The Tale of Terror (1921)

Posted by Matt Foley on January 27, 2010 in Blog tagged with
The Tale of Terror (1921)
By Edith Birkhead
All quotes taken from: (The whole book is online have a read!)
In the last week or so I have been skim-reading Edith Birkhead’s 1921 monograph on terrifying literature The Tale of Terror for the first time. It’s an interesting book in many ways. Her canonising of the original period of Gothic is very similar to what is taught today on, for example, the Mlitt in the Gothic Imagination here at Stirling. The usual suspects are all prominent: Walpole, Radcliffe, Lewis, Reeve, Beckford and Maturin all feature heavily. It is also interesting how Gothic is categorized as a sub-genre of terror literature, in terms of the way the monograph has been named, and how this is still the case In Punter’s The Literature of Terror (1984). Nowadays though the term Gothic has spread to encompass both terror and horror fiction in some sections of academia including on here and indeed in the later work of Punter himself.
Birkhead was a university lecturer at both The University of Bristol and The University of Liverpool (where she was a Noble Fellow) but, due to a certain Virginia Woolf penning a review of The Tale of Terror, she also holds a prominent place in understanding Modernism’s relationship to the Gothic and this has been noted a few times in relevant scholarly literature.  Personally, though, looking at her book in retrospect I particularly find her thoughts on the future of terror literature interesting. They come at the end of chapter ten:

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 her review Woolf praises Birkhead for her good sense and ability to keep a clear head when dealing with so much material (her range of reading is admirable to say the least). I think the quote above demonstrates Birkhead’s insightfulness quite well given her recognition that terror becomes ‘inextricably interwoven with other motives’ and her prediction of spectral technologies that eerily includes the aeroplane with the phantom pilot. Terror and the plane have gone hand in hand even in the 21st Century.

Also of interest to me is Birkhead’s concluding comments about the handling of terror in the work of the literary heavyweights of both her contemporary time and the fin de siècle. The Miss Corelli referred to in the second line is Marie Corelli (1855-1924) the best selling novelist of her time.

Oscar Wilde’s _Picture of Dorian Gray_ is intended to show that sin must ultimately affect the soul; and the Sorrows of Satan, in Miss Corelli’s novel, are caused by the wickedness of the world. But apart from any ulterior motive there is still a desire for the unusual, there is still pleasure to be found in a thrill, and so long as this human instinct endures devices will be found for satisfying it. Of the making of tales of terror there is no end; and almost every novelist of note has, at one time or another, tried his hand at the art. Early in his career Arnold Bennett fashioned a novelette, _Hugo_, which may be read as a modernised version of the Gothic romance. Instead of subterranean vaults in a deserted abbey, we have the strong rooms of an enterprising Sloane Street emporium. The coffin, containing an image of the heroine, is buried not in a mouldering chapel, but in a suburban cemetery. The lovely but harassed heroine has fallen, indeed, from her high estate, for Camilla earns her living as a milliner. There are, it is true, no sonnets and no sunsets, but the excitement of the plot, which is partially unfolded by means of a phonographic record, renders them superfluous. H.G. Wells makes excursions into quasi-scientific, fantastic realms of grotesque horror in his _First Men in the Moon_, and in some of his sketches and short stories. Joseph Conrad has the power of fear ever at the command of his romantic imagination. In _The Nigger of the Narcissus_, in _Typhoon_, and, above all, in _The Shadow-Line_, he shows his supreme mastery over inexpressible mystery and nameless terror. The voyage of the schooner, doomed by the evil influence of her dead captain, is comparable only in awe and horror to that of _The Ancient Mariner_. Conrad touches unfathomable depths of human feelings, and in his hands the tale of terror becomes a finished work of art.

 Birkhead’s wide sweep is suggestive of a number of interesting paths in terms of understanding manifestations of the Gothic at the time. There has been quite a bit done on H.G. Wells and Wilde in Gothic scholarly circles and Conrad too has been considered. However, I’ve not read The Shadow Line but will do so given Birkhead’s glowing praise. I am also not familiar with work done on Marie Corelli or Arnold Bennet’s Hugo which sounds interesting. Anyone want to fill me in?

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