Before I talk about Carmilla, I must first introduce you to its author, J. Sheridan Le Fanu. Le Fanu is not a household name today. It is my personal belief that this is to the great detriment of the world of horror fiction, and to restore the field to health, we should recognize his contribution to it. Of course, I’m biased. Le Fanu wrote the first short story that truly scared me, “Green Tea.” To this day I can’t hear the words “green tea” without thinking of it.

So allow me to quote from a theoretically neutral source, Wikipedia, describing his works:

“He specialised in tone and effect rather than “shock horror” and liked to leave important details unexplained and mysterious. He avoided overt supernatural effects: in most of his major works, the supernatural is strongly implied but a “natural” explanation is also possible.”

Ah, one of my own authorial dreams is that someday the same might be said of my works. I admire this style, and I too, in my own horror writing, tried to “leave important details unexplained and mysterious.” But of course, I was only a foolish apprentice and so the effect was to leave readers confused and disappointed. It is not a tool that just anybody can pick up and use effortlessly; but it requires the careful touch of a master. Le Fanu was such a master, and that is why his works deserve to be read.

Now, then… Carmilla.

Carmilla purports to be from the casebook of Dr. Hesselius, Le Fanu’s “occult detective.” It is told from the perspective of a teenaged girl named Laura, who lives in a castle in Styria. She’s been eagerly looking forward to a visit from a friend of her father’s, General Spielsdorf, because he has a niece her own age. But, the general’s niece falls ill and dies. In his grief, he sends Laura’s father a strange letter, cursing some nameless evil which he blames for his niece’s death.

One night, while out for a walk with her father, a carriage crashes in a river on their property. Inside is a young woman about Laura’s age. Her mother hastily explains she is on a journey of great importance, and can’t wait for her daughter, Carmilla, to recover. Laura’s father offers to let the the young woman stay at his home to recuperate.

Laura and Carmilla quickly become friends. After being cooped up alone so long, Laura is delighted to have someone to spend time with, though Carmilla is not without her eccentricities. She rises very late in the day, and is frequently referred to as “languid.”

Illustration by David Henry Friston for “Carmilla”

Meanwhile, a mysterious disease ravages the nearby village, with many townspeople dying with symptoms which include visions of evil visitors in the night. Eventually, Laura herself begins to show signs of the illness.

General Spielsdorf finally arrives for his long-delayed visit, and describes the circumstances of his beloved niece’s death. It seems a beautiful visitor, named Millarca, had come to stay in his home after he met with her mother at a social function. Soon after, strange things began to happen…

I think you can see where this is going. The general sees Carmilla, and instantly recognizes her as the monster who killed his niece. In his research, he has discovered she is the long-dead Mircalla, Countess Karnstein. With the help of a local vampire hunter, the general and Laura’s father, find the vampires grave and destroy the creature in the manner prescribed by tradition. But as the final line of the story suggests, Laura remains haunted by the memory of Carmilla for the rest of her life.

It’s a suspenseful, atmospheric and haunting story. All the tropes are there that we recognize from Dracula, but in a much more concentrated and, in my opinion, more powerful form.

You might be thinking, “Well, did Le Fanu just do a gender swap of Dracula and call it a story? Not impressed.” Yeah, see… Carmilla was written 25 years before Dracula, and it’s well-known to have influenced Stoker while he was writing the novel. I would not accuse Stoker of ‘copying’ as such, as much of the commonalities between the books are just tropes of Gothic fiction. But if anyone were to be accused of copying, it’s Bram, not Sheridan, who gets called to the principal’s office. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, though, and if Stoker wanted to write a book like Carmilla, all I can say is he had good taste.

So, then, is there any subtext to Carmilla? Any at all?

She used to place her pretty arms about my neck, draw me to her, and laying her cheek to mine, murmur with her lips near my ear, “Dearest, your little heart is wounded; think me not cruel because I obey the irresistible law of my strength and weakness; if your dear heart is wounded, my wild heart bleeds with yours. In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die—die, sweetly die—into mine. I cannot help it; as I draw near to you, you, in your turn, will draw near to others, and learn the rapture of that cruelty, which yet is love; so, for a while, seek to know no more of me and mine, but trust me with all your loving spirit.”

And when she had spoken such a rhapsody, she would press me more closely in her trembling embrace, and her lips in soft kisses gently glow upon my cheek.

This is the thing about vampire fiction. You can pretty much take anything from any aspect of vampire mythology, and append “… of course, really it’s all about sex.” and you’re well on your way to having a publishable academic treatise. My contention is that not every single thing in every vampire story needs to be about sex. Sometimes, a vampire is just a vampire. However, in Carmilla it’s significant enough that I suppose a few words are neccesary.

It’s clear that Laura and Carmilla have a certain relationship, and it’s a relationship that prudish Victorian authorities would not approve of. And, in fact, don’t approve of.

However, unlike with Dracula, I don’t think you can say that Carmilla’s vampirism is supposed to be a metaphor for some other urge. I say that because it’s, like, very obvious what these urges are. If Le Fanu felt the need to mask it with a metaphor, he wouldn’t have also made it so apparent.

My own interpretation may strike you as laughably simplistic, but I just don’t see the lesbianism as related to the vampirism. Carmilla is a lesbian who happens to be a vampire. Or maybe more accurately, a vampire who happens to be a lesbian? I dunno. Anyway, the point is, the two traits aren’t really related. At least, I don’t think Le Fanu is saying they are. If anything, it’s just a handy plot device to have them both be female, since to the Victorian mindset, having two women hanging around together would attract less suspicion.

And that’s pretty much all I have to say about that. Judging by the lists on Wikipedia, any work of fiction involving a female vampire seems to claim inheritance from Carmilla, even if it’s only of the “Vampire Sorority Babes” variety.

But there’s so much more to Carmilla than that! It’s just a good story, Freudian analysis aside. Moreover, as an antecedent to Dracula, it has put us one step closer to answering the questions raised in earlier posts: what was the first vampire story? And what was the original impetus for the vampire myth?

As far as finding the first vampire story, the trail starts to run colder before Carmilla. There’s The Vampyre, by John William Polidori, and the interminable 1840s penny dreadful Varney the Vampire, but Le Fanu’s main source seems to have been the works of an 18th century Benedictine monk named Augustin Calmet, specifically his Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires or Revenants of Hungary, Moravia, et al. 

Forgive me for dwelling a little on this book when I’m supposed to be reviewing Carmilla, but it’s a fascinating work in its own right. It may sound bizarre to modern readers, but put yourself in Calmet’s shoes. Imagine you wanted to invent Snopes, except it’s the 18th century and your only authoritative reference source is the Bible. It would be tough.

Calmet reports that these “revenans are called by the name of oupires or vampires,” and that:

 “Antiquity certainly neither saw nor knew anything like it. Let us read through the histories of the Hebrews, the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Latins; nothing approaching to it will be met with.”

Calmet has a very confident, “just the facts” manner to him. Lest you think he’s just credulous simpleton, let this passage demonstrate that he is trying to write a serious work separating fact from fiction here, and has no time for nonsense:

“The imagination of those who believe that the dead chew in their graves, with a noise similar to that made by hogs when they eat, is so ridiculous that it does not deserve to be seriously refuted.”

His chapter titles are also very to-the-point, as he deals with each type of case in turn, e.g. Chapter II: “On the Revival of Persons Who Were Not Really Dead.”

Le Fanu seems to have drawn much of the inspiration for his story from this book. In particular, the method of destroying the vampire seems taken almost verbatim from Calmet’s reports.

But given that vampires don’t, you know, exist, what is the meaning of the vampire myth? Why is it so popular? There must be a reason, right?

Prepare yourselves, we are about to go deeper into philosophy than ever before on a Ruined Chapel by Moonlight. I did not know where this series would go when I first began, but I hate to disappoint my readers, and if providing a satisfactory answer to the vampire question means things have to get weird, so be it.

All human existence may be viewed as a constant struggle against death. This is less obvious to us, in our modern, comfortable lives than it would have been in say, the Victorian era or before, but death is always there. The further back you go, the more formidably its presence looms.

In some sense, therefore, every human activity is a way of coping with the inevitability of death. We do not see it as such, and in many cases, the link is not a direct one. But religion, fiction, philosophy and so on are all essentially meditations on what to do about death.

This is probably one reason that the constant emphasis on sex in vampire fiction annoys me. Yeah, there’s a sexual element; sure. But there is a way more significant element that deals with death. Modern Western attitudes about sex are very different than Victorian ones. A modern and a Victorian talking about sexual mores would scarcely even understand one another.

But death? Everyone, from Bram Stoker to me, we all have (or had, in Bram’s case) that hanging over us. Like Warren Zevon sang, “The doctor is in, and he’ll see you now / He don’t care who you are.”

Vampire stories are about death. However, vampires do not represent death. Vampires are rather those who have attempted to cheat death. In a sense, they too are victims. For example, this passage from early in Carmilla:

As we sat thus one afternoon under the trees a funeral passed us by. It was that of a pretty young girl, whom I had often seen, the daughter of one of the rangers of the forest. The poor man was walking behind the coffin of his darling; she was his only child, and he looked quite heartbroken. Peasants walking two-and-two came behind, they were singing a funeral hymn.

I rose to mark my respect as they passed, and joined in the hymn they were very sweetly singing.

My companion shook me a little roughly, and I turned surprised.

She said brusquely, “Don’t you perceive how discordant that is?”

“I think it very sweet, on the contrary,” I answered, vexed at the interruption, and very uncomfortable, lest the people who composed the little procession should observe and resent what was passing.

I resumed, therefore, instantly, and was again interrupted. “You pierce my ears,” said Carmilla, almost angrily, and stopping her ears with her tiny fingers. “Besides, how can you tell that your religion and mine are the same; your forms wound me, and I hate funerals. What a fuss! Why you must die —everyone must die; and all are happier when they do. Come home.”

“My father has gone on with the clergyman to the churchyard. I thought you knew she was to be buried to-day.”

“She? I don’t trouble my head about peasants. I don’t know who she is,” answered Carmilla, with a flash from her fine eyes.

“She is the poor girl who fancied she saw a ghost a fortnight ago, and has been dying ever since, till yesterday, when she expired.”

“Tell me nothing about ghosts. I shan’t sleep to-night, if you do.”

“I hope there is no plague or fever coming; all this looks very like it,” I continued. “The swineherd’s young wife died only a week ago, and she thought something seized her by the throat as she lay in her bed, and nearly strangled her. Papa says such horrible fancies do accompany some forms of fever. She was quite well the day before. She sank afterwards, and died before a week.”

“Well, her funeral is over, I hope, and her hymn sung; and our ears shan’t be tortured with that discord and jargon. It has made me nervous. Sit down here, beside me; sit close; hold my hand; press it hard—hard—harder.”

Of course, the main reason Carmilla is so nervous about this funeral is presumably because she knows all about the “ghost” the poor girl saw. But I think her obvious discomfort at funeral rites is more than just that. It’s also that Carmilla genuinely fears death, which is why she continues to exist as the abomination she is rather than face it.

I put it to you, then, that the real motif of these stories is the attempt to reconcile ourselves to the inevitability of death. And that’s why they resonate with us. The constant struggle against the universal law of entropy is the ultimate uniting force in storytelling. We all relate to it; we all understand it. Even the vampires understand it, for have they not sought to prolong their lives by unnatural means for fear of it?

Vampires do not represent death. They represent our fear of death. They are the seductive desire to give into our fear. To lie to ourselves, to pretend to something we are not. That’s why we all recognize the temptation. Vampire stories are ultimately about coming to terms with our own mortality.

But that, of course, is just my take. You may well see it differently. And of course, not all vampire stories are created equal. By this metric, Twilight isn’t even a vampire story at all, and not just because the blighters sparkle.

I struggle, though, to come up with a more plausible reason for why these same concepts resonate across different times and settings. The art of storytelling is in spinning a tale that speaks to people, and there’s nothing like fear of death to do that.

Of course, to bring all this back around to the very beginning, did Bram Stoker, or Sheridan Le Fanu, or anyone else for that matter, think about any of this stuff when they sat down to write? I’ll bet you they didn’t. Nobody would ever consciously set out to write a complex allegory about death. Rather, they wanted to tell a good story, and in doing so, tapped into ideas that are universal in the human experience.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This is a sequel to the original Universal Dracula film from 1931. It stars Lon Chaney Jr. as the titular vampire, although he is going by the name Alucard to avoid arousing suspicion. (There is a reason for this in vampire lore, but as a disguise it’s barely better than “Mr. Hilter.”) He is invited to New Orleans by a Katherine Caldwell (Louise Allbritton), the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner. Soon after his arrival, her father mysteriously dies, leaving his estate to Katherine and her sister Claire. (Evelyn Ankers)

Katherine’s boyfriend Frank (Robert Paige) is alarmed at her strange behavior, and enraged when he learns she has married Alucard in secret. He tries to shoot Alucard, but hits Katherine instead when the bullets go through his target. He flees in terror and grief, but after he confesses to the crime, returns to the estate with the police to find Katherine still apparently alive.

I say “apparently,” and I think you probably know why I said “apparently.” I’ll spare you the description of the part where they consult vampire experts to work it all out, and skip right to the bit where Katherine confesses to Frank that she truly loves him, and only wanted to obtain immortality. She asks Frank to join her as a vampire, and tells him how to destroy “Alucard” by burning his coffin.

However, Frank is not the type to be tempted by the dark powers. He is much more of a Frodo than a Boromir, and so he does the only thing his conscience will allow: burns both Alucard and Katherine’s coffins. The film ends with him staring solemnly at the flames.

How much darker is this than your typical old monster movie? Usually the good guys kill the monster and save the damsel at the end. Not here, though. I remember the first time I saw it (on television, late one Halloween) I was stunned at the bleak ending.

Also, the New Orleans setting works really well. The scene where Katherine meets Alucard one night on a swampy river is a particularly eerie one.

Speaking of Katherine, I really liked her character. She’s clearly an intelligent woman, seduced not so much by Dracula’s charms, which are minimal, but by the prospect of eternal life. It’s a classic trope, but it’s a classic because it works.

And here we get to the implicit “moral” built into the vampire legend. The vampire is a human which has obtained immortality, but at the price of their soul. The implication is that mortality is the burden we must bear, and seeking to subvert it, particularly at the cost of others’ lives, is an unnatural perversion. The vampire is fundamentally parasitic, since it can only live by consuming the blood of mortals.

So, bottom line: don’t trade your soul for immortality! It may sound like a good idea, but trust us; it isn’t. This is the fundamental theme of a huge amount of fiction. And so, this is obviously what makes the vampire myth so effective.

Thanks for your time, fellow horror fans, but I think we’ve pretty much cleared this one up easily. I’ll just show myself out.

<Columbo voice> Oh, uh, there is one more thing. How do you know if you’re trading your soul? Come to that, how did this Count, uh, Alucard did you say? How did he get the idea to trade his soul in the first place? Was he the first vampire? If so, how did he do it? If not, who was the first vampire? </End>

I’m asking these questions as a study of the literature, of course. But also as a student of history–what inspired this myth to begin with? Do we know? The story of Dracula is obviously iconic. But where did it come from? And why?

More questions than answers, I’m afraid. Our work is not done, but take heart; I feel sure that we are hot on the trail.

Dracula is about… oh, who am I kidding? You all know what Dracula is about. Even if you haven’t actually read it, you know the deal: vampire comes to England, mysterious things start happening to a couple of young women. One of them dies, and rises from the grave. Then her friend starts to have similar strange experiences. Eventually, her male friends, with the help of Doctor Van Helsing, realize she is being haunted by an undead monster.

That’s the story. I knew it long before I read the book, mostly because I’d seen the 1931 movie.

One thing I didn’t know was that the book was told as a series of letters among the characters. That was an interesting idea, and made the whole thing feel very immediate. Also, the movie minimizes the coolest scene in the book, the arrival of Dracula’s boat in England.

Now comes the part where I’m probably going to get into trouble: I don’t love the book. It is, in my opinion, just okay.

Part of this is not really anything intrinsic to the book. Dracula is iconic, and as such, most of the elements of it that must have seemed amazing at the time have now become clichés. Alas, there is just no way to read Dracula with the perspective of an 1890s Victorian reader.

But there are some books from the 1890s that still feel to me as fresh as if they were written yesterday. You know the book I mean, so I won’t rehash it again.

Dracula, I’m afraid, doesn’t feel that way to me. It feels dated. That’s not to say it’s bad, because it isn’t at all. It’s fine. More than fine, I suppose. It has become become iconic for some reason. What is that reason?

I’m privileged to know many talented writers and artists. One of the things we often talk about is whether art needs to have a meaning or not. The reason for this question is raised not so much by art, but by the field of art criticism, which follows all art but is never as substantial as art itself, like a mere shadow on a wall.

Is a work of fiction just a pure fragment of imagination? Or are there lessons about the real world that we can take away from fiction?

On the most obvious level, Dracula is about a vampire who comes to England. However, in the century-plus since its publication, critics have written all sorts of analyses of the meaning of Dracula. Dracula is “invasion literature.” Dracula is about tradition vs. modernity. Dracula is about Victorian sexual mores.

Is any of this remotely true? Or is it all a bunch of academic navel-gazing?

My feeling is, if you could ask Bram Stoker himself, he’d tell you Dracula was just a cool story about a vampire.

But then… Bram Stoker was a Victorian, and so it is reasonable to suspect that in the process of telling his cool vampire story, he included some elements of himself and the world he knew.

As an example, it is interesting to know that Stoker modeled the character of Dracula after Henry Irving, the most famous actor of the period. Stoker was Irving’s business manager, and it seems he both adored and feared the man. Indeed, he wanted Irving to play the part of Dracula on the stage, but Irving refused, perhaps believing that playing “modern” characters like Dracula (and Sherlock Holmes, BTW) was beneath him.

This is an interesting tidbit, and maybe it tells us something about Victorian society. Maybe the vampire legend’s enduring popularity can tell us other things about society.

Then again, maybe not. Maybe it is just a cool vampire story after all. Either way, though, don’t you want to stick around to find out? 🙂 As I did with the Headless Horseman legend last October, each weekend this month I’m going to take a look at some of the stories related to Dracula and see if there’s anything interesting to be discovered.

“Come with me, and I’ll be your guide,” H.P. Lovecraft said to me.
“I’m no Virgil, but you’re no Alighieri.”
 We set off into the night, separated but a scant few paces–
Our path lit by twinkling jack-o’-lantern faces.
The October moon was low, the westward wind howled sad.
“Lovecraft,” I asked, “Why did you have to be so bad?”
He stopped, and regarded me a while, then said:
“I was full of hate because I was afraid.”
Then he added, “But it may be my hate-filled heart
Alone could have produced my weird and fearful art.”
We walked in silence then, entering the grove
Where in the night wind, the hulking boughs creaked and hove.
Through the shadows, in the flickering moonlight’s glow,
I touched the dial on my pocket radio.
I half-expected I would hear, from some high desert, a distant Bell;
As if to summon me away, to Heaven or to Hell.
But only buzzing static greeted me instead–
The growling traces of a signal long ago gone dead.
I put the radio away, thinking it was foolish of me,
When suddenly, I thought I heard beating wings above me.
But gazing up, saw only that chill autumn sky.
My companion chuckled, “More things are here than you and I.”
We came into a clearing, the dead leaves crackling ‘neath our feet
And upon a huge, smooth stone, he bade me take a seat.
“Listen!” he commanded, “Listen to the cosmic hum around!”
I obeyed, and heard–no, felt!–that omnipresent sound.
Shapes and visions flashed inside my troubled mind–
Ghosts and devils, fiends and demons, ghouls of every kind.
Methought I saw whole worlds, whole realms our own beyond
And smoky black crevasses that in our own existence yawned.
“Do you see?” he asked, recalling me to that shadowy forest floor.
“I do,” I answered. “I see it all. And I would know more.”
He laughed. “Know more? No more! ‘Nevermore,’ as the poet Poe would say–
What we have seen exists only on life’s fringes, and there it’s bound to stay.
The nature of the weird and frightful is that it’s forever out of reach.
You and I are still upon the placid island–if only on its beach.”
He paused, and looked carefully, clinically at me.
“But,” he said at last. “You can still listen to that darkly murmuring sea.”
I closed my eyes, and listened, and could hear the awful roar–
Whether the black surf of the ocean, or the leaves that rustled o’er.
At last, my eyes I opened, and my companion had disappeared,
Leaving me alone with that tingling dread sensation of the Weird.
Upon the ground where he had stood, I saw a folded note.
I picked it up and from it read aloud the words he wrote:
“You and I, we are both strange and frightened men
Who find ourselves with but one tool to wield–the pen.
With this, we must gather and impart unto our friends
The things that we have seen–the things that shall remain when all else ends.”

tales-from-the-annexeThis is a collection of short stories by Audrey Driscoll, author of the Herbert West series, a brilliant re-imagining of H.P. Lovecraft’s amoral scientist. The first seven stories in the collection all tie in with the series. It’s probably not necessary to have read all the books to enjoy them, but I’d say at least The Friendship of Mortals is required reading for sufficient grounding.

“The Nexus” is told in a classic Lovecraftian fashion, in that it is a document contained in a letter. The letter’s author is Professor Quarrington of Miskatonic University. Quarrington reveals his ties to the Starry Wisdom cult, which features in one of my favorite Lovecraft tales, “The Haunter of the Dark.” He goes on to explain how, through his own peculiar skill for predicting the future, he sees great potential for good or evil in his student, Herbert West.

“Fox and Glove” is a mystery story, wherein West’s friend, librarian Charles Milburn, seeks to locate a specific book in the home of a recently-deceased bibliophilic professor to win a bet. Milburn enlists West’s aid in helping him acquire some clues, as only West can, and then sets about uncovering the mystery using his own knowledge of cataloging. One of my favorites from this collection.

“From the Annexe” is an exploration of the homoerotic elements of West and Milburn’s relationship. This story is probably the one that adds the least new information for those who have already read the series, but it’s still a fine character sketch.

“A Visit to Luxor” is a prelude to Driscoll’s novel, She Who Comes Forth. West–now traveling under the name Francis Dexter–and his servant Andre encounter a mysterious man in Egypt.

“One of the Fourteen”–West, again as Dexter, is forced to confront someone from his past at a pub. This story has more outright fantasy elements than the others, and demonstrates how far the protagonist has moved from the ultra-rationalism he displayed in his earlier career.

“The Night Journey of Francis Dexter” is similar to the one before, as Dexter is once again confronting something from his past. He intends to atone, but finds altogether more than he bargained for, and is again caught up in fantastic supernatural horrors.

“The Final Deadline of A.G. Halsey” is the most intriguing of all seven of these stories, because it is the prologue to an as-yet unwritten sequel to She Who Comes Forth. Even as she is dying, Alma Halsey is compiling information on the strange behavior of her grand-daughter since her return from Egypt.

In addition to these seven stories of the Herbert West series, the collection contains seven more standalone stories, and in my opinion, while the West stories are all good, this part is where it really starts to shine.

“Welcome to the Witch House” is a reimagining of Lovecraft’s The Dreams in the Witch House. Just as she did for Herbert West, Driscoll reinvents Lovecraft’s setting, populating it with real, human characters instead of the paper-thin ones HPL wrote. Driscoll’s retelling only gets as far as setting the stage for the action that takes place in Lovecraft’s story. As she notes in the afterword, she felt she had nothing to add to the rest of it, and abandoned the effort. I beg to differ. Witch House is one of Lovecraft’s most fascinating works to me–not because it’s good, but because it’s so weirdly flawed and yet so inexplicably compelling. To me, it contains both the best and worst aspects of his writing all at once. Driscoll’s touch would be most welcome.

The Ice Cream Truck From Hell” was originally posted in serial form on Driscoll’s blog. I read it when it was originally published, and I read it again when I bought this collection. It holds up beautifully on re-reading. The atmosphere is marvelous, and the characters–from young Will, the protagonist, to his troubled friend Harold “Doof” Duffy, to Will’s pompous father–are all expertly drawn. Both times I’ve read it, it’s made me think of Bradbury; specifically Something Wicked This Way Comes. The atmosphere of two kids wandering around in an October evening is wonderful, and the sinister ice cream truck and its crew aren’t even the most unsettling elements. Make no mistake; this collection is worth buying for this story alone. 

“The Colour of Magic” is about a young man named Marc, who is forced to share his home with a peculiar tenant while his mother is away. The strange lodger does nothing overtly threatening, and seems to be just a dreamy lover of incense and yoga, until she asks Marc to help her paint her room, at which point it becomes clear she is acquainted with far more esoteric forms of mysticism. It reminded me a little of Lovecraft’s The Music of Erich Zann–the mysterious older person who is clearly in touch with something far beyond the everyday. Beautifully written, of course, and leaves the reader with just enough information.

“A Howling in the Woods” is about a young boy abandoned in the woods by his father when he hears a mysterious noise. Eventually, he is found again, but not until after some strange transformation has taken place. There’s a bit of an environmentalist message to it, although everything is left very ambiguous. But the atmosphere is once again first-rate.

“The Glamour” is about a middle-class teenaged girl who becomes convinced she was switched at birth with the daughter of a posh family. Her obsession with confirming this notion leads her to an even more surprising discovery. This was really well done–at first, it felt like it could just be a YA story about a girl whose imagination had run away with her. But, as is so often the way in Driscoll’s stories, there’s more to it than meets the eye…

“The Blue Rose” is set in a society that seems to have been created after some dimly-remembered cataclysm. Deon is an artist who wishes to create a blue rose for an important ceremony, and he ventures outside the protective city limits and into the dangerous “blasted lands” to do it. The world of this story is first rate, and I’d be delighted to read more set in this place. Like “The Ice Cream Truck From Hell,” I’d read this before in another collection, but happily re-read it. It struck me on second reading that it really is about art, and the risks artists must take to make it. Creating art involves a kind of danger, if not generally the physical kind depicted here. To make something great is to run a risk, and often involves sacrificing a bit of oneself.

“The Deliverer of Delusions” is not actually the last story in the collection. It comes between “Witch House” and “Ice Cream Truck.” I presented all the others in the order the author arranged, but I had to save this one for last, because it’s a sequel to “The Repairer of Reputations,” by Robert W. Chambers.

Longtime readers probably know that I consider “Repairer of Reputations” to be the greatest work of weird fiction I’ve ever read. It’s simply perfect–spare, yet layered with fascinating ambiguities. It doesn’t overwhelm you with weirdness, it doesn’t announce its weirdness ahead of time, nor does it play it out too long and let it become mundane or tiresome. It gradually sinks its claws into you, and by the time you even notice something strange is going on, you’re in too deep to get out. It’s just a masterpiece.

I won’t say any more about it. If you like weird fiction–and you’re reading this blog, so you probably do–you should read it. Try not to read anything more about it before you read it, if you can. It’s important to go in with as few pre-conceived notions as possible.

So! That’s my take on “Repairer of Reputations.” Naturally, the idea of a sequel by a different author, even one as supremely gifted as Audrey Driscoll, filled me with trepidation. Can anyone write a sequel to another author’s work? A good story is like a distillation of a writer’s vision. Properly done, it conveys a whole mental image built up gradually in the synapses of an author’s brain. Can another author presume to match the resulting gestalt so perfectly? Should they? 

I have to be very careful what I say here, because I’m trying not to spoil either story. So, I’ll just say that “Deliverer of Delusions” is a worthy sequel to “Repairer of Reputations.” In fact, it adds on another layer to the original tale that I had never considered. Is it as good of a story? In my opinion, not quite. (It’s much shorter, for one thing.) But it follows the ancient principle “first, do no harm,” and detracts in no way from its legendary predecessor, and will be an enjoyable treat for fans of Chambers’ original story. But do read the original before you read this one! I must insist upon this; to do otherwise is simply a disservice to both stories.

Those are my reviews of all the stories in this collection. And yet, I feel my work is not done here. I’ve spoken of the trees, but not the forest. A proper collection of stories is more than the sum of its parts. I have compared Driscoll to Lovecraft, Bradbury, and Chambers–and she is certainly worthy of being mentioned alongside them. 

But it is unfair to her to merely say she writes admirably “in the manner of…” Driscoll’s style is uniquely hers. Reading this collection made me appreciate this more than ever. As I said above, stories are distillations of a vision, and a collection of stories is a window into an author’s mind; the creative world they inhabit that enables them to turn the everyday–an overheard distortion of Brahms’ “Lullaby,” for instance–into a whole world, complete with people and stories and history and mystery. 

It’s become a cliché to say that all of <some group of fictional works> take place in the same shared universe. But that’s true for authors. In some sense, all of an author’s works take place in a universe that exists within their head.

And the greats, like Driscoll, can take us to that universe and introduce us to the people, show us the color of the sky and let us smell the air. We come back again and again, and feel like we carry some part of the place around with us even when we leave. Tales from the Annexe transports you to a world of horror and mystery, magic and wonder. It’s a must-read.

WishboneYes, you read the year correctly. This is not in chronological order.  I saved the best for last. 

Wishbone, for those not in the know, was a children’s TV series about a talking Jack Russell terrier (voiced by Larry Brantley) who imagined himself in various classic works of literature. There was also a series of books based on the concept, and I’ve blogged before about the impact the Wishbone adaptation of le Fanu’s Green Tea had on me as an impressionable youth.

But this episode of the show takes the (dog) biscuit for greatest Wishbone-related Halloween memory in my childhood. The opening sequence, showing Wishbone the dog trotting through his hometown of Oakdale, makes me instantly nostalgic for the sidewalks of my own small hometown in October, when the leaves change and the kitschy decorations come out. Wishbone’s narration says it all:

“It’s late October, and everything seems just a little different… something strange is in the air. Something chilling. What could it be? Leaves are learning to dance… sheets are learning to fly… and pumpkins are suddenly growing faces! No doubt about it; there is something in the air. Something that makes people do the strangest things…”

Also, before I get going on the plot synopsis, can I just say how much I love this sweater worn in the opening scene by Ellen, (Mary Chris Wall) the mother of Wishbone’s teenaged owner, Joe (Jordan Wall)? Does it surprise you much to learn that I can’t resist a woman in a jack-o’-lantern sweater?

Ellen in a pumpkin sweater

Anyway, on to the story. Joe is nervous about Halloween, because he is superstitious, and fears the day will be bad luck for him. This feeling only worsens when a black cat crosses his path as he’s taking Wishbone for a walk. But that night, his friends Sam (Christie Abbott) and David (Adam Springfield) convince him to join the Halloween scavenger hunt sponsored by the town’s new sporting goods store. 

Joe’s superstitious anxiety reminds Wishbone of Ichabod Crane, and we now are transported to the world of Wishbone’s imagination, where he envisions himself as the protagonist of Washington Irving’s short story.

Let me pause for a moment. Here are some establishing shots of the location meant to be Tarrytown/Sleepy Hollow that they use in this episode:

ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION, HOLLYWOOD PEOPLE WHO BLEACH THE COLOR OUT OF EVERYTHING?

Seriously, you would think Hollywood literally believes color didn’t exist until color film was invented. Go back and see my review of the Tim Burton Sleepy Hollow and look at the stills. Now tell me which one better resembles Irving’s description in the original:

“It was, as I have said, a fine autumnal day, the sky was clear and serene, and Nature wore that rich and golden livery which we always associate with the idea of abundance. The forests had put on their sober brown and yellow, while some trees of the tenderer kind had been nipped by the frosts into brilliant dyes of orange, purple, and scarlet…

…As Ichabod jogged slowly on his way his eye, ever open to every symptom of culinary abundance, ranged with delight over the treasures of jolly Autumn. On all sides he beheld vast store of apples—some hanging in oppressive opulence on the trees, some gathered into baskets and barrels for the market, others heaped up in rich piles for the cider-press. Farther on he beheld great fields of Indian corn, with its golden ears peeping from their leafy coverts and holding out the promise of cakes and hasty pudding; and the yellow pumpkins lying beneath them, turning up their fair round bellies to the sun, and giving ample prospects of the most luxurious of pies…”

A 1997 children’s program starring a dog was able to do a better job of establishing atmosphere than a Hollywood production starring A-listers made a couple of years later. Think about that.

Joe reluctantly joins his friends on the scavenger hunt, where they find themselves competing against the school bully and the series’ running “villain” Damont Jones, and his annoying cousin Jimmy. 

Wishbone Cast
David (Adam Springfield), Sam, (Christie Abbott) and Joe (Jordan Wall) on a Halloween adventure.

After solving riddles that lead them to challenges like shooting galleries, toy racetracks, and an incredible Rube Goldberg machine, Joe, Sam and David find that the last leg of their journey takes them to an abandoned old house where, as young boy, Joe was frightened by a pair of mysterious glowing eyes looming at him out of the doorway.

Swallowing his fear, Joe follows his friends in. Damont has already gone inside, leaving Jimmie outside, shivering and repeating “He went in, but I’m not goin’ in,” in a super-creepy way. 

All this while, Wishbone has been imagining himself in the role of Ichabod, as he confronts his own worst supernatural nightmare. The adaptation is, as always on Wishbone, done gamely by actors who performed their roles far better than they needed to. Special shout-out to Baltus Van Tassel, who mutters, as he looks around at the autumn wind rustling the leaves, “There’s quite a brew stirring this evening.” Love the way he delivers this line. 

The great thing about Wishbone was that the writers almost never sugarcoated major plot elements in the stories, even though they were adapting them for children. Wishbone-as-Ichabod still gets a flaming jack-o’-lantern flung at him by the Horseman.  Admittedly, it’s just a hokey CGI jack-o’-lantern, but still, they weren’t pulling any punches. Likewise, they preserve the ambiguity of Irving’s original tale as to whether it really was a ghost, or just an elaborate prank.

The real-life plot with Joe, Sam, and David has a much happier ending, as our heroes emerge triumphant from the house, and Joe realizes that all along, the thing that had scared him in the old house was just that pesky black cat, which they see running out of the house. 

Everyone heads off for a party at the sporting goods store—but we catch one last glimpse of the old house that suggests maybe the eyes didn’t belong to the cat after all…

I’m sure there is a degree to which my impression of this show is colored by rose-tinted nostalgia glasses. But really, I just can’t imagine not finding it to be an enjoyable seasonal treat. It’s got just the right balance of fun, spookiness and mischief needed for a good Halloween story. And it’s designed to teach kids about reading. Not just how to read, but how to get the most out of reading—by seeing how stories you read are relevant to your own life. That was the real magic of the Wishbone series, and it’s on full display here. It’s a show about imagination, and to my mind, that’s what Halloween is all about, too. It’s a celebration of what we like to imagine might be out there in the darkest of forests after midnight; a holiday all about fantasy and mystery and magic. 

SHUnlike the cartoon I reviewed in last week’s post, this isn’t a simple adaptation of the Washington Irving story. It’s a “reboot” (although I don’t think that term was used in that sense in 1999) directed by Tim Burton, the go-to director for weird horror-comedies. 

Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is now not a school teacher, but a police detective, investigating a series of murders committed in the town of Sleepy Hollow, supposedly by the Horseman. Brom Bones (Casper Van Dien) is just a mook who gets killed off early on. Katrina (Christina Ricci) is still a wealthy farmer’s daughter, but she also becomes Ichabod’s sidekick in solving the “mystery.” 

Okay, I put mystery in quotes because there’s some tangled conspiracy where, for some reason, Katrina’s stepmother Mary (Miranda Richardson) has summoned the ghost of the Hessian soldier to avenge her family and also kill off a bunch of people relating to some land dispute among the families of the region.

And this is where I have to stop the review and say that if you’ve written a story about people who have summoned demonic ghosts from Hell in order to win some petty Hatfields-and-McCoys feud over who owns a piece of land, you should stop and think very carefully over whether this makes any sense whatsoever. The Headless Horseman is supposed to be the spirit of a soldier seeking revenge for his death in a strange and foreign country, to which he most likely was sent against his will.  He is not some hired gun to be enlisted for the purpose of settling real estate disputes.

This cheapens the Horseman irrevocably, and turns him into nothing more than a Final Boss that Johnny Depp must defeat by finding the right McGuffin. Not good, not good at all. The Headless Horseman is literally a part of the haunted, bewitching landscape of the glen, with its dreamy atmosphere and pervasive sense of history. He must be treated as such; not as something which can be controlled or seduced—no, not even by you, Miranda Richardson!

MR SH

You’ve probably figured out by now that I don’t like this movie, and you’re right. I wanted to like it. It’s creepy; it’s got a macabre sense of humor, and it has a great cast. I’m not a huge Depp fan, but look at some of the supporting players! Besides Richardson, you’ve got:

-Christopher Walken is the Horseman. Walken is a great actor to play villains and a famed cinematic weirdo. His performance is fine, but the Headless Horseman is not a villain! He’s a spirit! A dream! An embodiment of the unknowable and mysterious rift in the fabric of time and reality itself that seems to exist in the haunted region! Not bloody Max Zorin!

As if that weren’t enough, we also have not one, not two, but three Sith Lords:

-Ray Park is the Horseman during action/stunt sequences. He’s most famous as the guy who played Darth Maul and participated in one of the best cinematic duel sequences ever. His talents are used to minimal effect here.

-The late, great Christopher Lee as the Burgomaster. I forget what he does or why he’s there or what a Burgomaster is. (Maybe it’s what you do before you become a Count, since this was shortly before he appeared as Count Dooku in Star Wars. ) This is indicative of the problem with this film: you have Christopher Lee, legendary melodramatic villain, veteran of Hammer horror, contemporary of Vincent Price, and you waste him in a throwaway role. 

-Ian McDiarmid as the town doctor. “Hey, let’s get the man who played evil emperor Palpatine, the iconic arch-villain in the most famous film series of our time, and have him do absolutely nothing in a bit part!”

I hate it when talent gets wasted, and this movie is like a monument to wasting talent. There are so many good elements here that could have worked, but they didn’t because they weren’t used correctly. It’s supposed to be a ghost story, but the ghost isn’t scary when you know he’s just a goon who can be employed as mafia-style muscle. What we’re left with is a bunch of grisly murders committed for vague and emotionally-uninteresting reasons. 

Oh, one more thing—because let’s face it, I’ve got to get on my hobby horse—this film is a forerunner of the now abominably-common practice of making all movies set in the past in hideously washed-out shades of blue-grey. Look at this:

Sleepy Hollow 1999 washed out2

Ugh.

Well, that’s all for now. Remember this image though for next week, when we conclude the series, hopefully on a better note.

sleepy hollowDidn’t I warn you I’d talk more about the adaptations of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow?” Well, here we go with the first full sound film adaptation of the famous tale. (There was a silent film in 1922.)

Now, admittedly, it’s an animated film. 

And it’s a musical.

And it’s by Disney.

And, for some unfathomable reason, it was originally shown as a double-feature with an animated adaptation of The Wind and the Willows. I have no idea why. Maybe Disney was planning to create a horror anthology and do a musical animated version of The Willows by Algernon Blackwood, and got mixed-up. But probably not. Although that would have been much cooler.

Fortunately, it’s possible to get this film as a stand-alone piece, usually with its proper title, Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

I won’t bother to re-hash the plot here; I covered that in last week’s post. The basic plot is more or less faithful to the book, though with the predictable Disney caricature-ization. 

Ichabod is portrayed as a scrawny glutton. This is in keeping with how he’s described in the story, but it really looks weird on the screen: he’s always eating, and yet he’s comically thin. It seems incongruous, but maybe that was the point. Brom Bones is basically spot-on; I have no issues with him. And then we have Katrina, who I don’t think ever actually speaks or sings in the film, while Bing Crosby sings for both Ichabod and Brom Bones. The big show-stopping number is Brom’s recounting of the horseman legend set to music.

When Ichabod finally meets the Horseman, he is everything you could ask for:

Iceraichabodmrtoad5626

Note, however, that he carries a jack-o’-lantern from the start, rather than his decapitated head. I guess Disney didn’t want to traumatize kids too much, which is why the final dash for the bridge in which the ghostly rider pursues Ichabod is played more for slapstick comedy than horror. Not good. On the other hand, the film seems to emphasize the supernatural nature of the horseman, and downplays Brom Bones’ involvement.

Bing Crosby’s narration is appropriately spooky, especially the shudder in his voice as he says “I’m getting out of here!” at the end.

I remember watching this cartoon on VHS when I was a kid. My mom got it for me one Halloween, and I must have seen it a hundred times. I had a toy riding horse that I would sit on and pull my sweater up over my head and wave a sword while the climactic chase scene played out. I figured it looked pretty terrifying, and it’s true that this cartoon is aimed at an audience young enough to believe that, but it’s still a fun story, and while the characters may be drawn in a goofy, Disneyfied style, the backgrounds are actually pretty gorgeous.

All in all, a decent adaptation. There certainly could be much worse… as we’ll see next week.

John_Quidor_-_The_Headless_Horseman_Pursuing_Ichabod_Crane_-_Google_Art_Project
The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane, by John Quidor (1858)

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a short story, originally published in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. “Geoffrey Crayon” being a pseudonym of Washington Iriving.

It tells the story of Ichabod Crane, a schoolteacher in a region of New York known as Tarrytown in the early 19th-century. He is—if I may cut through the florid 19th-century lingo—kind of a jerk. He’s mean to his students, unless he sees an opportunity of mooching free meals off their mothers or flirting with their older sisters. 

Eventually, Ichabod’s fancy is caught by Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of the wealthy Baltus Van Tassel. One thing  that’s interesting is that Ichabod seems to be interested in her largely for a wealth—whether he has affection or even mere lust for her seems beside the point.

But another of Katrina’s suitors, the large, vigorous, Brom Bones (actually Brom Van Brunt, but his nickname is Brom Bones) does not take kindly to the girl he’d been wooing spending all her time with the awkward schoolmaster. 

These are the three main characters, and they’re all kind of humorously unlikable. Ichabod is a selfish moocher, Katrina is a vapid tease, and Brom is what we would today call a jock frat boy. The main body of the story is more like a sit-com than a ghost story.

The ghost aspect comes from the setting—Tarrytown, a sleepy, dreamy village in the Hudson valley where, Irving tells us:

“…population, manners, and customs remain fixed, while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved. They are like those little nooks of still water which border a rapid stream where we may see the straw and bubble riding quietly at anchor or slowly revolving in their mimic harbor, undisturbed by the rush of the passing current.”

In other words, it’s a place that seems removed from modernity—modernity, in this case, being 1820. Even when Irving wrote the story, “Sleepy Hollow” was hearkening back to an earlier era. No doubt he was targeting those 1790s kids who felt nostalgic for their childhood.

Anyway, things culminate with Ichabod going to a large harvest party at the sprawling Van Tassel farm, where folks swap ghost stories, such as the one about “The woman in white that haunted the dark glen at Raven Rock, and was often heard to shriek on winter nights before a storm, having perished there in the snow.” And finally, of course, the region’s most popular legend: the story of a ghostly Hessian soldier who, having lost his head to a cannonball in the war, rides forth each night in search of a replacement. 

Ichabod, who is a devoted reader of Cotton Mather, is much troubled by such tales. He leaves the party in a state of agitation, and our narrator suggests that perhaps Katrina has dumped him, although this is ambiguous. At any rate, Ichabod is riding home alone, feeling rather miserable when he encounters a huge, headless rider mounted upon a black horse.

Furiously, Ichabod urges his own horse towards the old church bridge, which, according to a story of the horseman related by Brom Bones, the horseman will not cross. Ichabod successfully manages to cross the bridge and turns just in time to see the horseman hurling his head at him. 

Yes, that’s right—his head. The horseman carries his severed head with him on his saddle. And this is where the story becomes a bit ambiguous because the next day, as the townsfolk investigate Ichabod’s sudden disappearance, they do not find a head at the old church bridge, but do find the shattered remains of a pumpkin. 

The story is deliberately vague after that—while Ichabod is never seen again in Tarrytown, some say he simply moved, and is alive and well in another part of the country. Brom Bones—who, we are told, marries Katrina, looks “exceedingly knowing” whenever anyone brings up the subject of Ichabod, suggesting that perhaps the notorious prankster had simply disguised himself as a headless horsemen, seeking to frighten off his rival.

Of course, the more superstitious residents of the town believe that Crane became a victim of the ghostly Hessian. And after all, since we already have strong reason to think Ichabod was spurned by Katrina at the party, why would Brom have even needed to pull such an elaborate stunt? (Unless he was just adding injury to insult, which would be exactly the kind of move we might expect from Brom.)

This brings me back to what I think is the most curious thing about this story: it plays out like a romantic comedy—or more accurately, one of those anti-romantic comedies where all the characters seem self-absorbed, and the comedy results from the interplay of their attempts to get what they want. In fact, if you take away all the supernatural elements and think of it in modern terms, it’s basically a mean-spirited high-school comedy, where the rich cheerleader and the superstar quarterback screw over the know-it-all nerd.

Which seems like the sort of thing that might actually happen, and indeed almost makes me wonder if the eponymous “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” isn’t the thing about the headless ghost at all, but rather the legend of a love triangle that ended in a bizarre prank. In other words, it seems almost like the sort of thing that could have actually happened. Apparently, Irving did know people named “Ichabod Crane” and “Katrina Van Tassel.” Real-life Ichabod Crane was a captain in the army, not a schoolteacher, but real-life Katrina seems to have been more or less like the character in the story, which again makes me wonder how much of this was based on real events or gossip Irving picked up. 

But obviously, it’s the ghost aspect that has made this story famous. And is it ever famous! It’s one of the first and most iconic pieces of post-revolution American literature, and has been adapted many, many times. (More about that later this month.) There are places all over the country named “Sleepy Hollow.” Ichabod and the ghostly Hessian are commemorated on postage stamps and in statuary. Most people know the story even though they never read the original. It’s the quintessential American ghost story.

October is my favorite month, and Halloween is my favorite holiday. If you’re like me, you probably want some good books to read for the season. Here are a few recommendations.

Harvest: A Short Story from the Pumpkin Patch by Jason H. Abbott. This is a fun short story, a little bit spooky and a little bit sweet, about a couple of characters who find they have a lot in common. Here’s my full review.  

The Witch Under the Mountain, by Audrey N. Allison. A father tells his young daughters a bedtime story about an evil witch that proves to be more than just a legend. Fun for all ages, and great artwork too. My full review is here.

The Bone Curse, by Carrie Rubin. The first in Rubin’s Benjamin Oris series, this book is a supernatural medical thriller that forces its protagonist to question whether the horrors he encounters have a rational explanation, or stem from a centuries-old Vodou curse. Serious horror–Stephen King fans will love it. Full review here.

The Almost-Apocalypse of Apple Valley, by Phillip McCollum. Another one for Stephen King fans, this book combines ’80s nostalgia with supernatural horror, as four kids must confront a horrible evil plaguing their town. I’ve not done a full review of this book, but here’s my mini-review: It’s very good.

Jersey Ghost Stories by Erren Michaels and Noah Goats. A collection of ghost legends from the island of Jersey. Some are creepy, some are gruesome, some are poignant, and all are haunting. My full review.

The Friendship of Mortals by Audrey Driscoll. Book 1 in Driscoll’s splendid reimagining of H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West character, this book tells the story of a scientist obsessed with revivifying the dead, as told by his less gifted, but more moral friend. My full review.

The Raven and Other Tales by Joy V. Spicer. A collection of short stories, some of which are re-imaginings of classic tales and poems. Haunting and evocative–perfect for Autumn. My full review is here and Lydia Schoch’s is here.

If you have other suggestions, please let me know. Happy October! Keep the home jack-o’-lanterns burning.