Friday, March 20, 2015

Vamp or Not? The Mysterious Lodger

When looking at the work of J Sheridan Le Fanu, specifically for vampire tales, there are three primary pieces. The obvious one is Carmilla, the classic tale of Styrian vampirism. The other two primary stories are Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter and Spalatro, from the notes of Fra Giacomo.

However I was reading Open Graves, open minds and the essay “Sheridan Le Fanu’s Vampires and Ireland’s Invited Invasion” by Julieann Ulin suggested that Le Fanu’s 1850 tale The Mysterious Lodger was a vampire tale. It wasn’t a story I was familiar with and so I dutifully checked it out.

The story is narrated by a man named Richard. He has a(n unnamed) wife, a daughter called Fanny who is 9 years old and a son simply known as baby who is 4, the family live in London. He makes great effort to point out that he was, as the events began, a secularist (despite his wife’s faith and the fact that his father had been a clergyman) and the story is very much one of faith and entities that seem to be agents of the infernal and the divine.

As the story begins he admits to being in debt and, so as to get out of said debt, the family decide to rent a room to a lodger. They do not have much luck getting a lodger until Fanny comes home and says she met an elderly gentleman (said to be fat, using a crutch and frightful looking) who gave her a sovereign and said he had a lodger ideal for her father. This lodger was said to be asthmatic but was prepared to pay a large sum and so, through the child, the tenancy of Mr Smith is arranged. If that all sounds a little odd, it is because it is.

Smith arrives late in the evening – after dark – and from the window Richard can see no more than a shadow. Opening the door he is faced with a man who wearing a long black coat and wide brimmed hat, a muffler across his mouth and leather rimmed, green googles. When he removes the muffler he has a cravat below it and wears a respirator over his mouth. The little amount of skin that shows is yellow.

Smith keeps himself to himself, but his arrival also marks the arrival of “a great, big-headed, buff-coloured cat.” I’ll remind readers, at this point, that Le Fanu tied cats and vampirism together in Carmilla as the titular vampire could transform into a cat. The servants say that they can often hear a second person (with a crutch) walking in the lodger’s room and there is an insinuation that this person (who remains unseen) is the elderly gentleman and is also the cat. Smith speaks to the wife and whatever he says (it isn’t recorded) rocks her faith so much that she is unable to pray. The household becomes more and more depressed in atmosphere. Richard tries to get Smith to leave but he refuses – having paid six months’ rent in advance. Indeed he even refuses when he is offered all his money back.

The wife dreams of her children being taken from her in a carriage. Smith is involved and when Fanny steps towards the carriage he insists “No, the baby first”. There is a man in the carriage that the wife describes as “full of beautiful tenderness and compassion” who suggests the baby is safe with him and will be delivered back to the wife when she comes. Fanny becomes ill but her illness breaks after she cries out in delirium about taking the baby first. Later Fanny describes Smith with the baby, though it seems to be a dream, “…He’s untying his handkerchief Oh! baby, baby; he'll kill baby! and he's lifting up those green things from his eyes; don't you see him doing it? Mamma, mamma, why does he come here? Oh, mamma, poor baby—poor little baby!"

When they check on him, the baby seems hotter than normal, his pulse elevated. When he dies it is suggested that he had suppressed small-pox or typhus. Later Richard actually catches the man with Fanny. “The respirator had been removed from his mouth, and… …the odious green googles raised. He was sitting, as it seemed, absolutely without motion, and his face was advanced close to that of the child.” She is described as being white and as rigid as a corpse, with her eyes dilated. She too eventually dies but the horror does not end there.

Richard catches Smith by her coffin, tapping on the wood whilst the cat perched on the child’s corpse. There is an altercation and Smith leaves but, after the funeral, tells Richard that the girl was buried alive. This would have been a telling twist to the story when it was published as the Irish Great Famine was still ongoing (1845-52) and there were known cases of people (and children) being buried alive in the mass graves. “There was the corpse—but not the tranquil statue I had seen it last. Its knees were both raised, and one of its little hands drawn up and clenched near its throat, as if in a feeble but agonised struggle to force up the superincumbent mass. The eyes, that I had last seen closed, were now open, and the face no longer serenely pale, but livid and distorted.

The events end when a kindly man who had befriended Richard is seen by the wife and she recognises the man in the carriage from her dream. He tells Richard to call to Smith, “in the name of the Most Holy”, and he will leave. So via this we see that the lodger and the cat/old man are agents of the infernal and the man an agent of the divine. In fact the wife likens herself to Margaret from Faust and this seems to be a Faustian bargain – monies given and torments received. We should remember that 5 to 6 years later Paul Féval would connect Faust and vampirism in the pages of the Vampire Countess. However, the Faustian connection plays no part in this “Vamp or Not?”

The description of Smith, his respirator and goggles, is astounding. Today we might say steampunk but for the time this really marked him as alien looking, very much the outsider – as the vampire archetypally is. What we do not know is whether he was feeding upon the children or not? It seems certain (whether viewed in a dream or physically) that he was the cause of the children’s deaths. If it was feeding then he is an energy vampire – but that is a supposition on the reader’s part. The vampire is known to spread disease and the idea of the vampire being an agent of the devil seems to fit. What Smith and the cat were trying to do with Fanny’s corpse is unknown. I doubt it was healthy resuscitation and we know that cat’s are tied in, in some traditions, to creation of a vampire. Where they trying to make her the living dead? We’ll never know.

The big problem for the ‘Vamp or Not?’ is deciding whether Smith was feeding. We can’t say and there is a chance that I am looking at this with too modern eyes but I am tempted to buy into the supposition. As such I’m going Vamp but fully appreciate if folks disagree.

The story can be found in J. S. Le Fanu's Ghostly Tales, Volume 4, here.

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