Wednesday, 17 November 2010

A Night with a Vampire

Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime has a good selection of vampire stories next week to prime you for a night of fevered dreaming. Which might be on account of the feeling of pleasurable dread engendered by the terrors just unveiled, or possibly because they are related by retired Doctor David Tennant, who has returned to the arms of the BBC after his attempt to export his charms across the Atlantic met with any inexplicably stony response. His lilting Scottish tones will no doubt prove to be the perfect storytelling voice with which to create the hushed suspension a good supernatural tale gathers around itself. It will be a refreshing variant on the usual accent employed for readings of the classic horror canon. This is exemplified by the measured and deadly serious scholastic manner in which Christopher Lee reads MR James, pausing at moments of tension or imminent revelation, creating a moment of still silence to catch the held breath of his attentive listeners.

Boris Karloff in Mario Bava's Black Sabbath - a Vourdalak?
There are five stories spread over the week, of which the first purports to be a study by a French Benedictine monk, Antoine Calmet, from 1746, which records eyewitness accounts of the apparitions of vampires in the remote towns and villages of Hungary. His documentation of the creatures’ survival into the latter half of the 18th century was reprinted in English in 1850 under the title The Phantom World. This may have been inspired by the popularity of Thomas Peckett Priest’s penny dreadful Varney the Vampire at the time. Alexei Tolstoy’s (not to be confused with Leo or his later namesake, author of Aelita) The Family of the Vourdalak from 1839 places the locus of vampiric infection in the already fearful figure of the patriarchal head of the household. It was the basis for the gorgeously stylised, colour-drenched gothic romanticism of the centrepiece story in Mario Bava’s anthology film Black Sabbath (1963), which possibly stands as his finest achievement. In this segment, Boris Karloff gives a powerful and atypical perfomance as the father who may or may not have picked up the evil infection on his travels, but who is terrifying whatever the case. Having never read the original story, it will be interesting to hear how much it varies from Bava’s adaptation.

Guy de Maupassant
Guy de Maupassant’s The Horla, from 1887, is the undisputed masterpiece amongst this selection. It is a fairly lengthy short story, and will need some editing to fit into the fifteen minute time slot of Book at Bedtime. I would guess the section in which the doctor demonstrates the power of mesmeric suggestion may be excised, since, thematic resonance aside, it’s absence wouldn’t unduly affect the flow of the narrative (and might, in fact, ease its passage). The form of the diaristic journal which the story takes, in which the narrator confides a gradual apprehension of the nature of the terror which has come upon him, is reminiscent of the opening chapters of Dracula, in which Jonathan Harker records the insistent hospitality he receives from the Count, and the escalating horrors which he discovers in his exploration of the castle. This form of private narration, in which the protagonist tries to make sense of what is happening to him, also points to The Horla’s underlying dissection of solitude, depression and developing madness. We find out enough about the narrator’s worldview prior to his encounter with his psychic vampire to recognise the seeds of his subsequent decline. In making such a study of a mind on the brink of complete breakdown, de Maupassant gives very personal expression to his pained sensibility of his own incipient insanity. This was brought on by a naturally morbid turn of mind and by the syphilitic infection, caught in the course of his enthusiastic pursuit of La Vie Parisienne, which was worming its way inexorably towards his brain. He attempted to commit suicide on New Years Day 1892 and spent the remaining year and a half of his life in an asylum.

The Horla
The Horla is a giddying descent into madness which, as with some of Lovecraft’s clammiest stories, may afford a glimpse into a dimension otherwise mercifully beyond human apprehension. Maupassant is much preoccupied with the limits of perception in this story, the narrow confines within which the human sensorium operates. There are hints of vastnesses which lie beyond its boundaries which would induce a sense of individual insignificance to make the mind shrivel. Such exposure would be equivalent to the experience of the Total Perspective Vortex in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, against whose terrifying sense of absolute proportion only Zaphod Beeblebrox’s monumental ego proves a match. ‘How deep it is, this mystery of the Invisible’, the narrator muses. ‘We cannot plumb its depths with our wretched senses, with our eyes, which are incapable of perceiving things that are too small, things that are too big, things too far away, the inhabitants of a star – or the inhabitants of a drop of water’. The speculations of the protagonist make this story fall more into the category of a scientific romance of the sort HG Wells would soon be writing than a supernatural horror story. The creature which afflicts him is seen, in a Darwinian light, as a new order of being, better adapted to its environment and destined to become the successor to mankind’s dominion of Earth.

In an almost ecstatic flowering of delirium and untethered imagination, the narrator pictures different potential orders of creation, culminating with a creature which encompasses untold immensities; ‘a butterfly the size of a hundred universes, with wings whose shape, beauty, colour and movements I could not find words to describe (shades of Lovecraft again). But I can picture it…it flies from star to star, leaving in the light, harmonious wind of its wake refreshment and fragrance! And the inhabitants of those worlds out there watch it pass by in an ecstasy of delight’. It is a vision worthy of Olaf Stapledon. A butterfly as a god. But the narrator immediately ascribes such an explosion of the imagination to the invasive presence of the alien being which haunts him. The dissociation of personality which the intrusions of this psychic vampire creates is impossible to distinguish from madness, particularly as we are given no counterbalancing objective and external perspective. The only time the protagonist catches a glimpse of his tormentor is when he looks into the mirror and finds that his own image has been eclipsed by a blurred yet undefined form. The most terrifying horrors are those which lodge themselves within the walls of the skull. David Tennant’s reading of this story will make a good pairing with his Who predecessor Christopher Ecclestone’s narration of Maupassant’s conte cruel The Necklace as part of a series of dark tales for Christmas on the radio last year.

Mary E Wilkins Freeman’s 1902 tale Luella Miller takes us to New England, and one of the variants of the Lamia myth from which the vampire tale grew in the nineteenth century. The titular character is a particularly American belle dame sans merci, a nonchalant baby doll who casts her enchantment over a series of willing victims who are then slowly drained and worked to death. Luella appears as a helpless, childlike young woman. It’s as if Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla had rode on the wave of European emigration to the New World. She may not be aware of her own alluring glamour, or her deathly appetites. She may also be simply lazy, oblivious to the suffering which she causes and incapable of helping herself. The old woman who tells the tale in retrospect may herself have fallen under Luella’s spell, in which case her narration is less than wholly reliable. Particularly as the evil whose demise she witnessed and which was thought to have been long since dead and buried may be on the rise once more.

Munch - The Vampire
The final story is Theophile Gautier’s Clarimonde from 1836, another tale of the seductive Lamia transformed into vampiric form – the Muse biting back. Gautier was a French romantic writer who, with his lush and fevered imagery and subject matter, anticipated the Decadents who were to be his fin-de-siecle successors, and also the prevalence of devouring female figures in the Symbolist art of the latter part of the century. Such imagery can be seen most explicitly depicted in Munch’s The Vampire, in which the woman’s devouring embrace sends blood red tendrils of hair cascading over the head of the man upon whom she feeds. Not much digging needed to find the Freudian subtext there.

So, this is a good and wide ranging selection of stories, tracing the roots of the modern, post-Twilight resurgence of the vampire. From Hungary to Russia, France (via Brazil in The Horla) to New England, charting a course through the nineteenth to the dawning of the twentieth century, these European tales trace the vectors of an infectious disease with considerable symbolic freight. They show that it spread, in the way that ideas often do, to every corner of Western civilisation. It is an imaginary disease which mutates to reflect the buried fears and desires of the age, as it has with ours. You can hear all five stories next week (the 22nd to 26th November) on radio 4 from 10.45 till 11, or for the next week on the i-player. Let them invade your dreams.


Anonymous said...

I don't consider landing and playing an iconic role in a Hollywood movie to be a 'stony reception'.

Also, many, many US pilots are not picked up and made into series...that has nothing to do with the actors involved. The difference between the US and UK is in the UK you don't know when pilots are made, hence you don't know when they are not picked up.

Tennant's name is getting more and more familiarity in the US market...and his name gets mentioned in more and more Hollywood casting rumors...that does not derive from a 'stony reception.'

Linda said...

what a great blog entry. looking forward to the series. Love Tennant's voice (came here from your tweet) *and* the whole gothic vampire stuff. Your site looks like it has lots of stuff I like too. many thanks.