Friday, July 24, 2015

Classic Literature: Smarra or the Demons of the Night

The story Smarra, originally Smarra ou les Démons de la nuit, was an 1821 story by Charles Nodier and, whilst not a vampire story per se, it certainly has a vampiric element. Nodier, of course, is firmly at the Gaelic wellspring of the media vampire. He adapted Polidori’s the Vampyre into an 1820 play and, in Roxana Stuart’s Stage Blood we read that “Nodier assured [Alexandre Dumas, père] that in “Illyra” (Spalatro) he had seen a vampire with his own eyes, an old man whose corpse came back to the house of his sons, asking for food and drink.” (pg 134)

Smarra is a dense piece of prose; rich, poetic, evocative and, due to that, somewhat confusing, though understanding that it is based around (loosely) the Golden Ass helps. It follows the young man Lorenzo as he sleeps by his beloved Lisidis. He dreams of Lucius riding through a forest towards Larissa. Desperate for sleep Lucius seems to slip into a dream world himself, where his thoughts are haunted by his friend Polemon, who saved Lucius but died in battle. As the narrative pushes deeper we hear of the torments suffered by Polemon himself.

The Demons of the Night are those very tormented dreams and, whilst Nodier was versed in vampires we must remember that the genre was in its infancy. So when describing Polemon and saying that “his neck bore the mark of blood, the triangular scar of an iron lance” we must remember that this was reminiscent of the attack on Socrates in the Golden Ass, which is to do with bloodletting, assassination and witchcraft (as we shall soon see). However, I do not believe this was meant to be indicative of the vampire – that would be a modern conceit.

However, as I said, there is a vampiric element and that is regarding the entity Smarra. The woman Méroé unleashes Smarra: “She presses the hidden spring, to reveal a golden casket containing a colourless and formless monster, which thrashes and howls and leaps and falls back crouching on the enchantress’ breast.” It should be noted that Meroe is a character from the Golden Ass. In that she is a witch and she, with Panthia, attack Socrates and “thrust her sword up to the hilt into the left part of his neck, and received the blood that gushed out with a small bladder, that no drop thereof fell beside” As well as this they remove his heart and then stop the wound with a sponge. Socrates lives until the sponge becomes wet and falls out of the wound. Nodier’s Méroé is a beauty who uses Smarra to mete out an ongoing punishment.

The vampiric element is seen when we read of Smarra, “like some deformed and gleeful dwarf, his fingers armed with nails of a metal finer than steel, which penetrate the flesh without rending it, and suck the blood from it like the insidiously pumping leech”. With this (and the connection to nightmares, as Smarra visits troubled nights upon the victim) we get a vampiric demon of sorts and an interesting, classically inspired piece of prose.

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