Sunday, August 26, 2007

Review: The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre

The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre. Edited with an introduction and notes by Robert Morrison and Chris Baldick. Highly recommended.

With the shift from agriculture to industry and advancements in technology and scientific understanding, the 19th century was one of rapid change. This collection of horror stories, anchored by John Polidori's "The Vampyre," reflects the popular tastes and issues of the the times.

A sense of vice, moral ambiguity, and lawlessness pervades many of the stories. Polidori's vampyre does not simply drain blood and life in the literal sense; he tempts the innocent, further corrupts those who are debauched, and supports the sinner financially whenever he can. He is known for his social and emotional vampirism because even the most rational members of mainstream society can witness these evident depravities.

Criminals, living and supernatural, appear in stories such as "Sir Guy Eveling's Dream," "Confessions of a Reformed Ribbonman," "The Victim," and "Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess." A contemporary fascination with madness manifests itself in "Monos and Daimonos," "The Red Man," "The Curse," and "The Bride of Lindorf." The interest in medicine and medical research, exploited in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, appear here in "The Victim," "Post-Mortem Recollections of a Medical Lecturer," and, less successfully, "Some Terrible Letters from Scotland." "Life in Death" touches upon one of Frankenstein's themes: man's imperfect and arrogant attempts to mimic or best God and nature.

The most horrifying of these stories rely strongly on either realism or fantasy. "Confessions of a Reformed Ribbonman," based on an actual event, takes the reader into the inner circle of a criminal brotherhood for whom brutality mocks and replaces morality and spirituality. William Carleton's description of the group's meeting and the atrocities it subsequently commits resonates of a satanic mass and hell itself, complete with a ring of fire. In "The Victim," coincidences are stretched, but the murder of people for medical research specimens was headline news fresh in the minds of readers.

On the other side, "Monos and Daimonos" is written in a dark fairy-tale style, narrated by a giant rejected by society, yet unable to shake his sociable tormentor. The supernatural tale of "The Master of Logan" is wonderfully spun, with the forces of good and evil engaging in near-comic repartee and an exchange of witty compliments before the unmasking. "The Red Man" may be the most disturbing of the tales, as it blends recent history (the French Revolution) with medieval horrors and tortures.

Some stories, like "The Bride of Lindorf" and "Passages in the Secret History of an Irish Countess," are weak because the short story format seems to rush and constrain the narrative. The novel form of Uncle Silas allowed LeFanu to explore themes such as murder, religion, alcoholism, drug abuse, sexuality, and incest while developing a greater sense of the Gothic mystery, atmosphere, and shadows surrounding the title character and the terror of the heroine's helpless situation. For example, the shady French maid of "Countess" is replaced in the novel by the sadistic and depraved Madame de la Rougierre, a memorable accomplice.

The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre is a fascinating and varied collection of stories published in the UK in the early 1800s. For today's reader, the language and style may present an obstacle to enjoyment and even understanding. To me, however, the writing creates a sense of time and place that enhances the richness and even the timelessness of these tales, best read late at night by candlelight.

Sunday, 26 August 2007.
© 2007 by Diane L. Schirf.

1 comment:

  1. It is a pity that the rich atmospheric style of writing that makes so many Victorian-Edwardian tales so profound has lost much of it's audience. Personally I prefer to read-and write in that format.