aila. Vaila was created by M.P. Shiel and appeared in “Vaila” (Shapes in the Fire, 1896). Shiel (1865-1947) was the creator of Dr. Yen How, and I have more information on him there. “Vaila,” later rewritten and published as “House of Sounds,” (1911) is an M.P. Shiel horror story, and if you’ve read any of the Prince Zaleski stories you’ll know exactly what I mean by that.
Vaila is about a nameless narrator and his best friend, Haco Harfager. As young men the pair are students in Paris, sharing a flat. The narrator, who was acquainted with “the great Corot,” has some experience with those whose insanity is somehow associated with noise, either a child who thinks she can hear the noise of the world or a poor man who becomes obsessed with the noise of politics. As it turns out, Harfager himself has a peculiar interest in noise. The narrator does not see this for a long time, because he and Harfager, though as close as flat mates can be, do not share intimacies with each other and for a long while neither knows much about the other’s background. The narrator knows that Harfager comes from a high background, and sees “over the whole white face of my friend...a look of woeful inability, utter gravity of sorrow,” but it isn’t until the narrator tells Harfager that he is leaving Paris on a trip that Harfager opens up to him. Harfager tells the narrator that he is “the object of a devilish malice...the prey of a hellish temptation,” the temptation being to return home to his mother and aunt, who are the source of the devilish malice. Harfager’s family is an ancient one, come from an adulterous man who mutilated and murdered his brother and took his wife as his own, and they live in Vaila, a remote house supposedly destined to be filled with wicked madness and a lecherous agony, and those inside destined to feel the fury of Harold, the mutilated ancestor, who had his ears cut off before he died, “til the tyme of the Houss bee ended.” The narrator genially scoffs at this story, but Harfager is quite convinced that it’s true. The narrator goes on his trip despite Harfager’s pleas--Harfager needs the narrator to help him resist the temptation to return home--and when he returns Harfager is gone.
Twelve years later the narrator gets a letter from Harfager, asking the narrator to visit Harfager’s dying mother. So the narrator makes the long trip to Vaila, which far north and east of the Orkneys in a remote, stony, storm tossed island. Vaila itself is an astonishing “palace of brass...circular in shape...huge in dimension,” attached with large chains to the island, but everywhere in a state of disrepair and ruin. Harfager greets the narrator and after an initial awkwardness their friendship resumes more or less as it was before. The narrator finds Vaila unutterably loud, a cacophony of sound from the storms outside and the water dashing upon the island’s shores. Harfager, however, seems to be able to hear everything said within the house, and asks the narrator to merely whisper. He is alone in the house with only his dying mother, his aunt, and a grotesque, malevolent servant, Aith. After a time the narrator begins to acquire this sensitivity to sound. The narrator sees Harfager’s mother in her coffin, with three bell strung chords tied across the top of the coffin. Harfager also pauses at hourly intervals and says, “Hark!” as if hearing something. Eventually Harfager takes the narrator down into a dome in the stone beneath Vaila. There is a pool at the bottom of the dome, and hanging from the top of the dome is a large copper sphere, from which falls, hourly, small lead balls. Painted on the copper sphere are the words Aharfager hous: 1389-188" and Harfager explains to the narrator that Vaila was built around 1389, and that the obscured number after the second 8 can only be a 9, and that when the last of the balls has fallen into the pool, the house will end. The narrator is openly scornful of this theory, but Harfager tells him that every several years a super storm strikes the island, and that for over twenty years none such has hit the island, and so such a storm is due. Likewise, Harfager is certain that his mother isn’t dead, only sleeping, and that he and his aunt’s life are somehow tied into his mother’s. Matters come to a head one night when Harfager hears the tinkling of the bells tied to his mother’s coffin. Harfager and the narrator find Harfager’s aunt strangled to death. Then the storm, the “dies irae,” comes, and by midnight the storm has so hit Vaila that the chains holding it snap, Aith seems to go mad, and the house is destroyed, and the narrator is left alone on the island, everything else having been destroyed.
I said at the beginning of this entry that “Vaila” is an M.P. Shiel horror story, and that if you’d read any of the Prince Zaleski stories you’ll know what that means. “Vaila” has the same Mandarin style and lapidary vocabulary, the same Decadence and repugnance for the modern (viz. the patient killed by too great an interest in the modern press). Harfager is as much a creature of the past as Zaleski is, and Shiel again displays his tendency to hold forth, through his characters, on subjects which are only barely relevant to the story itself. More than most of the novels and stories described on this site, “Vaila” is not ruined by a lengthy description of its plot such as the one given here. The style’s the thing when it comes to Shiel’s work, and you don’t read the stories for the plots. In the case of “Vaila” the plot is straight from Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which Shiel does here in the Decadent form. Shiel places a descriptive emphasis on sound and vision, making the reader particularly aware of what the narrator hears and sees, a fitting choice for a horror story, particularly one based on the horror of sound.
I mentioned that “Vaila” was later rewritten and published as “House of Sounds.” That’s the story which Lovecraft called “a marvellous tour de force.” “House of Sounds” is definitely less purple, and makes clearer that Aith is actually Harold, his hour of vengeance come ‘round at last. But “House of Sounds” reads as if Shiel had filed off the serial numbers, smoothed down the jagged edges, and was trotting his story out for resale. It’s Shiel without his soul, and so (in my view) inferior to the original.
I enjoyed “Vaila,” certainly. E.F. Bleiler calls it “a mad, remarkable achievement.” I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I think it is superior to his Prince Zaleski stories. The Shiel style is more suited to a straightforward horror story than to the uneasy melding of horror and mystery fiction which are the Zaleski stories. But the Shiel style is very much an acquired taste, and if you’ve a dislike for the purple and for overly-mannered prose, “Vaila” and Shiel won’t be your thing.
Vaila itself was built 500 years ago at the orders of Harold, the victimized brother. He built it so that Sweyne, who mutilated and cuckolded him, would suffer, and so he and his wife Thronda would suffer:
For that the Houss is rewthelesse and withoute pite; where-for tis seyed that up on al who dwel there faleth a wycked madness and a lecherous agonie; and that by waye of eres doe they drinck the cuppe of furie of the erelesse Harolde, til the tyme of the Houss bee ended.Vaila is a roaring, malign house which drives those inside it half-mad, and even the narrator begins to catch the abnormal sensitivity to hearing which Harfager suffers from. The house is full of furniture from centuries past, but it combines a “past richness” with a “present raggedness of decay.”
ampire Bomb. The "vampire bomb" is from Robert Duncan Milne's "A Question of Reciprocity," which first appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on November 15 & 22, 1891. A revolution brings to power a new government in Chile, and they refuse to pay for a huge new battleship that they have ordered. A disgruntled group of Chilean magnates, who have lost money because of the U.S.'s policy towards their country, decides to recoup their losses by holding part of the US for ransom. They buy the battleship and bring it to Chile, where they put in it the amazing new invention of the brilliant Professor Tellus: a propellor-driven drone plane similar to a helicopter, powered from the battleship by long cables and capable of carrying many bombs which it can drop electronically. The drone can be operated by a sloop which accompanies the battleship. The Chileans go to San Francisco and issue their demands; the San Franciscans reject their claims and buckle down for war. The Chilean drone plane begins dropping bombs, destroying City Hall (among other parts of the city). The warship is beyond the range of San Francisco's coastal batteries and the city is seemingly helpless. The city government and wealthier citizens begin bringing gold to the docks from the San Francisco mint. An American Naval cruiser arrives to challenge the Chilean varlets. The helicopter tries with limited success to bomb her, the fog prevents the cruiser from seeing the Chilean ship, and the cruiser is generally out-gunned and out-armored by the Chilean ship. But the cruiser is armed with a new weapon: the vampire bomb, a torpedo guided by a "magnetic warhead." The cruiser launches the torpedo, it homes in on the Chilean ship and destroys it. San Francisco is saved, America is triumphant.
an Snoop, Miss. "Miss Van Snoop, Detective" was the creation of one Clarence Rook (1862-1915), about whom I've been able to discover quite little; he wrote a few books about the city of London and the criminals and slums within it (including the well-known-for-the-time Hooligan Nights in 1899) and at least one--How Switzerland Defends Itself (1908)--on international affairs and the military, but I know nothing about his personal life. Miss Van Snoop herself appeared in one story that I know of: "The Stir Outside the Café Royal: A Story of Miss Van Snoop, Detective," in the September 1898 issue of Harmsworth Magazine.
Miss Van Snoop, despite her unfortunate name (her first name is "Nora," making the total name that much worse) and lone appearance, is rather memorable. She is a member of the "New York detective force," and is (based on her only appearance) quite clever and resolute, taking down Colonel Mathurin, "one of the aristocrats of crime," through a cunning and well-thought-out scheme. She enlisted with the police simply to hunt Mathurin down (the implication being that Mathurin shot someone close to her), and made good on her intent. The story is briskly told, with an intelligent plot.
an Wagener, Professor. Professor van Wagener was created by William L. Alden and appeared in various short stories published in the mid-1890s and collected in Van Wagener's Ways (1898). Alden (1837-1908) was an American writer of general & humorous fiction as well as a consul general to Rome; he's historically important for having established canoeing as a popular sport.
Professor van Wagener is an early example of the humorous, eccentric scientist whose inventions are silly and disastrous; van Wagener might even be the first of that breed, which includes Howard Garis' Professor Jonkin and Clement Fezandie's Dr. Hackensaw. The Professor has a position at the University of New Berlinopolisville, Illinois, and uses his resources there for various inventions, all of which turn out badly. So when he concocts an electrified fishing line (for shocking fish), he ends up entangled in the line with his neighbor's wife. When he creates the "perfect balloon," entirely in aluminum, van Wagener discovers that he's forgotten a way to release gas, so that the balloon continues to soar higher and higher. When van Wagener equips his cat with a gas-bag and tail-operated propellor, the cat ends up chasing birds through the air. And when van Wagener discovers "wagnerium," or radium, he ends up ingesting it as a cure against aging, and then blows up himself and his laboratory in one of fiction's first atomic explosions.
anderhausen, Minheer. Minheer Vanderhausen was created by J. S. Le Fanu and appeared in “Schalken the Painter” (Dublin University Magazine, May 1839). Le Fanu I have a little bit on in the Carmilla entry, which is due to be revised very soon. “Schalken the Painter” is seen as a classic, one of Le Fanu’s best. It didn’t strike me that way when I finished it, but on longer consideration of it I’m coming around to the consensus view of the story.
Godfrey Schalken was, during his lifetime, a celebrated portraitist, who in his maturity was uncouth and boorish but a”most cunning worker in oils, whose pieces delight the critics of our day almost as much as his manners disgusted the refined of his own.” In his youth, however, he suffered a great loss. As a young man he had been the student of Gerard Douw, the “immortal” Dutch painter, and Schalken had fallen in love with Douw’s niece, the beautiful Rose Velderkaust, who Douw was the guardian of. Rose, for her part, was in love with Schalken, although she was only 16. But Schalken was poor and without a reputation, and so he had to earn his place in the world before Rose could marry him. But one night a stranger, richly dressed but with an odd and unwholesome air and attired so that his face is not visible, asks Schalken to arrange a meeting for the following night with Douw. The stranger, who calls himself Minheer Vanderhausen, arrives at the appointed time and immediately sends Schalken away, to take a box (which Vanderhausen gives him) to a jeweler to be valued. While Schalken does this, finding the box to contain pure unalloyed and very valuable gold, Vanderhausen speaks with Douw. Vanderhausen tells Douw that he saw Rose and Douw in the church of St. Lawrence four months ago and that he wishes to marry Rose. Vanderhausen’s approach is not romantic; he simply says that “if I satisfy you that I am wealthier than any husband you can dream of for her, I expect that you will forward my suit with your authority.” Douw doesn’t like Vanderhausen, but the stranger insists on an immediate answer, and the money appeals to Douw more than his ward’s happiness, and so Douw assents and arranges that Vanderhausen dine with Douw, Rose, and Schalken the following night. Vanderhausen then produces a form which states that an engagement has been entered into between Vanderhausen and Rose. Schalken is called upon to witness Douw’s signature. Douw does not immediately tell Rose what has happened, but instead tells her that a friend will be dining with them tomorrow night, and “do you trick yourself out handsomely.”
Vanderhausen arrives for dinner, but things don’t go well. When seen in the full light
all the flesh of the face was coloured with the bluish leaden hue, which is sometimes produced by metallic medicines, administered in excessive quantities; the eyes showed an undue proportion of muddy white, and had a certain indefinable character of insanity; the hue of the lips bearing the usual relation to that of the face, was, consequently, nearly black; and the entire character of the face was sensual, malignant, and even satanic....there was something indescribably odd, even horrible, about all his motions, something undefinable, that was unnatural, unhuman; it was as if the limbs were guided and directed by a spirit unused to the management of bodily machinery...during his stay his eyelids did not once close, or, indeed, move in the slightest degree....Rose is repelled by him, almost screaming when she sees him and telling Douw that “when I saw him standing at the door, I could not get it out of my head that I saw the old painted wooden figure that used to frighten me so much in the Church of St. Laurence at Rotterdam.”
The next day the contract of marriage arrives, and a few days later the marriage takes place. Schalken leaves school briefly, but returns and resumes painting, with love being replaced by ambition. Months pass, and Douw hears nothing from Rose, and he begins to worry about her. He goes looking for Vanderhausen in Rotterdam but is unable to find anything about him. Finally, one night someone bangs on Douw’s door. It is Rose, dressed in a kind of winding sheet, looking “wild, fierce and haggard with terror and exertion.” She demands, in a manner most unlike her previous innocent and good-humored fashion, wine, food, and then a minister: “Oh, that the holy man were here...he can deliver me; the dead and the living can never be one: God has forbidden it.” Rose insists that Douw and Schalken not leave her alone, because she is sure that Vanderhausen has followed her into the house, although Schalken only sees a “shadowy and ill-defined form.” Unfortunately Douw doesn’t pay close enough attention to Rose’s words, for he leaves the room to get another candle for her, and when he does that the door slams shut, and Douw and Schalken cannot open it. Rose’s screams are heard, and then a window can be heard opening, and then there is “one last shriek, so long and piercing and agonized as to be scarcely human.” Douw and Schalken hear steps crossing the floor, from the bed to the window, and then the door gives way. The room is empty, and when Schalken runs to the open window he sees, or thinks he sees, “the waters of the broad canal beneath settling ring after ring in heavy circles, as if a moment before disturbed by the submission of some ponderous body.” Rose’s body is never found. But many years later Schalken, returning to Rotterdam for a funeral, goes to the church of St. Laurence and falls asleep. He has a dream in which Rose appears to him, not looking sad but rather wearing “the same arch smile which used to enchant the artist long before in his happy days.” Rose leads him down into the vaults, into what seems to be an “old-fashioned Dutch apartment.” In the apartment is a four-post bed, closed by curtains. Rose pulls the curtains aside and shows Schalken “sitting bolt upright in the bed, the livid and demoniac form of Vanderhausen.” Schalken then falls senseless on the floor, and is found the next day in the vaults by church workers.
“Schalken the Painter” is told in Le Fanu’s usual style, which lacks much of the old-fashioned tone and pace of many his contemporaries. Le Fanu does not spell out everything, but lets some things, especially the more horrific aspects of the story, be told by implication, or to settle in on reflection of the story. The premise of the story–a dead man marries a living woman–is decent enough, if not overwhelming. And Le Fanu’s execution of the story is entertaining, but he’s not the stylist of later writers of tales of terror. What makes “Schalken” stand out are the gaps, what Le Fanu does not tell us and leaves us to ponder: what, exactly, was so horrible about being married to a dead man, than Rose reacted so badly? When Vanderhausen confronts Rose in the bedroom, what was he doing, behind those closed doors, to make her shriek so horribly and finally throw herself into the canal? And what is the meaning of the final dream–is Rose happy with her husband, now that she’s dead? We’re left with questions and no answers, only unsettling implications.
Minheer Vanderhausen is...well, it’s not exactly clear what he is. He might be the statue from the church of St. Laurence, the one that so frightened Rose when first she saw it. Or he might be dead. He has black lips, after all, and a profoundly unhealthy complexion. His body moves as if he were unfamiliar with its use. He doesn’t blink, or move his eyes, or even breathe. He’s not very friendly, either. He’s quite abrupt with Douw, and whatever he feels for Rose love or any sort of affection doesn’t appear to be a part of it. But perhaps he does feel something for her, something which, once she’s dead, she can return, hence the final dream.
ane, Lancaster. Lancaster Vane, the novelist and detective, appeared in "The Black Narcissus," which was published in The Windsor Magazine in December 1901. Vane was created by Fred M. White (1859?-?), a British writer best known for his science fiction, including the memorable "Doom of London" series of disaster stories. White's Vane, however, is worth inclusion here. Vane is a writer of detective stories, which is why the police come to him; the Inspector (the story is set in London, of course) who approaches him says that
many a time it has struck me what a wonderful detective a first class novelist would make. I don't mean in little things, such as tracking criminals and the like--I mean in elucidating big problems. when we exhaust every avenue, his imagination would find a score of others, especially if he had a good psychological knowledge of his man.This, naturally, proves to be true; Vane displays not just imagination but thoroughness and a certain amount of empathy for the murder victim of the case, and helps to find the murderer. It's a shame, I think, that White never wrote any further stories involving Vane, because he is a memorable character, vain, irascible, with "all the novelist's scarring, lightning flash of passion for puerile interruption." He is, of course, vain (hence the name), but not unlikably or unreasonably so (he is rather clever). He's also a collector and grower of flowers, and is apparently somewhat well versed in detective fiction, saying,
I decline to believe in the theory of obvious deduction. Dupin and Sherlock Holmes were steeped to the lips in it. My word! what blunders they would have made had they reduced those theories to practice!Vane is an interesting, strong character, and "The Black Narcissus," though hardly likely to make it on to anyone's "100 Best Stories" list, is worth searching out.
anishing House. The Vanishing House was created by Bernard Capes and appeared in “The Vanishing House” (The Sketch, 5 January 1898). Capes (1854-1918) was a popular and prolific British writer at the turn of the century. “The Vanishing House” is one of the odder, darker Christmas stories you’re likely to find; I liked it a lot better than Capes’ “An Eddy on the Floor.” One Christmas night the members of a band are chatting about this and that, and Jack, the banjo player, who is a big drinker and big talker, is eventually persuaded by the others to tell the story of how his grandfather saw a ghost. Jack’s grandfather, a century ago, was part of a trio of wandering musicians, who’d make their money by going from house to house “and discoursin’ music at the low rate of whatever they could get for it.” On Christmas Eve the trio were walking toward Winchester when they were lost on the downs, and that while a fierce snowstorm was blowing. Jack’s grandfather decides that the group needs to play, to keep themselves awake, and so they begin “Kate of Aberdare.” But before the first stave is done they see in front of them the gate to a gentleman’s manor, which they hadn’t noticed in the snow and the dark. So they start in again, this time thinking that they might get some money or food or liquor for their troubles, and before the next movement is finished the door to the house opens, and a nice young woman comes out and gives each of the three men a glass to drink. But each sees the faces looking at them from the windows of the house and are too afraid to drink. Finally Jack’s grandfather says, “‘Death and the devil!’ It’s one or both, either way; and I prefer ‘em hot to cold!” He drinks half the glass, only to be told by the woman that he’s just drunk blood. He throws the rest of the liquor in the faces of his friends, dashes the cup against the bars, and then passes out. And when the three awaken the next morning, gate and house had gone. But there was a streak of red in the snow where the cup had spilled.
“They cleared out of that neighborhood double quick, you’ll bet. But my grandfather was never the same man agen. His face took purple, while his friends’ only remained splashed with red, same as birth marks; and, I tell you, if he ever ventured upon ‘Kate of Aberdare,’ his cheeks swelled up to the red of his clarinet, like as a blue plum on a stalk. And forty year afer, he died of what they call solution of blood to the brain.”The first section of “The Vanishing House,” in which Jack the banjo player is shooting the shit with his fellows, is somewhat annoying, in that it has nothing to do with any vanishing house. But boy does the second part of the story make up for it. “The Vanishing House” has a light, folklorish tone to it, and the impact of the cup of blood is entirely unexpected and the stronger for it. It’s more of a vignette than a story, but what there is, is powerful.
The house is old fashioned, with an iron gate in a stone wall. When seen, the house is lit up, and the mistress of the house, the fetching, smiling young lass, can be seen. But looking out of a window over the porch is a face “hidjus beyond words, and the shadder of it, with the light behind, stretched out and reached to the gal, and made her hidjus, too.” And when Jack’s grandfather drinks the proffered glass, the woman says, “in a voice like falling water,” “Dear, dear! You’ve drunk blood, sir!”
arney the Vampyre. Varney the Vampyre was created by James Malcolm Rymer and appeared in Varney the Vampyre; or, The Feast of Blood (1845-1847). The Scottish Rymer (1804-1884) was a civil engineer and draughtsman who became a writer of thrillers and penny dreadfuls as well as the editor of Lloyd's Penny Weekly Miscellany. Varney the Vampyre is one of the two best known penny dreadfuls, with Sweeney Todd (a prime candidate for these pages, never fear) being the other, and is one of the vanishingly few dreadfuls which is widely available thanks to the 1970 Arno reprint. Although it has some notable flaws, it is still surprisingly readable.
Flora Bannerworth, daughter of a diminished house of English nobility, is lying in her bed one night when she is attacked by a vampire. Her screams and the arrival of her brothers and her best friend, who are armed with pistols, drive the creature off. There is blood on her neck, and the creature seemed to be invulnerable to harm, but Flora’s brothers, Henry and George, and her best friend, Charles Holland, and family friend Dr. Marchdale, have a hard time accepting the idea that it was a vampire, but the vampire attacks Flora again (and is again driven off), and they are finally forced to accept that such things can, after all, be. They begin investigating, and come to the conclusion that he might be one of their ancestors, Marmaduke Bannerworth, and when they open his tomb they find nothing there. The attacks on Flora continue unsuccessfully. Meanwhile, their new neighbor, Sir Francis Varney, introduces himself to them and inquires after buying the Bannerworth house. But they refuse to sell it, as it’s been in their family for a long time. Worse, they suspect Varney of being the vampire, because he greatly resembles a painting of Marmaduke Bannerworth. Admiral Bell, Charles’ uncle, comes to stay with the Bannerworths and immediately annoys everyone with his non-stop nautical blather. (Okay, I lie. He only annoyed me). Varney meets Flora during the daytime and offers to buy the house from her in exchange for peace between him and the Bannerworths. She declines, but he acts so gentlemanly toward her that she begins feeling much more kindly toward him, to the point of preventing her brother from attacking Varney. The Bannerworths, who noticed that Varney had been recently injured and remember that the vampire who attacked Flora was shot by one of them, talk with the doctor who treated Varney, which further confirms their suspicions that he is the vampire. Charles resolves to challenge Varney to a duel, but the Admiral beats him to the punch. Varney humors the Admiral but sets up the duel with Charles, who then vanishes, and Flora and the others find letters, supposedly written by Charles, breaking off his engagement with Flora on the grounds that he cannot make his wife one who has been visited by a vampire. The Bannerworths immediately suspect that they are forgeries, but they have no idea where Charles is, and Varney denies any involvement in his disappearance. This is immediately followed by a scene of Charles, chained to a wall, in the basement of a ruined monks’ hall.
At this point a mysterious European Stranger has a short and inconclusive meeting with Varney. Varney visits Flora yet again and tells her that he has fallen in love with her. He proposes marriage, which she declines, but they talk in a friendly fashion, and he tells her something of his past and the wretched state he is currently in, and she expresses some sympathy for him. Dr. Marchdale, who you’ll remember has been present since the beginning of the novel, quarrels with Henry and Charles and leaves the house. Henry visits Varney in his home and challenges him to a duel, which Varney accepts. They eventually fight, but when Henry’s shot misses Varney, Varney shoots into the sky, deliberately missing and so sparing Henry. Varney departs, but unfortunately the local villages, who’ve heard rumors about a local vampire, attack Varney’s house. He runs and escapes from the mob, who, frustrated, dig up newly-buried bodies in the local graveyard on the assumption that some of the new dead are vampires. The mob temporarily comes to its senses, but they eventually reform and attack Varney’s house (again) and confront him. He flees and escapes them, running to the monk’s hall where Charles still languishes, the prisoner of Varney and Dr. Marchdale. (Varney wants the Bannerworth’s house, Dr. Marchdale wants Flora). Varney offers to release Charles if he will agree not to pursue a vendetta against Varney, which Charles agrees to. The mob, still in search of Varney, attack Bannerworth House, on the grounds that he attacked there once and might be still hiding somewhere inside. But the local militia finally arrives and drives off the mob. Varney meets with the Stranger again, and it is revealed that the Stranger is the hangman who dug up Varney after he was hanged, and so was indirectly responsible for Varney’s continuing unlife. Varney pays the hangman the yearly sum which Varney agreed to pay in exchange for his freedom, and the hangman leaves. Varney encounters Charles and Flora, but the mob, still after Varney, reappears, and Varney is forced to run again, though Charles and Flora try to save Varney from the mob by delaying them–Charles and Flora are well-inclined toward Varney at this point. Varney runs, but Charles pursues him and catches up to him. They talk, and Charles manages to get more of Varney’s backstory out of him. A Hungarian nobleman arrives in town, in search of Varney. The nobleman is a fellow vampire, and he and Varney talk for a short while before the mob catches up with Varney. Another pursuit follows, with Varney hiding out with the Bannermans for several days. He finds their company restful and is touched by their kindness toward him, but he’s weak from lack of fresh blood–he still hasn’t fed yet–and eventually the mob finds him out and chases him again. This time he is cornered, fights off the mob for a time, and then seems to be killed and is buried. But, sure enough, he’s dug up again, and a long interval follows in which he pretends to be a Baron so that he can marry a young virgin (and, of course, suck her blood). His scheme is foiled. He repeats himself in London, posing as a Colonel, but the Admiral ruins his scheme on the wedding day. Varney goes to Winchester and dies again. He goes to Bath, and while on his way there helps some innocents, winning their friendship. He murders a miser in Bath and takes his money, but his marriage scheme is again foiled by the Admiral. Varney tries this again in Naples, and then again in London, both times failing. He attends a vampire gathering and then tries to drown himself, but the Fates stymie him even there. Finally, disgusted with his un-life, he goes to Vesuvius and throws himself into its live heart.
As the most currently available penny dreadful, Varney is in some ways representative of the form. Varney has the most obvious flaws of the dreadful format. It is clearly written by an author who is paid by the word. Many of the chapters are filled with padding. Much of the dialogue is redundant. Scenes tend to repeat themselves with only minor alterations. Rymer takes a few storytelling detours whose content has little bearing on the main story and whose only purpose is to (that word again) pad Varney and pay Rymer more money. The plot is too long by a third. Flora’s function in the story is to be the love object of Charles and the fainting, screaming victim of Varney. The “comedy” of the Admiral is not likely to amuse--quite the opposite. (God, how I loathed him). Rymer over indulges in coincidence and too obviously pulls the plot strings to delay important scenes. And Varney doesn’t make use of the simplest tactics to help him: the screaming of his would-be victims continually prevents him from feeding, but he never thinks to make use of a simple gag.
All of the preceding being true, however, Varney also has several of the virtues of the penny dreadful format, and to a greater degree than usual. Rymer’s style has only slightly aged, and Varney is generally quite readable and entertaining. Rymer is more than adequately descriptive, and the padded, glacially paced lulls are offset by action scenes in which Rymer keeps a good pace and often achieves a sustained, feverish, intense atmosphere. Although the dialogue sometimes veers on the turgid, there is also the occasional flash of humor, and the irrelevant and padded dialogue is easily enough skimmed. Although there are the down periods, more often Varney is a page turner. Surprising, I know, but that was my reaction. I kept reading right up to the end, and although I skipped a number of redundant passages I was always interested in what happened next.
The reason I kept reading, and the reason you will, as well, is not because of Flora and Charles, who are bog standard penny dreadful characters and whose sections are generally uninvolving. No, it’s the main character who will grab and keep your attention. (He’s the headliner, he ought to). Varney is, perhaps surprisingly, a compelling character. He makes his first appearance as a monster, one of the few actual supernatural monsters in Gothics or penny dreadfuls, but he is soon introduced as Sir Francis Varney, and it is in that identity that the reader gets to know him. Varney is given a surprising depth of characterization--surprising not just for dreadfuls, which usually lacked the room for more than a first dimension of characterization, but also surprising for later horror novels with similar monster characters. Varney is more fleshed out, more emotionally recognizable, and even more three dimensional, than Sweeney Todd, than White Fell in “The Were Wolf” (see the Christian entry), than Carmilla, than the Centenarian, and even more than Count Dracula himself. Varney stands as the most complex and emotionally identifiable monster character of the 19th century, which is, needless to say, not what I expected, nor I daresay what you, Dear Reader, expected me to say. But it’s true.
Varney’s personality--suave, genial, well bred, honorable, courtly, smart and with great self possession, but also guilt ridden because of his past, tormented at what he has become, and disgusted with what he must do to survive--is in broad terms not original to Rymer. Varney is a mid century version of that reliable stand by of the Gothics, the Hero Villain (see the Melmoth entry and the Gothic Villains entry for more on this). The application of this character form to a monster character is new, however, and is a clear precursor to the 20th century evolution of the figure and its more Goth versions. (The difference between Varney and his descendants is that the modern Goth vampire is too often a self obsessed wanker--yes, Ms. Rice, I’m looking at *you*--while Varney’s emotional torment is honestly come by). Varney the Vampyre isn’t as well written as Dracula or “Carmilla,” and shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same breath as “La Morte Amoreuse” (see the Clarimonde entry), but it is important, and deserves inclusion in their more esteemed company.
There are a couple of other aspects of interest to the modern reader. After Flora is attacked for the first time Charles Holland and Flora’s brothers refuse for a short while to believe that she could have been the victim of a vampire, because they don’t believe that God could allow such creatures on Earth, and “we disbelieve that which a belief in would be enough to drive us mad.” This is the 19th century version of the Lovecraftian knowledge which drives its possessor mad, but it also gives the modern reader a glimpse into the mindset of Rymer and his readers. Popular culture is useful for that, and can help tell us what the prevailing attitudes of bygone days and other peoples were, far more than more calculated works of Art. The modern reader, exposed to generations of horror novels and radio shows and television shows and movies, may react to Charles et al’s unwillingness to accept the obvious with scorn, but it’s clear that they not only believe that vampires are myths (like we do now, out here in the real world), but they are devout enough Christians to believe that God couldn’t let such creatures live, and that’s not an attitude which many of us today have.
Although the Gothic genre proper is (rightly) considered to have ended soon after the 1820 publication of Melmoth the Wanderer, later writers made use of the motifs and themes of the Gothics, and they can often be found in the more supernatural- and horror-oriented penny dreadfuls. Varney is a good example of this, being nearly as Gothic as Dracula. Among the Gothic motifs Varney has is the maiden in peril, the sleepwalking maiden, the hidden family secret, and the mansion with a dark past, as well as the Hero-Villain character in Varney himself.
The Sir Francis Varney version of the vampire is superhuman, but relatively weak compared to other 19th century vampires. Varney has a kind of hypnotism, is just as active during the daytime as he is at night, and is superhumanly strong, but only to the level of 3-5 men, and he can be weakened by heavy exertion, such as an all night chase across the countryside followed by several fights with angry peasants. He neither eats nor drinks, but instead needs the blood of beautiful young virginal women to survive, although he needs it only once a season. He can be wounded by bullets and swords and can be killed. But moonlight revives and heals him, so he has a kind of immortality. (Sometimes, when he is in danger of being killed, Varney asks those who may kill him to expose him to the moon after he dies. And sometimes, when he is hoping to remain dead, the Fates, the cruel, cruel Fates, do not cooperate and expose him to moonlight despite his wishes).
Varney himself is hideous in vampire form, but as Sir Francis Varney he is human looking, albeit freakishly tall and bearing a sallow face and “dark, lustrous...somewhat somber eyes.” He is a gentleman in most respects, and although he has his regrettable vampire side, and takes part in a vampire coven, he is quite honorable, keeping his word and refraining from killing Henry in a duel despite a great amount of provocation. When he’s hungry for blood, he’s insane, but at other times he’s quite reasonable, and even conciliatory--he’s sufficiently lacking in ego that he would “rather make concessions than fight,” which is quite a change from the later, unbearably egotistical vampires. (Yes, Mr. Lestat, I am talking about you). To those he is well inclined toward, he is genial and friendly, although he does not want to cause them trouble, which he knows his presence always brings. He is a master swordsman and remains calm and brave even when confronted by an angry mob intent on his death. He hints at possessing occult knowledge, although it seems more vampire related than anything else. He can be menacing in a dignified, powerful, and lordly way. Varney is, basically, a very cool customer, and far more impressive than Dracula.
Sir Frances Varney had originally, during the early 17th century, been one Mr. Mortimer. He had been a supporter of the Crown, living in London when Charles I was beheaded. He helped members of the royalty escape to Holland for profit, of course. Unfortunately for Mortimer, however, in a moment of rage he struck his son, killing him (by accident). What followed was a flash of light and Mortimer being thrown to the ground with great force. When he next came to, he was lying beside a recently opened grave, and a Voice told him that for killing his son he was therefore cursed among men and would be known as "Varney the Vampyre." He'd been shot by Cromwell's men, you see, and buried for two years before being revived. From there, he wandered, living the life of the undead.
Varney the Vampyre
A site with the e-text of The Feast of Blood as well as various other information on it.
athek. Vathek was created by William Beckford and appeared in Vathek: An Arabian Tale from an Unpublished Manuscript, with Notes Critical and Explanatory (1786). Beckford (1760-1844), one of English literature's real oddities; he lived a life of scandal and extravagance, both financial and sexual, and even today his name has the faint air of scandal about it. But regardless of what he did in his personal life, Beckford produced Vathek, and for that he will always remain in the canon.
Vathek, the grandson of Haroun al Raschid himself, is the Caliph of Samarah. He is dedicated to sensual pleasure and has built five palaces, one for the enjoyment of each sense. He is also very curious, making attempts to master all of the sciences as well as the hidden, occult secrets of the world. Vathek builds a mighty tower, to better pursue his interest in astrology and to penetrate the secrets of Heaven, and Mahomet Himself (peace be upon him) sends genii to help him, but this only shows him how much he enjoys looking down on humanity from the tower’s summit. But one day an intensely ugly creature arrives at Vathek’s court bearing wondrous objects–knives that cut without the hand being moved and sabers which harmed those who the wielder wished harmed. The stranger does not speak to Vathek, so the hot-tempered Vathek has him imprisoned, only to find him vanished the next morning and his guards slain. Vathek then discovers that the sabers have words on them in a tongue that cannot be deciphered. When Vathek finally finds someone who can translate the words for him, he finds that the words change by the following day. Vathek is plunged into despair by this, unable to enjoy anything, and he finally vacations in the mountains to reawaken his passion for life. There the stranger, the Giaour, speaks to him again and then feeds him a potion, which makes Vathek happy. But following a feast in Samarah Vathek demands the ingredients to the potion, which Giaour won’t give, and so Vathek begins kicking Giaour. Giaour folds himself into a great ball and bounces out of the city and into the mountains and then into a great valley. From the depths of the valley, next to a great portal of ebony, Giaour speaks to Vathek and tells him that he will only be able to open the door if he sacrifices fifty souls to Giaour.
Vathek, after much maneuvering, manages to do this, sending fifty of the best young children of Samarah over the edge of the cliff to Giaour. Carathis, Vathek’s formidable mother, carries out a series of rite, and Vathek gets a parchment which tells him to make a pilgrimage to Istakhar, where Vathek will receive many wonders. Vathek and his begin the pilgrimage; on the way they meet the Emir Fakreddin, and Vathek falls in love with Fakreddin’s daughter, Nouronihar. Fakreddin places difficulties in Vathek’s way, but he overcomes them, and she eventually yields to his woo-pitching and becomes his favorite. She accompanies him on the pilgrimage and begins to share Vathek’s ambitions and becomes as unscrupulous as he. The pair eventually reach Istakhar and despite one last attempt by the genii to save them they enter the palace of Eblis, the lord of the underworld. He gives them free access to everything, including the conscious bodies of the pre-Adamite kings, but their joy is crushed when Giaour tells them that they only have a few days before their hearts will be permanently set on fire. And after feeling the pangs of imminent, eternal torment, they begin to suffer them.
Strictly speaking, Vathek is outside of the chronological limits I’ve set for myself on this site. But the novel is of signal importance in the development of the Gothic genre as well as, to a lesser degree, 19th century horror. It was, with Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (see the Manfred entry), the most influential of the proto-Gothics–that is, the Gothics written before the 1790s, when the genre began in earnest, with Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (see the Count Montoni entry) and The Italian (see the Father Schedoni entry) and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (see the Ambrosio entry). Although there were few Gothics which were overtly influenced by the Arabian Nights atmosphere of Vathek, many Gothic novels took from Vathek, as they did from The Castle of Otranto, the demonic quest, the Hero-Villain (see the Manfred entry and the Melmoth entry for more), Vathek’s killing glance, and the imagery of underground confinement and enclosure. Vathek provided one more element which Otranto did not: the depiction of a universe in which God, though present in the form of Allah and the prophet “Mahomet,” is secondary in the lives of men, and weaker than the lure of temptation and evil.
Vathek was originally written in French, but it is usually described as English literature because of Beckford’s nationality. But its background as an Arabian Nights story is French, rather than English. The craze for Arabian Nights-style stories, what used to be called “Oriental tales” and now goes by the phrase “Arabian Fantasies,” began with the French translation by Antoine Galland of The Thousand and One Nights (1704-1717) and was continued primarily by French rather than English authors, Voltaire and Montesquieu among them. (The most important English language Orientalist wrote non-fiction; Sir William Jones wrote an “Essay on the Poetry of the Eastern Nations” (1772), what Michael Franklin calls “a panegyric on the Arabs,” and later, in 1782, translated the pre-Islamic odes the Moallakát). The Arabian Fantasy was more important in French letters than in English letters, where Arabian Fantasy-inflected stories appeared, post-Vathek, in verse form rather than in prose, with Water Savage Landor’s Gebir (1798) and Robert Southey’s Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). Vathek is the best of the English language Arabian Fantasies. But unlike many of the other imitations of Galland’s translation (and it should be noted that Galland himself added material of his own to his version of the original manuscript, the 14th/15th century Alf Layla wa-Layla), Vathek is more than just a pallid copy of The Thousand and One Nights. Consciously or not Beckford included autobiographical material in the novel, as his contemporaries recognized. Carathis, Vathek’s ruthless, powerful, and impressive mother, is an analogue for Beckford’s mother; Nouronihar, who goes from sweetness and innocence to sharing Vathek’s lust and merciless drive for power, is based on Louisa Beckford, William’s cousin and mistress; Gulchenrouz, Nouronihar’s childlike cousin and betrothed and the only character to go to heaven in Vathek, is based on Beckford’s lover William “Kitty” Courtenay; and Vathek is based Beckford himself.
Vathek is Beckford's attempt to tell a Faustian story in the spirit and tone of the Eastern Romances, ala The Arabian Nights. It's a very strange story, Vathek, not really a novel so much as an Arabian Nights-style fable, with a tone veering between horror, wonder, and an often cruel, sardonic comedy. (In Lovecraft's words, "the laughter is that of skeletons feasting under arabesque domes"). It’s certainly Faustian in its message of a descent into evil due to the dangers of unwise curiosity and a lack of resistance to temptation, but it also indulges in the decadence of the Arabian Nights stories. Moreover, Beckford works hard to evoke what can only be called the sense of wonder so beloved of readers of Golden Age science fiction. By piling fantastic (in the literal sense) marvels on top of each other and following vivid images of magic with horrifying images of evil, Beckford invests Vathek with a feel of not just the outre but the fabulous (again, in the literal sense).
Vathek is not novelistic in narration, and it lacks the histrionic tone of much later Romantic work. Beckford does add some lush descriptions and passages which show how much modern fantasy fiction took from the Arabian Nights. A sample paragraph is this:
By secret stairs, contrived within the thickness of the wall, and known only to herself and her son, she first repaired to the mysterious recesses in which were deposited the mummies that had been wrested from the catacombs of the ancient Pharaohs. Of these she ordered several to be taken. From thence she resorted to a gallery where, under the guard of fifty female negroes, mute, and blind of the right eye, were preserved the oil of the most venomous serpents, rhinoceros’ horns, and woods of a subtile and penetrating odour procured from the interior of the Indies, together with a thousand other horrible rarities. This collection had been formed for a purpose like the present, by Carathis herself, from a presentiment that she might one day enjoy some intercourse with the infernal powers, to whom she had ever been passionately attached, and to whose taste she was no stranger.But Vathek does have the Gothic extremes in sensibility and emotion, not just in Vathek’s simultaneous immunity to pity and exquisite sensitivity to slights and setbacks but also in the moral and emotional dilemmas the novel places before Vathek and the reader.
Your enjoyment of Vathek will largely depend on your tolerance of and enjoyment of Arabian Nights-style narration and stories, told in the preceding style. Beckford adds filigrees to it, adding layers of horror and fantastic decadence, but Vathek is essentially a Gothic Arabian Nights story, and how readable you find it will depend on the amount of patience you have for reading Arabian Nights stories at novel length. Vathek is really best taken in doses rather than one long draught; you won’t grow impatient with the diversions from the Vathek’s pilgrimage for Istakhar or the measured pace Beckford establishes for the novel. The end section, when Vathek enters the Halls of Eblis and sees the dark wonders of Hell and then suffers from the punishments of the damned, is the strongest section of the book. Vathek begins well but then meanders before picking up at the end.
Vathek himself is a prototypical version of the aforementioned Gothic Hero-Villain. But Vathek is also a transitional character between the Dr. Faustus character type and the Hero-Villain character. The character of Faustus/Faust did not go away, of course; while the first great version of Faust was Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (from the play Doctor Faustus, 1604) and was quite familiar to European audiences when Beckford wrote Vathek, the second great version of Faust, in Goethe’s Faust, Eine Tragoedie (Faust: A Tragedy, 1808-1832) had not yet appeared when Vathek was written. (Never fear, Dear Reader, Goethe’s Faust is in my thankfully dwindling stack of books I intend to read for this site, and so I will eventually include the good Doctor here). Too, by the end of the 19th century Faust had finished his final evolution, into the figure of the Mad Scientist/Seeker After Forbidden Knowledge so familiar from Frankenstein and the many works of H.P. Lovecraft. So when I say that Vathek was a transitional character between Faustus and the Hero-Villain, I don’t mean that Faustus became Vathek, who became the Hero-Villain. Rather, Vathek suggested a new, Faustian direction for the Hero-Villain to go. The Hero-Villain figure properly began in the Gothics with Walpole’s Manfred, but Vathek adds the Faustian aspect of negotiation with dark figures which will appear again in Ambrosio and Melmoth, among others.
Vathek has a “pleasing and majestic” figure, and a keen intellect. When angered his very glance can kill. He has an enormous amount of determination, being willing to sacrifice much for his goals. But he is magnificently dissolute and addicted to pleasure, sensuality, and new sensations. He’s enormously self-centered and considers the lives of others small prices to pay for his own happiness and the achievement of his goals. He’s unable to resist temptation, and his own “unquiet and impetuous disposition” will not allow him to be content with the wealth and comfort he already has. He’s far too proud for his own good, being unwilling to take advice even from the genii who warn him that he is about to damn himself:
Whoever thou art, withhold thy useless admonitions: thou wouldst either delude me, or art thyself deceived. If what I have done be so criminal as thou pretendest, there remains not for me a moment of grace. I have traversed a sea of blood to acquire a power which will make thy equals tremble; deem not that I shall retire when in view of the port, or that I will relinquish her who is dearer to me than either my life or thy mercy. Let the sun appear! let him illume my career! it matters not where it may end.These are the Gothic version of famous last words.
The e-text of the novel.
The Fool of Fonthill
A good biographical essay, focusing on Beckford's homosexuality.
autrin, Monsieur. Monsieur Vautrin was created by Honoré de Balzac and appeared in Père Goriot (Father Goriot, 1835), Illusions Perdues (Lost Illusions, 1837), Splendeurs et Miseres des Courtisans (Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans, 1846), and Le Député d’Arcis (The Deputy of Arcis, 1847). Balzac (1799-1850) is a giant of French letters; I have a good quote about him in the Centenarian entry. Father Goriot is one of Balzac’s best known novels, and although (due no doubt to my own intellectual limitations) I found the novel slow going its virtues are many.
Father Goriot is about Eugène de Rastignac, a poor law student at the Maison Vauquer, a cheap boarding house in Paris. The house is full of a variety of boarders, from the cheerfully sinister Monsieur Vautrin to the mysterious Monsieur Goriot. Goriot does not speak much to the other boarders, and so they do not know much about him despite their curiosity. The boarders believe that the two beautiful young women who visit him are his mistresses, even though Goriot tells the other boarders that the women are only his daughters. Over the course of three years Goriot moves to progressively cheaper rooms, and the women visit him less and less, and he becomes a joke o the other boarders. Eugène prevails upon his socially powerful aunt, Madame de Beauséant, to give him an entrance into society, and so she invites him to a ball, at which he meets Madame Anastasie de Restaud, a beautiful woman with whom he is smitten. Returning home, he sees Goriot twisting some of his silver plate into ingots. The next day, Goriot discovers that Goriot has sold the ingots for gold, and that Madame de Restaud is Goriot’s daughter. That afternoon Eugène visits Anastasie and sees Goriot leaving as he arrives. The meeting initially goes well, in large part because of Eugène’s connections with Madame de Beauséant, but when Eugène mentions that he knows Goriot, Anastasie asks him to leave, and then tells her servant that Eugène is not to be allowed back into the house.
Eugène goes to his aunt to discover what happened, and she explains that both of Goriot’s daughters, having been given huge dowries by him, were cutting him out of their lives, and that Eugène, by mentioning Goriot’s name, had ruined any chance he had with Anastasie. De Beauséant, seeing that Eugène is socially clueless, begins teaching him about Goriot, his daughters, Parisian society and the nature of its inhabitants, and she suggests that Eugène pay court to Goriot’s other daughter, Delphine de Nucingen. De Beauséant, who really does like Eugène, agrees to receive Delphine socially, a move which would make Delphine grateful to Eugène.
Eugène becomes filled with ambition, following his talk with his aunt, and he is also quite taken with his aunt’s wealthy lifestyle. He sets aside his goal of becoming a lawyer and decides to triumph in the arena of society. To do that requires money, and so he writes to his mother and sisters and asks them to send him what money they can. This will impoverish them, but he intends to pay them back as soon as possible.
But Monsieur Vautrin has a suggestion for Eugène. Vautrin points out that one of the other boarders, Victorine Taillefer, stands to inherit a huge amount of money if her brother dies. Since it is clear that Victorine likes Eugène, Vautrin suggests that for two hundred thousand francs he could have the brother murdered–he knows a man who could easily kill the brother. Eugène could then marry Victorine and get her money, and everyone would win. Eugène is both appalled and tempted by this offer, but decides to follow his aunt’s advice for the moment–Vautrin gave Eugène two weeks to decide–and goes to the theater with his aunt. There he is introduced to Delphine, and he pays furious court to her. She is well inclined to him because of this and invites him to dine with her the following night and then go to the opera. Goriot, finding out about this, swears that he is now Eugène’s best friend, and the pair become friendly. Eugène goes to dine with Delphine, but she acts as if she has a great secret, and she finally tells him to go to a gambling house and bring her back several thousand francs or nothing. He wins the money, and she, overjoyed, swears that she’s his. Her husband was not giving her any money, and she needed the money to pay off an old debt.
For a time things are wonderful. Eugène and Delphine are together, he is a part of Society, he gambles every night and usually wins, and in generally has a splendid time. But, as always happens, the money runs out and things sour between Delphine and Eugène–she, perhaps wanting to test his devotion, strings him along and treats him less warmly than he desires. Eugène, frustrated with Delphine, begins to woo Victorine, and they become close, something the sardonic Vautrin approves of. He then informs Eugène that his friend and Victorine’s brother are set to fight (an honest difference of opinion, and not something Vautrin has engineered), which alarms Eugène, but thanks to Vautrin’s plotting he is unable to warn Victorine’s brother.
Goriot then tells Eugène that he and Delphine had set up an apartment for Eugène. Eugène wavers, undecided on whether to go after Victorine and money or Delphine, who he really does love. At breakfast the death of Victorine’s brother in the duel is announced, and Eugène loudly proclaims that he will never marry Victorine, which makes Goriot deliriously happy. Vautrin is then trapped in the house by the police, whose offer of a reward for the notorious crook “Death-Cheater”–Vautrin–has been accepted by two of the lodgers in the Maison Vauquer. Vautrin is taken away by the police. As Eugène and Goriot are separately packing for their move into new quarters–Goriot is going to share them with Eugène–Delphine arrives, panicky, for she has discovered that her husband is crooked and tied up all their wealth in bad investments, so that if she tries to get any of it both will be ruined. Right after this piece of news sister Anastasie shows up and announces that she had sold the diamonds her husband had given her to pay off her lover’s debts, but that her husband had discovered this, bought back the diamonds, and, as punishment, was demanding control of her dowry.
Eugène, in the next room, has heard all of this, and altered an i.o.u. he’d given to Vautrin to make it appear that it was made over to Anastasie. She does not take this well, however, and accuses him of eavesdropping and Delphine of having set her up just to embarrass her. She and Delphine bicker, which makes Goriot feel horrible, and he soon falls ill. Eugène begins caring for him, but it is clear that he is dying, and he asks to see his daughters before he goes. Eugène tries to see both Delphine and Anastasie, but both are too busy with their own lives to see their father, who they thought was only a little ill. Goriot sees what his daughters really are, and finally realizes that it was his own bad parenting–he spoiled them quite rotten, growing up–that made them what they are. He finally slips into a coma and dies. Neither Delphine nor Anastasie will contribute any money to his burial costs, and so Goriot is put in a pauper’s grave. Only Eugène and a fellow boarder, a medical student who had helped Eugène care for the dying Goriot, attend Goriot’s funeral; Delphine and Anastasie send empty carriages to follow the coffin. After the funeral is over Eugène goes to have dinner with Delphine.
Father Goriot is generally seen as the novel which inspired Balzac to write his Comédie Humaine. The Comédie is one of the great achievements of French letters, a linked cycle of almost 90 novels with hundreds of recurring characters. In addition to being a monumental work, they are also, as I mentioned in my “On Crossovers” essay in my book Heroes & Monsters: The Unofficial Guide to the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, on sale now from MonkeyBrain Books, the first systematic (and successful) attempt to create an ongoing fictional universe in an organized and ambitious way. Father Goriot is the first novel of the Comédie Humaine to use characters from previous works.
I mentioned at the start of this entry that I found the novel slow going. This is something of an understatement. It took me two weeks, of very fitful and grudging reading, to finish Father Goriot, which is after all only 220+ pages long. I’m not sure I can explain why I took so long to finish it. It’s not for lack of time or effort, but rather the fault of the novel itself. Father Goriot has many virtues, and the edition I read, the Norton Critical Edition translated by Burton Raffel, is no doubt an excellent translation, but the prose does not flow quickly. The dialogue is very dramatic, even melodramatic and theatrical, with some very long monologues and some very cliched phrases. The style, perhaps inevitably, has a dated and slow feel to it in many places. These are the reasons, I think, that I was so slow in finishing it. Well, those, and the fact that my usual literary diet has been adventure- and plot-oriented material, and so my tastes have become dulled, and being confronted with a character-driven work from one of the literary masters confounded me. And Balzac’s decision to begin the novel with a detailed description of the Maison Vauquer, so that the story proper doesn’t begin for 20 pages.
Those are the only criticisms I have of the novel, however. Balzac is known for his realistic and insightful characterization, and his reputation is well deserved. Few 19th century authors showed such insight into their characters, or portrayed in such naturalistic fashion. Even the minor characters are three-dimensional, and the major characters are quite convincingly real–which means that few are wholly good or wholly bad, and in fact most of them are a mix of both, just like real people. Balzac is hugely cynical about human nature and French society, but his cynicism is not nihilistic, but rather a kind of sad, sardonic and hard earned wisdom. If Father Goriot has some unpleasant moments of racism and anti-Semitism (which are unavoidable given the novel’s age) the book has far more passages in which Balzac shows that he truly understood human beings. Cultures and mores change, but people and society do not, and Balzac’s insights are as valid today, or nearly so, as they were when he wrote them.
Balzac’s women are as realistically drawn as his men, and while that is not as rare in works in the Canon as they are in the books I’ve been reading for this site, the degree to which Balzac understands women and sympathizes with them is notable. Some of his women are unsympathetic, but they are real and not stereotypes, and are no less unsympathetic than many of Balzac’s men. Likewise, Balzac turns a cynical and even misanthropic eye on French society, but he stresses the point that those caught within an unmerciful society are as often as victimized as victimizers.
The novel is a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age novel, about Eugène de Rastignac, but that is not why I read it. The reason I read Father Goriot, and the reason this entry is devoted to who it is, is the figure of Monsieur Vautrin.
I’ve written, in various entries on this site, about the significance of certain characters in the development of mystery fiction. That is, after all, one of the reasons I’m writing this site, and eventually the book; the describe the development of mystery fiction in the 19th century, and to include some characters and authors who are usually left out of, or scanted in, the standard reference works. Monsieur Vautrin isn’t one of those–if you’re curious to see what I mean, read the Tom Richmond and the James M’Govan entries–but while he was influential, and is given the critical nod, most fans of mystery fiction don’t know who he is.
Modern mystery fiction started, in a very real sense, with Eugène François Vidocq, who I’ve written about in the Chevalier Dupin entry. Vidocq, though not the first celebrity detective of the modern age--that would be the scoundrel thief and thief-taker Jonathan Wild--was the most important in a literary sense (we'll just overlook the role that Wild played in the Dick Turpin stories, won't we), because he was influential on Balzac's Monsieur Vautrin and Bulwer-Lytton's M. Favart as well as on Chevalier Dupin. The French stream of detective fiction went through Dupin, influenced Vidocq and Vautrin, to Jean Valjean, in Les Miserables (which I suppose, heavy sigh, I’m also going to have to read for this site), and from there to M. Lecoq and Maximilien Heller. And they helped influence Arthur Conan Doyle in the creation of Sherlock Holmes.
So Monsieur Vautrin is, in a real sense, a part of the continuum of detective characters, and even if he himself is not a detective, and Father Goriot is not a mystery, Vautrin’s influence is significant, and he must be considered. Vautrin is largely a copy of Vidocq, although the latter actually appears in Father Goriot as head of the police and Vautrin’s sworn enemy. Like Vidocq Vautrin is a convict, cynical and crafty, who through his wiles rises, in later novels, to become the chief of the Paris police and then the minister responsible for the police in an Italian province. But it was Vautrin and not Vidocq who was the touchstone for later characters. Vidocq was the source of the character type, but it was the far greater fame of Balzac and Father Goriot which lent respectability to the character type of Vautrin and perpetuated that character.
Monsieur Vautrin is a “terrible sphinx.” His real name is Jacques Collin, and he is a lifetime criminal, beloved by other criminals because of his good qualities–his faithfulness to them, his honorable (after a fashion) nature, the good advice he gives them, and when pressed the ferocity he displays. He’s monstrously cynical, seeing society and the upper classes as stacked against ordinary and honest people, so that the only way to triumph in society is to be corrupt. Honesty and hard work, in Vautrin’s view, are incapable of giving people the kind of lives they really wish to lead. His cynicism is not reflexive, but comes from a lifetime of observing people and the upper classes and gleaning insights from what he sees. He’s no friend of women, seeing them all as being willing to sell themselves for luxuries. There are even hints, both in Father Goriot and in later novels, that Vautrin is gay, and his interest in Eugène may be more than paternal. Vautrin has a genially superior attitude, seeing himself and Eugène as innately better than other people. But for all of that he is still honorable, and Eugène, though repelled by Vautrin’s cynicism and the offer he made to Eugène, eventually admits to himself that Vautrin, criminal and murderer that he is, is better than Anastasie and Delphine, who are ultimately faithless to their father.
ehr, Professor. Professor Vehr first appeared in Robert Milne's "A Modern Magic Mirror," and then in its sequel, "Professor Vehr's Electrical Experiment," which appeared in the January 24, 1885 issue of Argonaut.
Milne (1844-1899) was "the West's most brilliant scholar and most unrepentant alcoholic," turning out a sizable body of good quality science fiction while living in San Francisco in the latter half of the 19th century. Milne is a forgotten figure who in his time was a figure of much critical acclaim and not a little literary significance, having had a major influence over an entire school of science fiction writers in San Francisco, including Ambrose Bierce. And yet, if not for the efforts of Sam Moskowitz, Milne would be languishing in obscurity still.
Professor Vehr, a brilliant and irascible scientist, has conducted a number of experiments which have given him control over "many of the phenomena commonly associated with occultism." He also discovers a method of transmitting humans from location to location via telephone wires. Through the use of an elaborate set of machines, Vehr reduces the body of a friend into pure energy, sends him to New Orleans, has him reconstructed there (through the same set of machines) and then repeats the process, bringing the friend and his lover back to San Francisco...except that they never reach San Francisco, and are "dispersed into the ether."
énius, Christian. Christian Vénius was created by Erckmann-Chatrian and appeared in “The Mysterious Sketch” (from Histoires Et Contes Fantastiques, 1849). Emile Erckmann (1822-1899) and Alexandre Chatrian (1826-1890) were the creators of The Spider of Guyana, and I have more information on them there. Christian Vénius is a poor artist eking out a living on the streets of Nuremberg as an artist. He’d gone there to study the German masters but had been forced to paint portraits, and from there descended to sketches, and then finally to silhouettes, the lowest of the low. He is disregarded by society and his brutish landlord, with his pinched lips, shrill voice, and impudent manner continually bothers Christian for the rest. Such talk enervates Christian, and he is finally left feeling despondent and ready to commit suicide, if only to spite his landlord. That night Christian wakes up at one in the morning and draws “a rapid sketch after the Dutch school–something strange and bizarre, which had not the slightest resemblance to my ordinary conceptions.” It is a scene of a courtyard, with hooks and pools of blood all about; it is a butchery. And as Christian continues to sketch, his inspiration leads him to draw a foot, which is joined by a leg, and then the entire person, an old woman whose throat has just been cut. The sketch is of a murder scene–her murder. The following morning a rich amateur, Baron Van Spreckdal, appears in Christian’s lodgings. The Baron is also a judge of the criminal court. His initial business seems to be to request a portrait, but he is mesmerized by the sketch, and pays Christian for it. Soon the police arrive and take Christian away to jail. He is questioned closely about the sketch but proclaims his innocence, and so he is taken to the real life setting of his sketch, where the corpse of the old woman lies. Christian no longer knows what to do, but no one believes him. The next day, in jail, Christian is sadly looking out the window of his cell at the market near the jail when he sees a butcher walking by, and Christian suddenly knows that the butcher is responsible. Christian quickly sketches the murder scene on the wall of his cell, now with the murderer in the sketch, and calls for the judges. They arrive, and he tells them who committed the murder. The butcher is sent for, and when he sees the sketch he gives a roar and tries to escape. He confesses, finally, and Christian moves on with his life, still ignorant about what just happened.
E.F. Bleiler was unimpressed with “The Mysterious Sketch.” I’m slightly more impressed with it than he was, or at least I enjoyed it more. What sets the story apart from usual horror stories is that Erckmann and Chatrian used a very vivid set of images, so that the first person narration, from the point of view of a painter, is matched with some very good images. “The Mysterious Sketch” is a very visual story, which works to its advantage.
Christian, well, he’s a somewhat typical starving artist. He is mystified by the painting, frightened by the mess it got him into, but ultimately quite grateful to be free. He is violent with his somewhat grasping landlord, and no friend to the police, but on the whole he’s not a bad chap.
enus of Ille. The Venus of Ille was created by Prosper Mérimée and appeared in "La Venus d'Ille" (The Venus of Ille), which was published in Mérimée's Lokis (1869). Mérimée (1803-1870) was a French dramatist, short story writer, historian and archaeologist. "The Venus of Ille" is regarded as a classic of European horror, one of those stories which must be read if one is to consider oneself well-read in the history of horror. I found it entertaining, if not frightening. (I have not seen La Venere di Ille, the Mario Bava-directed film based on the story, so I can't comment on it, although I'm told it's pretty good).
"The Venus of Ille" is about an old bronze statue unearthed in the town of Ille, in the French Pyrenees. It is unearthed in the yard of Monsieur de Peyrehorade, a "very learned antiquarian." He is quite taken with it, and in fact thinks more about it than about the upcoming wedding of his son. The nameless narrator is visiting Peyrehorade simply to look at the ruins in the area, but on hearing about the statue he is intrigued. Before he gets a good look at the statue he sees two townies throw a stone at the statue (while it was being unearthed it fell on the leg of a workman and broke it) only to have the stone thrower cry out in pain and say that the statue threw the stone back at him. The narrator laughs this away, but on seeing the statue up close he isn't so sanguine. The form and body are magnificent, but its face is...not so magnificent:
As for the face, I should never be able to express its strange character; it was of quite a different type from that of any other antique statue I could remember. It was not at all the calm and austere beauty of the Greek sculptors, whose rule was to give a majestic immobility to every feature. Here, on the contrary, I noticed with astonishment that the artist had deliberately set out to express ill-nature raised to the level of wickedness. Every feature was slightly contracted: the eyes were rather slanted, the mouth turned up at the corners, and the nostrils somewhat distended. Disdain, irony, cruelty, could be distinguished in that face which was, notwithstanding, of incredible beauty. Indeed, the longer one looked at that wonderful statue, the more distress one felt at the thought that such a marvelous beauty could be united with an utter absence of goodness.Unfortunately Monsieur de Peyrehorade's empty-headed and unlikable son Alphonse, in a hurry to beat some rivals in tennis, makes the mistake of putting his wedding ring on the statue's hand; the son claims that he can't play tennis while wearing it. When Alphonse goes back to retrieve it, after the wedding, the statue has closed its hand around it. That night something heavy climbs the stairs of the house and gets into bed with Alphonse and his wife. In the morning Alphonse is found dead, crushed. The wife claims that he saw the statue embracing her husband, but she has obviously gone mad, and no one believes her. Alphonse's mother, Madame de Peyrehorade, never liked the statue, and after Monsieur de Peyrehorade passes away she has the statue melted down and made into a church bell, but even that does not help: "Since that bell began to ring in Ille, the vines have twice been frost-bitten."
Although "The Venus of Ille" is usually put in the category of "horror," I'm not sure Mérimée really intended it as such. More likely he was working within the French tradition of the "conte cruel," the cruel tale. The conte cruel (title taken from Villiers de l'Isle Adam's short story collection Contes Cruel) shows the mercilessness of fate and the meaninglessness of man's position in the universe. de l'Isle Adam was one of the foremost practitioners of the conte cruel, but there's been a long tradition of it in French literature continuing up to the present day. "The Venus of Ille" wasn't exactly horrific to me. Entertaining, yes. Scary, no. (But then, I may be too much under the spell of the Machen/Lovecraft school of atmospheric, cosmic horror to find something as relatively straightforward as "The Venus of Ille" frightening).
What "The Venus of Ille" does have going for it...well, it has a few things, actually. It's well-written; I'm sure that it's better in the original French, but it works quite well in translation. Mérimée's a good story-teller, and "The Venus of Ille" makes me want to search out his other material. The story has a very matter-of-fact tone which works well with the supernatural ending. And Mérimée's knowledge of the Greek and Roman past gives a welcome context to the statue.
While I don't place "The Venus of Ille" in the upper rank of best and creepiest horror stories, it's certainly very entertaining and well worth searching out.
esey, Horace. Horace Vesey was created by “Wirt Gerrare” and appeared in Phantasms (1895). “Wirt Gerrare” was the pseudonym of William Oliver Greener (1862-1946), the creator of Madame Felician. Phantasms is a collection of mostly undistinguished short stories, only one of which, “Mysterious Maisie,” is particularly memorable.
Horace Vesey is a believer in “spiritualism,” which in this case boils down to a gussied-up form of Theosophy accompanied by various scientific facts. Unfortunately, like many of the other proponents of Theosophy, like Mrs. Campbell Praed (see the Murghab entry), Greener feels the need to propagandize, rather than make his beliefs (they showed up in Rufin’s Legacy as well as in Phantasms) a part of the story’s backdrop, and this leads him into a long and tedious lecture to begin the work, complete with anti-Semitism and slams against organized religion. It’s a relief to finally begin the stories, which are accounts from Vesey’s life and from the lives of those he’s known or who have known him. There are stories about a old woman, dying too slowly and haunted by the curse of her long-dead husband, who she cuckolded; about a man who in a previous reincarnation did a woman wrong and who is now suffering for it; about a man who is haunted by a crime he committed and can’t sleep as a result; about Vesey’s ne’er-do-well Uncle Selwyn, who lets his wife starve to death while he drinks her food money, and who pays for it; about a woman working as a nurse/companion to a black magician in a Faerie/goblin-haunted house; and about a Finn spiritualist who wants to see the “face of nature,” the entirety of the universe, all at once. (It’s implied that this latter impulse is what eventually kills Vesey).
I described the stories as undistinguished, and for the most part they are. They are not wholly without interest, however. They are at least readable; Greener was a competent writer, if not more than that. In the case of “The Sleepless Man,” about a Russian haunted by his crime, there is a great deal of accurate information on Russia, the Russians, and hunting; it’s clear in this story, as well as one or two others, that Greener did his research or wrote from experience–either way, the detail adds a layer of verisimilitude. Better still, there’s at least one certifiably creepy image per story, so that even those stories which stray into incoherence, like “The Sleepless Man,” has a moment in which it provides a quite pleasurable chill.
And then there’s “Mysterious Maisie,” a story which falls only just short of classic status. The story begins normally enough, with the narrator going to work in a strange house as a nurse and companion to the titular Maisie, an old, nearly blind woman. Unfortunately, Maisie is a kind of black magician whose house is host to the worst of rites, and the narrator only barely escapes, and that after being psychically scarred. “Mysterious Maisie” has a mounting sense of insanity and achieves, at its peak, a hallucinogenic, nightmarish state and a feeling of the intrusion of Wrongness. Greener makes a critical mistake in diverging from this for several pages of dialogue, which disrupt the atmosphere, but then the narrator gets back in danger and the ominous, alien atmosphere resumes.
Vesey could be described as a kind of psychic/occult detective, in that his life brings him into contact with individuals with problems with occult/psychic causes. In one story, “Retribution,” Vesey is consulted by a doctor friend about a man who is beset by horrible nightmares. Vesey eventually reveals that the man sinned against his wife several centuries before, in a previous incarnation, and is repeating the sin against his wife, who is the incarnation of the man’s wife from before. Vesey tells the man that the only way to stop the nightmares is to repent and make good the sin against his wife. In this story Vesey is not substantially different from other late Victorian occult detectives, like Flaxman Low or Lord Syfret. But in all the other stories he is only a passive observer; he witnesses events and horrors, but is unable to prevent or alter them. In this he’s quite different from Low or Syfret or any of the other occult detectives.
Vesey is a small, slight man who usually has a far away, dreamy look on his face. He has worked as a male nurse, although in the introduction to Phantasms he seems to be independently wealthy and spends his days enjoying visions of new colors and distant worlds peopled by bizarre aliens. He seems to have no other powers, per se, although he does have the ability to know whatever he needs to know to suite the author’s purposes. He is not particularly likeable and is merciless and lacking compassion in his outlook toward justice.
ibrac, Gaspard de. Gaspard de Vibrac was created by S. Levett-Yeats and appeared in The Traitor’s Way (1901). Sidney Kilner Levett-Yeats, who also wrote The Lord Protector (see the Antony Maunsell entry), was an Anglo-Indian who wrote a variety of books, mostly historical romances like The Lord Protector and The Traitor’s Way; more than that I’ve been unable to find.
I’ve found this particular entry somewhat more difficult than usual to write. In part this is a result of my disappointment with The Traitor’s Way; Levett-Yeats was a member of the Weyman school–he credited Weyman and Dumas as his chief inspirations–and so I was expecting something Weyman-esque. But the book has flaws which Weyman’s work lacks, and so I was disappointed by that. A greater impediment to my enjoyment of The Traitor’s Way, however, is the main character, who is not heroic, but instead a weak man who succumbs to a wretched form of villainy. De Vibrac is not an enjoyable character with whom to spend a few hundred pages–but enjoyability is not just a subjective thing, but also an immature one, in many respects, and not particularly the best criterion by which to judge a book. Hence my difficulty.
The Traitor’s Way is the story of one man’s inability to resist the darker angels of his nature. Gaspard de Vibrac is the last son of a very noble French house during the 1560s. He is also a Huguenot, and so this places him (as a wealthy nobleman) in the conspiracy of Amboise. When the conspiracy is uncovered, Vibrac attempts to flee Paris with the woman he loves, Marie de Marcilly. Marie is the wife of Vibrac’s best friend, the noble soldier Jean de Marcilly, and Vibrac is desperately in love with her. Marie does not reciprocate, but does not issue firm denials, either; she feels that her husband does not love her and so is miserable and has spent time with Vibrac (although the extent of their involvement is unclear). But just before she is to meet Vibrac and flee she overhears Vibrac and her husband discussing her, and her husband reveals that he truly loves her. This strengthens her, and she turns Vibrac down. This makes him wretched; his despair is deepened when he discovers that the letter he bore, which contained the names of a hundred other conspirators, has been taken from him by an agent of the Queen-Mother and “the tyrants of Guise.” Vibrac decides to leave Paris and help the conspiracy, but things go against him and his comrades. Vibrac is with Jean de Marcilly at Châtillon, guarding the Princess of Condé, when the news of the imprisonment of the leader of the conspiracy, the Prince of Condé, arrives. Vibrac and Marcilly leave to rescue the Prince by means of a stratagem, but things become complicated, and the pair become entangled in more plots than just their own. Worse, Vibrac encounters Marie again, and in very displeasing circumstances to them both. In conversation with a notorious gossip Marie dismisses her affair with Vibrac (which is widely known by this time, although Jean is still unaware of it) as a mere diversion. Vibrac overhears this, is cut to the quick, and then speaks insultingly to Marie. Marie, hurt by his attack, confirms what she said (although Vibrac, discussing this in retrospect, acknowledges that he was at fault for taking her initial words seriously). This pushes Vibrac all the way to evil, and he betrays the leaders of the conspiracy to the Duc de Guise and Cardinal Richelieu. But before the Condés and Marcilly and the others can be tortured and executed, the King, Francis II, dies, depriving de Guise of power. Vibrac flees Orleans, where all this is taking place, and returns to his home so that he does not have to face those he betrayed. Forty years later “The Shame of Vibrac” has entered common parlance as a catchphrase for betrayal, and Vibrac, still alive, waits for death, “the pity of God.”
Levett-Yeats is a part of the Weyman school, and so he has many of the same stylistic qualities of the master: a quick, smooth narrative style; snappy dialogue; accurate history used as background and setting rather than as the engine of the plot; emotion conveyed through understatement or in a direct and simple way; fluid (rather than ponderous) descriptions; a focus on the doings of nobility rather than the working class; a certain romanticization of the time and place portrayed; and an abundance of high adventure, from duels to midnight escapes. But Levett-Yeats, at least in The Traitor’s Way (and I will, soon enough, be reading Levett-Yeats’ The Honor of Savelli, so I’ll be able to tell whether The Traitor’s Way was an aberration or not), has some flaws which Weyman and Levett-Yeats’ contemporaries do not, and these result in a flawed and ultimately unsatisfactory–to me, at least–work.
Levett-Yeats begins The Traitor’s Way in media res and makes abrupt transitions from scene to scene and in some cases from month to month or year to year. I found these jarring. Levett-Yeats also makes too frequent a use of the forward allusion. That is, the story is told in retrospect, from the point of view of Vibrac, forty years after the events took place, and at a number of points Vibrac says something like, “Little did I know what fate awaited me” or “Had I but known the dire end which awaited Achon.” This is, I’m sure, much more a personal preference than a stylistic shortcoming, but I find that sort of thing annoying. Worse than that is the lack of historical context for the events and figures of the novel. In part this is due to the diminished education of the American public. Levett-Yeats wrote with the assumption that his (British) readers would be familiar enough with the particulars of 16th century French history that he would not have to explain who the Duc de Guise was or what the conspiracy of Amboise was about. Levett-Yeats’ readers, I’m sure, did not need that contextualization. I did, and its lack, in The Traitor’s Way, meant I spent time consulting my history books and surfing the Web for information on Catherine de Medici, rather than reading The Traitor’s Way. And even when Levett-Yeats did attempt to provide some explanation of events and introduction of historical characters, he failed.
Most difficult for me as a reader–not as a critic, but as a reader–was Vibrac himself. I could forgive the stylistic flaws of The Traitor’s Way, but combined with the character of Vibrac they made for an unenjoyable read. Vibrac is undoubtedly brave, and a good swordsman, and as an older man acknowledges all he did wrong, but the younger Vibrac whose thoughts and feelings we read about is a weak man. He repeatedly gives in to temptation and then feels wretched for having done so. He is neither a good man nor a remarkably bad one; he is too weak to resist his darker impulses, but is strong enough to hate himself for having done so. A few hundred pages of guilty recriminations overwhelms whatever pleasure can be hand from the occasional moment of fun, whether it’s a duel or a punchy one-liner.
Unfortunately, I cannot recommend The Traitor’s Way. I hope The Honour of Savelli is better.
ictor. "Victor" (no last name was ever given) was created by Maximilian Böttcher and appeared in several stories and novellas, including The Detective (1899). Böttcher (1872-1950) was a writer and editor of various literary magazines who was enthusiastic about crime fiction but not, alas, particularly talented at creating it. Victor is...oh, what's the use? Victor is a bold-faced theft of Sherlock Holmes, set in Cologne in the 1890s and using practically every Holmes trope that Böttcher could find. There's the Watson-like narrator, dumbfounded by Victor's acts of deduction and erudition. There's Victor's Holmes-like deductions and conclusions about his visitors and clients, all based on aspects of their appearance. There's Victor's contempt for the local police, who are simply not up to his intellectual level. And on and on and on. As usual, I recommend you ignore the copy and go to the original.
iolet Flame. The "violet flame" first appeared in The Violet Flame (1899) by Fred T. Jane. Jane (1865-1916) was in many ways an extraordinary man. He authored a number of works, many of which were science fiction. He was an artist, was of great help to the British security service MI5 in the years just before WW1, and, most notably, his interest in warships led to his publication, in 1898, of Jane's All the World's Fighting Ships, which led to the world famous Jane's series of books. (For more information on the Jane's publications, go to Jane's Online)
The Violet Flame is an end-of-the-world novel, albeit one written from a more scientific standpoint than usually has been the wont. It begins in London, where the French Professor Mirzarbeau ("something in the astronomer line he was; the untidiest and most disreputable-looking little man I have ever set eyes on") discovers "the violet flame," which is a form of colored energy which is capable of great destruction. Mirzarbeau also invents some machinery capable of manipulating the Violet Flame. Unfortunately, Mirzarbeau is not just a distasteful roly-poly man, but he's also power-hungry and insane. Mirzarbeau initially vaporizes Waterloo Station, in London, and then later an auditorium of witnesses. With these visible demonstrations of his power Mirzarbeau cows the public; because his last name, when broken down into Greek numbers, adds up to 666, Mirzarbeau begins styling himself "The Great Beast" (of the Apocalypse, for those of you not up on your Biblical Revelations).
Mirzarbeau takes control of England, and the mobs, afraid of being disintegrated by him, support him. However, not only has he conjured up a meteor (see below) and aimed it at the Earth, he is also being controlled by the Earth (the Universe, in The Violet Flame, being living, and the Earth sentient). So, after various plot twists, the comet comes to Earth and kills everyone but the narrator and his lover, who begin civilization all over again.
I haven't really done the plot to The Violet Flame justice; blame the lateness of the hour for my rather cursory summary. Really, it's an interesting and quick-moving book. It's not long, it's briskly written, it has some sharp characterization (Mirzarbeau and the narrator's girlfriend, a quick-witted American named Landry Baker, are particularly well-drawn), and some decent and relatively unexpected plot twists. The Violet Flame is worth reading, if you can find it.
Volans, Victor. Volans was first introduced in William S. Hayward's The Cloud King: or, Up in the Air and Down in the Sea: Being a History of the Wonderful Adventures of Victor Volans (1865). As with one or two other books on this site, The Cloud King is rare enough that I haven't been able to read a copy. And as with a few other authors on this site, I've been able to find almost nothing about Hayward; not even his birth/death years are listed in various reference sources. The Cloud King is about an explorer who travels via balloon to Africa, where he discovers a hidden valley whose inhabitants do not age due to the lowered gravity within the valley. Volans also travels undersea and discovers a previously unknown and hostile marine animal.
olkert. Volkert was created by “Lawrence Flammenberg” and appeared in Der Geisterbanner: Eine Wundergeschichte aus mündlichen und schriftlichen Traditionen gesammelt (The Spectral Banner: A Wondrous Tale Collected from Oral and Written Traditions), which was later published in English as The Necromancer; or, The Tale of the Black Forest: Founded on Facts (1794). 1794 is, I admit, a couple of decades before the Victorian age, but I love a good, over-the-top Gothic, and Der Geisterbanner certainly qualifies. In the words of critic Michael Sadleir, Der Geisterbanner is “a conglomerate of violent episodes thrown loosely together and not always achieving even a semblance of logical sequence,” which you have to admit describes a fair number of Gothic novels. The Necromancer also has elements of the räuberroman in it, with gangs of heroic, noble criminals hiding out in caves. But Volkert, the Necromancer, is the real attraction of the story.
“Lawrence Flammenberg” was actually Karl Friedrich Kahlert (1765-1813), a German author about whom I’ve found little. Der Geisterbanner was one of the seven “horrid” Gothic novels listed by Isabella Thorpe and sent up by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey. The Necromancer of the book’s title is Volkert, a German necromancer (which is a sorcerer using the energies and bodies of the dead, for those of you not up on your fantasy fiction terms) and not at all a nice person. He's rude, he has little patience with ordinary mortals, and he's done a lot of bad things in his life. But he’s fun in that over-the-top Gothic villain way. He uses his necromancy to make a profit and for various other foul things as well as leading a group of banditti. He didn't exactly enjoy himself--but then, fun wasn't something very common in the Gothics. Unfortunately, at story’s end God sends a bolt lightning at him; it “hisses suddenly through the dreary vault licking the damp walls with a hollow clap of thunder,” and that’s that for Volkert, who at least shows a certain elan missing from, oh, Heathcliff and Tess and many other dreary villains.
Interestingly, there’s some evidence—nothing definitive, but enough to be convincing to academics like me—that Mary Shelley read at least part of Der Geisterbanner before she wrote Frankenstein. One of Kahlert’s stories, “Der Verbrecher,” was actually written by Friedrich Schiller, and is about an honest but physically repulsive man named Wolf who is forced by an unkind society to turn to crime. There are similarities in plot, language, and specific episodes and passages between “Der Verbrecher” and Frankenstein, similarities which are not, I think, coincidental.
on Baumgarten, Professor. He appeared in A.C. Doyle's "The Great Keinplatz Experiment," (1890), which was a part of Doyle's The Captain of the Polestar. Professor Alexis von Baumgarten, Regius Professor of Physiology at the University of Keinplatz, is convinced that it is possible to separate the "human spirit" from the body, have them exist separately for a time, and then reunite them. With the help of his assistant Fritz von Hartmann and a good bit of mesmerism, he succeeds. Sort of. Baumgarten's spirit and Hartmann's become confused and return to the wrong bodies. A clunky bit of Victorian humor follows before each spirit is reunited with the right body. "The Great Keinplatz Experiment" is one of the earlier astral body stories; if it sounds somewhat similar to Vice-Versa (see Garuda Stone), it's because Doyle was inspired by Anstey's work.
on R----, Roderick. Roderick von R was created by E.T.A. Hoffmann and appeared in “The Entail” (1817). Hoffmann I discuss in the Doctor Coppelius entry. “The Entail” is a Hoffmann story which isn’t as widely known as “The Sand-man” (from which Doctor Coppelius comes) or “Mademoiselle de Scudéry,” but which is viewed well by the critics. I confess to being underwhelmed by the story, however.
“The Entail” tells the story (at great length) of Freiherr Roderick von R----, a practitioner of astronomy and perhaps the “Black Arts” who offends “an august princely house” and so is kicked out of his home at Courland and is forced to take up residence in his ancestral castle. He does not blame the man or men who drove him from Courland; rather, he blames his predecessors, who had left the ancestral castle at R–sitten unfinished. So the Freiherr makes the castle a “property of entail,” which is to say, the estate cannot be given to just anyone; by the terms of the Freiherr’s will, it can only be handed down under certain conditions. The entail causes an argument between Roderick’s sons, Wolfgang and Hubert, who are both possessed by greed and a desire for Roderick’s wealth and the property. Wolfgang, the elder, gains the property, but his greed leads him to be cruel to his steward, Daniel, and so Daniel, nursing his slights, plots with Hubert to kill Wolfgang and then carries the plan out himself. Hubert is grief-stricken by Wolfgang’s death and does not long enjoy ownership of the castle. Hubert’s son becomes haughty, arrogant, and avaricious as soon as he enters the castle–and so Roderick’s original sin or curse descends from generation to generation, until there are no more von R----s left and the castle itself is in ruins.
“The Entail” may have been influential on Edgar Allan Poe when he was writing “The Fall of the House of Usher,” a work which will eventually appear here. There are a few similarities between the works, including the crumbling ancestral house haunted by a family curse, incest (cousins marry in “The Entail”), and music used to stir the passions of characters. But Poe did much better at maintaining a doomed atmosphere than Hoffmann did. I found “The Entail” to be a shambles, a story with a sprawling, overfull plot told at too great a length and with reverses in narration that added nothing to the story and in fact spoiled what momentum the story had built up. It’s hard to tell what Hoffmann intended with “The Entail;” unlike “The Sand-man,” which was a well-written (if unpleasant) story about insanity, “The Entail” lacks enough supernatural material to be a ghost story (although the ghost of Daniel appears, it is handled in an offhand manner) and enough atmosphere to make the story of the doomed family affecting in any way. The narrator of the first half of the story, who falls in love with the wife of the current Freiherr, was undoubtedly a protagonist the Romantics could root for, but modern readers are likely to find him annoying, juvenile, and lacking in attractive qualities. (Not unlike Nathanael in “The Sand-man,” as a matter of fact). The first half of the story has at least adequate characterization, but the last half, in which the story of the family curse is revealed, lacks that. Whatever Hoffmann’s intentions in writing “The Entail,” he failed.
Roderick von R----- was something of a recluse. He was “morose and averse to human society,” and much preferred staying in his castle, with only his steward and a skeleton staff of servants. He often walked on the nearby beaches, talking to the waves, but most of his time was spent in the castle’s watch-tower, looking through telescopes and practicing his hobby of astronomy. Of course, those in the village were certain that he was devoted to the Black Arts. What is certain is that he hated Courland and wanted the castle kept intact and pure, which is why he foisted the eventually ruinous entail on his descendants. But he had a better side, and had a love affair with a Swiss woman of noble line but impoverished circumstances. He married her and made sure that their son could inherit Roderick’s properties, which was nice of him, I’m sure you’ll agree.
ril. "Vril" is not a person or place, but rather a kind of energy, a "beneficent and all-purpose force," a "unity in natural energetic agencies." It was created in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race (1871). Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873) you may have heard of, even if only by accident. He is known, in literary circles, as being one of the worst successful authors. Ever.
By "worst" I mean of poor literary quality, of course. It was Bulwer-Lytton, after all, who opened Paul Clifford (1830) with the now-immortal line "It was a dark and stormy night." (The full opening is "It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness"). Bulwer-Lytton was quite popular in his time and very prolific, as well as being a self-appointed judge of public taste (reportedly he convinced Dickens to alter the ending of Great Expectations so that Pip lived happily ever after). Popular or not, Bulwer-Lytton's works don't really stand up very well today. In fact--as I said--his reputation is dire. (But see the Arbaces entry for my later estimation of Bulwer-Lytton).
In The Coming Race an explorer, entering a coal mine somewhere near Newcastle (England), follows a ravine deep beneath the Earth and discovers a human-like race living in well-lit caverns. The race--the Vril-ya--have constructed a peaceful civilization--a utopia--of wonderful architecture and have greatly advanced technology; they have air boats, android servants, telegraphs, mechanical wings, and advanced weaponry, which their children use to hunt dangerous animals (there are still a few monsters from eons gone by lurking in the depths of the Earth). Only their children hunt, however, for the civilization is peaceful and pacifistic. The Vril-ya take their name from the vril, a "unity in natural energetic agencies," or an all-purpose and beneficent force; vril is an electric-magnetic-galvanic energy which is capable of destroying almost anything.
The Vril are supermen, resembling demons; they have Sphinx-like faces with red skin and large black eyes, and they have large wings. They have musical voices and wear tunics and leggings of a thin fibrous material. They are capable of healing humans with a touch of their lips. Their women are physically stronger than the men. Their society is a mostly emotionless one, with an emphasis on joyful equilibrium.
A. Abällino to Axel
B. Hajji Baba to Amelia Butterworth
C. Cahina to Inspector John Cutting
D. The Damned Thing to Dyson
E. Robert Easterley to Pedro Arbuez d'Espila
F. Fantomas to the Fulgurator
G. "G" to Dr. Ginochio Gyves
H. Les Habits Noir to the Hypnotist
I-J. Ichor to Rob Joslyn
K. Kai Lung to Kreuzgang.
L. Lady Detectives to Arsène Lupin
M. Madame Koluchy to Dora Myrl
N. Nameless Child to Alice Nutter
O. Jack O'Halloran to Ozmar the Mystic
P. Pan to Psammead
Q. Dr. Jack Quartz to Quong Lung
R. A.J. Raffles to Lord Ruthven
S. Mr. Sabin to Count Szémioth
T-U. Adrian Temple to Undine
V. Vaila to Vril
W. Hilda Wade to Wung-Ti
X-Y. Xipéhuz to Yuki-onna
Z. Zaleski to Zoe