Contents
  Notes &
Permissions
  Preface & Acknowledg-
ments
1:
Introduction
2: Horror in Literature and the Literature of Horror
3: The Marvelous Horror Thriller
4:  The Fantastic/Uncanny Horror Thriller
5: The Aesthetics of the Horror Thriller: Stoker's Dracula
6: The Pure Fantastic Tale of Terror
7:  Anticlosure: Poe's "Ligeia"
8: The Entrapped Critic:
Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher"
9: The Master's Trap:
James's The Turn of the Screw 
10: Escape: An Aesthetics of Terror Fantasy
11: Terror and the Sublime
Sources
Index

 
Chapter Eleven

Conclusion: Terror and the Sublime

 

 
I

     John Aiken and Anna Laetitia Barbauld, in their essay "On The Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror," eloquently pose the central question of this book: "But the apparent delight with which we dwell upon objects of pure terror, where our moral feelings are not in the least concerned, and no passion seems to be excited but the depressing one of fear, is a paradox of the heart, much more difficult of solution" (120). Insofar as a literary work seems intent upon arousing fear in its readers, it is aesthetically puzzling. Attempts to explain the appeal of such works have not been numerous, though some have been quite suggestive. Before considering these, it will be helpful to review the answers that have been developed in the previous chapters.

     The literature of terror may be organized along a kind of branching continuum much as Tzvetan Todorov organizes fantastic literature (Figure 1). If successfully creating an aesthetic experience in which the real reader deals with real threats to his well-being marks the fullest development of the literature of terror, then the fully developed terror fantasies of Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James form one end of that continuum. Central to those works is the fantastic as defined by Todorov -- the hesitation in the implied reader between natural and supernatural explanations of the terrifying events. The natural and supernatural sides of this hesitation come from two directions. There is a literature of terror, which seems related to tragedy, in which the marvelous has no part. Todorov calls this area the uncanny. Sensation stories such as "The Man in the Bell" and related works by authors such as Charles Brockden Brown and Poe evoke uncanny horror. Closely related to fairy tales and that loosely defined genre called fantasy are marvelous tales of terror, those works such as At the Mountains of Madness in which the supernatural is accepted, however reluctantly, without questioning its reality. The uncanny and the marvelous tale of terror converge in the fantastic, in fantastic/marvelous tales, where there is fantastic hesitation in the implied reader that is eventually resolved toward the supernatural, and in the fantastic/uncanny, where this hesitation is resolved toward the natural. We see, then, a split continuum of modes of tales of terror with two parallel ends in realistic fiction and in fantasy. From these poles the continuum gradually converges toward the fantastic and ends in pure fantastic terror fantasy. Though one might trace a kind of historical development along this continuum, that would be a difficult and perhaps not a valuable enterprise, for it seems clear that works of all kinds have appeared in random order since the eighteenth century.

     Along this continuum are three major highlighted areas about which it seems reasonable to center aesthetic questions. The uncanny tale of terror is distinct in the kind of pleasure it offers from the horror thriller. Within the horror thriller are all the tales that present marvelous or apparently marvelous monsters; therefore, marvelous tales, fantastic/marvelous tales, and fantastic/uncanny tales are all closely related in the pleasure they offer. Pure fantastic tales of terror or terror fantasies, though they share the characteristics of horror thrillers, are unique in exploiting the potential of the pure fantastic for anticlosure, and so they offer yet another distinct kind of pleasure.

     The uncanny tale of terror in its simplest form offers vicarious risk. We are allowed to imagine being in situations we will probably never encounter, though we may well suffer analogous experiences. These may allow a kind of play or modeling, thus fulfilling the need for play that Erik Erikson describes in Childhood and Society (211-22). We are allowed to escape temporarily from the normal limitations of social reality and to practice or pretend mastery of some fears. This particular psychological pleasure contributes to another level of pleasure, the experience of extremes of emotion usually not available in ordinary life, for the play with fear intensifies those emotional extremes. Without actually feeling terror, we imagine what it must be like to feel the absolute terrors of physical and spiritual annihilation. Though the risk of encountering real fear in such tales is small, this risk still contributes to the aesthetic pleasure of creating a concretion of the text. Aesthetic pleasure in reading a literary text arises from the process of making a concretion or an aesthetic whole of the experience of the text and is complete when a satisfying concretion is achieved. A small amount of risk, the highly protected entertainment of fear, which becomes part of the process of concretizing the sensation story, intensifies the pleasure of completing the work by adding a small barrier to that completion.

     Poe, though he wrote some sensation tales, did not find this simplest form particularly challenging and tended to parody it in pieces such as "The Premature Burial" and "How to Write a Blackwood Article." When, as in "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Tell-Tale Heart," he wrote in this vein, he introduced various forms of ambiguity, thereby increasing the risk for the reader at least slightly. Brown shows a similar interest in Edgar Huntly. Such ambiguity brings the sensation story closer to the fantastic/uncanny tale of terror.

     The second major mode on the continuum of tales of terror is the horror thriller. It includes all tales of terror in which the marvelous or apparently marvelous appears, but not those that sustain fantastic hesitation throughout the whole. They are like the uncanny tales in that reading them entails taking risks. These risks tend not to be too great, in part because they arise from horror, our response to anticipating and watching harm befalling those for whom we care. Indeed, in their simpler forms, as in some tales of M. R. James, for example, their effects may hardly be distinct from uncanny tales. The important difference grows out of the new potential that is introduced when one feels free to invent supernatural monsters. When the man in the bell hallucinates, he suggests some of the possibilities that horror thrillers such as At the Mountains of Madness and Dracula develop more fully. Supernatural or apparently supernatural monsters can be made to symbolically represent unconscious psychological fears. Most recent historians and theoreticians of the Gothic tradition have recognized this possibility, and many have documented it in their examinations of Gothic fiction. Though such works present risks to the reader, they are different in kind from those of the uncanny tale. In their most fully developed forms, horror thrillers, mainly by means of their presentations of supernatural monsters, force the reader to entertain images of the forbidden, images of what a culture commands its members to exclude from their selves. Because such images are unconsciously attractive (representing parts of the self) at the same time as their meanings are forbidden entrance into consciousness, we can take a kind of illicit pleasure in the mere contemplation of these images, but ultimately they must be put back. Horror thrillers are fairly careful, sometimes indeed, elaborately careful, to create and maintain psychological distance between the real reader and the terrifying images. The reader is therefore carefully protected from the possibility of the images forcing attention away from the work to terrors in the self. The result is a highly controlled brush with the attractive/terrifying forbidden within the self. Such a glimpse seems considerably more risky than the vicarious participation in another's fear that distinguishes the uncanny tale of terror. Often, this contact with terror appears in addition to or as part of an imaginative sharing of a character's fear. The concretization of such a work is more challenging because the risk is greater. For this reason, the aesthetic pleasure of completing such works is likely to be more intense.

     Another element that contributes to the intensity of a fully developed horror thriller is that completing it requires a reenactment of repression. Psychoanalysts affirm that we begin to construct our identities by forming a concept of an "I" as separate from everything else. To continue to construct that identity, we must specify the "I" in forms of language available to us: we must give up much that is part of us, for example, the desire to possess our mothers wholly or the continuous pleasure of passively receiving various stimulations. We gladly give up these things to become persons, but nevertheless we continue to long for what we have lost in the process. The forbidden images of the horror thriller offer us disguised forms of what we have given up, allow a controlled play with these images, and assist in a repetition of the original repressions by which we gave up those parts of ourselves.

     There are two unique forms of psychological pleasure that contribute to the aesthetic pleasure of the horror thriller: the play with images of the forbidden and the reenactment of repression. The closer the play comes to being serious, the more recognizable the images are as representations of forbidden desire, the greater is the pleasure of controlling them with the assistance of the literary form. Aesthetic completion and the reenactment of repression coincide, thus enhancing the pleasure of the work.

     The unique features of the aesthetic experience of the uncanny tale of terror and of the horror thriller seem directly related to the identity principle Norman Holland presents in The I. One of our unique capacities as human beings is to construct a self-conscious identity, an "I." The uncanny tale of terror allows an exploration and a testing of that identity in playing at fear. We explore our responses to intense fear, and we model our desired reactions to terrifying situations, much as Clara Wieland modeled her reactions to a threat of rape. The horror thriller requires a more sophisticated response. While modeling and testing may still be part of concretizing an effective horror thriller, the distinctive quality of this experience is the encounter, not so much with fears of physical destruction, but with images of the forbidden. These works offer opportunities to guardedly repossess the forbidden and surrendered parts of the self and then to reenact the surrender. This reenactment is analogous to the "original" acts of self-formation. We begin to achieve identities, and we continue to specify those identities by asserting and maintaining self-consciousness, by making choices to be one person and not another. This process is both pleasurable and painful; it is pleasurable to exercise our peculiarly human power of becoming a self, and it is painful to surrender potentials and desires that are not consistent with that self. While the unique pleasures of uncanny tales of terror and of horror thrillers tend to support and reaffirm the process of achieving an identity, the unique pleasures of terror fantasy take us in the opposing direction by making us feel the fictionality, the constructedness of our identities.

     Those tales that exploit the pure fantastic without using anticlosure hover between the horror thriller and the terror fantasy, but seem finally to be highly effective horror thrillers. Terror fantasy realizes its full potential when fantastic hesitation is sustained throughout the tale and when there is anticlosure. We arrive at the end of "Ligeia," "The Fall of the House of Usher," or The Turn of the Screw to discover a reopening rather than a closing of the tale. The twists at the ends of these texts turn the reader back into the story by an insistent ambiguity with regard to what has actually happened. The fantastic hesitation does not end; instead it becomes the central feature of the tale, and its lack of resolution becomes a source of terror, ultimately to the real reader.

     As a result of this turning back, the implied reader is split, suspended between alternate readings, and this suspension amounts to entrapment in the reading. Because the role of implied reader refuses to end, the real reader is also entrapped in the reading. His reading does not stop, and he is haunted by the work. The real reader's dilemma parallels the narrator's dilemma. Both invite the obsessive repetition of the tale. At this stage, the work ceases to behave as we expect works of art to behave. As a result, the real reader's relation to it is no longer aesthetic, but practical. The work threatens and terrifies the reader. The real reader can bring an end to his reading and to his terror, but he must do so without help from the work, except insofar as the work pushes him toward some response that might end the reading.

     Several responses are possible, but only one seems satisfying. The reader can "repress" the tale, practicing a fairly simple form of flight, or he can struggle against it. Struggle might include forcing one of the alternative interpretations upon the tale, either by trivializing or by naturalizing its terrors. All of these readings are possible, and each has its rewards. Repression provides relief, a rather ragged form of the pleasure a horror thriller provides. Forcing a resolution on the tale offers a similar pleasure since it brings closure to the tale and a reenactment of repression. These responses will ultimately prove unsatisfying, especially to the reader who rereads these tales or for whom they remain vivid in memory. The repression of flight from the tale is simply an attempt to erase it from memory, which is normally impossible; repression is only pretending to forget, after all. And forcing closure on the tale leaves one's chosen interpretation under the critique of its alternative(s).

     The more satisfying response begins with the real reader's intuitive recognition that he has created a self, an implied reader, in response to the tale and that this self is only a role that may be abandoned. If the work will not end the role, then the reader may stop playing it. When the real reader leaves his role of implied reader "in the work," the work becomes whole. The real reader unilaterally reestablishes the necessary aesthetic distance from the work, which will allow him to see it as a whole and complete work of art. Reestablishment of aesthetic distance and the completion of the reading do not resolve the narrator's or the implied reader's problems of interpretation, but they do transform them. When the real reader successfully makes the step to a critical perspective, the implied reader becomes visible as a construct of the work, entrapped in the work and suspended between the irresolvable alternatives of interpretation. The real reader thus frees himself from the role of implied reader of this text, abandoning the forever split role in the work. Having realized that the implied reader is caught in a trap from which there is no escape, the real reader surrenders the solution of the ambiguity and accepts his limitations. While horror thrillers assure the reader of his power over self and not-self, terror fantasies make him experience the limits of that power.

     The rewards of this surrender of the illusion of mastery over the self and the world, the pleasures of terror in terror fantasies, are multiple. The perception of the implied reader as a fictional role and the potential perception of the implication that all versions of the self are fictional and, therefore, changeable, offer a kind of liberation. The feelings of release and freedom that may accompany these perceptions can be great indeed, occurring at psychological, social, and political levels. These perceptions are essentially intuitive and, except in a critical/theoretical effort such as this book, we are not likely to articulate them. Whether articulated or completely intuitive, the experience is intense and liberating. There is a feeling of self-transcendence, which results from the intuition that one of the selves one has been is smaller or less than the "consciousness" or the subject that created that self. This feeling meshes with and intensifies the sense of release that accompanies escape from the obsession of the implied reader. Anxiety fades, to be replaced by a dual level of exhilaration, feelings of freedom from one version of the self and from all possible versions of the self.

     These feelings of release are intensified still further at the final level of aesthetics. Release from imprisonment in a fictional self and from the obsession of that self allows the reestablishment of aesthetic distance in which the reader ceases to be contained by the work and succeeds in containing it. He is able to see the work as a whole with all of its parts, including the implied reader, functionally connected and appropriate to their places and relationships. There is a kind of triumph of the perceiving subject here. "He" escapes from Usher's universe of Chinese boxes, from containment within the work, from containment within a version of the self, the implied reader, and from containment within his self, the real reader. The subject that creates the "I" is at least momentarily liberated from any particular version of that "I" and can experience himself as the creator of "I's." This escape becomes the distinctive feature of the aesthetic experience of a terror fantasy. Terror leads to liberation; liberation ends in beauty. One's future thinking about the work becomes voluntary rather than obsessive, free rather than entrapped, pleasurable rather than anxious. We may continue our contemplation of the work at our choice, without the constraints imposed upon the implied reader, and we may expect to enjoy this activity in the way we enjoy exploring the aesthetically relevant features and the implications of all great works of art.

     The uncanny tale of terror and the horror thriller serve the law of the self, helping to confirm the reader in his choice of an identity. In doing so, they provide two fairly distinct sorts of aesthetic pleasure. The uncanny tale provides the pleasures of self-exploration and modeling as parts of concretization. Horror thrillers provide opportunities for the pleasurable reenactment of the repressions by which identity is chosen and maintained. Terror fantasy subverts the law of the self, helping to remind the reader that identity is a fictional construct chosen by a subject or consciousness potentially greater than any identity it might construct. The pleasure of terror fantasy, therefore, is a direct result of real terror of some degree. The real reader must truly be terrified, must experience the work as a threat (though of a special sort) to himself, and must deal with the threat not by evasion, but by altering his perspective in such a way as to separate himself from the implied reader and regain control of the aesthetic experience. This move makes possible and contributes to the successful concretization of the work and thereby becomes the distinctive feature of the aesthetic pleasure of a terror fantasy.
 

II

     The three distinct answers to the question about the delights of terror arise from distinguishing three modal types of tale along the split continuum between terror fantasy at one end and tales of the marvelous and the uncanny at the other. How do these answers relate to what has been suggested about the pleasures of terror?

     Not much attention has been given to the problem of the pleasures of terror. Most recent writers have been more interested in the psychological, social, political, religious, and historical dimensions of the Gothic tradition. They have attempted to account for the appeal of works in the Gothic tradition with various hypotheses about the particular historical needs of the culture that produced them. A brief look at some of the recent hypotheses with attention to the unities among them will help suggest how they relate to the answers I have offered.

     S. L. Varnado in "The Idea of the Numinous in Gothic Literature" argues that the experience of the numinous is "the essential goal of the Gothic writer" (The Gothic Imagination 12). G. Richard Thompson takes up this idea in his introductions to Romantic Gothic Tales and The Gothic Imagination. Thompson characterizes the numinous as metaphysical dread:

     The chief element of the Gothic romance is not so much terror as, more broadly, dread -- whether physical, psychological, or metaphysical, whether of body, mind, or spirit. The Gothic romance seeks to create an atmosphere of dread by combining terror with horror and mystery. Terror suggests the frenzy of physical and mental fear of pain, dismemberment, and death. Horror suggests the perception of something incredibly evil or morally repellent. Mystery suggests something beyond this, the perception of a world that stretches away beyond the range of human intelligence -- often morally incomprehensible -- and thereby productive of a nameless apprehension that may be called religious dread in the face of the wholly other. (The Gothic Imagination 3)
Gothic writers felt the need to express such religious dread as part of a cultural response to the perceived end of the Age of Faith, the decline of the power of the Christian synthesis to unify Western civilization: "Gothic literature may be seen as expressive of an existential terror generated by a schism between a triumphantly secularized philosophy of evolving good and an abiding obsession with the Medieval conception of guilt-laden, sin-ridden man" (The Gothic Imagination 4-5). Deprived of a unified and unifying vision of good and evil in the cosmos and confronted by philosophies that denied the evil that they felt to be there, Gothic writers sought to express the hidden dark side of humanity by evoking metaphysical dread in the face of the wholly unknown other. In this view, the Enlightenment tended to deny the irrational, but Gothic writers, perceiving its persistence, sought to represent it and to reimagine the mind as including both the rational and the irrational. By implication, then, the readers of such works have a need to experience metaphysical dread. The Gothic novel becomes a means of appropriating experiences that the dominant culture has ruled out of reality. This sort of thinking becomes the basis of the hypotheses of David Punter and Rosemary Jackson.

     Punter sees Gothic fiction as rebellion against an essentially political ideology, industrial capitalism's attempt to claim and enforce the totality of its vision of the world (411-26). Gothic fiction opposes the realistic novel's bourgeois specification of what is real, for example, family, heterosexuality, and monogamy. The Gothic expresses the alienation of those people and those aspects of all people written out of reality by such an ideology's claim of universality or totality. Gothic fiction expresses what industrial capitalism represses. It therefore responds to a need humans have to be whole, to possess themselves wholly, a need that always must resist the claim of a particular culture's values and world view to be all-inclusive.

     Jackson brings together structuralist method and psychoanalysis, drawing heavily on Todorov and Lacan, among others. William Patrick Day works out a more detailed presentation of a similar view in his examination of Gothic fiction. Jackson argues that fantasy (by which she seems to mean mainly tales of terror) is ultimately subversive. In various forms fantasy questions "the category of character." She notes that many fantasies, when studied thematically, are compensatory, that is, they offer vicarious wish fulfillment (174-75). I believe she would so categorize both uncanny tales of terror and horror thrillers. They allow a temporary entertainment of the culturally forbidden, thus compensating us for giving up what was forbidden. However, she argues further that many of these same fantasies are structurally subversive; they "undermine dominant philosophical and epistemological orders" (175). These fantasies subvert cultural definitions of the real by expressing desire for the "unreal." By depicting in various ways a reversal of the process of forming the self, fantasy expresses desire for an absolute, for an expression to cover all of reality; at the same time subversive fantasy points at the failure of any given expression to communicate ALL. In an age of belief, religious fantasy can depict the union of self and other (in this case, God), but in the modern age, secular fantasies can only long for an impossible union of self and other, because the other has become the not-self hidden in the self. Modern subversive fantasy expresses our dissatisfaction with what our culture allows us to see, with the real. While it does not satisfy our desire to see the imaginary, it at least expresses our desire.

     All three of these accounts of the appeal of tales of terror are insightful and helpful, especially with regard to my thinking on the horror thriller. The horror thriller, after all, includes the central forms realized by the main line of the Gothic tradition from The Castle of Otranto through Dracula to At the Mountains of Madness. Each of these accounts argues that the Gothic tradition emerges out of the perception of a major lack in the felt structure of modern Western culture. Todorov expresses a similar idea when he asserts that nineteenth-century fantasy "is nothing but the bad conscience of this positivist era" (168). As a particular cultural response to a particular feeling of something missing, Gothic fiction allows the expression of that feeling and an attempt, which can be only partially successful, to supply what is missing: the lost sense of religious unity and awe, the ways of living and being excluded by an industrial capitalist ideology, the hidden parts of the self surrendered in the formation of the "I" within a particular cultural/linguistic matrix (or, as Lacan would say, "patrix").

     It should be immediately clear that I have leaned more on the last of these formulations, not because the others are less fruitful, but because my questions are essentially aesthetic. To treat of the unique aesthetic pleasures of modern works of fiction seems to require consideration of the individual reader's act of concretization. One naturally focuses attention on the reader's response to the text. The historical interests of Thompson, Punter, and Jackson lead them to historical hypotheses, which seek verification in what we can learn and persuade ourselves to believe about particular historical moments. I have used Jackson and those with whom she deals because of their emphasis on the personal, on the features and needs of the individual reader of a tale of terror, insofar as we are capable of knowing him. Hence, my formulations are based on what appear to be the best current insights into the formation of individual identity.

     There is a sense in which one approaches the universal by this route. There is a chance, at least, that the explanations of the pleasures of terror offered here, when refined and corrected over time, may prove applicable to all tales of terror, not merely those that emerge from the Gothic tradition of a predominantly Anglo-American and modern literature. It seems likely that the emergence of a Gothic tradition in the eighteenth century may be accounted for largely in the same way we account for the emergence of the novel in the same period, in terms of economic and political changes, of the emergence of a culture-consuming middle class, and of increased literacy, among other factors. The novel was not the beginning of fiction, and the Gothic romance was not the beginning of tales of terror. Thompson and Punter provocatively explain the particular shapes the Gothic romance takes. Jackson and Todorov contribute to this explanation, but prove more helpful in trying to discover what value any individual might gain from the tales of terror that his or her culture produces. Because I take my examples from the familiar, my formulations will be limited by my gender and personality, by my culture, and by my place in history. Nevertheless, insofar as they are accurate and clear, they should point toward what an ancient Roman or a twenty-first-century Chinese would seek in the tales of terror produced at those times in those cultures.

     By offering aesthetic answers to the questions of why we enjoy horror and terror in literature, I separate myself from most of the twentieth-century writers on the subject except, perhaps, for those in the popular press. Literary theory has not shown much interest in these questions since the eighteenth century, when Aiken and Barbauld formulated them so well. As Samuel Monk has shown in The Sublime, eighteenth-century theorists and writers were intensely interested in the problem of how the terrifying could play such an important part in the literature that was growing in importance during their century.

     The general answer was "the sublime," an aesthetic effect resulting from the presentation of terrifying objects within some artistic form or from the contemplation of the awesome in a landscape. Aesthetic distance was crucial to the effect of the sublime. Edmund Burke's well-known formulation of the relation of terror to the sublime is, in fact, echoed in Edward Bullough's essay on aesthetic distance: "Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion of which the mind is capable of feeling .... When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful, as we every day experience" (Monk, The Sublime 91). According to Burke, the experience of the sublime is characterized by astonishment, "that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended with some degree of horror .... [T]he mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it" (Monk, The Sublime 92). We can see here a route to the historical hypotheses of Thompson and Punter. The Gothic romance is a literary form that deliberately seeks to evoke the sublime. The sublime brings into aesthetic experience the irrational, the unknown, and the terrible, thereby transforming pain and danger into parts of beauty. Thompson and Punter explain why this culture would value this experience.

     Burke's discussion of the sublime is helpful primarily in its recognition of the importance of aesthetic distance and of the consequences of the dissolution of that distance. His description of astonishment is also suggestive. On one hand, it might describe any number of states including the absorption of a reader in an engaging story or the uncritical taking in of any beautiful object, ranging from one's beloved to a particularly graceful shot in basketball. In no case can one quite imagine the soul with all its motions suspended, except perhaps in death. Still there is a kind of truth in the idea that something like astonishment or wonder is experienced in the horror thriller when the image of the forbidden comes closest to revealing what it veils. There is a kind of motion of contraries between attraction -- the desire to really see -- and fear -- the desire not to know -- which makes such a moment highly absorbing. We have seen how absorbing is the obsessive attempt to resolve the insistent ambiguity that erupts with the anticlosure of a terror fantasy.

     Monk argues that the concept of the sublime was not fully described and clarified until Immanuel Kant took it up in the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment where he distinguished the beautiful from the sublime. The experience of the beautiful arises from the contemplation of the completeness and unity of closed forms. The experience of the sublime arises from the contemplation of objects that make us aware of limitlessness. Monk paraphrases Kant on the sublime: "In experiencing the sublime, the imagination seeks to represent what it is powerless to represent, since the object is limitless, and thus cannot be represented. This effort and this inevitable failure of the imagination are the source of the emotions that accompany the sublime, which achieves its effect by the opposition between the object and our faculties of knowledge" (Monk, The Sublime 9; see also, Guyer 264-65). Though this is quite abstract, it seems rather precisely to describe the sorts of effects we have seen in the horror thriller and, especially, in terror fantasy. There seems to be no question of an uncanny tale of terror arousing sublime emotions until it takes advantage of deliberate ambiguity, as does Edgar Huntly. At that point, it approaches one form of the horror thriller. Insofar as the real reader and the image of the forbidden approach each other in a horror thriller, this confrontation between the imagination and the limitless comes into play. The terrible image is a representation of what cannot be represented, of what culture and identity make invisible. Hence, the object, the image, opposes our faculties of knowledge. As Thompson, Punter, and Jackson argue, this is the central program of Gothic fiction, but as they also acknowledge, few fictions succeed in bringing about this confrontation. Indeed, the horror thriller seems elaborately structured to approach as close as possible to such a confrontation without actually allowing it to take place. Even stories such as Oliver Onions's "The Beckoning Fair One," Théophile Gautier's "The Dead Lover," or even Matthew Lewis's The Monk, which show characters living an alternate forbidden life, protect the reader with narrative judgments and foreground conscious alternatives (I might be someone else) rather than unconscious alternatives (I might be something else). This concern with maintaining aesthetic distance and protecting the reader is quite appropriate for a work that takes as one of its aims the pleasurable [pleasureable] entertainment of images of the forbidden followed by a reenactment of repression, but it probably minimizes the degree to which sublime emotions can be aroused in the reader. Nevertheless, the full realization of Edward Bullough's antinomy of aesthetic distance in the presentation of the horrifying image ought to lead to some form of sublime response. The more highly charged the image itself, the more intense the response of the characters, and the more effective the rhetoric of the presentation, the more fully will the reader feel what Thompson calls metaphysical dread, the sense of impenetrable mystery, or what Ann Radcliffe in her essay, "On the Supernatural in Poetry," calls the essential "obscurity" that points to the limitlessness of that image (149-50). Probably only a few especially powerful horror thrillers such as Dracula and the best of those pure fantastic tales of terror such as "The Sand-Man" achieve this level of response.

     Terror fantasy seems to pursue the sublime more directly. Sustained and unresolved fantastic hesitation heightened by anticlosure renders limitless the tale as a whole, forcing the imagination to try to represent what it cannot. The implied reader, the real reader's imaginative projection for the solution of this problem, is stymied. Only by recognition and acceptance of this limitlessness can the work become complete.

     Kant's description of the pleasure of the sublime also seems clearly applicable to the pleasures of the horror thriller and terror fantasy. Monk paraphrases Kant's description of the sublime as a response to natural objects:

The sublime sets the mind in motion. The motion is a vibration, a rapid alternation of repulsion and attraction produced by the same object. This is because imagination in the apprehension of the intuition is driven to the point of excess and is afraid of it, while the reason finds nothing excessive in the attempt to estimate the magnitude.

     The dynamic sublime is found in nature represented as might, but as might that has no dominion over us. To be dynamically sublime, nature must be a source of fear, but not at the moment of aesthetic judgment. Overhanging rocks, thunderclouds, and lightning, volcanoes, hurricanes, the stormy ocean, high waterfalls -- in comparison with their might, our power of resistance is of no account. Hence they are fearful. But if we are safe from their menace, they become delightful because of their fearfulness. These objects awaken sublime feelings because, although the immensity and the energy of nature reveal our own physical limitations, we are aware that we have a faculty (reason) of estimating ourselves as independent of nature and superior to it .... Thus we are lifted momentarily above nature. Physically we may be dwarfed, but our reason remains undaunted, and the mind becomes aware of the sublimity of its own being. (Monk, The Sublime 8)

     This passage needs considerable translation because Kant turns, rather naturally, to nature for objects that might impress the mind with limitlessness, because their "might" is so much in excess of any human individual's little strength.

     Kant replaces Burke's stillness of astonishment with a mind in motion, specifically between attraction and repulsion. This vibration occurs because of contrary demands of different human faculties. The reason believes in wholeness and demands that the object be seen whole, but because the object exceeds the ability of the imagination to see it whole, the imagination backs away from the activity it is called upon to perform at the same time that it tries to perform it. In the most effective horror thrillers, this vibration occurs in relation to the terrifying image that demands recognition but also hides itself and refuses to be recognized. The closer it approaches being recognized without revealing itself, the fuller the experience of this vibration of attraction and repulsion, between the desire to see and the fear of knowing. Terror fantasy exhibits this quality of the sublime even more clearly. We expect, even need, the work to be a whole; we feel driven to complete a concretion of that whole. But the work resists and entraps the implied reader -- our imaginary agent -- by insisting upon its own limitlessness. This impasse cannot be broken until there is an alteration of perspective in which the real reader escapes the reading.

     The dynamic sublime as found in these literary works is not represented as might; none is so large as to endanger us by its size or so physically powerful as to gobble us up. However, in the horror thriller, the danger is something like might. If we, by some accident, push aside the veil of the image and perceive what should not be seen, we may be overwhelmed. Hence, we fear the veiled power of that terrifying image. As long as aesthetic distance is sustained, however, we occupy a location from which an aesthetic judgment can be made. Upon completion and closure of the work, when the frightening monster has been "put back" in one way or another, we are, in a sense, lifted above ourselves, or perhaps more precisely, lifted into ourselves. The horror thriller affirms the power to create identity and the particular identity one has created. One feels strength, superiority, a sense of belonging. In Caligari's Children, S. S. Prawer recalls such an experience when he saw White Zombie as a teenager: "The whole added up to an encounter with deep-seated fears from which I felt I emerged with credit; I remember the experience with gratitude as a liberating and exhilarating one" (202).

     Terror fantasy produces a perhaps stronger version of sublime pleasure. The danger in terror fantasy is not destruction or being overwhelmed by a nightmare, but obsessive entrapment before what we conceive to be the terrible, the threatening unknown and forbidden. Likewise, we are unable to simply be in the right location, safe from the threat we perceive in the overhanging rock or the stormy ocean. And so long as we are not in that position, aesthetic judgment is impossible. Terror fantasy requires the reader to find the safe position. Kant's formulation suggests how this might be done and parallels the argument I have made. We become aware of ourselves as having an ability to see ourselves as independent of the work and superior to it. Having "made" the implied reader, we can become aware of ourselves as creators, as superior to that particular "I" and to any other "I" we have created or will create. In short, there is a "safe location" to which we can move in imagination and from which aesthetic judgment is possible. Thus, we are lifted above the work. Though the work defeats our attempts to resolve its ambiguity, we are able to subsume it under an idea of wholeness that includes that irresolvable ambiguity. By being made aware of the limitations of "I" in relation to the apparent limitlessness of the terror fantasy, we become aware, paradoxically, of the sublimity of our own being, of the limitlessness of our essential selves as creators of our identities. Because the movement is more complex and because it covers a greater imaginative distance, requiring that we discover and recover the perspective from which to judge, the pleasure of the sublime in a terror fantasy is more intense and perhaps more profound than the sublime pleasure of the horror thriller.

     It appears, then, that Kant provided the foundation for an explanation of the pleasures of terror in 1790. The horror thriller and terror fantasy prove to be possible sources of the sublime as Kant formulated it. We can see continuity between Kant's formulations of the experience of the sublime and the best of recent studies of the appeal of the Gothic romance. We can also see continuity between the sublime and the pleasures of terror fantasy. Kant's formulation suggests, in fact, that insofar as an artist understands, whether consciously or intuitively, an audience's capacity for the sublime, he might take as a goal the production of that effect in his audience. A sort of genetic hypothesis arises from this observation. Though we probably cannot show that there is any clear historical development in written literature from the uncanny and marvelous tales of terror toward the uses of images symbolic of unconsious fears, fantastic ambiguity, and anticlosure, we might still argue that this is a genetic development. Perhaps the potential for pleasure inherent in the tale of terror is fully articulated in the aesthetic effect of the sublime. If this is true, then it may also be true that all tales of terror seek in various ways to produce this effect. Finally, we might hypothesize that two of the three main modes of the tale of terror discussed in this study represent particularly satisfying ways to approach the sublime and that terror fantasies most fully realize the potentialities of the tale of terror, since they evoke the sublime most completely. That one might describe literary genres in such a way as to generalize about their potentials and to judge works according to the degree to which they realize the potentials of the genre to which they appear to belong is not a new idea. We find it in Aristotle's Poetics and it pervades the practice of the Chicago school of criticism.

     Certain features of this study of the pleasures of terror tend to support this genetic hypothesis. We know from childhood experience that tales of terror really can frighten us, though we may not understand why we ever listened to such stories or how we survived them. The potential for really frightening adult readers with the material of the tale is present once we symbolize the forbidden in various sorts of monsters and monstrous acts. Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird includes episodes reminiscent of the kinds of folk tales that present such material, for example, the story of the jealous miller who spoons out a ploughboy's eyes or the story of the man who is unable to withdraw when he rapes a captured Jewish girl. Most writers of horror thrillers carefully preserve aesthetic distance when they successfully introduce such materials, presumably in part because they know that a sublime effect will result if the reader meets an impenetrable object in the story, but that the effect will probably fail if the object is penetrated. It remained for the greatest writers who took up this form to discover the possibilities of conjoining the pure fantastic and anticlosure in a tale of terror; Poe and James create formal structures that bring the reader into the presence of terrifying images and trap him there. Writers of tales of terror seem then to have made genetically, if not historically, progressive discoveries that lead from a fairly simple vicarious participation in a character's fear to a complex experience of the sublime in terror fantasy. To move from the first to that last of these forms, an artist must make certain discoveries: how to present and manipulate terrifying images, the power of fantastic hesitation, and the power of joining the pure fantastic and anticlosure. The movements from simplicity to complexity and from lesser to greater realization of the sublime suggest that the tale of terror, like tragedy, may be studied as a genre with recognizable formal characteristics. If this is true, then this discussion of the delights of terror may be a starting point for such a study.

End of Chapter 11.

Contents
  Notes &
Permissions
  Preface & Acknowledg-
ments
1:
Introduction
2: Horror in Literature and the Literature of Horror
3: The Marvelous Horror Thriller
4:  The Fantastic/Uncanny Horror Thriller
5: The Aesthetics of the Horror Thriller: Stoker's Dracula
6: The Pure Fantastic Tale of Terror
7:  Anticlosure: Poe's "Ligeia"
8: The Entrapped Critic:
Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher"
9: The Master's Trap:
James's The Turn of the Screw 
10: Escape: An Aesthetics of Terror Fantasy
11: Terror and the Sublime
Sources
Index