I’m including this single essay in my list of recommended Halloween e-reading because it’s one of the most perceptive, least known explorations of horror writing that I know. It’s also from one of the most sophisticated and powerful, and least appreciated, early modern horror writers. Vernon Lee, otherwise known as Violet Paget (1856-1935), feminist, lesbian, and penetrating art and music critic, produced just one short collection of ghost stories, Hauntings (1890), but that plus a few other scattered tales won her a permanent place in the canon. And in her essay “Faustus and Helena,” she brought her imaginative insight and critical faculties together to huge effect.
Subtitled “Notes on the Supernatural in Art,” the essay deals with the story of Faust and Helen, “a mere trifling incident added by humanistic pedantry to the ever-changing mediæval story of the man who barters his soul for knowledge … a part, an unessential, subordinate fragment” of the great versions of the Faustus legend by Christopher Marlowe and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Yet this footnote to the main narrative tells more about the supernatural and horrible in art than Faust ever can, according to Vernon Lee. “The fiend of the Englishman is occasionally grand, the fiend of the German is throughout masterly; in all these cases we are in the presence of true artistic work … of figures well defined and finite, and limited also in their power over the imagination. But the group of Faustus and Helena is different; it belongs neither to Marlowe nor to Goethe, it belongs to the legend.”
Lee asks: “What are the relations between art and the supernatural? At first sight the two appear closely allied: like the supernatural, art is born of imagination; the supernatural, like art, conjures up unreal visions.” However, she argues, “in reality, the hostility between the supernatural and the artistic is well-nigh as great as the hostility between the supernatural and the logical. Critical reason is a solvent, it reduces the phantoms of the imagination to their most prosaic elements; artistic power, on the other hand, moulds and solidifies them into distinct and palpable forms: the synthetical definiteness of art is as sceptical as the analytical definiteness of logic. For the supernatural is necessarily essentially vague, and art is necessarily essentially distinct: give shape to the vague and it ceases to exist.”
An artist can’t help but render his visions in specific forms: the problem is that the supernatural is fundamentally formless. Frame it in natural form and it ceases to be supernatural. Vernon Lee evokes the presence (or divine absence?) of the great god Pan by, not one solid form, but a series of disconnected impressions: “piping heard in the tangle of reeds … the solitude, the gloom, the infinity of rustling leaves … the mist hanging over the damp sward.” And horror evolved out of the supernatural cast out from the “mystico-logic system” of orthodox Christianity by rationalistic theologians: “a world of the supernatural, different from that of the monk or the artisan, at once terrifying and consoling; the divinities cast out by Christianity, the divinities for ever newly begotten by nature, but begotten of a nature miserably changed, born in exile and obloquy and persecution, fostered by the wretched and the brutified … This is the real supernatural, born of the imagination and its surroundings, the vital, the fluctuating, the potent.” As for traditional pagan mythology, “the gods ceased to be gods not merely because they became too like men, but because they became too like anything definite.”
Meanwhile, Lee believed, “the only species of supernatural which still retains vitality, and can still be deprived of it by art … a form of the supernatural in which, from logic and habit, we disbelieve, but which is vital; and this form of the supernatural is the ghostly. We none of us believe in ghosts as logical possibilities, but we most of us conceive them as imaginative probabilities; we can still feel the ghostly, and thence it is that a ghost is the only thing which can in any respect replace for us the divinities of old, and enable us to understand, if only for a minute, the imaginative power which they possessed.” Ghosts are all that is left to us of the power of the old gods. All that vanishes, though, if the ghost is too explicitly portrayed. “The more complete the artistic work, the less remains of the ghost. Why do those stories affect us most in which the ghost is heard but not seen? Why do those places affect us most of which we merely vaguely know that they are haunted?” And this is why “the confused images evoked in our mind by the mere threadbare tale of Faustus and Helena are superior in imaginative power to the picture carefully elaborated and shown us by Goethe.”
In some of the best chronicled primordial pagan traditions, traditional Japanese Shinto rites and the pre-Grecian Roman mythology from which Rudolf Otto derived the word numinous, divinities and spirits of place, the genius locii, are almost entirely vague and without form. Their power and terror comes partly from their indefiniteness. C.S. Lewis described it thus:
If you were told “There is a ghost in the next room,” and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is “uncanny” rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous.
You can see from this how Vernon Lee has touched on a conduit to the divine and the numinous that still runs through horror and the ghost story – and the more powerful when darker, shadier, and more evocative.