Sunday, 6 November 2016

(Super)natural horror in Wilkie Collins

Halloween is only just behind us and, since last week when I recommended his A Terribly Strange Bed (1852), I’ve been diving deeper into some unsettling and atmospheric short stories penned by Wilkie Collins.

The Ghost Story, R. Graves (1874)
This week I’ll be talking about two 1855 stories — Mad Monkton and The Ostler, the latter of which was the first piece of Collins I ever read as part of the English Literature GCSE syllabus.

These two stories share several similarities. Both revolve around the idea of warnings, alerting men to the circumstances of their own deaths but ultimately unable to save them. Each story is narrated by a male character who stands apart from the central action and is, especially in Mad Monkton, sceptical about the possibility of ghostly apparitions. And in both cases, while the most obvious explanation for the plot is supernatural, there are other possible interpretations.

In Mad Monkton there may be no ghost at all. Alfred could simply be suffering from a madness that runs in his family:

It was equally clear that [Alfred Monkton’s] delusions had been produced, in the first instance, by the lonely life he had led, acting on a naturally excitable temperament, which was rendered further liable to moral disease by an hereditary taint of insanity.

And Isaac, the eponymous ostler in the second tale is discredited as a witness to the possibly demonic forces that seem to pursue him through Collins’s focus on his lack of natural intelligence:

Naturally slow in capacity, he had the bluntness of sensibility and phlegmatic patience of disposition which frequently distinguish men with sluggishly-working mental powers.

Our desire to attribute these stories to ghostly interference then could be because this is the less terrifying option. For Collins, the fact that there could be something innate inside us, something passed on by our bloodlines, something we are unable to change, is more horrific than the idea that we could be a victim of circumstance or supernatural forces.

Monkton’s end is all the more tragic if his quest to find his uncle’s body was ill-informed and unnecessary all along. It is possible that Isaac could have had a happy marriage had he and his mother not drawn parallels between his bride and a single nightmare. And maybe Rebecca Murdoch the real life drunken wife is more terrifying than a murderous ‘dream woman’.

Collins’s most terrifying proposition to us is that the scariest stories are part of our nature — not dictated by something external to it.

Illustration by F.S. Coburn (19th-century)
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