Blackwood's Magazine/Volume 3/Issue 17/Phantasmagoriana

A review of Tales of the Dead (1813).


Ou Recueil d’Histories d’Apparitions, de Spectres, de Revenans, Fantomes, &c. Traduit de l’Allemand, par un Amateur. Paris. 2 tomes 12mo.


The empire of imagination was some time ago exposed to all the horrors of an invasion, which appeared destined to wrest the sceptre of one of its most extensive and fertile provinces for ever from the grasp of its sovereign. What other effect could possibly have been predicted to ensue from an essay, written by a physician, at the commencement of the 19th century, with the avowed design of affording an easy practical solution at once applicable to all cases of spectral appearances, invisible spiritual agency, and magical delusion, past and to come? We would by no means be thought to undervalue the advantages of so great a discovery, of so valuable a conquest. To be enabled to cross a church-yard, planted with yew-trees, “in the very witching time of night,” of a cold, damp, gusty, gloomy December, without any worse apprehension than that of mere mortal rheumatism or asthma—or to descend from the highest to the lowest apartments of an ancient family mansion alone, when all the rest of the house is asleep, without a candle, under the persuasion that one runs no greater risk than that of breaking a neck or a leg over the staircase—this indeed were a blessing, the full extent and magnitude of which we are far from being so philosophically hardy as to deny. But then, when we came to reflect on all that must be sacrificed for the attainment of such beatitude, supposing it to be attainable,—the thrilling delight of a ghost-story by a Christmas fire-side,—the more exalted sense which a lurking tendency to superstitious apprehension adds to our relish of the sublime in poetry,—nay, the very pleasure which in some unaccountable manner mingles itself with the real terrors which situations such as above described are calculated to engender,—we found ourselves necessarily driven to the conclusion, that the exemption, which before appeared so enviable, might be too dearly purchased. So far from hailing with triumphant expectation, we began to anticipate, with fear and concern, this decisive victory of the genius of physiology over the Prince of Darkness; we opened the important volume in a state of suspense, which, in comformity with the approved usage of our best novel writers, we may venture to term “agonizing;” and were really relieved to a degree far exceeding what we at that time thought it prudent to avow, when we found, after perusing it, that, notwithstanding the doctor’s eminent professional skill and sagacity, we were still able to address him in the words of Hamlet—

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Shall we confess still further? It was already late in the evening when we laid down Dr Ferriar, intending to close our labours for the night; but our hands, carelessly wandering over the table, chanced to encounter “Tales of the Dead,” which lay at that time uncut before us. What a providential opportunity for making trial of Horatio’s philosophy! We drew our chairs nearer the fire, snuffed our candles, replenished our cups, and never budged from our positions till the clock struck two, by which time we had clean forgotten all the lessons our good physician had been giving us, and,

Almost to jelly by the act of fear,”

slowly and reluctantly departed to our beds; nor, if we had then met a legion of spectres at the stair’s head, waiting our arrival, would it have occurred to any of us to explain the phenomenon upon the principle of hallucination.

The “Pleasures of Superstition” form a distinct and peculiar class of those of the imagination; and, in a philosophical investigation of the sources from which they are derived, we soon discover that even those others which appear most of kin to them, must be traced in their descent through very different channels. The species of delight afforded by a tragedy, or an execution, may, to an unreflecting observer, appear very similar to that communicated by a well-authenticated ghost-story; yet, if the nature of the sentiment is at all to be inferred from its degrees of intensity, it will necessarily follow that the two cases are totally heterogeneous. To mention no other proofs of dissimilarity, a certain dignity of character and circumstances has always been considered as essential to the support of tragic interest, which loses its effect in proportion as it mixes itself with the every-day concerns of middling life, with customary scenes, and modern manners. So of an execution.—The impression produced upon the mind, by the idea of a dozen ordinary felons turned off in one morning before the door of Newgate, will not bear an instant’s comparison with that made by the similar situation of a Russel or a Sydney—a Marie Antoinette or a Louis Seize. The force and vividness of our superstitious impressions is varied according to the converse of this rule. A single example will suffice. Our souls are wrought to the height of tragic terror and pity by the murder of Prince Arthur, or of the “royal babes” in the Tower; while, if any author were so mad as to think of framing a tragedy upon the subject of that worthy Vicar of Warblington in Hants, who was reported, about a century ago, to have strangled his own children, and to have walked after his death, he would assuredly be laughed to scorn by a London audience, whatever success he might hope to meet with at Berlin or Weimar. On the other hand, let it be ever so confidently reported that King John is to be seen every Christmas-eve eating stewed lampreys among the ruins of Swineford Abbey, or that King Richard may be met riding White Surry at the first mile-stone on the high road from Bosworth, on every Whitsunday, at one o’clock in the morning,—and, we will venture to say, not a hair on the head of the most credulous listener will be displaced, or even put out of curl, by the narrative. Nay, not a whit the less would the haunted spots be traversed at all hours, and at all seasons, without fear of consequences; while the most hardened sceptic may safely be defied, after reading the plain and unpoetical narrative of the reverend spectre in gown and cassock (which is to be found in Mr Cumberland’s Observer), to pass by the parsonage house at Warblington aforesaid, at any hour after the curfew, without so much at least of the sensation, to which we are now adverting, as would induce him to quicken his pace, wipe his forehead, and perhaps whistle “Lillibullero.”

Upon this subject then, it may be laid down as an undeniable axiom, that the more common and familiar, the more terrific is the apparition,—the more powerful, therefore, the effect of the story which is built upon such a foundation,—which is the same thing that was meant by the writers on demonology in the time of our good, believing King James, when they uniformly attribute to the class of spirits, which they entitle Παρεδριος (domestics, sitting close at your elbow,) the chief and most constantly prevailing influence over mankind. In short, with all due reverence for the old established requisites of rusty armour, and clanking chains, of winding-sheets, dry bones, and fleshless skulls, what we mean to assert is, that, at least in the present refined state of the social feelings, none of all these spectral appendages are calculated so to thrill the soul with that pleasurable horror of which we are speaking, as the simple and unostentatious narration of the return of a beloved friend, or near relation, from the world of spirits, in the precise form and likeness of his living self, in his customary habiliments, and, if altered at all in appearance, only so in the assuming a more than ordinary seriousness and solemnity of voice, countenance, and gesture. The fact perhaps is, that the progress of philosophy, which has, within the last century, destroyed almost the vestiges of gross and vulgar credulity, has hitherto spared the final retreat of (what, in compliance the usage of this civilized world of ours, we must nevertheless entitle) ancient superstition; or rather, that the impossibility of a visit from the grave has never been so fully demonstrated, as to render even the most sceptical mind completely proof against the impressions of so qualified, and seemingly probable, an imagination.

The nature of the circumstances by which such stories are generally accompanied, also adds considerably to to their credibility, as well as the very names of the actors, both the dead and the living. When Mr Naylor appeared to his friend, Mr Shaw, in his rooms at St John’s College,[1] he was neither “armed cap-à-pié,” nor

“Wrapp’d in the mouldering cerements of the grave,”

but accoutred in canonical gown and cassock, the living fellow being, at the same time, seated at his library-table, reading and smoking tobacco. They conversed together, the dead and the living, for some time very freely, says the story. At last, being informed by his ghostly visitant, that he was himself “well and happy” in that other world of which he spoke, Mr Shaw ventured to ask him, “whether any of his old acquaintance were with him?”—“The answer was, that there was not one of them; which answer, Mr Shaw said, struck him to the heart;”—and, so related, we will venture to say, it must strike every hearer with almost equal solemnity.

We might multiply examples without end; but as our only object, by all these profound reflections, is to recommend the study of the familiar and the adoption of ordinary occurrences, and a plain unambitious phraseology, as the best for the production of superstitious impressions in works of pure invention, we have already, perhaps, said more than enough for our purpose. The little publication which stands at the head of our present article, and which, whether it be originally of French or of German extraction we are unable to decide, was that which gave rise to our argument. The English which follows it is a translation of the best parts of its contents, to which is added, a single additional story of the same nature, for which we are indebted to the translator.

These tales, which we shall not injure by attempting to analyze, are conceived and executed precisely in that style which we have just been recommending, and have long recognised, as alone suitable at the present day to the purpose for which they are intended. In the first,[2] which is entitled, “The Family Portraits,” we are called back, it is true, to the ages of almost forgotten antiquity, to the Saxon Otho, and the founder of the abbey of St Gal; but the occurrences of these dark and uninteresting periods are connected, in a manner equally intricate and fearful, with the incidents of modern life, and the little peculiarities of modern manners and habits. The scene is alternately the parlour of a village pastor and the chateau of a German gentleman, the dramatis personæ perfectly appropriate, and the main agent in the catastrophe nothing more or less than a portrait in an old family picture gallery. Lewis’s inimitable tale of the “Bleeding Nun” owes much of its power to thrill and harrow up the imagination to a similar combination of the manners of easy and familiar life, with the legendary terrors of exploded superstition.

The portrait, painted by the hand of a spectre, and the phantom, whose occasional appearance on earth is mysteriously connected with that terrible portrait, and whose kiss is the signal of death to every successive member of the family to which it belongs, are manifest improvements on such traditions as those of the White Lady of the house of Brandenburg, the Fairy Melusine, whose appearance used constantly to prognosticate the recurrence of mortality in some noble family of Poitou; and the White Bird which, as Prince records in his Worthies of Devon, was in the habit of performing the same office for the worshipful lineage of Oxenham.

Analogous to this last story is that related by one Vincentius, that,

“In the Councell of Basil, certain learned men taking their journey through a forest, one of these Spirits (of the Aire) in the shape of a nightingall, uttered such melodious tones and accents, that they were all amased, and stayed their steps to sit downe and heare it. At length one of them, apprehending that it was not possible that such raritie of musicke could be in a bird, the like of which he had never heard, demanded of it, in the name of God, what or who it was. The Bird presently answered, I am the soule of one that is damned, and am enjoyned to singe thus till the last day of the great judgment. Which said, with a terrible shrieke which amased them all, he flew away and soon vanished. The event was, that all that heard those syrennicall notes, presently fell into grievous sicknesses, and soon after died.”

The authority of a Doge of Venice is surely sufficient to shake the most resolute sceptic. What, therefore, can be alleged to the disparagement of what is related by Cardanas, from the mouth of the Doge, Jacobus Donatus? viz. That the said Doge,

“Sleeping one night with his wife in an upper bed, where two nurses lay with a young childe, his sole heire, in the lower, which was not a full yeare old, he perceived the chamber door, by degrees, first to be unlocked, then unbolted, and after unlatcht, one thrust in his head, and was plainly seene of them all, himselfe, his wife, and the nurses, but not known to any of them. Donatus, with the rest, being terrified at this sight, arose from his bed, and snatching up a sword and a round buckler, caused the nurses to light either of them a taper, and searcht narrowly all the roomes and lodgings neere, which he found to be barred and shut, and he could not discover where any such intruder should have entrance. At which, not a little wonder-strocke, they all retyred to their rests, letting the lights still burne in their chamber. The next day, the infant (who was then in health, and slept soundly) died suddenly in the nurse’s arms; and that was the successe of the vision.”

“Horatio,” no doubt, will call this “hallucination.” But what will he say to the wealthy Stephanus Hubnerus of Trautonavia in Bohemia, who, after spending his life in building “sumptuous houses and palaces,”—(better for him had they been churches)—after his death, took it into his head most uncivilly to walk the streets of the city, and salute his friends and acquaintance, who all died, one after another, as certainly as he touched them? We quote from “The Hierarchie of the Blessed Angells,” by Thomas Heywood (folio, 1635), a most learned demonologist, whose accuracy we see no reason to call in question.

The second tale, “The Fated Hour,” is calculated to affect the mind with a yet more vivid impression of terror, as it has reference to a species of belief, not so popular as that in the Spirits of the Dead, but yet sufficiently common, especially among nations of a melancholy and reflective cast, as for instance our old Scottish Highlanders. It is the spectral appearance, or wraith, of a person yet living.

A young and beautiful girl, on the eve of marriage to the man she loves, is represented as suddenly becoming a prey to the most unaccountable melancholy and abstraction of thought. Being rallied by her most intimate female companions, she gives obscure intimations of her own approaching death, which, however discredited by them, naturally inspire a poignant and even distressing sensation of curiosity and wonder. They require, in short, an explanation, which the unhappy victim of these second-sighted impressions at length consents to give, and which she commences in the following manner:

“You are acquainted with my sister Seraphina, whom I had the misfortune to lose; but I alone can boast of possessing her confidence, which is the cause of my mentioning many things relative to her before I begin the history I have been promised, in which she is the principal personage.

“From her infancy Seraphina was remarkable for several singularities. She was a year younger than myself; but frequently, while seated by her side, I was amusing myself with the playthings common to our age, she would fix her eyes, by the half hour together, as if absorbed in thought: she seldom took any part in our infantine amusements. This disposition greatly chagrined our parents; for they attributed Seraphina’s indifference to stupidity; and they were apprehensive this defect would necessarily prove an obstacle in the education requisite for the distinguished rank we held in society,—my father being, next the prince, the first person in the country. They had already thought of procuring for her a canonry from some noble chapel, when things took an entirely different turn.

“Her preceptor, an aged man, to whose care they had confided her at a very early age, assured them that, in his life, he had never met with so astonishing an intellect as Seraphina’s. My father doubted the assertion; but an examination, which he caused to be made in his presence, convinced him that it was founded in truth.

“Nothing was then neglected to give Seraphina every possible accomplishment:—masters of different languages, of music, and of dancing, every day filled the house.

“But in a short time my father perceived that he was again mistaken: for Seraphina made so little progress in the study of the different languages, that the masters shrugged their shoulders; and the dancing-master pretended, that, though her feet were extremely pretty, he could do nothing with them, as her head seldom took the trouble to guide them.

“By way of retaliation, she made such wonderful progress in music, that she even excelled her masters. She sung in a manner superior to that of the best opera-singer.

“My father acknowledged that his plans for the education of this extraordinary child were now as much too enlarged as they were before too circumscribed, and that it would not do to keep too tight a hand over her, but let her follow the impulse of her own wishes.

“This new arrangement afforded Seraphina the opportunity of more particularly studying the science of astronomy, which was one they had never thought of as needful for her. You can, my friend, form but a very indifferent idea of the avidity with which (if so I may express myself) she devoured those books which treated on celestial bodies; or what rapture the globes and telescopes occasioned her, when her father presented them to her on her thirteenth birth-day!

“But the progress made in this science in our days did not long satisfy Seraphina’s curiosity. To my father’s great grief, she was wrapped up in reveries of astrology; and more than once she was found in the morning occupied in studying books which treated on the influence of the stars, and which he had begun to peruse the preceding evening.

“My mother, being at the point of death, was anxious, I believe, to remonstrate with Seraphina on this whim, but her death was too sudden. My father thought that, at this tender age, Seraphina’s whimsical fancy would wear off: however time passed on, and he found that she still remained constant to a study she had cherished from her infancy.

“You cannot forget the general sensation her beauty produced at court; how much the fashionable versifiers of the day sang her graceful figure and beautiful flaxen locks; and how often they failed, when they attempted to describe the particular and undefinable character which distinguished her fine blue eyes! I must say, I have often embraced my sister, whom I loved with the greatest affection, merely to have the pleasure of getting nearer, if possible, to her soft angelic eyes, from which Seraphina’s pale countenance borrowed all its sublimity.

“She received many extremely advantageous proposals of marriage, but declined them all. You know her predilection in favour of solitude, and that she never went out but to enjoy my society. She took no pleasure in dress; nay, she even avoided all occasion which required more than ordinary expense. Those who were not acquainted with the singularity of her character, might have accused her of affectation.

“But a very extraordinary particularity, which I by chance discovered in her just as she attained her fifteenth year, created an impression of fear on my mind which will never be effaced.

“On my return from making a visit, I found Seraphina in my father’s cabinet, near the window, with her eyes fixed and immoveable. Accustomed from her earliest infancy to see her in this situation, without being perceived by her, I pressed her to my bosom, without producing on her the least sensation of my presence. At this moment I looked towards the garden, and I there saw my father walking with this same Seraphina whom I held in my arms!

‘In the name of God, my sister!’ exclaimed I, equally cold with the statue before me, who now began to recover.

“At the same time my eye involuntarily returned towards the garden where I had seen her, and there perceived my father alone, looking with uneasiness, as it appeared to me, for her who, but an instant before, was with him. I endeavoured to conceal this event from my sister; but in the most affectionate tone she loaded me with questions to learn the cause of my agitation.” p. 69—73.

This quotation is rather of the longest: but it will serve as a specimen of the art with which these written stories are contrived to excite the interest of familiarity, by dwelling on circumstantial details, apparently of no importance, but which are in reality inseparable from the impressions which they are designed to awaken.

We must not quit this chapter without reminding our sceptical readers, that the spectral apparition of persons yet living is a fact sanctioned by authority of no less eminence in the church than that of St Augustin, who relates of himself, that he appeared at two several times, without being conscious of it, to persons with whom he was not acquainted, but who afterwards satisfied him of the truth by the most unequivocal evidence. In like manner St Benedict shewed himself to certain master builders for the purpose of giving them instructions in the edification of a monastery; and St Meletius, while in residence at his episcopal palace of Antioch, invested Theodosius the Great with the imperial purple at Constantinople.

The “Death’s Head,” though sufficiently horrific (we believe that is the established phrase), is not quite equal in interest to the other pieces in the collection. The idea of a phantom appearing to claim the property of its own bones, and rescue them from violation by the living, is not original, though capable of being worked upon to good effect. The antiquary who carried off a tooth in triumph from one of the Wiltshire Barrows, only dreamed that he saw a Roman soldier by his bed-side, who horribly whistled through the gap which its absence produced in the front of his mouth, “Redde mihi quod abstulisti!

The “Death-bride” is somewhat obscure; and besides, it is hardly sufficiently varied from the subject of the Fated Hour. It brings, however, various legends of “the olden time” to our recollection, and particularly, as the origin perhaps of all later fictions of the same class, the singular narrative of Phlegon, the freedman of the Emperor Hadrian, respecting the loves of Machates and Philinnion. The reverend father Dom. Augustin Calmet pretends indeed to reconcile this extraordinary story to the common course of nature, by supposing, that the “Death-bride” had by accident been buried alive, and that her resurrection from the tomb was only that of a living person recovered from a trance resembling death; and he cites a parallel circumstance from the “causes celebres” of a young woman, a merchant’s daughter of the Rue St Honoré in Paris, who, having been married against her inclination, fell sick shortly after, and falling into a swoon, was put in her coffin for dead, and so buried, who nevertheless recovered, and, escaping from the tomb by the assistance of her lover, who came to mourn over her, afterwards married her deliverer, and by so doing, gave rise to a famous lawsuit, in which it was strenuously debated whether her burial had not released her à vinculo matrimonii, so as to render her second spousals valid.

But whether the bride of Machates was a dead or a living one, the nature of the skeleton lady who danced at the wedding of Alexander III. King of Scotland, according to that grave historian Hector Boethius, can hardly admit of a question, any more than of the skeleton knight, of whom mention is made in one of the ballads of that equally grave chronicler and contemporary of our own, Matthew Lewis, Esq. We would cite, to the same purpose, another story of “a certain Frenchman of noble family,” related by our friend Thomas Heywood, in the curious work already mentioned, only, that, as we cannot with perfect decency relate it in his own words, we content ourselves with referring to the place, (page 542, 543.)

The short story of “the Storm,” which is added to the collection by the English translator of the others, is said by him to be “founded on an incident similar in its features, which was some time since communicated to me by a female friend of very deserved literary celebrity, as having actually occurred in this country;” and it forms a very fit companion to those by the side of which it is now placed.

“The Spectre-barber,” which is the last in the volume, is of a ludicrous cast, but not unentertaining. The idea of a familiar spirit or goblin (here indeed it is the ghost of a departed barber) who makes it his amusement to shave such persons as happen to come within the reach of his jurisdiction, is supported by classical authority. The younger Pliny mentions a well-attested occurrence of this nature in his epistles, (Lib. 16. Ep. 27.) The operation seems, it is true, to demand something more of real flesh and blood in the agent than is usually attributed to spectres; but perhaps we labour under an error on this subject, and that real substantial phantoms, like the Vampires of Hungary and Moravia, and the Vroucholachis of the modern Greeks, are more common in their appearance than we are at all aware of. That spirits may be fattened by good living, and again reduced to circumstances more befitting their ghostly character, by an alteration of diet, is a fact of which we have the most unquestionable evidence; and, if they have one, it is fair to conclude they may, upon occasion, be invested with all the other properties of common humanity. We wish it were consistent with the limits we must prescribe to a disquisition of this nature to quote from our most excellent author, Thomas Heywood, aforesaid, the whole of his very edifying history of the “Spirit of the Buttery;” but if our present author ever adds to his collection of “Tales of the Dead,” we would earnestly recommend it to him, as a fit companion for the tale which has given us occasion to introduce the mention of it. It is to be found, set down at full length “in most delicate verse,” at page 557—9, of the work so often referred to.

We have taken occasion, from the publications before us, to justify our decided anti-ferriarism by examples; and we have surely advanced enough, and more than enough, to prove that the philosophical principle of “Hallucination” will not answer its turn; at best, not in one out of a dozen commonly alleged instances of spectral apparitions. For the sake of that noble faculty of our souls, the imagination, we are not ashamed to confess, that we take greater pleasure in hearing of one story of the sort which defies the attempt of a probable natural solution, than twenty of which the physician or moralist may pique himself upon being able to finish the explanation. There is too much philosophy stirring in our days, and has been for this last century at least; too much for the free indulgence of our poetical power. Nay, we are not sure but we may call the whole world at present a world of accountants and botanists, with at least as much justice as Bonaparte used to call this nation a nation of shopkeepers. We cordially wish, for the happiness of the rising generation, that some things at least may still remain unexplained for their forces to work upon.

Let us not, however, be misunderstood, lest in our zeal for the interests of the imagination, we may be conceived to turn rebels to the established empire of reason. That the last wish we expressed may be carried into effect as far as we have any power or influence, we will leave our own opinions in that enviable state of mystery which may exercise the imaginations of posterity, whenever posterity shall take the trouble (as doubtless will one day be the case) to inquire into them. But, for the satisfaction of the botanists and accountants, we will so far declare it, as that, notwithstanding our dissent from Dr Ferriar, we are still not altogether of the persuasion of another physician, eminent in his day, whose words we nevertheless think very fit for the winding-up of this desultory treatise.

“It is a riddle to me,” says Sir Thomas Brown (Religio Medici 6th edition, p. 24.) “how so many learned heads should so far forget their metaphysics, and destroy the ladder and scale of creatures, as to question the existence of spirits. Those that, to confute their incredulity, desire to see apparitions, shall questionless never behold any; the devil hath them already in a heresie as capital as witchcraft, and to appear to them were but to convert them.”

  1. See Gent. Mag. for May 1783, for this extraordinary, and, to all appearance, undeniably, authenticated story.
  2. Our references will henceforward be to the English translation only. It is needless, in this slight article, to notice those stories in the original French which were judged to be less worthy of being transferred to our language.

This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.