Corps de l’article

Black spirits and white,

Blue spirits and grey,

Mingle, mingle, mingle,

Ye that mingle may!

Epigram to Tales of Wonder[1]

“What no one seems to have looked after, or to have looked into, even, is the actual contents of these Tales of Terror themselves, though they are extraordinarily interesting.”

Morchard Bishop 989

A “terrible tangle”—this is how one literary historian aptly describes the complex relationship between Matthew Gregory Lewis’s collection of supernaturalist ballads, Tales of Wonder (November, 1800), and the anonymous Tales of Terror (May, 1801). Early twentieth-century scholars worked repeatedly to disentangle the latter volume from its frequent attribution to Lewis. Among other bibliographical evidence disclaiming Lewis’s authorship, [2] scholars emphasized that Tales of Terror contains ballads that directly imitate and mock Lewis and his poetry from the Tales of Wonder. This finding, however, has led to a second misunderstanding of Tales ofTerror: that its contents overall burlesque or provide a predominantly negatively satiric response to Lewis’s ballads in Tales of Wonder.[3] While the authorship of Tales ofTerror remains unclear, to regard the volume primarily as a burlesque of Tales ofWonder greatly misrepresents both its contents and its relation to its predecessor. Only four of the twenty poems in Tales ofTerror can with certainty be classified as burlesques or travesties of Lewis’s Gothic ballads, and, as Tales ofWonder itself contains at least that number of its own mock-Gothics, the later volume should be more accurately regarded as continuing its predecessor’s parodic “mingling” of serious and comic Gothic poetry.

Figure 1

Pro- and Anti-Gothic Elements in Tales of Terror (London: Bulmer and J. Bell, 1801)

Pro- and Anti-Gothic Elements in Tales of Terror (London: Bulmer and J. Bell, 1801)

The two epigrams from the second title-page to Tales of Terror reflect the dual nature of the volume: one from Lucan’s Pharsalia [Civil War] (VI. 732-35) promising to “banish” the taste for literature with otherworldly themes; the other from William Drummond’s The Satires of Persius (London: W. Bulmer for J. Wright, 1799), expressing delight in Gothic subject matter.

“O wretched souls! Now I shall call you by your true names, and strand the dogs of the underworld in the light of the world above; I shall spy on you and track you through tombstones, through death-rites; I shall drive you from your tombs, banish you from all of your urns!”

Lucan. Phar. lib. 6

Not undelighted does my mind recall

Its infant joys in yonder Gothic hall;

Where still the legendary tale goes round,

Of charms and spells, of treasures lost and found,

Of fearful goblins, and malicious sprites,

Enchanted damsels, and enamoured knights.

Drummond’s Prologue to Persisus
Courtesy of the Sadleir-Black Collection of Gothic Novels, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library

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The creation and decreation of Gothic poetry within and between the two volumes need to be studied in the light of recent reappraisals of satire and parody in the Romantic period. As opposed to the “harsh and uncompromising” and “earnest” satiric writing Gary Dyer has identified as the Neo-Juvenalian mode of such anti-jacobin writers as William Gifford, Richard Polwhele, and T.J. Mathias (68), recent critical studies have focused on defining a “multi-voiced” and “polyphonic” mode of Romantic satire which participates in or even expresses an identification with the discourse of its satiric object. Fredric V. Bogel argues that satire begins in “an ambiguous relation of identification and division” with its object (46),[4] and Dyer defines a kind of “Radical satire” in the period that is more “characteristically Menippean by virtue of its formal heterogeneity” (97) and pluralistic style. This multi-voiced play especially characterizes the special subset of satire most germane to both Tales, parody. One traditional understanding of parody regards it simply as a form of satire that takes as its satiric object a pre-existing text or style: e.g., Lewis’s “Giles Jollup the Grave, and the Brown Sally Green” parodies his own Gothic ballad “Alonzo the Brave, and the Fair Imogene;” Tales of Terror is a parody of Tales of Wonder. Yet as imitation of a pre-existing style comprises an essential feature of parody, this satiric mode especially depends upon a degree of identification with its satiric object. Drawing upon recent re-evaluations of the genre, Graeme Stones insists that we read parody, unlike burlesque, as a mingled measure wavering “between two immiscible impulses, of countering and repetition” (I. 35). Romantic parody in particular evinces a “simultaneous commitment to exalted visions and to a renegade impulse which mockingly dissolves them” (I. xxi).

Understood in this light, the term “parody” does not just describe the effect of the numerous burlesques in both volumes of Tales, most of which come with playful dedications specifically referring the reader to an original text. Nor does the term, in its narrower sense, adequately comprehend the relation of Tales ofTerror to Tales of Wonder, as Lewis’s volume contains its own number of burlesques and playful editorial interventions that mock the taste for Gothic ballads. The “simultaneous commitment to exalted visions and to a renegade impulse which mockingly dissolves them” characterizes the parodic treatment of Gothic ballads in both volumes, and, as such, repeatedly calls into question the division it appears to establish. The parody of Gothic balladry in both Tales of Wonder and Tales of Terror ranges from travesty to tribute and frequently blurs the line between the two. Many of the ostensibly straight Gothic ballads in Tales of Wonder totter on the brink of bathos and confirm Francis Jeffrey’s insightful definition of Lewis’s poetic style as a “mixture of extravagance and jocularity which has impressed most of his writings with the character of a sort of farcical horror” (445). Many of the ostensibly burlesque ballads—indeed an easy majority of them—in Tales of Terror can be read as specimens of high Gothicism, and they were at times anthologized and even plagiarized as such. [5] A critic from the Poetical Register (1801) understandably expressed confusion about the mixed dish of what Lewis called his “hobgoblin repast”(Guthke 276): “many of the tales are evidently designed to ridicule the present taste for the wonderful, and of others it is difficult to decide whether they are meant to be serious or ludicrous” (437).

Dyer and Stones have written of how such uncertainty and generic instability characterize certain forms of Romantic satire, but these features take on a special character when satire targets the kind of Gothic ballad inspired by Gottfried August Bürger’s “Lenore” and translations from Johann Gottfried Herder’s highly influential Volkslieder (1778-1779). British poets originally developed an interest in writing “imitations of the ancient ballad,” especially of the German and supernatural kind, because they held the promise of recovering a more forceful, authentic, and native idiom of poetry, a “simple and natural” one, as the young Walter Scott noted, that “might be easily employed as a formidable auxiliary in renewing the spirit of our own” (29). Albert Friedman described the interest as a deliberate “enthusiasm for the uncultivated” (248). David Chandler has demonstrated how William Taylor, translator of the seminal “Lenore” (as “Lenora”) and Robert Southey were working along similar lines to Scott in terms of “incorporating ‘German sublimity’ into English ballads.”[6] This project of restoring the true ancient character of British poetry set against classical and, especially French, models accords well with Steven Jones’ account of how emergent Romanticism defined itself as a kind of counter-satiric writing. Scott, Southey, and other writers, however, would quickly confront a problem in their choice of the supernatural, Gothic ballad: from its inception and arguably by its very nature, such poetry totters on the brink of bathos and self-effacement and risks contamination by the very satiric or ironic consciousness it was originally selected and designed to exclude.[7] As Southey complained to in a letter to Taylor, “In general these Beelzebub stories acquire a mixture of the ludicrous with the terrific, which it is difficult, if possible, to avoid” (Robberds I: 326).[8]

One explanation of the parodic consciousness in Tales of Wonder sees Lewis as exploiting the innately comic potential of his horror materials in order to appease his always vigilant critics.[9] The subject of some ferocious, Juvenalian-styled attacks himself, Lewis responds with the kind of polyphonic satire described by Dyer in order to satisfy his readers seeking Gothic adventures while at the same time he anticipates and tries to defuse critical alarm. This strategy may very well have been Lewis’s attempt to solve the dilemma facing authors as defined by Michael Gamer: “how to tap [G]othic’s exploding popular readership while neither corrupting that readership, nor exciting the ire of reviewers” (102). Peter Mortensen perceptively observes of Tales of Wonder that “by writing poetry that constantly verges on parody, Lewis [ . . . ] assures his readers and critics that he is fully conscious of the criticisms brought against Bürger and Goethe, that he shares some if not all of these misgivings, and that his invocation of such writers is always tongue-in-cheek” (89).

One can argue, furthermore, that that this dual consciousness characterizes not only Lewis’s Gothic works from their inception but other seminal Gothic works as well. Recent re-estimates of such foundational Gothic writers as Horace Walpole and William Beckford emphasize their satiric and ironic presentation of the literature of terror. James Watt in his Contesting the Gothic challenges traditional understanding of Walpole’s antiquarianism, arguing that Walpole designed the castle world of the novel and of Strawberry Hill for a “leisured audience” (33), a kind of aristocratic in-crowd, who alone could savor its peculiar blend of fantasy and absurdity.[10] In one early response to The Castle of Otranto, Clara Reeve’s “Preface” to The Old English Baron: A Gothic Story (1778), Reeves complained that the extravagant machinery of Walpole’s novel is more likely “to destroy the work of imagination, and, instead of attention, excite laughter” (3). From the outset, Lewis, who by all accounts was fond of his association with fashionable aristocratic circles,[11] follows Walpole’s lead in wryly juxtaposing comic and serious Gothic materials. The Monk begins with a kind of homage to Walpole in Lewis’s creation of Leonella, the same kind of tedious domestic found in Otranto and defended by Walpole in his preface to the novella, and Lewis’s novel contains other comically deflating moments as well. The page Theodore’s playful presentation of elemental sprites to the too gullible and superstitious nuns of St. Clare forms the passage that most anticipates the kind of playful treatment of Gothic themes found in Tales of Wonder. Before singing “The Water-King,” a ballad later included in Tales of Wonder, Theodore tweaks the nuns with a ludicrous account of the Danish—“they are of a delicate pea-green, with flame-coloured hair and whiskers” (252)—and the lineage of their element kings. This comic presentation provides an important context for understanding the five ballads on element kings later included in Tales of Wonder. Lewis further confounded critics by including in the fourth edition of The Monk “Giles Jollup the Grave and Brown Sally Green,” a burlesque of his own most famous Gothic ballad “Alonzo the Brave and the Fair Imogine” (both later find their way into Tales of Wonder). One can cite many other instances of Lewis’s disconcerting, according to Scott, “attempts at what is called pleasantry in English” and his tendency to “throw some gaiety into his lighter pieces, after the manner of the French writers” (74). The apparently alarming Castle Spectre, for example, ends with this hudibrastic rhyme from the play’s heroine: “I drew my knife, and in his bosom stuck it; / He fell, you clapped—and then he kicked the bucket!”

While recent studies of Romantic parody allow us to appreciate the multi-voiced and transgressively ironic character of Lewis’s mingling of serious and comic Gothic modes, the mixed message presented by Tales of Wonder managed to alienate just about all its different sets of contemporary readers. Readers who had come to expect the thrill of genuine Gothic terror from Lewis complained about his inclusion of burlesque ballads: a critic for The Monthly Mirror (a magazine usually favorable to Lewis), calling for removal of “Giles Jollup” from subsequent editions of The Monk, lamented that “We cannot help expressing our astonishment that the author should have subjoined to his justly popular poem of Alonzo and Imogine a ridiculous parody, expressly calculated to ruin the interest, and pervert the effect of the original” (157). On the other hand, the many critics who had for some time objected to the more sensational and lurid aspects of Lewis’s Gothic writing predictably attacked his collection of ballads on that score: “there is nothing but ghosts and fiends—all is hideous—all is disgusting,” wrote the commentator for the Critical Review (114). Those critics less concerned about Gothic subject matter expressed bewilderment and distaste for the parodic elements in the collection: “[Lewis] certainly does not want abilities, or knowledge, but his talents are strangely perverted, and he sometimes seems even to be employed in throwing a ridicule upon himself” (Antijacobin Review 323). The two major contributors to the Tales of Wonder, Scott and Southey, also found the “attempts at what is called pleasantry” unpleasant. Gamer has shown how Scott distanced himself from his early Gothic inclinations inspired by his apprenticeship with Lewis, but he was also none too pleased about his mentor’s sense of humor: “[…] Lewis had a high but mistaken opinion of his own powers of humour. […] Tales of Wonder were filled, in a sense, with attempts at comedy which might be generally accounted abortive” (50). Southey complained that the “last stanza of the Grim White Woman [Tales of Wonder #18] nauseates one—it strikes of Matthew Lewis the childish—or girlish impertinence of his Castle Spectre prologue.”[12]

The one group of writers who did understand the parodic intelligence guiding the Tales of Wonder compiled in March of 1801 Tales of Terror, a volume which should be rightly regarded as a companion to Lewis’s collection. Printed and sold by the same publisher as Lewis’s collection, Joseph Bell, and designed by Bell as a companion volume to the second edition of Tales of Wonder,[13]Tales ofTerror, which Lewis Peck labeled a “bibliographical hazard” (A Life 132), has long suffered from two key misrepresentations: 1) it has been frequently attributed to Lewis, although there is no external evidence to support the claim; and, somewhat paradoxically, 2) it has been labeled a mere burlesque of Tales of Wonder, despite the fact that the majority of its poems are of the serious Gothic mode.[14]Tales of Terror actually follows Lewis’s lead in mingling straight Gothic ballads with their comic counterparts, lending support to Morchard Bishop’s speculation that they “were a corporate effort, done by able men not wholly ill-disposed towards Lewis” (989).

Figure 2

Title-page of Tales of Terror (London: Bulmer and J. Bell, 1801)

Title-page of Tales of Terror (London: Bulmer and J. Bell, 1801)
Courtesy of the Sadleir-Black Collection of Gothic Novels, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library

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Figure 3

“Mother Goose Tales”

“Mother Goose Tales”

A Closer View of the First Title-page of Tales of Terror

Courtesy of the Sadleir-Black Collection of Gothic Novels, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library

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The “Introductory Dialogue” that begins Tales of Terror pits a critic (the “Friend”) against an “Author” of Gothic literature (almost certainly a stand-in for Lewis), and their ensuing debate valuably gives full expression to the variety of critical responses occasioned by such writings.[15] That debate also prominently addresses the role of satire in shaping the reception of Gothic works. The Friend begins with a sharp and dismissive attack on Gothic literature that features such reviewers’ staples as “a gossip’s story at a winter’s fire!” (10); “the strange workings of a monstrous mind (27);” a “torpid” genre designed “to freeze some silly female breast with fear” (32-34). The Author counters this attack by conceding the transient appeal of Gothic literature and suggests that the Friend’s alarm is both unwarranted and inappropriate:

Oh! cease this rage, this misapplied abuse,

Satire gives weapons for a nobler use;

Why draw your sword against my harmless quill,

And strive in vain a ghostly muse to kill?

That task is ours: if I can augur well,

Each day grows weaker her unheeded spell,

Her eager votaries shall fix her doom,

And lay her spirit in Oblivion’s tomb.


The Author asserts that the raging, Juvenalian-style attack on his ghostly muse—the kind of fierce satiric response one repeatedly finds directed against Lewis and other terror writers in the monthly magazines—exaggerates the threat occasioned by such literature. Satire should have a “nobler use,” addressing real, not ephemeral, social and political concerns. Gothic authors understand better than raging critics the shortcomings of such literature and they themselves will determine the limit of its appeal. Why wage such a war against the Gothic when, if one accepts the critic’s premises, he should recognize that the “perverted taste” (13) of its practitioners will bring about its own “doom”? As the Author argues in acknowledging the collaborative enterprise of such collections as the Tales, its demise is our task, by satiating the taste for the Gothic, not overzealous and moralistic critics such as the Friend.

The critic, being a “Friend,” accepts the Author’s argument, and gives his permission for the volume to contain the worst and wildest the Gothic has to offer:

[…] I have hopes you’ll find this rage decrease’d,

And send a dish too much to Terror’s feast;

The vicious taste, with such a rich supply

Quite surfeited, “will sicken, and so die.”


The Friend’s concession points to a satiric strategy often employed in the tales of terror that follow the “Introductory Dialogue”: maximize and exaggerate the more gruesome and sensational forms of the Gothic in order to surfeit or satiate the taste of its readers. Henry William Bunbury’s disturbingly literal illustrations to several of the poems and such dark ballads as “The Wolf-King” [17] and “Hrim Thor, or the Winter King” offer a grim belaboring of terror conventions unleavened by moral sentiment or humor and can best be described as travesties of Gothic literature. The allusion to Othello heading “Grim, King of Ghosts” (#XI) aptly describes this satiric strategy: “On Horror’s head, horrors accumulate” (3.3).[18]

Figure 4

Henry William Bunbury. Illustration for “The Wolf-King or Little Red-Riding-Hood,” Tales of Terror (London: Bulmer and J. Bell, 1801)

Courtesy of the Sadleir-Black Collection of Gothic Novels, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library

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The Friend’s concession, however, also licenses the inclusion of many traditional Gothic ballads in the style of Bürger and those found in Tales of Wonder, and as the critical voice fades from the “Introductory Dialogue”—the Friend passes from the “Dialogue” at this point—the Author embarks on a stirring defense of the Gothic imagination. He laments that “Fancy’s fetter’d in didactic chains” (52), echoing Horace Walpole’s explanation for why he had first turned to Gothic materials: "the great resources of fancy have been dammed up by a strict adherence to common life" (“Preface” to Otranto 43 ). Given this present state of affairs, the Author finds a ready place for Gothic imaginings:

The mental eye, by constant lustre tires,

Forsakes, fatigued, the object it admires,

And, as it scans each various nation’s doom,

From classic brightness turns to Gothic gloom.


What finally emerges from the introduction to a volume long considered a mere burlesque of the Gothic is actually one of its strongest defenses, written by an author who knows his subject well:

Oh! It breathes awe and rapture o’er the soul

To mark the surge in wild confusion roll,

And when the forest groans, and tempest lours,

To wake Imagination’s darkest powers! […]

The night-shriek loud, wan ghost, and dungeon damp,

The midnight cloister, and the glim’ring lamp,

The pale procession, fading on the sight,

The flaming tapers, and the chaunted rite,

Rouse, in the trembling breast, delightful dreams,

And steep each feeling in romance’s streams!

Streams which afar in restless grandeur roll,

And burst tremendous on the wond’ring soul!

63-66; 100-107

Given its always dicey critical status, such a stirring defense of the Gothic imagination could occur only in a volume framed by a parodic consciousness. In terms that accord with Stone’s understanding of Romantic parody, the defense ensures that a “commitment to exalted visions” runs right alongside and gives meaning to the “renegade impulse which mockingly dissolves them”(xx). The first edition of Tales ofTerror ends with “The Mud-King; or, Smedley’s Ghost. A Tale of the Times. Written in imitation of ‘The Fisherman,’ [Tales ofWonder #14] by Lutetia the Younger [Lewis];[19] with Notes and Illustrations, by Philopeus Pangloss” (142). This elaborately annotated burlesque, modeled on Pope’s Dunciad, returns the volume full circle to its opening. In a note on the poem, the “Author humbly hopes that those of his readers, whom he has failed to convince by his Introductory Defence [sic], will at least be contented with the opinions held forth in this Tale by the enraged Smedley” (142). The author’s slip of “Defence” for “Dialogue” suggests that we can read the closing speech in the “Introductory Dialogue” un-ironically as an affirmation of the Gothic imagination. But there’s no mistaking the ironic nature of Smedley’s defense. In inviting the “moon-struck bard,” for sure a caricature of Lewis, to leap in his sluggish stream and join the ranks of dull and forgotten poets, Smedley praises everything the reviewers have deplored about Gothic literature: its elevation of “German dreams” and “wild genius” above the “hackney’d themes / That Pope, that Dryden tired” (21-23); its disdain for originality in a barb specially aimed at Tales of Wonder (“Let Percy’s praise thy ballads bribe / And be his honors thine” [35-36]); its cheap “wire-wove vellum” productions of that famed purveyor of Gothic texts, “Lane’s Minerva-press” (58, 60); and, finally, its ability to generate page numbers and profit with slender creative output: “A maze of milk-white margins waits / Thy rivulet of text” (61-62). As the Lewis poet-figure joins the “stream of sluggish song, / . . . responsive notes / From madd’ning minstrels rise; / And on the wave, as faint it floats, / Each Tale of Terror dies” (84, 89-92).

On the one hand, “The Mud-King,” with its plentiful classical allusions and encyclopedic targeting of problems with the Gothic ballad, fully represents the kind of satiric consciousness most opposed to Lewis’s literature of terror. In claiming authorship as well of the “Introductory Dialogue,” the writer of this burlesque reiterates his earlier prophecy of the Gothic ballad’s inevitable demise (“Each Tale of Terror” will die). Yet “The Mud-King” clearly seems at odds with the stirring “defence” of the Gothic ballad offered in the “Introductory Dialogue” and the majority of serious Gothic ballads in Tales of Terror. Such a cross-purpose returns the reader to the guiding parodic intelligence of both the Tales of Wonder and the Tales of Terror: its play between the “serious and the ludicrous” that anticipates the reviewers’ too-serious attacks on the Gothic and suggests the better antidote is laughter; a play that can seriously indulge the popular taste for the Gothic and, in a mocking way, reprove its readership for such fascinations.

This parodic “mingling” of ironic and serious treatment of the Gothic in both volumes of the Tales richly complicates interpretation of their individual ballads, [20] many of which, with their origins in older, oral traditions, would seem to encourage a “simple and natural” (to quote the expert Scott again) reading. A closer study of two ballads from Tales of Terror provides an indication of how slippery the slope can be in determining whether a poem is meant to be read as “serious or ludicrous.” “Grim, King of Ghosts, or the Dance of Death” (#11) comes with a head-note declaring the poem to be “an imitation of the Cloud-King, and dedicated (of course) to M.G. Lewis, Esq.” (74); this “Church-Yard Tale” presents a good case-study of how the authors of Tales of Terror acknowledge and carry on the comic spirit that pervades Tales of Wonder. On the other hand, the terror tale “The House Upon the Heath. A Welsh Tale” offers virtuosic variations on many time-honored Gothic themes and deftly relies upon allusions to Bürger and Lewis in building its suspense and dark foreboding. Both ballads achieve their full meaning by reference to Tales of Wonder, but, in a manner characteristic of the multi-voiced parody governing both Tales, do so in different ways.

A perfect example of the blurring of travesty and tribute characterizing the two Tales involves the relationship of Lewis’s “The Cloud-King” (#13) to its too-obvious burlesque in Tales of Terror, “Grim, King of Ghosts, or the Dance of Death.” Originally inspired by Goethe’s “Erlkönig” (which Lewis had translated at the age of 16 and presented a copy to the author), “The Cloud King” appears as the climactic poem in a sequence of spooky and, in their times, renowned ballads dealing with “elemental spirits,” such as the Water-King and the Fire-King.[21] This “Danish” tale concerns the lovely and haughty Lady Romilda, who rejects all earthly suitors as inferior matches, especially her devoted page Amorayn. Overhearing her rejection of earthly lovers, the Cloud-King swoops down and claims Romilda for his own and whisks her away to a wedding-eve feast attended by the other elemental spirits, among them the Erl-King. That feast introduces the Gothic element familiar to most of the ballads in Wonder, as each King presents a gruesome dish of hacked human remains, and the now terrified Romilda learns that “she who at night weds an element-king, / Next morning must serve for his brother’s repast” (123-24). But there’s a catch: the Cloud-King had agreed to obey two commands of Romilda’s before their union can take place. The first command is to show her the “truest” of her lovers, and the Cloud-King obeys by magically summoning Amorayn. Romilda’s sly second command is to show her a “truer” love, and this grammatical tautology defeats the enraged King, who returns her to her castle. Having learned her lesson, Romilda marries Amorayn, and all ends happily.

With its “wondrous” atmospherics, bloody detail, and fearful ordeal, “The Cloud-King” resembles many of the other straight terror ballads in Lewis’s collection. In his role as editor, however, Lewis adds this note at the end:

Lest my readers should mistake the drift of the forgoing tale, and suppose its moral to rest upon the danger in which Romilda was involved by her insolence and presumption, I think it necessary to explain, that my object in writing this story, was to shew young ladies that it might possibly, now and then, be of use to understand a little grammar; and it must be clear to everyone, that my heroine would infallibly have been devoured by daemons, if she had not luckily understood the difference between comparative and superlative degrees.


Lewis’s note performs a perfect parodic operation on not only his own poem but the Gothic in general and its critical reception. For those critics expressing outrage about the moral impropriety of Gothic literature, Lewis underscores but then plays games with a commonplace of ballads in the terror mode: almost all of them actually come equipped with tidy “morals,” many of them terribly reductive.[22] As regards another staple of critical concern, such literature’s negative impact on its allegedly largely female and barely literate readership, Lewis supplies his grammar lesson, at once playing into the stereotype—he will help educate the “young ladies”—but surely showing that such concern is exaggerated. In dis-alarming his own Gothic ballad, Lewis points out something vigilant reviewers of the Gothic have missed: its potential for humor. This editorial meddling, coupled with the inclusion of outright burlesques of his own Gothic poems, allows Lewis a wide range of latitude in serving up what he playfully terms his “hobgoblin repast.” He can at once “satisfy the thirst of the most insatiable swallower of wonder” (ix), “affect the risible muscles” of a more discerning audience (iii), and suggest that morally outraged reviewers of the Gothic lack humor and perspicacity.[23]

What, then, is left for Tales of Terror to burlesque? Can “Grim, King of Ghosts, or the Dance of Death” mock a poem that has already parodied itself? The strategy employed by “Grim” is the one most tried and sure-fire of the many mock-Gothic poems appearing in the late 1790’s, a strategy, moreover, earlier used by Lewis himself in “Giles Jollop”: transport the exotic, aristocratic, antique, and foreign setting of the Gothic tale to a contemporary lower-class British setting, and let the resulting dislocation indict both Gothic absurdity and the English taste for it.[24] Romilda the fair becomes the sexton’s daughter Nancy, who has a fondness for beefsteak; Bob Brisket replaces the long-suffering Amorayn as her suitor and woos her thusly: “For who could have eyes, and not see you loved beef? / Or who could see a steak, and not steal it for thee?” (19-20). “Grim, King of Ghosts” is really more of what its note claims it to be, “an imitation of the Cloud-King, and dedicated (of course) to M.G. Lewis, Esq.” (74), less an attack on Lewis than an homage to him, a carrying-on of the good fun that Lewis had with his own production. “Grim” underscores the fact that that parody is, if not the sincerest form of flattery, at least a form of imitation and tribute. The “of course” added parenthetically implies a knowing and clubby audience,[25] one that gets Lewis’s joke. As opposed to what Gamer has described as the “monotonous,” even “ritualistic abuse” waged by hostile reviewers against Gothic and “German-mad” literature in the later 1790s, these practitioners take a more bemused approach to what they understood, better than others, as its excesses.[26]

The light-hearted touch of “Grim, King of Ghosts” represents just one voice in the heterogeneous treatment of Gothic materials in Tales of Terror. The majority of its ballads support the Friend’s hope that the Author “send a dish too much to Terror’s feast,” and “The House upon the Heath” belongs to this class of more serious or “straight” Gothic ballads. Befitting its position as the last true terror tale (#19) in the volume, “The House Upon the Heath” narrates a dark tale that pushes the limits of the Gothic fascination for horror and warped sexuality. In brief, this nightmarish tale relates the story of a cloaked midnight rider come to the midwife Leech in desperate need for her immediate assistance. Following a suitably thrilling and rhythmic ride through the dark Welsh landscape, the two arrive at a perfectly Gothic ruined mansion, wherein they find the horrid sight of the already born child lying contentedly at his dead mother’s breast. Enraged at this portrait of his sister’s “shame” and determined to eradicate any evidence of her illicit affair with an enemy of his whom he has since murdered, the dark brother kills the hapless Leech and throws the newborn into the flaming hearth. The child, however, is miraculously saved and brought to heaven by the angelic visitation of his dead mother, and, as a gaping abyss suddenly opens, the bad brother plunges to his infernal reward in the clutches of his ghostly but still-bloodied enemy. Immediately struck by a “bolt of heaven,” the mansion becomes a genuinely haunted house feared by all travelers, where “midnight magic wakes the restless dead” and “The yawning earth pours forth a stream of blood” (203-04).

As “The Mud King” marks a terminus for Gothic taste in its over-the-top mockery, so the “The House Upon the Heath” presents a kind of terminal Gothic in satiating all of the requirements for such a tale. We have not only the nighttime meeting at a mysterious, terrible place but its survival as “the blasted ground!” (201) insuring its ghastly legacy; not only the grotesque image of female persecution, but attempted infanticide; not only the infernal immolation of the villain but the disquieting image of the now angelic mother’s “sweetly . . . [soothing] the dying child’s alarms” (191). Still, the list of Gothic resonances would not be complete without the poet’s reworking of that signature Gothic set-piece, the night-time ride of Bürger’s “Lenore,” the poem concluding all versions of the Tales of Wonder. After creating the prerequisite uncertainty about whether the rider is mortal or not—“a mask his face concealed” and he “more than human seemed” (25, 27)—the poet takes readers on quite a ride:

Now, downward shooting to the rock’s deep base,

Headlong descends the steed’s unbridled pace;

His thundering hoofs the craggy passage spurn,

Behind, a fainter sound, the woods return;

And now, unbroken by o’ershadowing trees,

Full o’er the wild moor bursts the eddying breeze.

Now swifter still, and swifter as they speed,

The vales afar, and lessening hills recede;

Up the rough steep the panting courser strains,

Or bounds resistless o’er the level plains.

Long through the lonely night’s unvarying hours,

The fields he crosses, and the forest scours;

No voice, no sound his silent course arrests,

Save when the screech-owls hover round their nests;

Or to their shrouds, from pain and penance borne,

Returning spirits speak the rising morn;

Droop as they pass, and with prophetic groan,

Bewail impending sorrow not their own.


This Bürger-inspired passage exemplifies the parodic “mingling” of modes in Tales of Terror: a balladic set-piece incongruously written in heroic couplets, skillfully managing a certain dark grandeur and rhythm while teetering on the brink of bathos. The couplets recall the lines in the “Introductory Dialogue,” both in their reliance on parody’s most recognizable verse form and in their discordant yet still effective evocation of a finely paced Gothic dreadfulness. Moreover, the poem comes equipped with one more trap for both its unwary and too wary readers, yet another tricky note guiding and confounding the ballad’s interpretation:

This story is founded on a fact, which happened at the beginning of the last century, in the neighbourhood of a market-town in the west of England; the real narrative involved the horror of incest, which the author, for many reasons, rejected; indeed, as it is, he has found his principal difficulty in composing those parts where the description must be intelligible without being too minute.


Such a mischievous note has a dual effect: it assures us of the author’s propriety and alliance with standards of critical taste in rejecting such an unsavory subject but, of course, invites the alerted reader to find all possible traces of the incest theme in what follows.

Not surprisingly, these hints are frequent, as the author cagily exploits the inherent ambiguity his note has created. As the evil brother first sees his dead sister, we are told “Affection rushes on his downcast eye, / And yielding nature owns the powerful tie” (123-24):

“Condemn’d,” he cried, “untimely to the tomb,

Disgrace, my sister, antedates thy doom!

Yet had thy life, unseen, ignobly flown,

Screen’d from the world, to virtuous scorn unknown,

Though indignation wept thy wounded fame,

Though ting’d thy brother’s glowing cheek with shame,

Conceal’d dishonor had relieved my pain,

And this stern breast return’d thy love again.

Hid in this lone retreat, from censure’s eye,

I deem’d the hour of shame would quickly fly;

But vain the hope!—what words my rage can tell,

E’en wrath still mingles with my last farewell:

Before my eye the guilty visions roll,

New thirst of vengeance fires my soul.”


Ostensibly we witness the brother’s struggle to ease his anger toward the sister who had brought shame upon his house through her illicit affair. His angered “nature” momentarily yields to the “powerful tie” of affection binding sister and brother. We learn, but only ten lines later and for the first time in the poem, that this alleged affair had been with a “foe” of the brother. The author’s note, however, prompts the reader to find the abundant references to the repressed incest theme. To name just a few of what should now appear obvious: the “powerful tie” becomes incest, before which yielded the brother’s human nature; his obsession with shame and sequestering his sister from the world proceeds from his consciousness of that sin; and one can easily find new meaning for the “guilty visions” which roll before his eyes. Even after the prophylactic fiction of the foe, the ambiguity continues, as the brother explains why he must kill the (his) child:

“Yes, should in thee a trace of shame remain,

My tarnish’d honor still betrays a stain;

Love, yet unchanged, forbade a sister’s death,

But hate, unceasing, claims thy forfeit breath.”


Like so many of the other poems in Tales of Wonder and Tales of Terror, “The House on the Heath” plays an artful game with the Gothic and its readership. The poem invites the reader to find still more lurid content in its already abundantly dark tale, while the author simultaneously disclaims and encourages responsibility for such fascinations. The poem succeeds both as a perfect specimen of the high Gothic and as an unusually dark travesty of the Gothic, especially upon its tendency to overreach or exhaust itself in search of evermore sensational content.

A grisly deathbed scene of mother and newborn fringed about with the horror of incest—might there not be an infamous intertext at work here that only underscores the wonderfully twisted relationship of The Tales of Terror to the writer and collector of the Tales of Wonder? The scene from “The House on the Heath” conflates the two most disturbing aspects of the novel that proved most distressing to critics of the Gothic: Agnes lying with her dead newborn in the horrid depths of the monastery of St. Clare and the infamous incest theme, both from Lewis’s The Monk. One can call “The House on the Heath,” with its wicked note, a satire of Lewis’s Gothic, an attempt so to belabor and exhaust its terror conventions that it will signal the wished-for demise of the genre. We remember in the “Introductory Dialogue” that the Author wily claimed such a “task” should be the work of Gothic writers—not their critics. Yet surely the “The House on the Heath” also pays tribute to Monk Lewis and the tales of wonder and terror he was so instrumental in creating and disseminating—and parodying himself. Instead of regarding, as often has been done, the Tales of Terror as simply a mockery of the Tales of Wonder, we should come to understand how it artfully continues its predecessor’s parodic “mingling” of serious and comic Gothic materials. The give-and-take of both Tales of Wonder and Tales of Terror cagily exploits the generic instability of Gothic poetry to accomplish a number of seemingly contradictory tasks. The poems aim to “satisfy the thirst of the most insatiable swallower of wonders” and at the same time playfully reprove such an appetite. They also aim to defuse critical alarm not so much by disavowing their Germanic and Gothic allegiances but by suggesting that such criticism is “misapplied abuse” and taking itself way too seriously. We have many accounts of how Monk Lewis was ostracized for his Gothic and German-mad productions but to regard, along those lines, Tales of Terror exclusively as a burlesque of Lewis’s Tales of Wonder—as simply another swipe against Lewis—tells only one side of this always double-edged story. Although we await discovery of its authors, there may be more than a grain of truth in the minority opinion expressed years ago by Morchard Bishop: “these Tales of Terror were a corporate effort, done by able men not wholly ill-disposed towards Lewis” (989). Instead of gravely censuring “the chief purveyor of German material to the romantic generation” (Peck, A Life 116), these writers chose to carry on Lewis’s spirited mingling of comic and serious Gothic materials. If their aim were to end the penchant for Gothic gloom and doom, they realized their most effective weapons were not the too strident voices of moralistic and xenophobic criticism but ones already employed by Lewis himself: repetition, satiation, and, above all, humor.