It is 1816 and a nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley is staying in Geneva, Switzerland, with Lord Byron, John Polidori, her stepsister Claire Clairmont and her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley. The group engage in a task: write a horror story. Excited, Mary begins, not knowing just how much her own story and characters will haunt her.
“It’s my experience that we all have a secret heart, even brutes.”
This quote from Nathan Ballingrud’s Wounds not only sums up this cleverly connected collection but is also, perhaps, a comment on humanity; a theme the author has elegantly expounded through some genuinely disturbing stories. Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell is exactly as it says on the cover, and we end where we start, leaving the reader with an immensely satisfying feeling.
The teller of A Devil Comes to Town won’t tell us the real location of his tale, only that it is in a small Swiss town, famous because Goethe slept there for one night. Given the fictional name Dichtersruhe, (poet’s repose), it is a town full of unpublished writers, all working on their precious manuscripts and gracefully accepting rejection after rejection, while carefully concealed resentment boils within. When the devil arrives, claiming to be a successful publisher from Lucerne, looking for an author to win the newly set up Goethe literary prize, the town is swept up in the chaotic power plays that inevitably ensue.
“Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them […] and where lies the great difference between horror and terror but in the uncertainty and obscurity, that accompany the first, respecting the dreaded evil?”
Ann Radcliffe wrote these words in her essay On The Supernatural In Poetry, published posthumously in 1826. She then goes on to clarify:
“Obscurity leaves something for the imagination to exaggerate; confusion, by blurring one image into another, leaves only a chaos in which the mind can find nothing to be magnificent, nothing to nourish its fears or doubts, or to act upon in any way.”
For Radcliffe, this blurring of horror means that it can never teach or improve the recipient of that horror, only “freeze and nearly annihilate them”. Horror becomes for her a denial of and turning away from the sublime. Terror, on the other hand, is the effect of staring clearly into the glare of the sublime, of suffering through an experience that “expands” us and fundamentally changes how we live.
Anyone who loves a good ghost story will tell you that we are haunted by the past. But what if the past sought to reach out, to make itself heard, to remind us that it – that those who populated that space – were as real and vibrant as you and I are now?