptwriter, Matheson adapted some of the works of Edgar Allen Poe, such as the story "The Pit and the Pendulum" and the poem "The Raven," as well as also his own novel Hell House (1971).

Robert Bloch, who wrote Psycho (1959), filmed by Alfred Hitchcock, also published many novels on occult themes, as well as scripting his own radio and movie stories. His film credits include The House That Dripped Blood (1970) and Asylum (1972).

The explosion of mass interest in occultism during the 1960s and 1970s slackened during the 1980s, perhaps through literary overkill of a basically elusive phenomenon, but has generated a romantic popular interest in fictional occultism, reflected in blockbuster novels of the occult adapted into movies. Typical of this trend are Ira Levin's sensational witchcraft stories Rosemary's Baby (1967) and The Stepford Wives (1972), which became successful movies.

Stephen King became the leading novelist of horror and the occult in America by the end of the 1970s. Beginning with Carrie (1974) about a teenager with paranormal powers, Salem's Lot (1975), a vampire story, and The Shining (1977), about an evil entity in a deserted hotel, King has produced a shelf of worldwide best-sellers, many of which have been made into movies.

Meanwhile, the Dracula theme has continued to proliferate all over the world in scores of books and movies. All this is a long way from the leisured sentimental Gothic tales of the eighteenth century and the cultured frisson of the Victorian and Edwardian ghost story. If the fantasy has become more imaginative, merging with the newer genre of science fiction, the thrills of the movie horror film have become more sensational. The vampire theme is the most successful single subgenre of contemporary Gothic fiction, with more than 650 vampire movies having been made during the twentieth century. As of 1994 more than 50 new vampire novels were being published annually.


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