Friday, December 24, 2010

Classic Literature: The Vampire and the Devil’s Son

This novel by Pierre-Alexis Ponsin du Terrail is another piece of 19th century literature made available to us through the hard work of Brian Stableford, who translated, annotated and introduces the volume for us. If we look to this volume's blurb for a moment it will give us a flavour of the novel:

The Black Huntsman who never rests. With his whip in his hand from dawn to dusk, Following the hunt with his horn to his mouth, There'll be deaths in the manor by morning!

"I believe," the dead woman said, "that there is no need to explain to you by means of a lie how it comes about that, ten years after my death, I have such supple flesh, such rounded arms, and a neck so pink and white. You can see that I am a vampire..."

“1723. The fearless Baron de Nossac returns from a daring military mission in Eastern Europe when, crossing the forests of Bohemia, he is captured by the legendary Black Huntsman, a 900-year-old wraith who is none other than the Devil's own son. Held prisoner at the Hunstman's enchanted castle, the Baron is then seduced by a female vampire who resembles his dead wife.

“Written in 1852 by the creator of Rocambole, The Vampire and the Devil's Son is a significant contribution to the development of modern horror fiction and a foreshadowing of literary things to come, bringing together for the first time two major modern archetypes: the seductive female vampire and the Son of the Devil.”

Now, to be clear, whilst the blurb mentions two modern archetypes I will only be looking at the first in any depth! What we should also understand is that this was written when there was a style – certainly in the French literary circles – that demanded that mysteries, even Gothic mysteries such as this, should have a rational explanation that either negated or obscured the supernatural element.

Does this mean that the vampire is not real? You will have to read the book to find out. What interests me is the lore used within the book and we should also bear in mind that this was written some twenty years before Carmilla and, whilst there had been other female vampires, this one is certainly centre stage and, within herself, seductive.

The Baron is spending his first night with the Black Huntsman – allegedly the Devil’s Son – and he has already encountered the Huntsman’s wife. At first a corpse, laid out in her coffin, wearing a mask – indeed her husband and sons all wear masks – she gets out of her coffin and joins the feast. She seems to have the same voice as the Baron’s dead wife, Hélène, but when they all take their masks off – at the Baron’s insistence – their faces are all skeletal with worms crawling over the bones.

That night the Baron is approached, in his bed, by a white form. He recognises it as a vampire and the text actually goes as far to suggest “Dom Calmet, had published a book only two or three years earlier, in which he offered proof, as clear as daylight, that nothing is more natural than a vampire.” – That book would be Treatise on Vampires and Revenants: The Phantom World. As the vampire sucks his blood “he experienced a sort of indefinable voluptuousness, a bitter enjoyment of that atrocious contact.” In other words he gained pleasure from the attack.

The next day the terrifying atmosphere shifts and the Baron finds himself in a pastoral scene. The Huntsman and his sons all have normal faces – it is explained that they live up to peasant superstition to ward off those who would steal their lands. The Huntsman suggests his visitation by the vampire was a drunken dream and that he nicked his own throat with his sword whilst in a stupor. The Baron then meets Gretchen – who played the lady of the manor – and is convinced it is his wife, something they all find preposterous.

That night, however, the vampire comes to him again. It is Gretchen and as he lays caught in a strange paralysis she bites him again, before admitting she is Hélène. She has taken the place of the real Gretchen – whom she shared an uncanny resemblance to. She suggests that the dead only travel by night – except on a certain day (coincidentally that very day) when a dead woman who died a virgin (as Hélène did) can walk in daylight. Now, we have to note here that this is a suggestion that vampires cannot come out in daylight long before Nosferatu, though sunlight doesn’t destroy them as we will see.

In the morning, before sunrise, Gretchen/Hélène leaves the castle. The Baron has been told that the inhabitants of the castle think she stays at the village priest’s house but he follows her as she goes to the cemetery instead. There he sees her gathering flowers, including a sprig of hawthorn (so that has no power) however then “A beam of light suddenly slid over the summit of a neighbouring rock, and the opposite extremity of the valley reflected the first rays of the Sun. The dead woman released a cry, ran precipitately into the cemetery, fled to a small grove of fir-trees, into which she disappeared momentarily, then immediately reappeared, draped from head to toe in a white shroud – her own, doubtless, which she carefully hid every evening before going to the castle.”

This need to have their shroud is reflected in Carmilla, but we should remember that Calmet has been mentioned in this narrative and Le Fanu had read Calmet also. In Calmet we are relayed the story of a vampire in the village of Liebava who met his end because a canny Hungarian stranger steals the hidden shroud and uses it to lure the vampire. Le Fanu borrows this story within Carmilla and attributes the vampire hunting to a Moravian nobleman. The shroud element I find fascinating. However the sun is rising and our vampire…

Goes to an open grave and lies in it. The Baron sees her “immobile at the bottom of the grave, enveloped in her shroud… …No breath lifted her bosom; no movement indicated that she had been walking just a short while before.” The Baron eventually opens her shroud and pricks her breast with his sword, causing blood to flow but gaining no reaction from the corpse. As he tried to leave the grave, having thoughtfully staunched the bleeding (actually fearing that she would take even more blood from him the next night if she lost too much), found himself anchored to the grave with the same paralysis that occurred when she came to him at night. Only by a force of will did he pull himself away.

That is all the lore we get that directly relates to vampirism. The story is a maze of twists and turns with the poor Baron being driven clear out of his mind. However, for the vampire aficionado we get an early female vampire in centre stage, we get an example of the need to keep the shroud safe for the vampire's return to the grave and the concept that the vampires are truly dead at sunrise until sunset.

11 comments:

RoseOfTransylvania said...

Sounds interesting Gothic melodrama! I must check this out!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Please do, I found it a fair old read as well...

Zahir Blue said...

Must try and find this!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

the amazon US link is coveniently at the foot of the post :)

RoseOfTransylvania said...

Yesterday I ordered both this and Stableford´s own Frankenstein and Vampire Countess. Couldn´t order more Stableford - my budget is limited! p

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Yes, I noticed the Frankenstein and Vampire Countess just the other day.

I also noticed that Hunger and Ecstacy of Vampires by Stableford has been expanded and renamed iro Sherlock Holmes. I must get both eventually!

Unknown said...

The Vampire Countess doesn't show up till the 2nd installment of Stableford's Trilogy.

In mid 2013 Blackcoats Press will be releasing another Ponson Vampire novel, "The Immortal Woman" it may wind up having a different English title, this was actually called in french "The Dead Baroness" or something.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

thanks for the info :)

Unknown said...

From what I've already learned, The Immortal Woman also involves Alchemy.

Unknown said...

http://www.blackcoatpress.com/immortalwoman.htm

It'll be released around May First.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Many, many thanks for that... it will be being purchased ;)