Monday, October 31, 2005

Lesbian Vampires in 19th Century Literature*

*"If that don't fetch them, I don't know Arkansaw!" Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

My vast blog-reading public: Lesbian vampires! Damn, woman! About time you got around to writing something worth reading!
Me: Glad to oblige. Always good to hear from the both of you.

A few weeks ago, I found myself watching television. That is to say, a few weeks ago, I was baking a double batch of cookies and the proximity of television to our open kitchen meant that I would be exposed to television for the duration of the cookie-baking. Not being particularly fond of television with commercials, I made sufficient noise to control the content of what we would watch. I chose, unwisely, an On Demand movie adaptation of a rather successful franchise of children’s literature known as A Series of Unfortunate Events, starring Jim Carrey. I had read several of these novels – the niece is very fond of them – and they did seem to be the only thing on the YA bookshelves capable of holding their own against the Hogwarts hegemony.

My vast blog-reading public: Cookies? Children’s literature? AMERICAN children’s literature? Where are the lesbian vampires?
Me: They’ll be here. It all ties together.

So there we were watching the movie which was a quick shuffle of the first three novels. And I’ll say this: the sets and costumes were great. But there’s the trouble. When you start praising sets and costumes over plot and acting, you know you’ve found today’s Hollywood.

Jim Carrey had the enviable part of Count Olaf, the dastardly guardian who plots to defraud the Baudelaire orphans of their immense fortune. From his first scene, a sweeping descent of a rickety staircase in a loathsomely decrepit house, Carrey gave it every tic and twitch of evil he could muster. But a half-hour of his smirks and moustache twirling bravado soon wore thin. And he didn't even have a moustache.

My husband: Is this true to the books?
Me: Yeah…it is. Jeez. I guess those books really sucked.

And I had to acknowledge it. The latest installment in children’s villainy was nothing more than a dumbed-down, truncated version of the greatest darkly seductive, inheritance-defrauding rotter of all time: Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas.

Now for those of you who think I get a little fanatical about Horslips; you should have seen me in the height of my J.S. Le Fanu mania. Indeed, the sharp-eyed among you might have noticed how I worked in a plug for Le Fanu on my Horslips site.

It all goes back to when I was twelve and found The Fireside Book of Ghost Stories, edited by Edward Wagenknecht and published by Grosset & Dunlap (New York, 1947) in the parents’ library. Most of the stories were good stuff: haunted galleries, portraits that dripped blood from the frames, possessed rocking horses, abandoned girls’ schools with the friendly ghosts of diphtheria fever victims: all the usual mechanisms of mid-century supernatural fiction. There was one stand-out from Arthur Conan Doyle called The Silver Mirror which related the story of an antique-store acquisition that had recorded the downsizing of Mary Stuart’s secretary at Holyrood Castle.

And then, at twelve mind you, I started reading Madame Crowl’s Ghost by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. At the time, I assumed it was set in Louisiana. That really doesn’t matter. If I did a movie of it, I’d probably still set it in Louisiana.

This is exactly how far in the story I got:

"Well, my dear, I came to the side o' the bed, the curtains bein' close, and my heart a'most failed me. But I took courage, and I slips my finger in between the thick curtains, and then my hand. So I waits a bit, but all was still as death. So, softly, softly I draws the curtain, and there, sure enough, I sid before me, stretched out like the painted lady on the tomb-stean in Lexhoe Church, the famous Dame Crowl, of Applewale House. There she was, dressed out. You never sid the like in they days. Satin and silk, and scarlet and green, and gold and pint lace; by Jen! 'twas a sight! A big powdered wig, half as high as herself, was a-top o' her head, and, wow!--was ever such wrinkles?--and her old baggy throat all powdered white, and her cheeks rouged, and mouse-skin eyebrows, that Mrs. Wyvern used to stick on, and there she lay proud and stark, wi' a pair o' clocked silk hose on, and heels to her shoon as tall as nine-pins. Lawk! But her nose was crooked and thin, and half the whites o' her eyes was open. She used to stand, dressed as she was, gigglin' and dribblin' before the lookin'-glass, wi' a fan in her hand and a big nosegay in her bodice. Her wrinkled little hands was stretched down by her sides, and such long nails, all cut into points, I never sid in my days. Could it even a bin the fashion for grit fowk to wear their fingernails so?

"Well, I think ye'd a-bin frightened yourself if ye'd a sid such a sight. I couldn't let go the curtain, nor move an inch, nor take my eyes off her; my very heart stood still. And in an instant she opens her eyes and up she sits, and spins herself round, and down wi' her, wi' a clack on her two tall heels on the floor, facin' me, ogglin' in my face wi' her two great glassy eyes, and a wicked simper wi' her wrinkled lips, and lang fause teeth.

"Well, a corpse is a natural thing; but this was the dreadfullest sight I ever sid. She had her fingers straight out pointin' at me, and her back was crooked, round again wi' age. Says she:

"'Ye little limb! what for did ye say I killed the boy? I'll tickle ye till ye're stiff!'

"If I'd a thought an instant, I'd a turned about and run. But I couldn't take my eyes off her, and I backed from her as soon as I could; and she came clatterin' after like a thing on wires, with her fingers pointing to my throat, and she makin' all the time a sound with her tongue like zizz-zizz-zizz.

And with that, I dropped the book to the floor and spent the next week sleeping with the light on. It is worth noting that, as far as plot went, nothing supernatural had occurred. Indeed, no act of violence had been committed. But the scene so frightened me at, a sense of uneasiness came over me whenever I flipped past the unfinished pages of that story. I didn’t even read the stories next to it.

Sometime in my mid-thirties, I gave it a second go. And the pay-off of discovering Madame Crowl’s crime was dark and rich and chilling. From there, I read anything of Le Fanu’s I could find.

My vast blog-reading public: Not to rush things, but: vampires? Lady vampires in particular?
Me: You know, you could just google on "lesbian vampires" and get some cheap porn-site from San Fernando Valley.
My vast blog-reading public: I did that while you were going on about Mary Stuart.

Okay. Vampires. There’s Varny the Vampire, a fairly tawdry thing from 1847. And there’s The Vampyre from John Polidori, a runner-up novel in the bet that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein won.

And then there’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, from 1897. And if it fell short on lesbian credentials, it still delivered a psycho-sexual vampire kick:

The girl went on her knees, and bent over me, simply gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the sharp white teeth…Then she paused and I could hear the churning sound of her tongue as it liked her teeth and lips, could feel the hot breath on my neck…I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the super-sensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in a languorous ecstasy and waited – waited with beating heart…

Well, I’ll bet you just did, Jonathan Harker! As Stephen King summed it up in Danse Macabre, his exploration of the craft of horror fiction "In the England of 1897, a girl who ‘went on her knees’ was not the sort of girl you brought home to meet your mother."

But for all these voluptuous predatory women of dark allure, these brides of Dracula -- and let’s not forget that close, loving bond between Lucy Westerna and Mina Murray –- for all that subtext of sexual politics and the male fear of an awakening power and fury in the female of the species: J.S. Le Fanu could say "Been there. Done that. Drove the stake through the T-Shirt."

Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1897, and is foreshadowed by a new century of light and modern psychology. It is a whole quarter of a century earlier, while in seclusion in a house on Merrion Square Dublin, that Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu writes a short story called Carmilla, which was published in a collection of short stories called In A Glass Darkly. A year later, he dies.

And on this night of shadows, Anne Rice better be lighting a candle in Le Fanu’s honor this very moment…

Carmilla wastes no time in setting the mood. Laura, the narrator, is the lonely daughter of a retired civil servant living in minor luxury in a mythic mid-European region called Styria. There is a hint of not belonging, of alienation from the locale and its people: "My father is English, and I bear an English name, although I never saw England. But here, in this lonely and primitive place, where everything is so marvellously cheap, I really don’t see how ever so much more money would at all materially add to our comforts, or even luxuries."

There is an early incident in the nursery, which is a precursor of things to come:

I was not frightened, for I was one of those happy children who are studiously kept in ignorance of ghost stories, of fairy tales, and of all such lore as makes us cover up our heads when the door cracks suddenly, or the flicker of an expiring candle makes the shadow of a bed-post dance upon the wall, nearer to our faces. I was vexed and insulted at finding myself, as I conceived, neglected, and I began to whimper, preparatory to a hearty bout of roaring; when to my surprise, I saw a solemn, but very pretty face looking at me from the side of the bed. It was that of a young lady who was kneeling, with her hands under the coverlet. I looked at her with a kind of pleased wonder, and ceased whimpering. She caressed me with her hands, and lay down beside me on the bed, and drew me towards her, smiling; I felt immediately delightfully soothed, and fell asleep again. I was wakened by a sensation as if two needles ran into my breast very deep at the same moment, and I cried loudly. The lady started back, with her eyes fixed on me, and then slipped down upon the floor, and, as I thought, hid herself under the bed.

I was now for the first time frightened, and I yelled with all my might and main. Nurse, nursery-maid, housekeeper, all came running in, and hearing my story, they made light of it, soothing me all they could meanwhile. But, child as I was, I could perceive that their faces were pale with an unwonted look of anxiety, and I saw them look under the bed, and about the room, and peep under tables and pluck open cupboards; and the housekeeper whispered to the nurse: "Lay your hand along that hollow in the bed; some one did lie there, so sure as you did not; the place is still warm."

Later, as a young woman, Laura is simply dying for friendship. Indeed, she will come very close to dying for friendship. A chance accident on the road leaves a mysterious young woman as an invalid in her house: "I was longing to see and talk to her; and only waiting till the doctor should give me leave. You, who live in towns, can have no idea how great an event the introduction of a new friend is, in such a solitude as surrounded us."

The two girls share an instant bond:

I took her hand as I spoke. I was a little shy, as lonely people are, but the situation made me eloquent, and even bold. She pressed my hand, she laid hers upon it, and her eyes glowed, as, looking hastily into mine, she smiled again, and blushed.

"I don’t know which should be most afraid of the other," she said, again smiling—"If you were less pretty I think I should be very much afraid of you, but being as you are, and you and I both so young, I feel only that I have made your acquaintance twelve years ago, and have already a right to your intimacy; at all events it does seem as if we were destined, from our earliest childhood, to be friends. I wonder whether you feel as strangely drawn towards me as I do to you; I have never had a friend—shall I find one now?" She sighed, and her fine dark eyes gazed passionately on me.

And so the friendship between Carmilla and Laura begins:

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.
Her agitations and her language were unintelligible to me.

From these foolish embraces, which were not of very frequent occurrence, I must allow, I used to wish to extricate myself; but my energies seemed to fail me. Her murmured words sounded like a lullaby in my ear, and soothed my resistance into a trance, from which I only seemed to recover myself when she withdrew her arms.
In these mysterious moods I did not like her. I experienced a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable, ever and anon, mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust. I had no distinct thoughts about her while such scenes lasted, but I was conscious of a love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence. This I know is paradox, but I can make no other attempt to explain the feeling.

And so it goes:

"And so you were thinking of the night I came here?" she almost whispered. "Are you glad I came?"

"Delighted, dear Carmilla," I answered.

"And you asked for the picture you think like me, to hang in your room," she murmured with a sigh, as she drew her arm closer about my waist, and let her pretty head sink upon my shoulder. "How romantic you are, Carmilla," I said. "Whenever you tell me your story, it will be made up chiefly of some one great romance."

She kissed me silently.

"I am sure, Carmilla, you have been in love; that there is, at this moment, an affair of the heart going on."

"I have been in love with no one, and never shall," she whispered, "unless it should be with you."

How beautiful she looked in the moonlight!

Shy and strange was the look with which she quickly hid her face in my neck and hair, with tumultuous sighs, that seemed almost to sob, and pressed in mine a hand that trembled.

Her soft cheek was glowing against mine. "Darling, darling," she murmured, "I live in you; and you would die for me, I love you so."

Again, I remind you: this is 1872. And written in Merrion Square, Dublin Ireland.

The entire text is here on the online Literature of the Fantastic Library. J. S. Le Fanu’s brief biography is here on Gothic Labyrinth, and here on Kirjasto.Sci.Fi. A bibliography of writings about Le Fanu has been compiled by Gary William Crawford here.

Oh, and by the way: Dracula Blogged.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Don't leave me hanging on the Tara Telephone

One of the projects that I've been slowly working on throughout the summer for Come Back Horslips, is a history and online exhibit of the poems and art of Tara Telephone.

Visit the main Tara Telephone page of my project so far and you'll read the basic history that usually appears on other sites. Scroll down a bit and read from Mark Cunningham's Hot Press article on Horslips, which shows how Tara Telephone brought together rock voices and literary traditions in a wild, experimental mix. And some traditional music thrown in for good measure.

I know this story. It's the Haight-Ashbury in the 60s, North Beach in the 50s, Greenwich Village in the 30s and 40s, Paris in the 20s...and right now in any number of crossroads of urban culture and young people ready to take it on.

Obviously I only learned about Tara Telephone through reading Horslips' histories but in April I made an exciting discovery of a connection between Tara Telephone and Gallery Press.

I'd been a fan of the Gallery Press catalog ever since I bought my first volumes of Ciaran Carson's poetry, and that predates my discovery of Horslips. Finding this link encouraged me to look for Tara Telephone publications and learn as much as possible about the group.

Much work has now been done. A bit more to do, but a couple of people have seen a preview and say it is looking good. I'm torn between making each page available as it is finished or waiting until the whole collection (as far as I have it) can go live. And at that point I'll also figure out how to situate it on the site.

But the Tara Telephone link of recently updated pages has moved off the top of my site screen and I want to give the links to the pages already live:

Tara Telephone
Tara Telephone Introduction
A Tale of Love, Poster Poem 2