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 Four

The Fantastic/Uncanny Horror Thriller

 

 

I

     Brown's Wieland, or the Transformation (1798) is an example of Todorov's fantastic/uncanny genre. Clara Wieland, the narrator and protagonist, hesitates between supernatural and natural explanations of what appear to be supernatural events in her life. Though the implied reader experiences this hesitation with her, for him this hesitation seems clearly to be resolved toward natural explanations: her brother's visions are symptoms of madness, and the voices they hear were produced by the ventriloquist, Carwin. The novel is especially interesting in the context of this study because Clara is never able to escape the fantastic; she is unable to freely accept the natural explanations that the implied reader accepts.

     Clara's difficulty illustrates the trend MacAndrew sees at the end of the eighteenth century and that we have already seen in our examination of Edgar Huntly. Writers in the Gothic tradition tended more and more frequently to call into question the assumptions that stand behind Emily St. Aubert's education in The Mysteries of Udolpho. Clara Wieland's education follows almost precisely the same pattern, but with a quite different result. She also moves from a secure and happy life, for which all agree she is perfectly fitted by talent and education, into a Gothic world of terror, which probes her weaknesses and reveals the frailty of even the most accomplished rational virtue. It is important to notice that Radcliffe's Emily must cross geographical borders to encounter such experiences while Clara's Gothic terrors come to her at home in her family. Clara emerges from this experience reaffirming her culture's values and living by them, much as Emily does, but Clara's affirmation is disturbing and rings hollow. Brown's unusual ending places this novel, like Edgar Huntly, on the edge of its genre, pointing toward the more disturbing possibilities of the pure fantastic.

     Like At the Mountains of Madness, Wieland is framed, but more elaborately. Dyer speaks in retrospect and promises a warning about exploring Antarctica. When the warning is complete, his tale is finished. Clara begins her narration in a similar way. She has experienced events that have brought her to despair. She expects to tell her tale and die. She assumes that God has determined to destroy her completely by taking away from her all that is good. To the implied reader, she promises thrills and wonder as she tells her reader, an unnamed friend, that he will wonder at her surviving what she has undergone. While she frames her opening in much the same way Dyer frames his, even to the point of promising some moral instruction, she ends her story much differently. In fact, she writes two endings. The first ending, in chapter 26, completes her initial framing. Her story is finished, she has relived her terrors for the benefit of her reader (and also the implied reader), her despair is justified, and now she can die. She writes her last paragraphs as if she were speaking aloud to a listener, though there is enough ambiguity to confuse the object of her address. She may be speaking to Carwin, her villain; to her listener; to "life"; to the implied reader; or to all of these together when she says: "Go, wretch! torment me not with thy presence and thy prayers. -- Forgive thee? Will that avail thee when thy fateful hour shall arrive? Be thou acquitted at thy own tribunal, and thou needest not fear the verdict of others. If thy guilt be capable of blacker hues, if hitherto thy conscience be without stain, thy crime will be made more flagrant by thus violating my retreat. Take thyself away from my sight if thou wouldst not behold my death!" (263).

     This extremely bitter and despairing statement, though consistent with the Clara's tone whenever she breaks her narration to speak of herself in the narrative present, is the opposite of the personality belonging to the self she presents in the narrative past. In other words, within her narrative frame, the first ending emphasizes her own transformation from a happy and accomplished young woman into a bitter recluse who welcomes her anticipated death. There are, however, so many transformations in the novel that one can hardly assert that this one is the transformation. The second ending presents another major transformation.

     In chapter 27, Clara returns to her narrative three years after the end of the previous chapter. Needless to say, she is not dead. In fact, she is rather happy. Forced by a fire from seclusion in her house filled with memories of terror and loss, she has, over time in other scenes, gradually recovered from her despair. Fortune has brought her back together with her lost lover, and they are now married and living in Europe. Even Carwin, the horrific villain of the previous chapter, is now apparently reformed and living in virtue. Under the influence of this transformation, Clara has learned new lessons to convey.

     She leads up to these lessons by telling a story parallel to her own, but somewhat distantly connected to it and to her. In other words, she is more distant from these horrors than from her own. In this story, Maxwell, a malicious gentleman has sought revenge on Stuart by compromising Stuart's virtuous wife, forcing her to flee from England to America with her infant daughter and to leave her husband with no notion of what has happened to her. Years later, after the deaths of both wife and daughter, when Stuart has learned the whole story, he challenges Maxwell to a duel, but is murdered before the duel can take place. Clara then states a rather astonishing lesson:

That virtue should become the victim of treachery is, no doubt, a mournful consideration; but it will not escape your notice, that the evils of which Carwin and Maxwell were the authors owed their existence to the errors of the sufferers. All efforts would have been ineffectual to subvert the happiness or shorten the existence of the Stuarts, if their own frailty had not seconded these efforts. If the lady had crushed her disastrous passion in the bud, and driven the seducer from her presence when the tendency of his artifices was seen; if Stuart had not admitted the spirit of absurd revenge, we should not have to deplore this catastrophe. If Wieland had framed juster notions of moral duty and of the divine attributes, or if I had been gifted with ordinary equanimity or foresight, the double-tongued deceiver would have been baffled and repelled. (265-66)
This statement contrasts pointedly with her first paragraph in the novel, in which the moral lessons she expects her narrative to teach seem aimed at people like Maxwell and Carwin; they should avoid deceit and exercise self-control. In this passage, she blames the victims of deceit rather than the authors of their woe. She has, in relating the Maxwell and Stuart story, emphasized how perfectly prepared Mrs. Stuart was to resist Maxwell and how skilled and persistent Maxwell was in his advances: "The impulses of love are so subtle, and the influence of false reasoning, when enforced by eloquence and passion, so unbounded, that no human virtue is secure from degeneracy" (272). Which way will we have it then? Can virtue always protect itself, or will sufficient craft and persistence always prevail over any degree of virtue? Is it Stuart's fault that he is murdered after arranging a duel?

     As Clara implies in the sentences about herself and Wieland, her new moral applies to her story as well as to that of Maxwell and Stuart. Her brother has succumbed to a religious mania consisting of divine commands to murder his family. She has failed repeatedly to accurately understand the events that surrounded, but were not necessarily connected with, these murders. She says that neither of these failures would have taken place had Wieland understood God and morality better and had she possessed greater equanimity and foresight. Her language and ideas are so fuzzy and confused here that one wonders, even as she states the views that characterize her present happiness and sanity, whether she is sane. For example, how is it her fault that she was not gifted with ordinary equanimity or foresight? If Carwin is now reformed, how was he so devilish before?

     We will see in examining her adventures that she does possess extraordinary equanimity and foresight, but that these qualities are simply insufficient to the extreme terrors she suffers. We will see that Wieland's ideas about God and morality are little different from those of any other "gentleperson" in the novel, that he commits his crimes, not because of unsound religious notions, but because he goes mad. We will also see that Carwin's part in the horrors is comparatively minor, and that at various moments in her ordeal Clara understands this. Yet here, at the second, "sane," ending of her narrative, she returns to making Carwin the cause of her fall.

     The implied reader of Wieland never really enjoys the superior position granted the implied reader of At the Mountains of Madness. For most of the novel, it is virtually impossible for the implied reader to anticipate the truth about what is happening around Clara. Brown creates this effect, in part, to insure a close emotional and intellectual identification of the implied reader with Clara. Brown also wishes to mystify the reader, to make clear that the reality of these events, while they are taking place, is no more available to the more distant and, presumably, more collected reader than to Clara. Only after Carwin makes clear the extent of his participation in the terrors does the implied reader separate from Clara, watching from a slightly superior standpoint the stumbling of her consciousness in response to her losses.

     Because through most of her ordeal, the implied reader shares her puzzlement, he must, on the whole, acquiesce in her hypotheses, even as these hypotheses repeatedly prove mistaken. That she is nearly always wrong when she reasons about her situation, despite her coolness and intelligence, forces the implied reader to realize that healthy senses and rationality are inadequate to the complexity of her situation. It becomes clear that only accident and intuition preserve her from permanent harm.

     It will be helpful to begin looking at her adventures with a summary of what "really" happens. Then we may turn to what she sees happening.

     The Wieland family is living happily and peacefully at Mettingen, their estate in the New World, when fantastic events begin to disturb their lives. Most of these fantastic events are caused by Carwin. He is hiding from unjust persecution and finds the estate a particularly satisfying retreat. While lurking there, he comes to know the family: Wieland; his sister, Clara; his wife, Catharine; her brother, Pleyel; a ward, Louisa; and the children. Carwin is a skilled ventriloquist; the Wielands know nothing of this art and at first know nothing of Carwin's presence. To prevent discovery, Carwin imitates Catharine's voice to draw Wieland away from him one night. This voice appears supernatural to Wieland, meshing with his interest in God's communications with men, especially his own father, who he believes was killed by divine judgment. As Carwin becomes increasingly but still secretly involved with the family, he finds other occasions to expose them to supposedly supernatural voices.

     Carwin begins an affair with Clara's servant -- Clara has her own house -- and, through the servant, grows interested in Clara as a paragon of womanhood. He experiments with her and accidentally terrifies her, leading her to believe that someone wishes to murder her. He presents her with a "divine" voice that warns her away from supposed danger. After he has been publicly introduced into the family, he secretly learns her most private thoughts by prying into her diary. Caught in her closet one night, he invents the story that he intended to rape her to avoid having to explain his activities. Finally, he plays a kind of joke on Pleyel who has always been so sure of his senses, by counterfeiting for Pleyel's benefit, a dialogue in which it appears that Carwin is a thief and murderer and that Clara, knowing this, has become his mistress and enjoys this new state in the most depraved fashion.

     Carwin's actions have several serious effects that he never foresees. Three times, Wieland hears Carwin's voice and believes he may be receiving messages from a benign spiritual being. These events move him toward accepting his later mad revelations as true divine messages. Through a series of accidents, Pleyel is completely convinced by Carwin's "joke," and Clara is utterly unable to persuade Pleyel of his error. This event is doubly terrible for Clara because she loses both her reputation and the esteem of the man she expected to propose to her. Finally, the overall effect of Carwin's acts is to persuade Clara that she is the victim of a monstrous, carefully orchestrated plot to destroy her happiness. She refers to this plot in the opening of her narrative as part of God's will. She comes to believe that Carwin is sole agent of that plot, and she apparently has not abandoned that belief even at the end of her second ending.

     Clearly, then, Carwin is not the monster Clara persists in believing him to be. Yet in another sense he is just such a monster. He has not plotted to convert the wise and benevolent Wieland into a homicidal maniac, to separate Pleyel and Clara, or to reduce Clara to despair. Failing to foresee how actions that appear quite separate to him could mesh into destructive unities for Wieland, Pleyel, and Clara, Carwin has deceived people in pursuit of his own ends, but he has not planned to destroy the family. Wieland's insanity and the accident of Pleyel's not discovering his error, as Carwin believed he would, are the real blows to Clara's happiness; neither of these events was intended by Carwin, though he contributed to each. Carwin intended only temporary, separate deceptions to cover his indiscretions and a joke that might correct a genuine defect in Pleyel's character. Clara seizes upon Carwin as the author of her woe before she knows the extent of his participation, and she is unable to give up this idea after she knows how he was involved, not even after he rescues her from Wieland. Although Carwin is not the monster who caused Clara's world to crumble, he is an excellent symbol of that monster. Clara needs to understand what has happened, to give it meaning. Carwin provides her the means of doing so. If she is afflicted by multiple losses within the space of a few months, there must be a malignant and supernatural agency behind these events. Carwin fills this need.

     For the implied reader, the experience of the fantastic persists until Carwin's confession. It may even persist after the confession until there is more evidence to confirm his story, but the text seems designed to favor natural interpretations of ambiguous events. Therefore, when Carwin makes a natural explanation available, it tends to end the necessity of entertaining supernatural explanations for events such as hearing disembodied voices. Brown fairly decisively establishes the priority of natural explanations in the second chapter when he, as "editor," includes a footnote to assure the reader that the "spontaneous combustion" of Wieland's father was a natural occurrence (27). Once the implied reader has reasonably adequate natural explanations for the apparently supernatural events, the implied reader parts from Clara; instead of simply looking and thinking with Clara, one begins to look at her seeing and thinking. In her suffering and fear, she becomes the victim of the fixed idea that Carwin is a diabolical villain who may command supernatural aid. As we have seen, even after her recovery, she is unable to escape this idea.

     Clara ends her book with illogical assertions that sufficient wisdom and virtue to avoid such catastrophes as she has experienced are available to us and that we need only exercise such wisdom and virtue to live happily in safety. Such piety is simply unavailable to the implied reader, for Clara has repeatedly made it clear that it is impossible for the best of us to exercise reason and virtue under the conditions that have assailed her. Virtually every character in the novel, including Pleyel and Carwin, testifies to Clara's perfection, asserting from wide experience of the world and observation of her character that she surpasses all women in her wisdom and virtue. Yet she clearly finds herself inadequate to deal with terror and acknowledges this in her narrative. For example, when she tells of her discovery of Carwin in her closet and of being persuaded that he had intended to rape her, she reflects in great detail on her thoughts and feelings. She says she once believed that she could never be raped were she rational and virtuous, for she could always take the life of her enemy. But when she found herself in what she thought was real danger, she was simply unable to resist. Her physical courage was drained, and she despaired of being able to reason with a rapist. Furthermore, later in the evening, when she believes Carwin has returned to carry out his intention, she finds herself planning to take her own life rather than be raped. Whenever any great horror threatens her, she finds herself inclined to surrender to it in some way, direct or indirect. The resolutions of virtue and wisdom, taken in peace and security, repeatedly fail her in the heat of perceived threat.

     This pattern suggests that the malignant monstrosity in the world, which Clara wishes to concentrate in Carwin, is actually in herself. Carwin, by his behavior and appearance, calls to something unknown in Clara, and she is unable to resist. The insane Wieland has a similar power over her. When she first meets Carwin and hears his voice, she is inexplicably affected. She finds her thoughts confused and her behavior irrational for the first time in her brief adult life. She makes a portrait of him and is haunted by it, sleeping and waking. She finds that contemplating his image and voice leads her to depression, to thoughts about the meaninglessness of living and to a wish for death. Pleyel jokes that she is in love with Carwin and then actively seeks him out to introduce him to the family.

     The causes of this effect are not specified, of course, since Clara does not understand them, but once the implied reader separates from Clara's judgments near the end of the novel, he is encouraged to range back over earlier events to understand Clara's apparent irrationality, much as we are doing now. Carwin's appearance to Clara follows close upon her admitting to herself that she has secretly wished for the death of Theresa, Pleyel's fiancée and Clara's rival. That this wish has been fulfilled is soon confirmed by a message from Germany announcing Theresa's death. As it turns out, this report is mistaken, but while Clara believes it, she suffers from unconscious guilt. Once we form the hypothesis that she connects Carwin in some way with unconscious guilt feelings, several facts begin to look like evidence.

     Carwin rather nicely embodies ideas we now associate with the unconscious. He is physically distorted, his body parts seeming disproportionate to each other. He proves powerful, tricky, playful, spiteful, jealous, willful, and unrestrained in his behavior. Though his behavior seems childlike, he is very muscular and seems possessed of almost infinite knowledge. In ventriloquism, he possesses a secret power to influence people's actions. Furthermore, he seems to possess the power to alter his identity at will. Pleyel, it turns out, has met him in Spain, where they became close friends; there Carwin was an almost completely different person. And, this is, for much of the novel, the only past Carwin seems to possess; that is, in the past, he was someone else. When Clara only suspects but cannot yet see Carwin's dark side, she thinks him so talented as to be worthy of adoration yet so mysterious as to make her suspect him of evil.

     It is plausible to see Carwin as representing to Clara her own unconscious intruding upon her consciousness. Acknowledging her desire for Theresa's death produces her interpretation of Carwin as her double. As her double, he can be split into good and evil, and then, when his folly compromises him, he becomes available to her as the expelled image of her unconscious desires. These desires may include, on one hand, the desire for Theresa's death and the desire for sexual union with Pleyel and perhaps with other men, even her brother. At least once she describes Wieland's love for her as more than brotherly. On the other hand, her unconscious may desire punishment for these illicit desires, the kind of punishment that accident provides at first, but that she prolongs in telling her story and in irrationally insisting upon driving herself to depression and death by remaining in her house after Wieland's death.

     Of course, when she makes the "decision" to exacerbate and to perpetuate her suffering after Wieland's death, she has a good deal more on her "conscience." Though she labors to rest all guilt on Carwin, the real center, for her, of external terror is Wieland's transformation. That transformation carries meanings that she is never able to face.

     In the transcript of Wieland's self-justification at his trial, we can see one central meaning of his transformation. Clara's uncle gives her this transcript to correct her idea that Carwin is wholly to blame for Wieland's fall. Wieland explains in the transcript that he loved God above all. Wishing to receive decisive acknowledgment of his love, he experienced an angel voice, which came to him at a moment when he was reflecting on his great love for his family. The angel voice commanded him to sacrifice his family to demonstrate his love for God. Wieland found a way to carry out a dark deed, to kill without feeling the pangs of conscience. When Clara's uncle assures her that such mania is relatively common, she reflects that she and Pleyel have also experienced voices -- this is before Carwin's confession -- and that they may suffer a similar mania at any moment: "I wondered at the change which a moment had effected in my brother's condition. Now was I stupefied with tenfold wonder in contemplating myself. Was I not likewise transformed from rational and human into a creature of nameless and fearful attributes? Was I not transported to the brink of the same abyss? Ere a new day should come, my hands might be imbrued in blood, and my remaining life be consigned to a dungeon and chains" (205). Here she sees herself as she is and, prophetically, as she will be, in effect, at her first ending, yet even the repetition of this discovery in telling her narrative does not allow her to deal with it and therefore to understand how she projects this side of herself, and of all humans, onto Carwin.

     Shortly before his last attempt on her life, Wieland and Clara share a brief moment of lucidity. He asserts that even though he is sorry he has murdered his family, he does not feel guilt because he believed he was acting at God's command. She finds his soul tranquil and sublime in this state and places herself infinitely beneath him: "My reason taught me that his conclusions were right; but, conscious of the impotence of reason over my own conduct, conscious of my cowardly rashness and my criminal despair, I doubted whether any one could be steadfast and wise" (254). Unable to believe in Wieland's apparent return to sanity, she expresses her opinion that Carwin is at fault. Wieland defends Carwin. However, this lucidity is instantly transformed as, between one sentence and the next, Wieland denies Carwin's fault in causing his actions and, then, affirms that Carwin has been God's agent in these actions and renews his purpose of killing Clara. Though she is reminded in several ways of Carwin's essential humanity, she persists in seeing him as a monster, not only because she needs an externalization of her own unconscious desires, but also because she needs a similar external cause for her brother's insanity. If there is an external cause, then she is not threatened with instantaneous transformation into madness and, as long as she is "gifted with ordinary equanimity and foresight," she can frustrate "the double-tongued deceiver."
 

II
 

     In this example of a fantastic/uncanny horror thriller, we see the apparently marvelous character and events becoming repositories for the unconscious of Clara and her brother. Carwin and his power are uncanny in the Freudian sense for Clara. Because they correspond so well to what we can infer about her unconscious, she is unable to resolve the uncanny effects, though she does get over the immediate consequences of her experiences with the uncanny. I have grouped together as horror thrillers those tales of terror that, while not in Todorov's pure fantastic genre, make use of the marvelous either as the accepted view of events or as an alternative view. The examination of Wieland suggests that this grouping is reasonable from the point of view of the aesthetic question, which is our main concern.

     Both the marvelous horror thriller and the fantastic/uncanny horror thriller, when they use psychologically suggestive marvelous images, may produce the special effect of a brush with real terror. While Lovecraft constructs elaborate protective barriers between the real reader and his terrifying images, Brown relies primarily on conventional fictional devices, especially closure. The villain is unmasked, the mysteries are solved, the supernatural appearances are "naturalized," the protagonist regains her mental balance and will to live, and finally she marries the right man. During her narration, distance is sustained by Clara's own apparent distance from the events she narrates, though not from their effects. Distance is also sustained, perhaps even enhanced to some extent, by the intense focus on her as the one who experiences fantastic terrors and vacillates between the alternative interpretations and for whom the implied reader is to feel pity and fear, partly as a result of sharing her vacillation. However, as in Edgar Huntly, Brown complicates closure. Even though he provides several conventional signals of closure and adds the unusual double ending, he manages, by making the second ending so puzzling, to provide the reader with an experience somewhat parallel to Clara's. As Clara has difficulty reading Carwin, so we have difficulty reading her. Just when the experience of the work seems complete, when all the expected signals of closure are present, and when it appears that Clara has regained her balance, Clara metamorphoses into a blurred, double character. The implied reader has separated himself from her and has seen that rational virtue is really inadequate to real malevolence and even to sufficiently complex accidental confusion. In her second ending, she first demonstrates this truth with a second example, then denies the truth her example demonstrates and, furthermore, asserts that rational virtue is adequate to all evils, even the "diabolical" Carwin. A satisfactory explanation of this new view of Clara is possible, as we have seen, but it requires that the reading process extend for some period after the end of the text. During that rather uncomfortable period when the book refuses an easy and expected concretization, the implied reader tastes what it was like for Clara to confront Carwin in her closet after he has entered her dreams, so to speak.

     We see in both Lovecraft and Brown what Christopher Craft has called the characteristic triple rhythm of the Gothic novel. Speaking of Dracula, Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Craft says: "Each of these texts first invites or admits a monster, then entertains and is entertained by monstrosity for some extended duration, until in its closing pages it expels or repudiates the monster and all the disruption that he/she/it brings .... Within its extended middle, the gothic novel entertains its resident demon . . . and the monster, now ascendent in its strength, seems for a time potent enough to invert the 'natural' order and overwhelm the comforting closure of the text. That threat, of course, is contained and finally nullified by the narrative requirement that the monster be repudiated and the world of normal relations restored" (107-8). Brown's equivocal ending makes the "expulsion" of the monster problematic, for the monster is not really Carwin. And Clara, still thinking Carwin is a monster, has failed to expel from her consciousness the monster she has "created." This strategy suggests a potential for entrapping the implied reader, which the pure fantastic can realize more fully, the possibility of blocking closure. Before turning to that area of exploration, however, we need to explore what special pleasures horror thrillers offer their readers.

     Andrew Griffin, in his discussion of monster films, and Christopher Craft have each suggested that the horror thriller allows us in imagination to entertain monsters in the highly controlled situations of literary art works. We have seen how a few monsters are presented, how the situations are controlled, and how they may threaten to go out of control. What makes such works pleasurable? Let us turn now to a fantastic/marvelous horror thriller, Stoker's Dracula, to answer this question.

End of Chapter 4.

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