Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014
Slumming with Stoker and Others
The Deluge: British and European Branch
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century
The later nineteenth century saw the true emergence of what might be called the cleavage between “high” and “low” literature. We have seen that Edgar Allan Poe was already aware of such a cleavage in the 1840s, but, as I have argued elsewhere (see Junk Fiction 16—20), the dichotomy only became pronounced around 1880 and afterward, a combined result of the increased literacy rates among the general populace in both the United States and Europe and the increase in wages and leisure time on the part of these newly literate citizens, allowing them to purchase literary works (and other “entertainment” products) in far greater numbers than before. The phenomenon of the “bestseller”—the book (almost always a novel) that sells millions, rather than merely tens of thousands, of copies—really emerges only at this time.
In England, one of the most notable writers of popular fiction—notable not because of his aesthetic skill but because of his ability to write what the public wanted—was H. Rider Haggard (1856—1925). In a long career that spanned more than forty years and included nearly sixty novels along with several books of nonfiction, Haggard established a reputation as a writer of thrilling adventure stories set in exotic locales. He was himself widely travelled in the regions he wrote about, having spent significant time in South Africa, Egypt, Mexico, the Middle East, and elsewhere, either for work or for pleasure. King Solomon’s Mines (1885) was his first bestseller. Haggard rarely dealt significantly with the supernatural, and our chief concern is with the early novel She (1887).
This novel, along with most of Haggard’s others, displays to the full the traits of what might be called the “page-turner” school of popular fiction: a relatively simple, easy-to-read prose style and likeable characters with whom the reader can identify; a plot full of intriguing complications that are nonetheless resolved at the end; “cliffhanger” conclusions to chapters that compel the reader to find out what happens to the hapless protagonists who appear on the verge of death or injury; a parade of pseudo-scholarly learning to impress the naive reader; and so on. It is hardly necessary to trace the convoluted plot of She; suffice it to say that it broadly concerns the attempt by the young and strikingly handsome Leo Vincey and his guardian, Ludwig H. Holly, to find the lost kingdom of Kôr and its enigmatic ruler, the unnamed and possibly immortal woman who goes only by the name of She—or, more precisely (and preposterously), “She-who-must-be-obeyed.”
In fact, She is not actually immortal, but has lived for about two millennia in a remote and nearly inaccessible area of Africa somewhere near Zanzibar (which, nevertheless, our intrepid heroes find with surprising ease). She has extended her life by means of a flame called “Pillar of Life” (37) into which she once (and only once) stepped. She is a “beautiful white woman … who is reported to have power over all things living and dead” (34). It would not do to have a valiant Englishman fall in love with a woman of colour. Both Vincey and Holly do fall in love with She, although her eyes are clearly for the former, who himself looks something like a Greek god. In point of fact, She comes to the realisation that Vincey must be the reincarnation of the Egyptian man she had fallen in love with two thousand years ago—something that Vincey’s father had suggested to Holly prior to his death. But, alas! things go awry at the end. She urges Vincey to step into the Pillar of Life to become immortal; he is reluctant, and so she does so herself, perhaps to rejuvenate herself for another twenty centuries—but the result is catastrophe, as she shrivels up and (apparently) dies.
Haggard’s portrayal of She is not entirely incompetent, although he amusingly endows her with various traits—such as a robust belief in what would come to be called Social Darwinism, not to mention a scorn of religion that comes pretty close to atheism—that is clearly meant to make her a redoubtable figure to pious young Englishmen. Indeed, Holly, while acknowledging her transcendent beauty, plainly brands her as “evil” (187). It doesn’t help her cause, in Holly’s eyes, that She blandly and ruthlessly kills a native woman, Ustane, who had herself fallen in love with Vincey.
As it is, the most dramatic and engaging scene in She is the attempt by the three protagonists to go through the ruins of the city of Kôr (a city that was built by some race now extinct), through a volcano, and toward the Pillar of Life that will presumably rejuvenate them—although there is more of adventure than the supernatural in this episode. After the dénouement where She, going into the fire, is seen “growing old before my eyes!” (355), Haggard is careful to leave room for a sequel (“we feel that it [the end of the adventure] is not reached yet” (384). But it took Haggard a number of years to produce the sequel, Ayesha: The Return of She (1905), a lacklustre performance in which the three protagonists are revived like reanimated corpses to go through their mechanical motions one more time. Still later, in She and Allan (1921), Haggard united She and his other chief hero, Allan Quatermain (from King Solomon’s Mines and other novels), in another lifeless sequel. Haggard is of significance in virtually creating the “lost race” subgenre of adventure fiction, although this subgenre has rarely produced works of any aesthetic viability.
W. Clark Russell (1844—1911), the author of sea stories, wrote two novels that may or may not be supernatural. Russell joined the British merchant service in 1858 and served for eight years, gaining the nautical background that he utilised in dozens of novels written over the next forty years. In The Frozen Pirate (1887) Russell approached the supernatural. In 1801 a shipwrecked sailor, Paul Rodney, stumbles upon an icebound pirate ship, the Boca del Dragon, near Antarctica and finds several of its crewmen apparently frozen to death. Rodney inadvertently resuscitates one of them, a French pirate named Jules Tassard, when he brings Tassard’s body close to a fire in the ship’s kitchen. He learns that Tassard has been frozen since 1754, although Tassard himself refuses to believe that so much time has passed. Shortly after his revival, Tassard suddenly ages half a century in a few hours, dying a hideously decrepit old man. The rest of the novel is a letdown, as it merely concerns Rodney’s efforts to free the ship from the ice and sail it back to England while protecting the ship’s immense stolen booty from thieves or customs agents.
Russell’s next novel, The Death Ship (1888), is manifestly supernatural. It makes use of the same basic plot as Marryat’s Phantom Ship but is somewhat more compelling (or less absurd). In 1799 a sailor, Geoffrey Fenton, falls overboard and is picked up by the Braave, which proves to be nothing less than the legendary “Flying Dutchman”—a ship that set sail from Holland in 1653 and, because of the captain’s defiance of God, is compelled to sail repeatedly around the Cape of Good Hope and never return home. The ship’s crewmen, while seemingly alive, are grotesquely gray and wizened in appearance, and they are unable to realize that they have been sailing for a century and a half, believing they have been on the boat for only a few months. Much of the narrative is focused on a love interest that develops between Fenton and another living human being, Imogene Dudley, who has been on the ship for five years and despairs of ever getting off it. Fenton believes that their only hope of escape lies not in meeting another ship—which would only flee in terror, perhaps believing that Geoffrey and Imogene are among the living dead—but in sailing into a port and hoping that they will be rescued there. At long last the Braave approaches a port, but the duo’s escape goes awry: although they manage to get into a lifeboat, Imogene is hit by a bullet fired by the captain, Cornelius Vanderdecken, and dies. Fenton rescues himself and returns to England, but is heartbroken.
Both of Russell’s novels were immensely popular and were issued in numerous pirated editions in the United States, the latter sometimes appearing under the title The Flying Dutchman; or, The Death Ship. Like Russell’s other works, they are prolix and stiff in diction, and Russell’s overuse of technical nautical jargon makes for difficult reading. His characterisation is unremarkable, but his realism in depicting all aspects of sea life has rarely been matched.
Another author who is more trashy than otherwise is Richard Marsh (1857?—1915), whose chief claim to fame is the sensational novel The Beetle (1897). This work is perhaps the first supernatural “thriller” of any consequence, and it is an entertaining enough read, although entirely frivolous and insubstantial. Its structure is superficially clever: it is told in four “books,” each narrated by a different character. What one concludes after reading The Beetle, however, is that this narrative device is chiefly utilised to stretch out into a full-length novel a plot that would otherwise be barely sufficient for a longish short story. In essence, we are dealing with a horror out of Egypt. Paul Lessingham, a noted British politician, ventured to Egypt when he was eighteen and was kidnapped by a member of the cult of Isis. After witnessing “orgies of nameless horrors” (253) that apparently involved human sacrifice (mostly of white women, with Englishwomen given high preference), Paul manages to escape by throttling his female captor—although as he is completing the job she apparently turns into a large beetle in front of his eyes. Twenty years later the cult is after him, for unspecified reasons: if it merely wishes to exact revenge upon him, why did it wait so long? Well, no matter. We are now dealing with the presence in London of a baleful Egyptian: whether it is a man or a woman is unclear, and whether it is the same person who kidnapped Paul two decades before or some other is also a mystery (this person does declare, however, that Paul actually killed his/her kinswoman [132—33], leading one to think that this is some other person).
There is no need to trace the complexities of the convoluted plot, which, as I have suggested, ultimately resolves into a relatively simple chain of events. Much space is spent on a tedious development of a love interest between Paul and Marjorie Lindon—and, as could have been predicted almost at the outset, the novel concludes with a thrilling chase scene in which Marjorie is seized by the Egyptian (apparently for the purpose of taking her back to Egypt to be sacrificed), and Paul and others giving chase. Naturally, they save her.
The crux is whether the transformation into a beetle is genuine or merely some kind of trick—perhaps a result of hypnosis. The phenomenon occurs in front of another character, Sydney Atherton, a rival for Marjorie’s affections. Marsh apparently tips his hand when at the end of the novel—after the Egyptian has died in a train crash—a private detective notes that the following is all that is left of the entity:
On the cushions and woodwork … were huge blotches,—stains of some sort. When first noticed they were damp, and gave out a most unpleasant smell. One of the pieces of woodwork is yet in my possession,—with the stain still on it. Experts have pronounced upon it too,—with the result that opinions are divided. Some maintain that the stain was produced by human blood, which had been subjected to a great heat, and, so to speak, parboiled. Others declare that it is the blood of some wild animal,—possibly of some creature of the cat species. Yet others affirm that it is not blood at all, but merely paint. While a fourth describes it as—I quote the written opinion which lies in front of me—“caused apparently by a deposit of some sort of viscid matter, probably the execretion [sic] of some variety of lizard.” (347)
So I suppose we are to assume that this is the end of the beetle. Marsh wrote some supernatural short stories—now gathered in The Haunted Chair and Other Stories (1997)—but they don’t amount to much.
It has frequently been noted that The Beetle was published in the same year as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and for a time outsold it; but this does not signify much, for Dracula was not in fact a commercial success. Although receiving generally positive reviews, it sold poorly, and, surprisingly, there was no American edition to match the British edition published by Constable. The book soon fell out of print and would not be reissued until 1901. Although Stoker himself prepared a hasty dramatic version, chiefly to protect his copyright for such an adaptation, no actual drama of Dracula appeared until after his death. Stoker had every reason to believe that his years-long effort in researching and writing the novel had been wasted.
Bram Stoker (1847—1912) would have been astounded that his novel Dracula would become the prototype of the vampire myth and the source for more adaptations—in film, theatre, television, and other media—than almost any other work in literary history. For much of his life, Stoker did not even consider himself primarily a literary man; instead, he snatched the time to write his dozen novels and a handful of short stories in the midst of a career of a very different sort. It is well known that, after working as a drama critic for some years, he became in 1878 the business manager and personal secretary to Henry Irving, one of the leading actors of the period. This work continued until Irving’s death in 1905, with the result that Stoker could only take up literary work in fits and starts, beginning with the story collection Under the Sunset (1882).
Dracula has, especially in recent years, inspired a cadre of devoted—sometimes fanatical—supporters who parse its minutiae as if it were a biblical text and vaunt its literary virtues far beyond what any fair-minded critic would accept. In fact, Dracula is not a particular success from a purely aesthetic point of view. Although its first four chapters—the episode where Jonathan Harker, a solicitor, goes to Castle Dracula in Transylvania to complete the paperwork for Dracula’s purchase of a castle in Purfleet in Essex—constitute one of the most gripping and evocative set-pieces in the history of supernatural fiction, the novel subsequently gets bogged down in tedious repetition (the very slow transformation of Lucy Westenra into a vampire as a result of repeated bloodsuckings by Dracula; the glacial pace with which the madman Renfield falls under Dracula’s spell) that woefully dissipates the dramatic tensity established at the outset. Dracula’s final demise at the hands of the valiant band of Englishmen (with one American thrown in) is more than a little anticlimactic.
The greatest failing of Dracula, however, may be its moral unadventurousness. The whole novel is structured along a series of dichotomies, chief of which is the portrayal of Dracula as wholly evil and his opponents (Harker and his wife, Mina; Arthur Holmwood [later Lord Godalming], Lucy’s fiancé; Jack Seward, who runs the nearby insane asylum; and, preeminently, the saintly Dutchman Abraham Van Helsing, whose broken English resembles nothing so much as the similar linguistic clumsiness of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot or John P. Marquand’s Charlie Chan) as wholly good. The fact that Dracula alone never presents his side of the matter, after the early chapters with Jonathan Harker, and that he is scarcely even seen throughout the rest of the novel and is detected only through his baleful handiwork (chiefly the bloodsucking of Lucy and Mina Harker, with sundry murders along the way), definitively paints him as the prototypical Other. The novel is famously composed of a series of documents—diaries, letters, or memorandums by Jonathan, Mina, Seward, Van Helsing, and others—but Dracula scarcely utters a word after the opening chapters. Some other dichotomies are worth pursuing briefly.
The central one in Dracula would seem to be the contrast between Christianity and Satanism. And yet, it is not entirely clear whether Dracula has in fact sold his soul to Satan to achieve his supernatural powers. There is, indeed, a perplexing lack of clarity as to how he actually became a vampire. When, in chapter 18, Van Helsing presents a history and biology of vampires, he first remarks that vampires are known throughout the world (India, China, France, Germany, etc.)—in which case it becomes a bit of a puzzle why the tokens of Christianity are so efficacious against them, especially against Dracula. Van Helsing goes on to assert that Dracula was a valiant soldier who battled the Turks: “That mighty brain and that iron resolution went with him to his grave, and are even now arrayed against us” (264—65). But surely these traits are not enough to make one a vampire, otherwise there would be thousands of them. Van Helsing also declares that some members of Dracula’s family “were held by their coevals to have had dealings with the Evil One” (265), but the purport of this remark is unclear. Indeed, much earlier it is suggested that Dracula’s ancestors worshipped Thor and Odin (32).
Whatever the case, Christianity does indeed appear to be the weapon of choice against Dracula. It is in this novel that we find the now hackneyed use of the crucifix as a defence, along with the sacred wafer (Van Helsing, depositing one on Lucy’s tomb, blandly notes, “I have an Indulgence” ) and so forth. It is, however, never clarified why garlic is a vampire repellent. Why, among all the flora in creation, does this particular one work so efficaciously? Stoker did not invent this tidbit, but presumably adapted it from existing superstition. The suggestion has been put forth that garlic is a mosquito repellent, and that therefore it could also work against vampires when they take the form of bats. (It is now well known that Stoker was not entirely clear-cut on whether Dracula could walk about during the day. Overall, Dracula suggests that he can, but that his powers are restricted during daylight—that is, he must remain in the human form and cannot transform himself into a bat, a wolf, or a mist, as he does at other times. It was only the film Nosferatu  that definitively declared that vampires cannot walk in daylight and in fact can be killed by the rays of the sun.)
Other dichotomies can be dealt with more briefly. There is an obvious contrast of past and present (Dracula, at the outset, states: “I myself am of an old family, and to live in a new house would kill me” ) and of East vs. West. There might be a contrast between nobility and commoners, but in fact the distinction is not clear-cut. Dracula’s opponents are by and large commoners (especially the American Quincey Morris, although he is in fact a relatively colourless character who does not figure much in the action), but one of them, Arthur Holmwood, becomes Lord Godalming upon his father’s death and uses his title at key moments to foster the group’s attempts to hunt down Dracula. Similarly, notwithstanding many critics’ claims to the contrary, there is no genuine contrast between superstition and (contemporary) science, even though Van Helsing at one point observes that “we have sources of science” (262). In fact, the weapons he and others use to combat Dracula are precisely those that derive from the legendary superstitions about the laying of vampires—the cross, the stake, garlic, and so forth.
In hindsight, the sexual overtones of Dracula seem to us unmistakable; and yet, contemporary readers and reviewers—who only a few years earlier had expressed outrage at the seeming sexual perversion hinted at in Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894)—appear to have overlooked them. Stoker’s horror of unconventional sexuality manifests itself on several levels: the perceived threat of sexually aggressive women is seen in the attempt of the three female vampires to seduce Jonathan Harker in the depths of Dracula’s castle, and also in the fate of Lucy Westenra, who is punished for her suggestions of sexual dalliance by becoming a vampire and suffering a hideous perversion of a bride’s deflowering when she is staked through the heart by her fiancé, Lord Godalming. Perhaps the most dramatic scene in Dracula, from this perspective, is Dracula’s seduction of Mina at the very time she is sharing a bed with her new husband, Jonathan, as he forces her to suck blood from his own breast—a transparent metaphor both for oral sex and for the Victorian male’s ever-present fear of female infidelity. Indeed, Stoker’s portrayal of the central women in his novel is discouragingly conventional. Statements like Mina’s toward the end—“I know that all that brave earnest men can do for a poor weak woman … you will do” (365)—abound. Stoker can hide behind the fact that these statements are uttered by his characters and not by any omniscient narrator, but the absence of any statements or actions contradicting them bespeaks Stoker’s reactionary attitude toward women.
Dracula has, as I have suggested, spawned a cottage industry tracing its sources and influences. By all accounts it is his most autobiographical novel; as his most recent biographer, Barbara Belford, has noted, “He dumped the signposts of his life into a supernatural cauldron and called it Dracula” (256). Something so trivial as the name of the hapless solicitor Jonathan Harker has been traced to one Joseph Harker, a scene painter at the Lyceum, the London theatre where Irving and his company performed. In Harker’s wife, Mina, the prototype of the pure, virginal, deferential woman whom Stoker manifestly saw as the ideal for the female sex, we perhaps see some features of the personality of the famous actress Ellen Terry, who frequently shared the stage with Irving and became one of Stoker’s closest friends. In the more disturbing character of Lucy Westenra, who appears willing to bestow her feminine charms upon a succession of willing suitors, we may perhaps see a dim echo of Stoker’s vision of his own wife, Florence, who had dallied with Oscar Wilde before agreeing to link her fate with another Irishman. The American adventurer Quincey Morris no doubt derives from the numerous colourful figures Stoker met during his American tours of the 1880s—perhaps he was thinking specifically of Buffalo Bill Cody, with whom he shared a stage in 1886. As for Abraham Van Helsing, the valiant Dutch psychic detective who finally defeats the vampire, his first name echoes that of Stoker’s own father, as is fitting for this benevolent father-figure. No doubt he also owes much, especially in his irritating know-it-all stance, to Le Fanu’s Martin Hesselius. And in Dracula himself it is difficult not to see the figure of Henry Irving, whose performances in the roles of Hamlet and Macbeth showed him to be a master at portraying the forbidding hero-villain.
Literary and historical sources for Dracula also seem to abound. The pioneering research of Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally has identified the historical Dracula as Vlad Tepes, the fifteenth-century Hungarian tyrant whose ruthless campaigns against the Turks bestowed upon him the soubriquet Vlad the Impaler. Vlad, of course, was not a vampire, nor was even rumoured to be a vampire, but he became one significant component of a manifestly composite picture. Stoker found the name Dracula in William Wilkinson’s An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia: “Dracula in the Wallachian language means Devil. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous by courage, cruel actions or cunning.” A book by Stoker’s brother George, With the Unspeakables; or, Two Years’ Campaigning in European and Asiatic Turkey (1878), provided the background for the Transylvanian setting of Dracula’s opening chapters. The numerous parallels between Dracula and Shakespeare’s Macbeth (staged at the Lyceum in 1888—89) are noteworthy, chief among them the three “weird sisters,” echoed by the three female vampires in Dracula’s Transylvanian castle. Count Dracula’s frequent use of hypnotism may owe something to the celebrated character Svengali in George du Maurier’s novel Trilby (1894). As for previous vampire literature itself, Stoker took at least a few hints from a number of his predecessors, whether it be such potboilers as Rymer’s Varney the Vampire or more artistic works such as Polidori’s “The Vampyre” or Le Fanu’s “Carmilla.” Indeed, it is believed that Stoker omitted an early chapter of Dracula out of respect for Le Fanu; titled “Dracula’s Guest,” it later served as the lead story in the posthumous collection Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories (1914).
Dracula is not the only novel of Stoker’s that merits our attention. Although he followed it up with a mediocre romance, Miss Betty (1898), he then produced the respectable witchcraft novel The Mystery of the Sea (1902) and an impressive tale of Egyptian horror, The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903). Like Dracula, it is a supernatural detective story, with elements of the locked-room mystery. No doubt Stoker had read the early Sherlock Holmes tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to good effect as they appeared in the Strand in the 1890s. Like Holmes in a similar situation, a character in The Jewel of Seven Stars, Dr. Winchester, makes the momentous pronouncement: “I have exhausted all human and natural possibilities of the case, and am beginning to fall back on superhuman and supernatural possibilities” (728). There is even a quasi-science-fictional element, in that the jewel of the title has been extracted from an aerolite. Like many later Victorians, Stoker saw in the radical advancements of science during his time a means to defeat superstition once and for all. The Egyptologist Abel Trelawny suggests as much when he ponders the possibility that the ancient Egyptians might have known and used the properties of radium. His so-called Great Experiment—the magical resurrection of the mummified pharaoh-queen—constitutes some of the most impressive pages in Stoker’s entire output.
The Lair of the White Worm (1911), Stoker’s last novel, was written in a scant three months in 1911, but its rapidity of composition should not lead us to devalue it; Lovecraft thought it a dreadful piece of hackwork, but it is not entirely to be despised. It is, once again, a supernatural detective story, and Stoker is careful to lay the clues that allow us to identify the sinister Lady Arabella March as something very different from the refined aristocrat she claims to be.
Some of Stoker’s relatively few short stories are of note. The entire collection Under the Sunset contains some bizarre fairy tales that appear to take great relish in describing the vicious mutilation of children. His most noteworthy stories are “The Judge’s House” (Holly Leaves, 5 December 1891), a grim tale of a revenant, and “The Squaw” (Holly Leaves, 2 December 1893), a powerful supernatural revenge tale.
Bram Stoker died on 20 April 1912, five days after the Titanic disaster. The story of his widow Florence’s jealous guarding of his literary properties—in particular, her lawsuit against F. W. Murnau, whose masterful film Nosferatu (1922) was loosely based on Dracula, with the result that the film was withdrawn from circulation and not seen for decades—is well known. She did permit dramatic adaptations of Dracula by Hamilton Deane (1924) and John Balderston (1930), the latter of which was famously adapted for the film starring Bela Lugosi. It is, indeed, widely acknowledged even by Stoker’s most devoted supporters that it was only the films that established the novel as the prototypical literary work on vampires. It is certainly the most exhaustive treatment of the subject up to its time, but whether it deserves the adulation it has elicited in certain quarters is very much to be questioned.