Saturday, October 10, 2009

"I feel my capacity to experience a terror greater than any thing yet conceived by the human mind," or, The almost universal love of the Terrible!

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Because the Library of America's new two-volume set, American Fantastic Tales, is more than 1,200 pages long--and I do have a day job--I expect I'll be doling out its many pleasures to you a bit at a time over the course of the month.

Today, pressed by a variety of deadlines that are not entirely un-ghoulish in character, I have only this to share, from Fitz-James O'Brien's story "What Was It?" (1859), which I mentioned in Sunday's post:
Insensibly we yielded to the occult force {of opium} that swayed us, and indulged in gloomy speculation. We had talked some time upon the proneness of the human mind to mysticism and the almost universal love of the Terrible, when Hammond suddenly said to me:

"What do you consider to be the greatest element of Terror?"

The question, I own, puzzled me. That many things were terrible, I knew. Stumbling over a corpse in the dark; beholding, as I once did, a woman floating down a deep and rapid river, with wildly-lifted arms and awful, upturned face, uttering, as she sank, shrieks that rent one's heart, while we, the spectators, stood frozen at a window which overhung the river at a height of sixty feet, unable to make the slightest effort to save her, but dumbly watching her supreme agony and her disappearance. A shattered wreck, with no life visible, encountered floating listlessly on the ocean, is a terrible object, for it suggests huge terror, the proportions of which are vailed. But it now struck me for the first time that there must be one great and ruling embodiment of fear, a King of Terrors, to which all others must succumb. What might it be? To what train of circumstances would it owe its existence?
I love the way in which O'Brien ups the ante in his second example, clause by clause, and how effective the image of the doomed woman is despite the scene's lack of a supernatural component. Meawhile, the list in toto makes me wish that someone had asked this question of Sei Shonagon--would she not surely have come up with a blood-curdling list of Terrifying Things?

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