In "The Technique of the Novel" Prof. Chas. F. Horne thus discusses the mystery story:
"This is the tale of the Improbable, the story that depends chiefly upon plot, external or action plot. It deals with surprise, with mystery, with the unexpected. It sees truth perhaps, but only the oddities of truth, where verity fixes a feeble hope upon coincidence, or upon ignorance, and usually gropes blindly toward that comfortable travesty of material payment for immaterial efforts which man miscalls 'poetic justice'. Such a novel may be either:
"1. The story of fear, which holds the excited reader shivering in darkness, by means of hinted horrors or by spectres frankly visible. Such visions haunt the 'Castle of Otranto' and Mrs. Radcliffe's more elaborate work.
"2. The story of intrigue, of cunning bad folks and rather idiotic good ones, of subtle schemes, intricate knaveries, and surprising secrets coming to light at just the dramatic moment needful for the triumph of virtue and defeat of vice. If one may do so without seeming to belittle the work, I would suggest 'Tom Jones' as showing the perfection of this sort of plot.
"3. The detective story, in which the plot is deliberately presented upside down. Consequences are first shown, and then worked backward to their causes, the steps being all suggested, yet made as unexpected as possible, that the reader may exercise his own wits and join the detective in an effort to solve the riddle.
"4. The novel of the unknown, the story of strange suggestion, which reaches beyond man's knowledge of his cosmos, not to terrify and amaze, but to analyze and understand, to suggest possibilities and questions, to see human nature in new lights, as Hawthorne does in "Sep- timius Felton," or Mr. Wells in his 'War with Mars'."
But it is obvious that the various types or kinds of mystery story cannot be classified with exactness; so they may be generally divided into three groups—a broad classification which will best suit our purpose: Ghost stories. Riddle stories, and Detective stories.
Among the earliest literature the supernatural was a strong element. Its appeal was not only to curiosity, but equally if not more to wonder, awe, and terror.
In safe surroundings, people like to be frightened. The baby crows with delight when we jump at him and say, "boo!" Children huddle together in ecstasy when listening to bugaboo tales; and grown-ups read and write ghost stories with intense enjoyment of their inexplicable horror.
Though detective stories may receive an unjust opprobrium, yet ghost stories are admitted to the inner circles of literature and art.
From the days of the Witch of Endor, the superhuman personage has had an exalted place in literature.
Shakespeare, Dickens, and Washington Irving number among their characters ghosts who became famous. And in latter days, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling and F. Marion Crawford have given us ghosts well worthy of their literary predecessors.
The story founded on the supernatural is a distinct branch of the Mystery Story, and except for the principle of Question and Answer, has little in common with the other two branches.
The fascination of this realm of experience, which is traditional from age to age, yet always elusive, is undeniable. Few men have seen ghosts, or will confess that they have seen them. But almost everybody knows some one of the few. Haunted houses are familiar in all neighborhoods, with the same story of the roistering sceptic who will gladly pass the night alone in the haunted chamber, and give monsieur the ghost a warm welcome; but who, if not found dead in the morning, emerges pale and haggard, with a settled terror in his look, and his lips sealed forever upon the awful story of the night.
Mansions in country places are advertised for sale or hire, with the attraction of a well regulated ghost, who contents himself until driving up at midnight with a great clatter of outriders, and rumble of wheels, and brisk letting down of steps, and a bustling entrance into the house, and then no more. Staid gentlemen remember in their youth awaking in a friend's house in the summer night just in time to see the vanishing through the long window of a draped figure; a momentary pausing on the balcony outside; the sense of a penetrating, mournful look; then a vanishing; and at breakfast the cheery question of the host, "Did you see the lovely Lady Rosamond?" and a following tale of hapless love and woe.
As George William Curtis tells us, in "Modern Ghosts":
"The literature of ghosts is very ancient. In visions of the night and in the lurid vapors of mystic incantations, figures rise and smile or frown and disappear. The Witch of Endor murmurs her spell and 'an old man cometh up, and he is covered with a mantle.' Macbeth takes a bond of fate, and from Hecate's caldron, after the apparition of an armed head and that of a bloody child, 'an apparition of a child crowned, with a tree in his hand, rises.'
The wizard recounts to Lochiel his warning vision, and Lochiel departs to his doom. There are stories of the Castle of Otranto and of the Three Spaniards, and the infinite detail of 'singular experiences,' which make our conscious daily life the frontier and border and of an impinging world of mystery.
"The most refined psychological speculation may extend the range of observation. But the 'mocking laughter1 of desert places, the cry of the banshee, the sudden impression of a presence, the strange and fanciful popular superstitions, as they are called, in the same way that un- apprehended physical conditions are sagely called nervous prostration—what is the key to them all? What is a hallucination? Who shall say conclusively that it is the thing that is not? And if it be, whence is it, and why?"
In the technical Ghost Story, as we shall now consider it, the question is certain to arise; "What was It?" And the answer must be "A ghost!"—that is an inexplicable supernatural manifestation of some sort. A rational and material explanation, as of a human being impersonating ghost, or, a mechanical contrivance responsible for mysterious sounds, takes the story out of this class at once.
Kipling's tale called "My own true ghost story" is not a ghost story at all; it is an exceedingly interesting riddle story. But "The Phantom 'Rickshaw" by the same author is one of the best of ghost stories.
And not only must the ghost be a real ghost, but the effect of the supernatural must permeate the whole story, the people being thus more real by contrast.
Although the reader be the strictest materialist, he must, to enjoy a ghost story, put himself in an attitude of belief in the supernatural for the time being.
As Julian Hawthorne says, in "The Lock and key library":
"A ghost story can be brought into our charmed and charming circle only if we have made up our minds to believe in the ghosts; otherwise their introduction would not be a square deal. It would not be fair, in other words, to propose a conundrum on a basis of ostensible materialism, and then, when no other key would fit, to palm off a disembodied spirit on us. Tell me beforehand that your scenario is to include both worlds, and I have no objection to make; I simply attune my mind to the more extensive scope. But I rebel at an unheralded ghostland, and declare frankly that your tale is incredible."
Miss Wilkins' story, "The Shadow on the Wall," is a perfect Ghost Story, told in a perfect way. There is no material explanation, the shadow on the wall has its own awful meaning, and the commonplace setting of the story throws into relief the weirdness of the plot.
With ghosts really seen by real people, the fictional Ghost Story has nothing in common. Hundreds of ghosts are annually brought to light in the dragnets of scientific spook catchers. But while these ghosts are interesting in and of themselves, they lack the setting of the Ghost Story of fiction, and without attempting to discuss the truth or falsity of their existence we fall back upon the assertion that a ghost belongs to the category of things naturally incredible. Notwithstanding the subconscious faith that all of us have in the possibility of phantoms, our reason refuses to accept them without proof much more conclusive than we should demand for the establishment of an every-day fact. So extreme is our reluctance to believe in such phenomena that the average man of education, if he saw a spectre with his own eyes, would, on referring the matter to his judgment, prefer to regard the apparition as an illusion, rather than accept it as a supernatural manifestation. The chances are, too, that he would be correct, inasmuch as hallucinations of vision are undeniably frequent.
Deep down in the heart of man there abides a firm belief in the power of the dead to walk upon the earth, and affright, if such be their pleasure, the souls of the living. Wise folks, versed in the sciences and fortified in mind against faith in aught that savors of the supernatural, laugh ideas of the kind to scorn; yet hardly one of them will dare to walk alone through a graveyard in the night. Or, if one be found so bold, he will surely hasten his footsteps, unable wholly to subdue the fear of sheeted spectres which may rise from the grass-grown graves, or emerge from moon-lit tombs, and follow on. For, strangely enough, the dead, if not actually hostile to the living, are esteemed dangerous and dreadful to encounter.
The real-life ghost story is largely made up of vehement protestations on the part of the narrator that "This really happened," and flat-footed inquiries as to "How do you explain it, if you don't believe in ghosts!"
But the Ghost Story of fiction tranquilly takes the belief in ghosts for granted, and goes on to create delightfully harrowing conditions, an atmosphere of deepest mystery and a problem unsolvable, except by the acceptance of a ghost.
The ghost need not be an actual character, not even an entity; it may be an impalpable shadow, or an invisible form. Or it may be, as in one story, a fearful pair of eyes that scared the hero of the tale,—and incidentally the reader,—much farther out of his wits than any conventional spectre clanking his chains might do.
And yet it is the strange fascination of this fear that attracts the reader to a ghost story.
"What Was It?" by Fitzjames O'Brien, is a typical Ghost Story of horror. The dreadfulness of the experience is graphically pictured and the hold on the reader's attention is entirely that of the supernatural.
A parallel story is Maupassant's "The Horla."
This latter story is much longer and more elaborate, but the plots are almost identical. The Frenchman's story is told with a greater art, but is spun out to too great a length, and in some parts the horror is mere hysteria.
Among Ghost Stories with an occult moral, Kipling's "They" stands pre-eminent. This story has the element of beauty rather than horror, but it is a perfect Ghost Story none the less.
"The Turn of The Screw" is a wonderful Ghost Story. The supernatural element of its matter, aided by the supernatural element in Henry James' manner is a combination that makes a Ghost Story of distinguishment.
For stories of sheer hair-raising horror, F. Marion Crawford's Ghost Stories stand easily in the first rank. "The upper berth" is quite as terrifying a conception as the stories of O'Brien and Maupassant, but the descriptive details give an atmosphere of fright unattained by the other two. As an example of Mr. Crawford's awful word pictures we append the following extracts:
The light was growing strangely dim in the great room.
As Evelyn looked. Nurse Mcdonald's crooked shadow on the wall grew gigantic. Sir Hugh's breath came thick, rattling in his throat, as death crept in like a snake and choked it back. Evelyn prayed aloud, high and clear.
Then something rapped at the window, and she felt her hair rise upon her head in a cool breeze, as she looked around in spite of herself. And when she saw her own white face looking in at the window, and her own eyes staring at her through the glass, wide and fearful, and her own hair streaming against the pane, and her own lips dashed with blood, she rose slowly from the floor and stood rigid for one moment, till she screamed once and fell straight back into Gabriel's arms. But the shriek that answered hers was the fear shriek of the tormented corpse, out of which the soul cannot pass for shame of deadly sins, though the devils fight in it with corruption, each for their due share.
Sir Hugh Ockram sat upright in his deathbed, and saw and cried loud.
* * *
Slowly Nurse Macdonald's wrinkled eyelids folded themselves back, and she looked straight at the face at the window while one might count ten.
"Is it time?" she asked in her little old, far away voice. While she looked the face at the window changed, for the eyes opened wider and wider till the white glared all round the bright violet, and the bloody lips opened over gleaming teeth, and stretched and widened and stretched again, and the shadowy golden hair rose and streamed against the window in the night breeze. And in answer to Nurse Macdonald's question came the sound that freezes the living flesh.
That low moaning voice that rises suddenly, like the scream of storm, from a moan to a wail, from a wail to a howl, from a howl to the fear shriek of the tortured dead—he who has heard knows, and he can bear witness that the cry of the banshee is an evil cry to hear alone in the deep night.
* * *
He was as brave as any of those dead men had been, and they were his fathers, and he knew that sooner or later he should lie there himself, beside Sir Hugh, slowly drying to a parchment shell. But he was still alive, and he closed his eyes a moment, and three great drops stood on his forehead.
Then he looked again, and by the whiteness of the winding-sheet he knew his father's corpse, for all the others were brown with age; and, moreover, the flame of the candle was blown toward it. He made four steps till he reached it, and suddenly the light burned straight and high, shedding a dazzling yellow glare upon the fine linen that was all white, save over the face, and where the joined hands were laid on the breast. And at those places ugly stains had spread, darkened with outlines of the features and of the tight-clasped fingers. There was a frightful stench of drying death.
As Sir Gabriel looked down, something stirred behind him, softly at first, then more noisily, and something fell to the stone floor with a dull thud and rolled up to his feet; he started back and saw a withered head lying almost face upward on the pavement, grinning at him. He felt the cold sweat standing on his face, and his heart beat painfully.
For the first time in all his life that evil thing which men call fear was getting hold of him, checking his heartstrings as a cruel driver checks a quivering horse, clawing at his backbone with icy hands, lifting his hair with freezing breath, climbing up and gathering in his midriff with leaden weight.
Yet presently he bit his lip and bent down, holding the candle in one hand, to lift the shroud back from the head of the corpse with the other. Slowly he lifted it. Then it clove to the half-dried skin of the face, and his hand shook as if some one had struck him on the elbow, but half in fear and half in anger at himself, he pulled it, so that it came away with a little ripping sound. He caught his breath as he held it, not yet throwing it back, and not yet looking. The horror was working in him, and he felt that old Vernon Ockram was standing up in his iron coffin, headless, yet watching him with the stump of his severed neck.
While he held his breath he felt the dead smile twisting his lips. In sudden wrath at his own misery, he tossed the death-stained linen backward, and looked at last. He ground his teeth lest he should shriek aloud.
Perhaps unique amongst Ghost Stories is the one by Mr. Crawford entitled "The Doll's Ghost." It would seem difficult to conceive a story of the ghost of a little girl's doll, that should be neither melodramatic nor ridiculous, but Mr. Crawford accomplished this, and the little sketch, while a true Ghost Story, is pathetic and charming.
Rarely, and only in the hands of a master, may a Ghost Story be treated with levity. The humorous touch is dangerous in connection with the supernatural. But the whimsical genius of Frank R. Stockton surmounted all difficulties and gave us two delicious humorous Ghost Stories, of which we quote a few lines.
The figure was certainly that of John Hinckman in his ordinary dress, but there was a vagueness and indistinctness about it which presently assured me that it was a ghost. Had the good old man been murdered, and had his spirit come to tell me of the deed, and to confide to me the protection of his dear—? My heart fluttered but I felt that I must speak. "Sir," said I.
"Do you know," interrupted the figure, with a countenance that indicated anxiety, "whether or not Mr. Hinckman will return to-night?"
I thought it well to maintain a calm exterior, and I answered:
"We do not expect him."
"I am glad of that," said he, sinking into the chair by which he stood. "During the two years and a half that I have inhabited this house, that man has never before been away for a single night. You can't imagine the relief it gives me."
As he spoke, he stretched out his legs and leaned back in the chair. His form became less vague, and the colors of his garments more distinct and evident, while an expression of gratified relief succeeded to the anxiety of his countenance.
"Two years and a half!" I exclaimed. "I don't understand you."
"It is fully that length of time," said the ghost, "since I first came here. Mine is not an ordinary case."
* * *
The ghost smiled.
"I must admit, however," he said, "that I am seeking this position for a friend of mine, and I have reason to believe that he will obtain it."
"Good heavens!" I exclaimed. "Is it possible that this house is to he haunted by a ghost as soon as the old gentleman expires? Why should this family be tormented in such a horrible way? Everybody who dies does not have a ghost walking about his house."
"Oh, no!" said the spectre. "There are thousands of positions of the kind which are never applied for. But the ghostship here is a very desirable one, and there are many applicants for it. I think you will like my friend, if he gets it."
"Like him!" I groaned.
The idea was horrible to me.
The ghost evidently perceived how deeply I was affected by what he had said, for there was a compassionate expression on his countenance.
I drew my chair a little nearer to her, and as I did so the ghost burst into the room from the doorway behind her. I say burst, although no door flew open and he made no noise. He was wildly excited, and waved his arms above his head. The moment I saw him, my heart fell within me. With the entrance of that impertinent apparition, every hope fled from me. I could not speak while he was in the room.
I must have turned pale, and I gazed steadfastly at the ghost, almost without seeing Madeline, who sat between us.
"Do you know," he cried, "that John Hinckman is coming up the hill. He will be here in fifteen minutes, and if you are doing anything in the way of love-making, you had better hurry it up. But this is not what I came to tell you.
I have glorious news! At last I am transferred! Not forty minutes ago a Russian nobleman as murdered by the Nihilists. Nobody ever thought of him in connection with an immediate ghostship. My friends instantly applied for the situation for me, and obtained my transfers."