GHOSTS enjoy a curious popularity in England to-day. Years ago they fell into unmerited disfavor; and for a century and a half they battled with scant success against that arrogant wave of reason and common sense which chilled the fair fields of poetry, swept romance from the land, and left the sombre glades of superstition tenantless and hare of every horror. From time to time, indeed, the exiled ghosts, like the exiled gods of Olympos, strove to regain their lost ascendency; hut there was something pitifully vulgar about their trivial triumphs. Apparitions whose modest mission was to sell a volume of dull sermons upon death, or to stir up a clamorous mob in Cock Lane, could scarcely aspire to a dignified position in the spirit world. Even their local coloring, though it lent them a transient estimation with the public, told against them in the end ; for the city streets, and that highly vaunted bulwark of the nation, the great respectable middle class, are not harmonious accessories of the supernatural. As for the educated people, who now reverently await each new development of the impossible, theirs was a different attitude one hundred years ago. Men who read Pope and Swift and Addison, whose heads were clear, whose hearts were cold, whose faith was limited, and whose digestions defied high living, could ill attune their minds to the dark sweet horror ” of mediæval ghost lore. “ The Deevil never appears to a man that’s no frigetened aforehaun out o’ his seven senses,” says the Ettrick Shepherd : and he lived in Scotland, where skepticism failed to attain the easy supercilious composure of her English sister ; in Scotland, where the exiled fairies and witches shared with the exiled Stuarts the just affections of a loyal race.
There is little doubt that Sir Walter was secretly enamored of the superstitions which he affected to disregard, and which the stupid prejudices of his day would not permit him to enjoy in peace. What can he more pathetic than the contrast between his robust denials and his quick, half smothered sympathy for all eerie things ? How well he tells the tale of the apparition seen by Lord Londonderry, — the naked child who emerged from the dying embers of the grate, and who, like Faust’s terrible hound, increased in size as he approached the curtained and recessed bed. Lord Londonderry, Scott explains somewhat peevishly, was the only man he knew to whom a veritable ghost had ever appeared, and he is burdened with the conviction that it may be his duty to offer some explanation of the mystery. As for the supernatural elemerit in his novels, it is almost always a failure ; not from lack of imagination or of vivid power, for the mingled horror and humor and pathos of Wandering Willie’s Tale have never been surpassed, but because the atmosphere in which he lived was unfavorable to the full development of such lawless fancies. The White Lady of Avenel is one of the tamest spirits in all fiction. Good Protestants may have rejoiced in the soundness of her religious principles; but it is not the place of apparitions to be progressive and enlightened. ff they know what is best for them, they will cling to the old order, for when it passes away it takes their strongest constituency along with it. I sometimes fear that modern ghosts are being lured to their destruction by the new semi-scientific methods of research, which beguile them with a show of respect and a little worthless notoriety, but which in the end will rob them of their heritage, — that shadowy power which has come down from the dim past, to be bartered away at last, like Esau’s birthright. for a mess of pottage.
If proof were wanted of the low estate to which the English eighteenth-century ghosts had been reduced, it might be found in the spasmodic efforts made to win them a place in literature. That Walpole, of all men in Christendom, should have attempted this, is one of those pleasant ironies which cheer the humorist’s path. That educated adults should have read The Castle of Otranto with little thrills of horror helps us to understand what otherwise would he a hopeless mystery. — the amazing popularity of Mrs. Radeliffe’s novels. We are required to believe, on excellent authority, that when the newly printed Mysteries of Udolpho appeared in quiet country homes it was literally torn to pieces, so that each eager member of the household could seize a portion without unnecessary delay. Thousands of young women lived, like Catherine Morlaud, in a delightful atmosphere of gloom and excitation, whispering by candlelight, with bated breath, of dungeons, and black-robed messengers of evil, and awful secrets forever on the tantalizing verge of revelation. Yet Mrs. Radcliffe never got beyond the bare machinery, the stage work and scaffolding of mystery. Her novels are as much akin to the terrible tales of Germany as are the frolicsome apes and witches of Mr. Irving’s Faust to Goethe’s ministers of sin. What is there in all the endless pages of Udolpho to compare with that single incident in the story of Pretty Annerl, when the child goes with her grandmother to the house of the headsman, and the great hidden sword, by which she is destined to die, is heard stirring uneasily in the cupboard? Annerl, believing it to he an animal, is frightened, and begins to cry ; but the headsman knows for what drink the sword is thirsting, and begs the grandmother to allow him to cut the little one’s neck very gently, so that a few drops of blood may be drawn, and the weapon be appeased. To this excellent advice the old woman refuses to listen; and the sword hides its time until the inevitable hour when Annerl, grown into unhappy womanhood, is brought upon the scaffold to die.
In this simple tale there is that element, of horror which is the birthright of German fiction. Truly has Heine observed that his is the motherland of superstition, the favored home of all that is fanciful, and terrifying, and unreal. “You French,” he writes,—before the days of Maupassant, be it remembered, — “ must see for yourselves that the horrible is not your province, and that France is no fit home for ghosts of any kind. When you call upon them, we must needs smile. Yes, we Germans who remain serious at your most pleasant witticisms, we laugh all the more heartily at your ghost stories. For your ghosts are always Frenchmen, and French ghosts, — what a contradiction in terms ! In the word ‘ ghost ’ there is such a suggestion of loneliness, surliness, and silence. In the word ‘ French ’ there is so much that is social, witty, and prattling. How could a Frenchman be a ghost, or how could ghosts exist in Paris ? ”
They have existed, however, in England. and even in London, for a good many centuries ; and bid fair to exist for as many more, if they are not decoyed out of their seclusion by unwise notoriety and attentions. In China and Japan, Mr. Lang assures us, ghosts do not live a “hole-and-corner” life; but come boldly forward, and play their parts in the business and pleasures of society. This is the example which English apparitions are being urged daily to follow, and this is the behavior which their modesty and native conservatism have hitherto conspired to forbid. It is easy for Japanese ghosts to assume definite duties in the world. They know precisely what is expected of them. The “ well-and-water ” spectre, an inert shapeless thing, all slimy and limp and white, haunts the drinking fountains, and peers malignly from the cold unruffled depth. The “ chink-and-crevice ” logic takes upon itself the congenial task of dropping on you from some dark corner of the ceiling, and strangling you in its serpent-like embraces. The pale, shadowy larva that rises, uncoiling like a mist-wreath, from the grave, never deserts the burying - place which is its congenial home. The bestial vampire, glutting itself with blood, crawls forever amid the desecrated tombs. These unpleasant creatures, and many more as bad. have had their especial privileges and their especial lines of labor marked out for generations, and they adhere steadfastly to their posts. But the trouble with English phantoms seems to he that they have not yet learned what they are good for, and their miserable vagueness of purpose is the most disappointing and disheartening thing about them. “ The modern ghost,” complains an irascible critic, “ appears, nobody knows why. He has no message to deliver, no secret crime to reveal, no appointment to keep, no treasure to disclose, no commissions to be executed, and, as an almost invariable rule, be does not speak, even if you speak to him.”
Nevertheless, in this utilitarian age, his popularity is ever on the increase, and there are plenty of enthusiasts who think they will yet overcome his silence, and persuade him to assume a more rational line of conduct. He has friends in every class of life who ardently desire his confidence, and who, in brief moments of self-deception, are prepared to think they have received it. Far back, in 1584, that devout writer. Reginald Scott, author of the Discovery of Witchcraft, ventured to ask with somewhat premature triumph, “ "Where are the soules that swarmed in times past ? Where are the spirits ? Who hearetli their noises ? Who seeith their visions? ” To which last questions Mr. Lang makes prompt answer for the nineteenth century : “ Protestant clergymen, officers in the army, ladies, land-agents, solicitors, representatives of all classes except the Haunted House Committee of the Psychical Society.”Fashions have changed since people sneered a little even at Dr. Johnson because he stoutly persisted in fearing ghosts, if not in believing in them all his life. We are beginning now to remember everything that lias been said, and well said, in favor of such fear. We are beginning to acknowledge that what universal reason proudly denies, universal apprehension tremblingly admits. We read with pleasure Shelley’s modest words, written it is true after an evening profitably spent in listening to some of the most ghostly tales that “ Monk ” Lewis and Lord Byron could relate. “ I do not think,” muses the poet in the solitude of his bed-chamber, “ that all the persons who profess to discredit these visitations really discredit them ; or, if they do in daylight, are not admonished by the approach of loneliness and midnight to think more respectfully of the world of shadows.”
This is candor itself, and Shelley was singularly iitted for such “ melancholy, pleasurable fear,” because he possessed in an unusual degree that extreme sensitiveness to surroundings which is a proper attribute both of the poet and the ghost-seer. “ Certain dark gardens cry aloud for a murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted ; certain coasts are set apart for shipwreck,” says Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson ; and Burns condenses the same thought into that incomparable line, “ ghaist-alluring edifices.” No one can read the fragment of Shelley’s Speculations on Metaphysics, in which be describes the subtle horror which thrilled him at sight of an ordinary and well-remembered landscape, without recognizing the close connection which existed for him between the seen and the unseen, between the supernatural element and its supremely commonplace setting. It was while walking with a friend near Oxford that he suddenly came upon a bit of country familiar to him in dreams, and associated with half painful, half terrible emotions.
“ The view consisted of a windmill, standing in one among many plashy meadows, inclosed with stone walls; the irregular and broken ground between the wall and the road on which we stood ; a long low hill behind the windmill, and a gray covering of uniform cloud spread over the evening sky. It was that season when the last leaf has just fallen from the scant and stunted ash. The scene surely was a common scene ; the season and the hour little calculated to kindle lawless thought. It was a tame, uninteresting assemblage of objects, such as would drive the imagination for refuge in serious and sober talk to the evening fireside, and the dessert of winter fruits and wine.”
Yet this quiet English landscape, with its dull monotony of tint and outline, awoke within the poet’s breast such bewildering sensations of terror that he lacked the courage to describe them, and Mary Shelley affirms that the mere recollection of those fearful moments agitated him beyond control. The most curious circumstance in the case is the presence of the windmill, that homely and friendly little building, which, for some inexplicable cause, carries with it, in every land, an unwarranted flavor of ghostliness. Heine was quick to recognize its uncanny attributes, and shivered when he saw the slow arms turning softly in the twilight, or standing, stiff and spectral, under a starlit sky. Sir Walter Scott, who was less sensitive than most men to impressions of this order, confesses in his journal that from childhood he had secretly feared a mill, even those cheerful, noisy mills where the great wheels revolve briskly to the sound of rushing water; and that the sight of one at sunset filled him with uneasiness and gloom. In the north, mills are not only the chosen haunt of witches, hut have familiars of their own. the millgoblins who hold the wheels still in the water with their strong bony hands ; and Asbjörnsen. in Round the Yule - Log, tells us that he tried vainly to induce a peasant lad to remain with him in one over night. “ My mother has often told me that there are evil spirits dwelling in these mills.” said the prudent boy, and declined all risk of their companionship.
In truth, the terrible ghosts and demons of the north are not helpless, harmless, speechless, purposeless creatures, to be courted and coddled like English drawing-room apparitions. Their hands can strangle and slay; their strength is greater than the strength of men; their wills are evil always; their malignity can never be appeased. When overcome, they are to he dreaded still; for, long ago, Grettir the Strong slew the Ghost of Glam, slew it manfully by the seashore, and hoped that peace had come into his troubled life. But when the moonlight shone upon the sands, and Grettir looked on the creature he had killed, he beheld for the first time the horror of its awful eyes. Then fear seized him who before had never feared, and from that hour he dared not be alone at night, but trembled like a woman in the darkness, beseeching companionship and comfort, Even the Scottish spectres are stronger and more malign than their English cousins; and Mr. Lang, in his Angling Sketches, tells us a ghastly tale of three Highland shepherds, who sat talking of their sweethearts in a lonely sheiling on Loch Awe, and wishing, each one, for the presence of the girl he loved. Suddenly the three young women entered, smiling, and two of the lads received them joyously, and went with them into dark corners of the hut. But the third, fearing he knew not what, sat quietly by the fire, and played on a little Jew’s-harp. “ Harping is good, if no ill follows it,”said the semblance of his sweetheart angrily; to which the hoy made no reply, but kept on playing steadfastly. In a few minutes he saw, trickling from one dim corner of the sheiling, a tiny stream of blood, and presently a second stream from the other corner joined it sluggishly in the firelight. Then he arose, still playing, and fled into the night, leaving his dead comrades in the embraces of the vampires who had worn so falsely the masks of familiarity and love.
These are not spirits to he tamed by psychical research, and invited to make themselves at home in good society. There is not even a great deal gained by calling them, in the scientific language of the day. “ phantasmogenetic agencies,” as if that elucidated the mystery or made them comfortable companions. It were better, perhaps, to remember Porphyry’s warning that all ghosts and demons are by nature deceitful and fond of travesty. It were wiser to give heed to old Richard Burton, who knew more about such matters than a wilderness of scientists, and who assures us plainly that the most illiterate devil is an unsafe antagonist for the most learned man. It were true sagacity to fear the powers of evil rather than to patronize them. Faust is supercilious enough when Mephistopheles first comes upon the scene, but he learns a little later on the ruthlessness of the spirit he lias invoked. “Ghosts are rare, but devils are plenty,” says Cotton Mather, and in tracking the first we may stumble unaware upon the second. At its best, the companionship of spectres makes but a dubious surrounding in which to pass our days, even though we escape the stake and fagots which the stern conservatism of our forefathers provided as a barrier for such intercourse. The gift of secondsight was ever an im viable as well as an unhallowed possession, and the man horn to such a fatal heritage had scant cause to rejoice in his accomplishment. “ It is certaine,” says Kirk truly, “he sie more gloomy and fearfull things than he do gladsome ; ” and the ever-present possibility of being burned as a warlock was hardly calculated to enhance the cheerfulness of his visions. Cassandra’s powers, it will be remembered, were neither soothing to herself nor serviceable to her neighbors. Theoclymenus had probably but scant appetite for the Odyssean banquet after he had seen the shrouds woven slowly around the doomed wooers. The old woman in Mr. Frazer’s narrative who beheld a sailor boy “ walking in his winding-sheet, sewed up from top to toe.” besought in vain that the lad might be left on shore. Her words were unheeded, and the little fellow sailed away to his death; another instance of the futility of portents. The Scottish minister who, in 1811, unwillingly confessed to having seen the corpse candles rise at night from the graves of two children and proceed to the house of their father, who died the following day, had especial cause for vexation at his own inopportune testimony. For years he had preached against the wicked credulity and superstitions of his parishioners, and it, seemed hard that he, of all men, should have been selected by the ironical humor of the spirit world to be a witness of these uncanny and unwelcome manifestations.
Search where we will, read what we may, we find little to warrant us in the belief that ghosts will ever develop into reasonable creatures, or that we shall ever succeed in piercing the mystery of their perverse and wavering natures. They do not change with the changing centuries. Our attitude towards them varies with every new current of thought, every successive tide of susceptibility or skepticism ; but they are the same freakish and elusive phantoms that they were in the days of Thessalian magic or of Salem witchcraft. Mr. Lang, sifting the subject through the five hundred and fifty-seven pages of Cock Lane and Common - Sense, turning on it every light, and patiently exploring every avenue of approach, comes at last to the conclusion that vve know nothing at all about it, and are not in the least likely to find anything out. How one, reared in wholesome fear of the supernatural, and looking hack upon a childhood of “ variegated and intense misery, recurring with especial vigor at bed-time,” should have the hardihood to write so flippantly of ghosts and giiost-seers passes my comprehension. “We do not know the laws of that country,” says Charles Lamb, and be who has ever trembled trembles still when loneliness and midnight bring him face to face with “ the terror that walketh in darkness.” Stories may be amusing, and apparitions may lack every quality which a self-respecting and fear-inspiring ghost should possess. “ Many of them,” says Mr. Lang reproachfully, “ have a perfect craze for announcing that bodies or treasures are buried where there is nothing of the sort.” Many make no announcements, and appear to have no distinct notion of what they want, or why they are manifesting themselves. Many find a somewhat childish pleasure in moving furniture, or breaking the kitchen crockery. Many can do nothing but rap, and practice this solitary accomplishment with monotonous and purposeless fidelity. And many more, like the fabulous esprit d’ Orléans, have an unpleasant flavor of charlatanism and quackery. Yet our hearts confess to a survival of the old, unreasoning fear, the primitive emotions which centuries do little to efface. Long, long ago, in Greece, the dogs howled dismally when Hecate stood by the crossways ; and even now her presence overshadows us. when we waken at night to hear the melancholy sounds. Long, long ago, the ghost of Caligula walked in the gardens of Lavinia : and superstition whispers to us even now that the troubled spirits which haunt the abodes of man are no friendly shades of departed mediocrity, but phantoms evil in every instinct, and linked with inexpiable crime.