EDITORIAL PREJUDICE AGAINST THE OCCULT (The Writer, 1922)
By Henry S. Whitehead.
Said a famous editor not so very long ago in writing to one of his contributors : “but my dear fellow, if you are aiming to enlist against you the suspicion — nay, the actual enmity — of the average editor, send him a Ghost Story, a Fairy Story, or a Dream Story. If you want to be absolutely certain of such an effect, make it a Dream Story!” These three classes of stories may be said to merge into what is generally understood under the caption, “The Occult.” And “the occult” in this general sense of the term is banned by most magazines. Authors who “try one on an editor” are apt to get their tales back in haste; yet there is the well known fact that readers revel in tales of this general type! Moreover, there is hardly an author of note who has not done good work in this field, or at least tried his hand at “the occult.”
It is, for example, to “The Messenger” written in the golden nineties, that the partizans of Robert Chambers are apt to turn in his defence when pressed. It appears to be conceded that “The Mark of the Beast” is Rudyard Kipling’s high-water mark. Has any comparatively modern tale been reprinted more times than “The Phantom Rickshaw”? Does not Bram Stoker’s finger clasp relentlessly the edge of “the granite brink in Helicon” (Ezra Pound) because of “Dracula”? Possibly the editorial tradition noted is still laboring under the weight of the Gothic Ghost — the kind of ghost which rattled its chains in “The Castle of Otranto”; but Walpole was not a Mary Wilkins Freeman. The ghosts of the pre-Poe period arc quite hopeless unless as material for getting a Ph.D.! They are not the “ghosts” of Arthur Machen, or Rudyard Kipling; of M. R. James, or Algernon Blackwood. They are not even kindred to the “ghosts” of Elliott O’Donnell, Miss Freeman, George Adams Cram, or Ambrose Bierce, to say nothing of William Hope Hodgson and his “Carnacki,” or even W. W. Jacobs, who has to sandwich his “ghosts “in between tales of “Ginger Dick”and “Wappin Old Stairs” to get a hearing for them!
What real reader does not know “John Silence”? Who, once having dipped into “The House of Souls” would not set it down as the third of the five books to take into life imprisonment with him — or even the second, if he be a Baconian. It seems hardly necessary to adduce to-day’s enormous interest in spiritistic phenomena in this connection, although this would be a legitimate argument in favor of “the occult as showing which way the popular wind is blowing. The word “spiritism “at once conjures up the names of Sir Oliver Lodge and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as The Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research. And it is a fact that there is just now growing up a generation of readers for whom the Doyle of “Sherlock Holmes” is an obsolescent figure, disappearing behind the Doyle who is championing spiritism.
Fairy Stories ! Howard Pyle ! Andersen ! The Grebruder Grimm! Andrew Lang! Why, the last-named dear old gentleman must have made a comfortable fortune with his kaleidoscopic catena of Fairy Books! It would be interesting to know what proportion of the constant readers of the Strand Magazine take it for the monthly fairy tale. Dreams! “Peter Ibbotson”! “A Dream of Armageddon”! “Gerontius”! “Dream Life” and “Reveries of a Bachelor”! “Dreams”! Du Maurier, H.G. Wells, Cardinal Newman, Donald G. Mitchell, and Olive Schreiner! Could any other common interest conceivably have brought together such a group of diverse intellects? Dreams make queer assortments of literary bedfellows. And it is simply because dreams have invaded the realm of scientific psychology as contrasted with literary, that Sigmund Freud has become one of the great ones of earth. Many of the intelligentsia, to whom Freud and his satellites Jung and Adler are restaurant-words (there being no longer households to have words among the “intelligentsia”), have never heard, say, of Jelliffe, or Janet, or Edward Cowles, all of them very much greater psychologists than Freud and his immediate following. Yet there is perhaps nothing today, not even excepting the late excitement about the League of Nations, which has so intrigued the popular mind as Freud’s Dream Psychology, and its concomitant psychoanalysis. From the day of Joseph, backward and forward, dreams and the occult have been fascinating people’s minds with the perennial lure of their mystery. Ghost Stories, Fairy Stories, and Dream Stories — the occult in fiction — have always been unfailingly alluring to the popular mind. The inventor of the ouija board is said upon sound authority to have made more than a million dollars from its sale!
In Erse and Choctaw, in the Hieroglyphics and in the Sumerian; in Kalmuck, and Finnish, and Hebrew, there are and always have been Ghost Stories, and Fairy Stories, and Dream Stories. They have been told and are being told — and read — from the bazaars of Oodeypore to the Steppes; from the lamaseries of Tibet to the Beach of Easter Island. In China, in Afghanistan, in Ireland, and down in Maine, people are positively clamoring for Ghost Stories and Fairy Stories and Dream Stories.
Why, why, do not the magazine editors give the people what they want?
Henry S. Whitehead.
FREDERIKSTAD, Virgin Islands.
Later re-worked as a chapter for The Free-lance Writer’s Handbook (1926).