Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 31: Till My Ghastly Tale is Told

I've decided, for this last post, to end at the beginning, the metaphorical beginning, sort of, anyway. In terms of modern horror, though, the night in 1816, in a house off of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, when Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, John Polidori, and one other person I don't care about, gathered together for probably all sorts of reasons, but left the rest of the world who couldn't get in on that action one of the greatest novels in the horror genre, and also a short story that's kind of a piece of shit. So let us hop into my Delorean and, as Christopher Lloyd once so famously urged, go "all the way backwards into the past."

Not that this post is going to be about that night. It's not even going to be about Frankenstein, or how much or how little credit Percy Shelley should get for that great novel. I know there's a push these days to shift focus away from Mary and over to Percy as the real brains, or at least the real stylist, behind Frankenstein, but for one thing, I simply don't care, and I will always consider Mary the author, and for another thing as terrific as the book is, almost front to back (it's not perfect, obviously, but whatever) the core brilliance of it is in the ideas. Frankenstein is one of those perfect ideas that is so rich that other writers have been able to play off it, quite rewardingly even, again and again in the almost two hundred years since, with the understanding, always explicit, that this is Mary Shelley's ground, we know that, but it can't be left alone. It's too good. No, this post is going to be about a later Mary Shelley story, as well as, apart from Frankenstein, the only other complete work of fiction to come out of that evening, John Polidori's The Vampyre: A Tale, which is now considered to be the first vampire story, as we might think of those, ever written. It gave birth to the genre, basically, so that's an accomplishment. But, you's sort of lousy.
This is not an original opinion. I'm not sure anybody now really likes "The Vampyre," and having read it now I find no reason to push against that tide of negativity. The story is, two guys suddenly find themselves moving into London society at the same time. One of them, our hero, is Aubrey, a young man who fell ass-backwards into a pile of money when his parents died, and is beholden in any way only to his sister, who I guess also got a wad of cash out of the deal, so he, Aubrey, a romantic fellow, enters London society, and is found by the ladies of that society to be most winning:

He was handsome, frank, and rich: for these reasons, upon his entering into the gay circles, many mothers surrounded him, striving which should describe with least truth their languishing or romping favourites: the daughters at the same time, by their brightening countenances when he approached, and by their sparkling eyes, when he opened his lips, soon led him into false notions of his talents and his merit.

You get the gist: swelled head, handsome fellow, romping favourites. But he's no dummy, and the romantic notions of life and women that he'd picked up from books he soon realizes is maybe kind of bogus. However, then he meets Lord Ruthven, the other, more mysterious, person to recently enter high society. Lord Ruthven's face bears a "deadly hue," he has one "dead gray eye," (I think it's just the one) and he stares at people a lot, doesn't talk much, but the ladies seem to take to him, as well. For example:

Lady Mercer, who had been the mockery of every monster shewn in drawing-rooms since her marriage, threw herself in his way, and did all but put on the dress of a mountebank, to attract his notice: - though in vain: - when she stood before him, though his eyes were apparently fixed upon hers, still it seemed as if they were unperceived; even her unappalled impudence was baffled, and she left the field.

That is ice cold, baffling a lady's unappalled impudence like that. And perhaps you noticed that unbelievably goofball punctuation, that batshit colon-dash-colon-dash dump right in the middle there. And the commas! I thought I overused them, but Polidori scatters them like road spikes out of the back of James Bond's car (that's good, right?). The point is, very early in "The Vampyre" is all screwy and straining for the kind of educated and worldly prose that Mary Shelley achieved in Frankenstein. That's not to say Polidori wasn't educated, he was, but he wasn't much of a writer. To give you some better examples, I should inform you that Aubrey is fascinated by Ruthven, and accompanies him on a trip across mainland Europe. There, Aubrey clues into this weird power that Ruthven has of drawing women into his circle and, not turning them into vampires, or killing them, as you might expect, but rather turning them into slutty jerks. Aubrey's having none of that and tells Ruthven that he'd like to part company and go his own way. Ruthven says "Okay," and Aubrey moves on to Greece, where he meets a girl:

Under the same roof as himself, existed a being, so beautiful and delicate, that she might have formed the model for a painter, wishing to portray oil canvass the promised hope of the faithful Mahomet's paradise, save that her eyes spoke too much mind for any one to think she could belong to those who had no souls. As she danced upon the plain, or tripped along the mountain's side, one would have thought the gazelle a poor type of her beauties; for who would have exchanged her eye, apparently the eye of animated nature, for that sleepy luxurious look of the animal suited but to taste of an epicure.

So what you're saying is, she's pretty. Also, in the next sentence Polidori just drops the fact that her name is Ianthe so casually that I thought at first that "Ianthe" was another reference, like "Mahomet" (Lord Ruthven's name is revealed in a similar way). Anyway, the story is packed with this kind of writing. All it is, is this kind of writing. Everything that can be stated not only can but should be overstated; anything that can be stated plainly can be obscured by nonsense. Or, now and then, what you can do is, you can state something so plainly that the reader is somehow, against all logic, left wondering what you meant. So, Ianthe's not long for this world, Lord Ruthven also kills women and he kills her, and when Aubrey is there, cradling her dead body, her parents show up:

To describe their grief would be impossible; but when they ascertained the cause of their child's death, they looked at Aubrey, and pointed to the corpse. They were inconsolable; both died broken-hearted.

What, right then? Are we meant to think that, many unhappy years down the road, Ianthe's parents slipped sadly into the Great Unknown, thoughts of their lost daughter never far from their minds, or there, that night, they pointed at Ianthe's body, went "Ack! Grief!" and then died? Obviously, my preference is for the latter, but I would have liked to read another giant block of text barely explaining it in further detail. Polidori did manage to appease me with his ridiculous ending, however. It's all so stupidly overheated, and I've rambled about this one long enough, but I'm going to skip ahead and spoil it. Basically, Ruthven sets his evil eye on Aubrey's sister, she falls for him, Aubrey's all "We'll see about that!", everybody else is all "You're crazy!" so that by the time Aubrey tracks down his sister, who has by now married Ruthven, it's too late. The last line of "The Vampyre" is:

Lord Ruthven had disappeared, and Aubrey's sister had glutted the thirst of a VAMPYRE!

Like the reveal that Ruthven's a vampire is a shocking twist. Not only has Ianthe already indirectly clued Aubrey, and therefore the reader, into this, but the story is called "The Vampyre." That exclamation point did make me shit my pants, though. The funny thing is, Polidori had to fight for the credit of having written this, because at the time (it was published in 1820) people naturally assumed Lord Byron was the real author (all these people, Shelley, Byron, Polidori, were connected, and Polidori was reworking a basic idea from Byron). Lord Byron, less surprisingly, was frustrated over having been linked to "The Vampyre." "Thanks, but no thanks," is what I imagine he said about fifty times a day, through gritted teeth.
Moving on to finer things, lastly we have Mary Shelley's "Transofrmation." Written in 1831 (nine years after Percy Shelley died, making it impossible for him to shepherd her through the writing of this (or any number of other novels and stories) very good story, as Stuart Gordon, of all people, notes in his introduction to The Mammoth Book of Body Horror, where you can find "Transformation," so take that, you stupid jerks), it tells the story of Guido, an Italian orphan taken in by the Marchese Troella, a kind and wealthy man -- Guido himself is due a very decent inheritance down the line -- whose daughter Juliet catches young Guido's eye. Shades of Victor Frankenstein and Elizabeth, there, but this romance goes rather differently. Guido's affections are reciprocated, but the problem is, Guido is kind of a shithead. A different kind of shithead from Victor Frankenstein, I should note. "I desired to see the world," Guido says, "and I was indulged":

I was arrogant and self-willed; I loved display, and above all, I threw all control far from me. Who could control me in Paris? My young friends were eager to foster passions which furnished them with pleasures. I was deemed handsome -- I was master of every knightly accomplishment. I was disconnected with any political party. I grew a favourite with all: my presumption and arrogance were pardoned in one so young: I became a spoiled child. Who could control me? not the letters and advice of Torella -- only strong necessity visiting me in the abhorred shape of an empty purse. But there were means to refill this void. Acre after acre, estate after estate, I sold. My dress, my jewels, my horses and their caparisons, were almost unrivalled in gorgeous Paris, while the lands of my inheritance passed into possession of others.

He gets worse, too. He burns through his inheritance and can't support Juliet without hand-outs from Torella, and any plea for sensible behavior is at best scoffed at, at worst it results in violence. Eventually, Guido is cast out, though he knows that a changing of his ways and mind will bring him back into the fold, and he will be free to marry Juliet. But he resists, and becomes bitter and impoverished, until one day, while witnessing a horrible shipwreck from a rocky shore, he meets a strange dwarf who seems to have scrambled to safety from the sinking ship. The first words the dwarf says are "By St. Beelzebub!", which, right there, is a clue. Seeing an evil in Guido's heart similar to his own "To what saint did you offer prayers, friend -- if not to mine?") the dwarf listens to Guido's tale of self-made woe and makes a curious offer: the dwarf while inhabit Guido's handsome body for three days; Guido will inhabit the dwarfs somewhat demonic form for the same period of time. Guido's reward will be the dwarfs wooden chest filled with gold and jewels, which he can use to fund his revenge against those who he, Guido, feels have done him wrong. Guido is unsure, but agrees. And guess what? After three days, the dwarf doesn't show up to switch back. He did leave the treasure, and food, but now Guido is stuck in a body that Mary Shelley describes in uncharitable terms (I myself have chosen to go easy in that regard). Furious and frustrated, and also coming to realize that this mess, the whole mess of his life, is his own fault, Guido twigs to what the dwarf is probably up to, and he chases after him, back to Genoa.

"Transformation" offers up a number of possible endings, and I frankly believe that Shelley chose the easiest one. It's not that the ending doesn't work, but the moral lesson being taught -- and I'm not against that, particularly since the lesson is essentially "Don't be an asshole" -- might have carried with it a few more barbs. It's described rather well, and rather interestingly, and anyway I hope that you, like me, can easily see the difference between Shelley's prose and Polidori's, but though he's filled with remorse, Guido comes out of this rather more unscathed than I think is appropriate. Or, I don't know..."appropriate" doesn't sound right. But something more visceral. Still, he has to live with himself, which as Shelley sees it constitutes a wound that won't heal.

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