I have a tendency, when I start to study a subject, of pushing continuously further back in the subject's history. This is certainly true of my horror readings, in which I've now regressed into studying early Gothic fiction.
I've mentioned before how today might be considered a 'golden age' of sorts for studying classic horror, because of the number of quality publishers printing extremely rare texts. Yet another publisher of this sort is Valancourt Books, which specializes in the publishing of early Gothic fiction. The first title I decided to read is The Animated Skeleton, by an anonymous author, and I discuss it, with some spoilers, below the fold...
This relatively short book (116 pages) was published, in two volumes, in 1798. Though widely successful when it first appeared, it went out of print and remained so until this new edition: a delay of two centuries! The new edition follows the text of the original, including both inconsistent and consistent spelling errors, such as "teize" for "tease". ("Don't teize me, bro!") As a nice treat, the book contains a facsimile of the original title pages.
The story is set in France in the Dark Ages, and begins in the home of the peasant Jacquemar. His wife returns home near death, having been assaulted by thugs of the Duke's vicious wife Brunchilda. Brunchilda has marked both Jacquemar and his friend Grodern for punishment, for reasons which are at first not particularly clear. The families flee to a friendly abbey, pursued by Brunchilda's minions.
The Duke came to power after the mysterious disappearance of the previous Count Richard, and a wing of the castle has been sealed and shunned under suspicion of haunting ever since. Some knights visiting the castle have their curiosity aroused, and begin to investigate, with the Duke, the darkened chambers at night. They soon come across a skeleton which moves of its own accord and a booming, disembodied voice which makes demands upon them.
The relationship of the peasant's story and the story of the animated skeleton is not obvious at first, but by the end of the novel all is revealed. Almost every plot point is wrapped up by the end, though not all of them!
The book, due to its archaic style, can be a bit of a tough read. It is probably of most interest to people studying the roots of horror fiction, or stories of the Gothic period. I must say, though, I enjoyed reading it immensely!
Would it surprise you to know that there is no supernatural phenomenon in the story? The ghost and moving skeleton are explained in the end, and those who have seen the original House on Haunted Hill will be somewhat familiar with the mechanisms at play here.
From what I understand, this "naturalistic revelation" was quite common in the Gothic horror of the time. This is somewhat interesting, because today such a natural explanation is perceived as something of a "cheat" when telling a ghost story, akin to saying, "It was all a dream."
If I were to guess, I might say that the different emphasis on natural explanations is a reflection of people's opinions of the supernatural in their era. In the 1790s, though science had made many advancements, the world was still a very mysterious place, and many people probably still feared ghosts and goblins and demons, even if intellectually they didn't believe in them. Stories which explained away the supernatural could serve as a reassurance of the well-behaved natural order of things. In contrast, in modern times supernatural phenomena have been almost completely stamped out of daily existence, and horror stories which contain these elements give people a thrilling fear of the unknown that they don't get to experience on a regular basis.
That's my rough opinion, at this point; I'll be reading some more Gothic horror over the next few months, and I'll see if my hypothesis holds up!