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 Seven

Anticlosure: Poe's "Ligeia"

 

 

     Though "Ligeia" (1838, 1845) is similar to "The Black Cat" in several ways, there are two key differences between the tales: the handling of the fantastic and the focus of the narration. Each story is told by a narrator whose self-command is less than complete. Both narrators suffer losses and make substitutions for those losses. In both cases the substitutes seem chosen, in part, by powers independent of the narrators, and both substitutes undergo terrifying transformations.

     The main difference between "Ligeia" and "The Black Cat," in their presentation of the fantastic, is that "Ligeia" withholds the full development of the fantastic enigma until virtually its last sentence. When the revivified corpse of Rowena is apparently transformed into Ligeia, all of the preceding narrative becomes new. This is the central device of "anticlosure" by which Poe makes this one of his most terrifying tales. The "surprise" ending, as one would expect, transforms the import of the entire narrative, but in a terrifying way, for it makes the narrative into a trap: the surprise leads to questions, and the questions lead to the terrifying entrapment of the real reader in the role of the implied reader.

     The other major difference is that the narrators focus their tales in different ways. The narrator of "The Black Cat" conceives of himself as writing a confession/justification. He claims to want to talk about himself. The narrator of "Ligeia" does not offer a reason for what he writes, but centers his story on a particular group of experiences, his memories of Ligeia. Though he inevitably reveals much about himself, his apparent purpose is to talk about his lost beloved.

     These two major differences lead to radically different effects in these similarly shaped narrations. The announcement of a confession and the presentation of several enigmas in the first paragraph of "The Black Cat" set up the minimal requirements of the horror thriller, a character about whom we can care who has had some possibly fantastic experience. "Ligeia" begins with a less suspenseful enigma and with no implicit promise of fantastic adventure. The main question raised by the long first paragraph of "Ligeia" is, why is he talking about her? For the first one-fourth of the tale the narrator pursues, in a scholarly fashion, the mystery of Ligeia, the secret of her strangeness that made her beauty perfect. In the process he raises a number of questions that involve the implied reader in his somewhat pedantic pursuit.

     In the first paragraph the narrator reveals himself as a pathetic widower. His memory is feeble through much suffering, and therefore he cannot recall the circumstantial details of his first acquaintance with Ligeia. He feels that her gradual progress in the possession of his heart may also have obscured his memory of the beginnings of their relationship. He is now retired from the world: "Buried in studies of a nature more than all else adapted to deaden impressions of the outward world, it is by that sweet word alone -- by Ligeia -- that I bring before mine eyes in fancy the image of her who is no more" (79). He appears to be a scholar, not mainly for the sake of learning, but to cultivate the image of Ligeia in his fancy. His present narrative is the result of this cultivation, his memorial to Ligeia. As he continues, however, Ligeia becomes an enigma. His lapses of memory and the peculiar gaps in his knowledge hide her origins. Because he can tell nothing about where she has come from, the ways in which she came to be so beautiful, so learned, and so eloquent loom large before the reader, achieving a disproportionate importance because the narrator unconsciously underlines their absence: "I have never known the paternal name of ... the wife of my bosom." Why not? "I have utterly forgotten the circumstances" (79). Unless he should have another flash of recollection, such as the not very promising one that revealed his never having known her last name, the reader will never know Ligeia's origins. The first paragraph concludes with the assertion that his marriage with Ligeia was ill-omened. This sentence implies the promise of a romance, a story of lost love, but the paragraph as a whole raises other mysteries.

     This opening is clearly more subtle than that of "The Black Cat." The reader is offered two major questions: Who is Ligeia? Why is the narrator writing about her? The first is accentuated by the initial lack of one kind of information. The second receives a partial answer. She is his lost beloved, and he seems obsessed with her, hiding himself away from the world to study, and he also seems to use a significant portion of his time contemplating her image in his imagination. There is no promise of thrills and only the slightest hint of the possibility of the supernatural in her mysterious background. We are promised a pathetic story. This promise and that her origin and her end remain mysterious draw the reader into the tale.

     The next major division of the tale begins as a physical description, which turns out to be an attempt to define precisely the element of strangeness that made Ligeia's beauty perfect. Throughout, the narrator provokes more questions about himself and about Ligeia while apparently elaborating answers to the questions about Ligeia's identity and his purpose in writing.

     His analysis of her beauty and strangeness emphasizes his obsession with her image. He says, "Ligeia's beauty passed into my spirit, there dwelling as in a shrine"; he affirms that after that moment he found in the material world objects that aroused the same sentiment that her eyes once aroused in him (80). To this sentiment he has traced the strangeness of her beauty. Only after years of reflection has he been able to articulate some idea of this sentiment. It is associated with the much analyzed epigraph to the tale, attributed to Joseph Glanvill: "And the will therein lieth, which dieth not. Who knoweth the mysteries of the will, with its vigor? For God is but a great will pervading all things by nature of its intentness. Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will" (79, 81). The narrator remembers in Ligeia's eyes "the tumultuous vultures of stern passion" (81). He sees this passion also as an intensity (like the intentness of the great will), a gigantic volition, a fierce energy that seemed to underlie all her actions. This gigantic volition never revealed itself to him directly during their marriage, but he has since come to believe in its presence and to understand it as the strangeness behind her beauty.

     The articulation of this passion in Ligeia reveals a division in her that complicates one's understanding of the narrator. Ligeia is split in a way parallel to the split of the narrator of "The Black Cat." The outwardly calm, "ever placid" Ligeia contains a storm of passion. An awareness of this split pervades the narrator's physical description of her. One of its indices is the word wild. She is described as a divinity, radiating holy light. She is majestic. When her eyes expand, she partakes fully of "the beauty of beings either above or apart from the earth" (80). When, after her death, he is able to articulate more fully his response to the expansion of her eyes, he says it "at once so delighted and appalled me" (81). But when he knew her, he found her "wildly divine." She habitually uttered wild words in her low, musical voice. As he gives the history of their marriage and her death, he refers to her wild eyes, her wild desire for life, the wild meanings of her words, and, by implication, her wild love for him, her "more than womanly abandonment to love" (82). It is apparently this wildness that perfects Ligeia's beauty for the narrator and that inspires his idolatry of her in life and his obsession with her in death.

     In this first one-fourth of the narration, little has happened. The narrator has intimated mysteries about Ligeia and himself. By the point at which he completes his analysis of her beauty, she has become more mysterious, and their relationship has become problematic. It is clear that he has been entranced by her for as long as he can remember. The essential quality by which she holds him is at least equivocal, underlining a challenge to the reader to fill her in, to make sense of her. Whereas At the Mountains of Madness promises an explanation of its warning, which it then delivers, and whereas "The Black Cat" promises some resolution of its enigmas, but offers, instead, a restatement of the main ones, "Ligeia" begins as a sad love story, but quickly becomes a mystery. It invites the reader to read, to fill in the increasing number of gaps it creates as it moves in an unclearly defined direction. The story asks the reader to define the mysteries and to seek out solutions. The narrator mulls over key experiences in his life, pursuing his own questions about his lost beloved. Out of these questions, the implied reader constructs himself as a reader/detective trying to understand what the narrator is talking about. The underlined absence of details about Ligeia's past invites curiosity. The narrator's worship, which seems to extend into the present of his writing, heightens the mystery and raises further questions. The text creates the reader as detective and invites him to see into these mysteries, but the story does not openly declare itself as a mystery nor does it promise solutions.

     The next part of the story includes the narrator's account of his marriage and of Ligeia's death. He begins by explaining that he has only recently realized that Ligeia's tremendous knowledge was apparently perfect, that he never found her learning at fault in any way. Like her volition and her beauty, her acquisitions were gigantic: "yet I was sufficiently aware of her infinite supremacy to resign myself, with a child-like confidence, to her guidance" (82). Nearly all he reveals about their marriage is that she taught him, led him down paths of knowledge that were untrodden and gorgeous toward a wisdom that is split, "too divinely precious not to be forbidden" (82). This increases her mystery. What forbidden knowledge does she have (if her knowledge is perfect), and why does she want to teach it to him? They were studying transcendentalism, he explains. What is forbidden about that? Again, the implied reader is invited to fill in, to construct himself out of the story's gaps and commit himself to explanations. While the relation of Ligeia and the narrator becomes more problematic as the reader wonders about what she teaches him and why, one aspect of the relationship is reaffirmed. He is a submissive mourner, a submissive lover, and, also, a submissive pupil/son. He, too, is one of her acquisitions. And when she dies, he is a child benighted without her illuminating radiance.

     As she dies, the narrator makes two surprising discoveries about Ligeia, one of which was probably a key step in his eventual conclusion that the strangeness of her beauty derived from her gigantic volition. Although he thought that what he had seen of her stern nature indicated that she would accept death easily, he finds that she resists death fiercely. Indeed, his instincts are to comfort and reason with her, but her desire for life overwhelms him. The tension of contrast between her voice and her utterance enthralls him: "My brain reeled as I hearkened entranced, to a melody more than mortal -- to assumptions and aspirations which mortality had never before known" (82). Another surprise is the degree of her love. He says he never doubted it, but in her death she reveals her love for him as idolatry. He feels in this revelation a painful paradox, for he has no understanding of how he could have merited from her the kind of worship he has bestowed upon her. This paradox is painful because it tortures him with the loss he is about to suffer. Strange as this love seems, he accepts its sincerity because it accounts for the first surprise, that is, her unwillingness to die. He reads her as a mirror of himself, as unwilling to lose one whom she worships.

     These surprises and the subsequent account of her death cast the first serious doubt upon the narrator's perceptions. The implied reader sees possibly quite significant implications in the narrative, which the narrator appears not to see. This brings up the extremely vexed question of the narrator's reliability.

     In this tale much depends upon whether one judges the narrator reliable or unreliable. Years of critical debate and the resulting passions may lead some readers of criticism to doubt the possibility of rational discourse on the topic. I would like to propose a principle for dealing with the problem of a narrator's reliability: that, in cases such as this, the appropriate reading is the probable first reading. This principle derives in part from Tzvetan Todorov's observation of the difficulty of rereading fantastic fictions. Once one has read an uncanny/fantastic or a marvelous/fantastic fiction and knows the sort of resolution it has, rereading becomes difficult. Where there was hesitation upon the first reading, certainty governs the second. For this reason, tales of sustained ambiguity, like "Ligeia," may be more powerfully terrifying than those tales that resolve their ambiguity even partially. With "Ligeia," the problem is more complex, because the fantastic hesitation will not be resolved by the story. However, insofar as a reader believes he has resolved it, he will reread the story in the light of that resolution. Therefore, to reread successfully, as every critic must to be accurate and persuasive, one must attempt to "recapture" the original reading. One way of doing this is to attempt the construction of the implied reader. On first reading, one can only "discover" the degree of the narrator's reliability. This discovery can only take place when the narrator's reliability becomes crucial to understanding the tale. For example, we could decide that the narrator's failure to see the depths the implied reader may see in Ligeia's suddenly expressed, idolatrous love renders him unreliable, not only as an interpreter of Ligeia's motives, but also as an observer of "objective" events. In that case, we move inevitably toward the readings we will notice hereafter, in which the narrator is a mad hallucinator. However, if we take what seems to me the more natural path of noticing that there may be more to Ligeia as a character than the narrator has yet seen, then the story deepens in interest at this particular point in the "first" reading by revealing simultaneously a limitation in the narrator and another surprising mystery in Ligeia. I would argue not only that this is the kind of reading the text requests here, but also that, in fact, the text does not require the reader to question the narrator's reliability in the reporting of external events until he sees the fantastic, the impossible. Up to the point when he describes Ligeia's last appearance, every limitation on his perceptions has a plausible explanation and none of the limitations seems crucial to understanding the story. The text seems to want a reader who judges what the narrator says without seriously questioning its accuracy throughout the first perusal of the text. At the end of the text, however, when he does claim to see the fantastic, the various limitations on the narrator's reliability take on a new significance, as we shall see.

     We see at this point in the text, however, that there are limitations on the narrator. The mysteries about Ligeia and about his relationship with her, both stated and implied, do not seem fully visible to the narrator. The structure of his presentation underlines mysteries about her that make her difficult to see whole, yet the narrator seems unaware that he places barriers before the reader. His relationship with Ligeia is peculiar, at the least, and perhaps obsessive. In her surprising resistance to death and in the sudden appearance of her idolatrous love is a suggestion -- hard to ignore -- that she has purposes beyond his ken and ours. This suggestion is consistent with the mystery of why she is teaching him forbidden knowledge.

     He is first impressed with her desire for life and then by her "more than womanly abandonment to love." Neither of these wild desires is quite consistent with his previous view of her, but he uses the latter desire to account for the former. However, the reiterated emphasis on her desire "but for life" and her double repetition of the epigraph on the last day of her life suggest that she offers him a pretense of wild love as an excuse for the more primary desire for life. The subordination that he constructs -- life to love -- may, in reality, be reversed. Love is an excuse for the passion she cannot conceal. This suggestion seems to be there for the original encounter with the text, underlined by the narrator's greater emphasis on her expressions of desire for life and by his sense of a reversal of their relationship in his receiving unmerited worship. If it is not there on first reading, not much is lost, for after the last words pass into the reader's consciousness, this suggestion must come to life. If it is there on first reading, then the reader is drawn still more deeply into the mystery of Ligeia. Why was she teaching him? Why does she worship him on her death bed? What have these acts to do with the desire for life, which seems to have been the controlling passion of her being, the essence of her beauty, the gigantic volition itself?

     While it remains unclear what she wants with the narrator, Ligeia's death does clarify what she wants in general. When she quotes Glanvill, she omits the sentence about God as a great will pervading all things. It seems clear that she wishes to place herself in that gap, to rise above humanity by achieving the immortality of her individual gigantic volition. The continuation of the narrative pretends to cut off further inquiry in either of these directions. With her death, she disappears from view, though her desire hovers over what follows like the other shoe as yet undropped.

     Out of sight is neither out of mind nor out of the story. The narrator has stated earlier that there was a period in his life, apparently between Ligeia's death and some later, unspecified date, when her beauty passed into his spirit. The section of the story that follows the account of her death may cover this period of his life. In this penultimate part the narrator acquires substitutes for her. His new home is decorated in a mixture of wildness and majesty, an unsatisfying substitute for her beauty. He becomes a "bounden slave in the trammels of opium" (84), an unsatisfying attempt to recapture her radiance, which was "the radiance of an opium dream" (80). Furthermore, his slavelike addiction mocks his devotion to Ligeia. And he marries Rowena, an unsatisfying substitute for Ligeia's companionship. The main result of the failure of these substitutions is that the narrator is transformed by the intensity of his desire for the missing Ligeia into her double: "Now, then, did my spirit fully and freely burn with more than all the fires of her own ... I would call aloud upon her name ... as if, through the wild eagerness, the solemn passion, the consuming ardor of my longing for the departed, I could restore her to the pathways she had abandoned -- ah, could it be forever? -- upon the earth" (85). He has joined his will to hers or, perhaps, she has attached the power of his will to her own. Her beauty, with its strangeness, may occupy his spirit in a more sinister way than he has yet perceived.

     I do not wish to strain this part of the text, especially since doing so depends on the previous strain of doubting Ligeia's motive for declaring her worship of the narrator. Whether Poe intends the reader to see so far beyond the narrator at this point is by no means clear to me. It is clear that at this time in the narrator's life, he is out of control. He wanders aimlessly, he gives way to childish impulses, he sees incipient madness in himself, and he indulges in opium. Even within the present of the narration, he uses nearly half of his account of this period between Ligeia's death and Rowena's death to describe the new bridal chamber. His primary act in this part of the story seems to be a surrender of his will, yet the result is a firing up of his will that Ligeia live. Ligeia may well seem to be somehow actively involved in his actions. Insofar as she does, the fantastic hints at its presence. Again, it is not crucial to understanding the story for the implied reader to pick up this clue and incorporate it immediately into his attempt to penetrate the mystery of Ligeia. The end of the story will force him back to this point. Still, this suspicion seems there to be found on the initial encounter with the text, and, if one does encounter it, the mystery of Ligeia looms larger and more ominous.

     The rest of the narrative tells of Rowena's death, of her apparent revivification during the night the narrator watches with her, and, finally, of her apparent transformation into Ligeia. This final one-third of the text reads much more like a horror thriller. Rowena and the narrator feel an alien presence among them. She grows more and more ill. The narrator has visions of an angelic form and of the ruby drops that fall into Rowena's medicinal wine. He gives detailed attention to his experiences with the body during the night of the transformation. This experience is compounded of his longing for Ligeia and his dutiful and grisly attempts to assist in what appears to be Rowena's recovery. But until the last lines of the story, all of this is a mystery. Gripping as it is in itself, what is its connection with the rest of the narrative? What is the meaning of this terrible experience?

     The answer to these questions, presumably, is the transformation. As the narrator tells it, this change is another surprise. Though it is what he longs for, it is not what he expected. He details his amazement and shock as he is gradually forced to recognize that the woman who rises from Rowena's death bed and who shrinks from his touch is Ligeia. However, this final scene is no final answer. The narrative seems to break off at the crucial moment. This ending launches the implied reader back into the tale in search of an explanation of how this utterly unexpected event came about. Like "The Black Cat," but unlike At the Mountains of Madness,"Ligeia" does not end with its last word. "Ligeia" is, however, even more extreme than "The Black Cat" in its failure to close, for it offers an anticlosure. It presents at the end a shocking mystery for which the implied reader is largely unprepared. This does not mean that the implied reader has no information to apply to the solution of this problem, but rather that he is not prepared to anticipate this problem. As a result, his reading must be done again. As Frederick Garber observes, "Much of the horror of the story lies in our pondering of these spaces between the ending and the beginning, our wonder at what could have filled them" (239). The implied reader must rearrange his interpretation of the narrative to be able to include Ligeia's transformation within it. This is the point at which much of the critical writing on this tale has struck sand. In what way is the implied reader to rearrange his interpretation to achieve a proper and desired closure for this tale?

     Poe seems to heighten the reader's desire for closure from the beginning of the tale, when the reader is invited to play detective. The reader is challenged to piece together an understanding of the mysterious woman and of the true relationship between her and the narrator. Every new mystery in the tale has contributed in its way to complicate and to heighten these major mysteries. The implied reader has been challenged to answer these questions, but he has not been given answers, only the material out of which answers might be constructed. Such material is, after all, what detectives (and readers) want. But at the end of the tale is another astounding clue, not a final illumination or a detective to explain all. The desire to answer these questions contributes strongly to the anticlosure of this tale. Of course, the intrusion of the impossible in the last sentence can only intensify the desire for answers, but at the same time the appearance of the fantastic impossibly complicates achieving closure.

     Reflection on personal attempts at solving these mysteries and on the range of published attempts leads me to generalize three modes of approaching this problem. In the next chapter, I will deal with more of the critical material, specifically with attempts to deal with the situation that develops out of these modes of response. The three modes make a nice progression, so nice, in fact, that one might easily assume that a good reader would move through them progressively. I will argue, however, that whether one at first takes the story to be marvelous or uncanny, one inevitably arrives at a mode of ambiguity in which the possibilities of the marvelous and the uncanny become poles between which the implied reader vibrates until he invents a new way of seeing the problem. Even if the reader performs his role in such a way as to immediately perceive the ambiguity, his experience will be hesitation between the marvelous and the uncanny explanations of these events.

     How are we to account for Ligeia's resurrection if we take the story as the narrator apparently intends to present it? If we accept the accuracy of his perceptions but suspect his interpretations, we come to see that Ligeia's intention was not to die. When her body died, her will survived. She bound the narrator to her on her death bed, completing the subordination of his will to her own. After her death, he becomes her unwitting agent. Her will inhabits him, without his full awareness, and uses him to acquire Rowena and to create the occultly decorated room in which the combined wills of the narrator and Ligeia can effect the destruction of Rowena and the re-creation of Ligeia. As Joel Salzberg has argued, Ligeia becomes the Conqueror Worm of her poem (113). This transformation is terribly ironic, for her stated desire was to conquer the conqueror, to become like the great will that pervades all things. However, she remains a limited will, pervading only a few things. In her fierce passion not to surrender to the angels and to death, she becomes a mirror of her foe rather than of God. She attains the immortality of death rather than of a creator. Unable to create out of nothing, she must first destroy and then re-create. Though his conclusions differ from mine, Lawrence Stahlberg supports this view of Ligeia in his argument that the epigraph is significantly ambiguous. While the narrator believes that the quotation attributes human mortality to a feeble will, the somewhat slippery grammar may mean that it is only feebleness of the human will that resists death. Were human will perfect, it would embrace death and yield to the angels (206). I would argue that Ligeia reads the quotation in the same way as the narrator does, and that this is a grave error.

     In its initial appearance, Ligeia's resurrection is a miracle that forces the detective/reader to ask, "How?" If the implied reader turns first to the supernatural interpretation, Ligeia emerges as monstrous. The more one ponders her monstrousness, the more horrible she becomes. Her acquisitions are gigantic. She has acquired Rowena and the narrator. Before these additions, she had wealth and knowledge beyond all mortals. Furthermore, her origins are unknown. As these important imponderables leap into significance, they produce the suggestion that Ligeia has acquired her many possessions by continual repetition of the act just narrated. Perhaps this is not the first time she has reconstructed her body out of the energies of others. Her mode of vampirism extends backward into time and becomes still more like that of the Conqueror Worm. She has achieved her satanic immortality by feeding spiritually and physically upon the rest of mankind, dominating their feeble wills with her great will.

     The horror of her acts increases and begins to move toward the possibility of terror when the reader thinks about her motives. Why would she do such horrible things? Her motive is clear: she desires life so strongly that all other human values become no more than tools for its pursuit. From a human perspective, her desire is normal and understandable, perhaps even tragic. It is a desire like our own. But she lives in a universe, also like our own, in which the monomaniac pursuit of that desire procures its opposite. Either one is a mortal or one is mortality. Either one dies or one kills. Insofar as the implied reader moves toward such a perception of the implication of Ligeia's failure, one may feel rather deeply the fundamental terror of entrapment in this mortal coil.

     If the implied reader accepts the marvelous at the end of the tale and rearranges his experience of the tale to account for it, he encounters Ligeia as a monster and her world as a horror. These effects, together with the pressure of the shock of the impossible, are likely to push the reader toward an alternate arrangement, an uncanny reading of the story. The alert detective knows that the narrator's opium addiction, his psychological instability, and his longing for Ligeia may well have led to a hallucination. Perhaps the main pressure impelling the reader toward entertaining an alternate explanation, however, is another gap, which is difficult to ignore. At the end of the tale, Ligeia is back. Yet at the beginning of the tale, years after the end, there is no Ligeia. Of course, Poe intimates in a 21 September 1839 letter to Philip Cooke that he should have made "the will" fail in the perfection of its intention so that Ligeia would have faded back into the dead Rowena (Ostrum, ed., 1: 118). However, when Poe added "The Conquerer Worm" to the tale in 1845, he did not add this revision. Years after Ligeia's death, the narrator hides away in his study, dreaming of her. Perhaps it was all a dream. Unfortunately, those who would argue that hallucination is the only possible explanation of these events are faced with the perfectly plausible explanation that Ligeia has gone elsewhere. Her shrinking from the narrator in the last paragraph suggests that her interest in him has cooled. Still, the uncanny hypothesis is attractive. The gap of her unexplained absence in the time of the telling demands that one explore the possibility that the narrator only imagined her return. The horrors of the supernatural interpretation encourage the implied reader to split, to seek a more comfortable explanation. The supernaturalism of the transformation may stimulate skepticism, and the narrator's prominent limitations, which now seem very significant, grant a license for such an attempt. What results from this arrangement?

     The published criticism of "Ligeia" shows that the main problem is a lack of information. One gap leads to another. As Joel Porte implies, the whole story, every word, may be a lie or a hallucination (69-74). Critics who stop short of such a blanket assertion find it difficult to separate the factual from the hallucinated. For James Gargano, Ligeia is a vision from the very first, but Rowena is real. For Roy Basler, both women are real, but the transformation is a hallucination [hallucinattion] (Regan; see bibliographic note at the end of this chapter). If the narrator hallucinates only part of what he tells, why? Does his love for Ligeia drive him to murder Rowena as Brian Barbour argues? Is it his will to live rather than hers that is frustrated by her death as Basler thinks? Is the narrator attempting to regain a lost experience of the ideal as Gargano believes? Perhaps Porte and Salzberg are correct to see the narrator as a sort of ruthless idealist who almost knows what he is doing when he murders Rowena. The main problem with most attempts to sort out hallucination from actual external event is that there is too little information to establish any one possible reading as authoritative. The more one tries, the more one is driven toward positions like Porte's, toward the conclusion that the entire narrative is the construction of a madman and that none of it is reliable.

     Thinking through the implications of the possibility that the narrator hallucinates is not comforting. One is driven toward the conclusion that nothing the narrator says can be accepted as descriptive of the world. If all that he says is about himself, what sort of self does he describe? He pictures a self who dreams a world in which the events he narrates take place. Dreamed or real, that world is equally horrifying. To the horrors we have already seen in that world must be added the horror of realizing that a desire of his has led him into hallucination in search of something that his world fails to provide. In the marvelous reading, the narrator is the unwitting victim of his beloved, of his desire. She becomes a terrifying and indifferent will who dominates and uses him. In the uncanny reading, he imagines a universe presumably the answer to his desire, and that universe is precisely the one the reader encounters in the marvelous reading. If, as is suggested by his attention to the epigraph, by his studies with Ligeia, and by the fate he imagines for her, his desire is for immortality, then what a mockery of his hopes is his imagination! All he can imagine is a universe in which human immortality is monstrous. The narrator becomes a man whose universe failed him and who, then, tried and failed to imagine a satisfactory remedy. He is doubly the prisoner of a hostile cosmos and of his own mind, which cannot escape mirroring his world.

     The narrator's obsession with Ligeia may be a dream or the product of his extraordinary waking experiences. The text pushes the implied reader in both directions and does not allow either to dominate. Whichever the reader chooses, he encounters terror and the gap. If Ligeia really came back, where is she now? If the narrator only dreamed her, how did he do it and why? The incompleteness of each of these major directions of interpretation leads the reader back to the other in a continual vibration. To describe this vibration, the hesitation of the pure fantastic, is to describe the third of the modes of response to this tale.

     G. R. Thompson indicates something of what I understand the nature of this experience to be when he discusses Poe's dark romantic irony in Poe's Fiction. He says that "Ligeia" leads the reader "first, into the world of supernatural horror, and then out of that world into a world of mental horror, and then, out of that purely mental world into a limbo region of ambiguity where we cannot be sure what did or did not take place" (104). I argue that this region of ambiguity is, in this tale, terrifying to the real reader.

     Whether the narrator has experienced Ligeia or dreamed her, he has been her. She has inhabited him, worn him, and tossed him aside like an old coat. Now he is unable to cast her aside. He says he continues to call her image before his eyes, though she is no more. His mental necrophilia is obsessive and finally appears as his primary motive for writing. The story is a memorial to her, but it does not end his mourning. He cannot exorcise her. Whether dead or merely absent, she lives inside him. As he is positioned in relation to Ligeia, so is the implied reader positioned in relation to the tale. For the reader encoded in the text, the tale has no end. The role of implied reader is suspended between two modes of arranging the story, between two unsatisfactory and mutually exclusive concretions. The implied reader's desire is for resolution, to be whole, for it is less than comfortable to remain in vacillation in a "region of ambiguity where we cannot be sure what did or did not take place," especially when the role has been partially defined as a detective and when there is nothing pleasant and much that is horrifying about the poles between which we vacillate. The story has put on, inhabited, and abandoned the implied reader. But the role continues, like an obsession, and for the real reader there is no conventional way out of it. The relation of the real reader to the implied reader mirrors the relation of the implied reader to the tale, which, in turn, mirrors the relation of the narrator to Ligeia. The real reader has been trapped in the role of implied reader. The tale is a trap.

     This entrapment is the third mode of response to the anticlosure of this particular tale. It means, quite literally, that the text has provided for a reading that the text itself will not bring to an end. The burden of constructing closure falls upon the reader. This is not utterly unique, for many works require considerable effort on the part of the implied reader to achieve closure. Perhaps a major feature of Ernest Hemingway's short stories is the requirement that the implied reader continue "reading" for a noticeable period after the perusal of the text to pull the elements of the story together into an appropriate unity. Any story with a surprise ending requires a rearrangement of its elements in memory to make them consistent with the ending. But those works still contain their closure; they offer signals to indicate when the reading is complete. They allow for their own successful concretization so that readers are regularly able to reach a fairly high level of agreement about how these stories are to be understood. Though practiced real readers are used to assuming the burden of constructing closure by making complex inferences, they may have few, if any, strategies for ending a reading that refuses to end itself. Those strategies for creating closure, which all of us command to some extent, come more from our dealings with life than with art. They are the means by which we seek to impose patterns upon our life experiences that infuse those experiences with meaning. Therefore, it is no accident that there is, as Todorov suggests, a strong tendency to read fantasies as allegory. Terror fantasy, of course, places an added pressure on the reader to allegorize the story, to place it within a frame of ideas that has its own wholeness; Kafka, among other modern writers, has trained us well in the necessary techniques. The sense of entrapment that "Ligeia" creates may derive in part from its refusal to accept the imposition of any of the patterns that it suggests for itself. This tale is less passive, perhaps, than the world is.

     "Ligeia" asks us to play detective. It then deploys the material of a mystery in such a way as to prevent its solution. It turns the screw of our desire for solution by means of horror and of the supernatural; it becomes an example of the pure fantastic. The real reader enters the role of implied reader in good faith and plays the role as instructed, only to find at the end of the text that the role demands eternal elaboration, that it will not let go. It seems rare in our experience of life that we so commit ourselves to some point of view as to be entrapped by it. My discussion in later chapters suggests that this subjective sense of freedom from role playing is largely an illusion; still, we may not often feel so entrapped in life as we do in fiction. Yet it is only a fiction! Surely, if it refuses closure, that is all we need to say. We can go on to the next story and forget this one.

     This story has haunted me for years. I do not think I am alone, for it seems also to haunt others. The collection of critical literature mirrors my personal entrapment and is an index of the entrapment of real readers in the role of the implied reader of "Ligeia." To read most of the critical pieces on "Ligeia" is to go around and around, from one pole to the other on a kind of circle of interpretations, none of which seems to reveal the secret that will allow the tale to end satisfactorily. And the problem is not that interpretations vary, that there are disagreements over details or even over the meanings of major portions of the text. The problem is that the marvelous and the uncanny are mutually exclusive; they present an either/or to which there is no final answer within the context of the question.

     Norman Holland discusses an interesting analogue of this experience in The I. Some optical illusions leave the brain unable to decide which pattern to impose on the presented lines. This is the case, for example, in the figure that is either a vase or two profiles facing each other. Holland says that the brain "restlessly tosses back and forth between inconsistent hypotheses about those objects" (111). Caught between this either/or, the brain cannot rest. For most people, this fluctuation continues for as long as they attend to the representation. One reason for this vacillation is that we organize our perceptions at the highest possible level of completeness. Since vase and faces are at the same level of completeness as presented by the illusion, we are unable to decide between them. Holland implies that when we are unable to complete such perceptions at the first level we try, we then fall back to lower levels. In other words, we do with objects, such as an optical illusion, what we have just done with "Ligeia." When the object fails to be single and complete, we go back over it, reexamining the details, or the constituent parts, in search of a new unifying hypothesis. Perhaps most interesting for the inquiry here, Holland points out that most people can "beat" the vase/faces illusion by means of imagination. We can imagine a higher order of unity, "two people pressing their noses up against a vase" (111). If we again look at the presented lines with this hypothesis in mind, we can see both vase and faces simultaneously. The problem of "seeing" an optical illusion may be solved by creating a new perspective on the object.

     When the real reader becomes entrapped in the role of implied reader, the character of his experience of the fiction changes radically. The real reader has, in effect, come upon a literary work that is similar in character to the vase/faces optical illusion. While he was more or less innocently doing what fictions usually ask one to do, the tale reached out its claws and grabbed him. As soon as the reader feels so clutched, his relation to the fiction ceases to be that of an aesthetic attitude, which Ingarden says is necessary to the concretization of the work as a work of art. By reserving until the end the shock of the pure fantastic, Poe has pointedly, almost violently, refused closure. Virtually nothing is finished in the tale. The text has ended, and a vision is revealed, but the vision is a terrifying image of the pure fantastic. As a result, the tale becomes a threat, a kind of obsession, that makes the implied reader into a double of the narrator. In effect, the real reader, as he struggles to find a way out of the role he has accepted, becomes a mirror image of the narrator who is struggling to extricate himself from his beloved. We shall see that the history of the criticism of this and other terror fantasies illustrates the attempts of critics to find a perspective from which escape is possible.

     Poe has devised a kind of anticlosure for this tale. The potential for this radical denial of closure is inherent in the pure fantastic. We can see a similar, perhaps less successful, anticlosure in Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. There, too, a narrator undergoes a series of horrifying adventures, most of them perfectly appropriate to a sensation story or the uncanny tale of terror. The only hints of the marvelous in his narrative are subdued until the end of his telling. The reader may notice repetitive patterns in Pym's adventures. Once he voyages below the Antarctic Circle, his adventures become exotic, but not marvelous. Only the final image of the gigantic white figure strongly suggests the marvelous in his narrative. However, his telling is framed by an editor who at the end attempts to draw the entire story into the marvelous. He notices that the patterns Pym traces in chasms on Antarctic islands are recognizable as writing and seem to contain messages from a divinity. One result is a shock of the pure fantastic, which is similar to that of "Ligeia," but much less powerful. Though this novel has attracted critical attention similar to that of "Ligeia," the intensity of the fantastic in the novel is dissipated by the split between Pym who does not, as far as the reader can tell, actually experience the marvelous or the fantastic and the editor who asserts the marvelous. Though Poe uses a similar device at the end of this tale, he does not seem to have intended the same effect as is produced in "Ligeia." It is more likely that Poe was working toward an effect such as that described by John Carlos Rowe, an intellectual demonstration of the limits of language in coinciding with the reality it attempts to represent. If Rowe is correct, then Pym may join The Castle and The Crying of Lot 49 as an example of an intellectually frightening apologue. However, in "The Fall of the House of Usher," Poe again exploits the possibilities of anticlosure in the pure fantastic to entrap the implied and real reader.
 

Bibliographic Note

Many important opinions on Poe's fiction have been reprinted in various collections of criticism. When I refer to such pieces here and in subsequent chapters, I give the editor's name with the citation to indicate the volume in which the article appears.
 
 

End of Chapter 7.

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