Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 05/26/2022

Episode 18: Horror in the Short Story

By Leon Mones

Originally published in the February 25, 1918 issue of The Editor, and is now in the public domain.

Lafcadio Hearn possessed an extraordinary power of creating the atmosphere of the supernatural. His power was doubtless due in part to the fact that to him “Every word had face and form and voice,” and to his habit of spending “long nights reflecting about the proper shade of a word’s meaning.” But with Hearn, the pure technique and especially the subtle psychology of writing played a far larger part. And in this last phase, a lecture which he delivered before his classes in the University of Tokio is so suggestive, that an examination is bound to be profitable.

“All successful treatment of the ghostly or impossible,” says Hearn, “must be made to correspond as much as possible with the truth of dream experience.”

Every one of our dreams, he declares, is for some unexplained reason constructed according to a definite plan. Of all our dreams, the nightmare, which sometimes kills with its terror, is the most awful. Now, since the avowed object of a ghost story is to excite the greatest amount of horror and terror possible, it is to the nightmare that we must turn for an analysis of the universal dream-plan and for the very elements of the ghost story.

He then proceeds to a narrative analysis of the usual nightmare. It may be summed up as follows:

Stage 1. It begins with a kind of suspicion. You feel afraid without knowing why. You have the impression that something is acting on you from a distance, something like fascination. Feeling uneasy, you wish to escape, to get away from the influence that is making you afraid. Then you find that it is not easy to escape. You move with great difficulty. The difficulty increases; you can not move at all. You want to cry out and you can not; you have lost your voice. You are in a state of trance,— seeing, hearing, feeling, but unable to move or speak.

Stage 2. You witness terrible and unnatural appearances. There is a darkening of the visible, sometimes a disappearance or dimming of light.

Stage 3. This is the stage of struggle. You witness impossible occurrences which bring to you extreme horror and convince you of your impotence. You may try to use a pistol or a sword or a hammer. The bullet will go a few inches then drop limply without a report. The sword will become soft, like paper. The hammer you are unable to lift. Terrible things reach out hands to touch. They may grow to the ceiling and bend themselves fantastically as they approach.

Stage 4. This is the climax of the horror. You are caught or touched. The touch is like an electric shock but unnaturally prolonged. It is not pain, but something worse than pain. In the case of the week person it may sometimes kill.

This is the dream-plan, along the lines of which the world’s greatest ghost stories are constructed. Let us examine one, “The House and the Brain,” by Bulwer-Lytton. This is the one declared by Hearn to be by far the greatest ghost story in English. We shall divide its main plot into stages and see how closely they correspond to the stages of the dream plan.

Stage 1. A man is sitting in a chair, with a lamp on the table beside him, and is reading Macaulay’s essays. He becomes uneasy. A shadow falls upon the page. He rises and tries to call out but he cannot raise his voice above a whisper. He tries to move and he cannot stir hand or foot. The spell is upon him.

Stage 2. The lamp and the fire in the room become dimmer and dimmer. At last all the light completely vanishes and the room is in total darkness. Spectral and unnatural luminosities begin to make their appearance.

Stage 3. The phantom towers from floor to ceiling, vague and threatening.

The man attempts to use his pistol.

Stage 4. He receives a sudden shock and is rendered absolutely powerless. He sits stiff and paralyzed.

It is obvious from this skeleton outline that the above story both in its plan and material is exactly true to dream experience. The terror which a reading of it excites is intense. Its air of truth is so convincing that a famous physician once fatuously declared it to be a recital of a true experience.

Indeed, when we reflect how the most intense horror of our lives is experienced in our nightmares, we very well believe that should we plan our ghost story in accordance with the nightmare-plan its object must be realized. For we are sure to stir up associations of horror and terror.

But not only the plan should be sought in dreams but even the aesthetic elements of horror and terror. The return of dead people, sounds of terrific muffled noises, the sudden life of inanimate objects, the sudden appearance of terrible monsters, all of these elements of supernatural fiction were doubtless first experienced in dreams. Indeed if the reader will examine his own dreams he will find scores of elements which can either be used themselves or else will readily suggest others.

The writer of ghost stories will do well to ponder this. It furnishes a clew to material, plan, sequence and climax of supernatural stories. In Hearn’s own words, “The terror of all great ghost stories is really the terror of the nightmare projected into waking consciousness.”