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That saturation must, as a matter of plain scientific fact, be regarded as virtually permanent so far as the subconscious mind and inner instincts are concerned; for though the area of the unknown has been steadily contracting for thousands of years, an infinite reservoir of mystery still engulfs most of the outer cosmos, whilst a vast residuum of powerful inherited associations clings around all the objects and processes that were once mysterious, however well they may now be explained.And more than this, there is an actual physiological fixation of the old instincts in our nervous tissue, which would make them obscurely operative even were the conscious mind to be purged of all sources of wonder.
We may say, as a general thing, that a weird story whose intent is to teach or produce a social effect, or one in which the horrors are finally explained away by natural means, is not a genuine tale of cosmic fear; but it remains a fact that such narratives often possess, in isolated sections, atmospheric touches which fulfil every condition of true supernatural horror-literature.
Therefore we must judge a weird tale not by the author’s intent, or by the mere mechanics of the plot; but by the emotional level which it attains at its least mundane point.
Thus Dickens wrote several eerie narratives; Browning, the hideous poem “Childe Roland”; Henry James, The Turn of the Screw; Dr. Marion Crawford, “The Upper Berth” and a number of other examples; Mrs.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, social worker, “The Yellow Wall Paper”; whilst the humourist W. Jacobs produced that able melodramatic bit called “The Monkey’s Paw”.
Naturally we cannot expect all weird tales to conform absolutely to any theoretical model.
Creative minds are uneven, and the best of fabrics have their dull spots.
The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule.
A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.
But the sensitive are always with us, and sometimes a curious streak of fancy invades an obscure corner of the very hardest head; so that no amount of rationalisation, reform, or Freudian analysis can quite annul the thrill of the chimney-corner whisper or the lonely wood.
There is here involved a psychological pattern or tradition as real and as deeply grounded in mental experience as any other pattern or tradition of mankind; coeval with the religious feeling and closely related to many aspects of it, and too much a part of our inmost biological heritage to lose keen potency over a very important, though not numerically great, minority of our species.