Sunday, January 26, 2014

Interesting Shorts: Phantoms

This story by Iván Turgénieff dates from 1863 and the accompanying illustration was taken from the 1904 edition of “the Novels and Stories of Ivan Turgenieff: Phantoms and Other Stories”, which was translated by Isabell F Hapgood.

Written in the first person, the narrator explains in the first instance how the phantom of a woman started coming to him. His first description of her, which he assumes is a dream, is interesting as he seems to be describing sleep paralysis. The apparition keeps asking him to meet her at the corner of a nearby forest by an old, lightning blasted oak. Eventually he does go there.

When he meets her she asks him to give himself to her, she seems reluctant to act without permission and – more as an experiment than anything – he eventually says “Take me”. She embraces him and flies into the sky with him. At first his concern is the flight itself but I found the descriptions of her semi-corporeality interesting. She is more phantom than physical and yet is able to interact. She can take him, in this manner, to anywhere he wishes to go – almost in the blink of an eye. But when, at one point, he suggests America she admits she cannot as it is day time there.

On their first flight there is a telling line, “Again she fell upon my neck, again my feet left the earth”, of course that is a telling line from a modern viewpoint. Perhaps more explicit was the later sentence “I felt on my lips a strange sensation, like the touch of a soft, delicate sting… Leeches which are not vicious take hold in that way.” The phantom will not tell him anything in detail about herself. She gives the name Ellis, but denies English heritage. She displays jealousy but often seems cold and far off. We do see her in the first light of dawn. She seems to become more corporeal and then melts like vapour.

There is one particular night where she seems able to show him wonderments – but his own fear prevents it. It is clear that he is becoming more and more ill with their interactions. His housekeeper comments that he seems to have no blood in his face and he does wonder whether she is drinking his blood. We discover that she is able to be detained by something, that there is another entity that Ellis describes as death and refers to in the feminine. We discover that Ellis is trying to acquire life. The narrator is told he has anᴂmia by a doctor.

However we are never told exactly what she is. The narrator doesn’t really know and muses, “What was Ellis, as a matter of fact? A vision, a wandering soul, an evil spirit, a sylph, a vampire?” However, to me, she was clearly a vampiric ghost, all the more interesting because she had the peculiar semi-corporeality I mentioned and she needed permission to interact with (and prey upon) her victim – an invitation, in fact. He seemed obsessed with her and there was a sensuality that she tried to display – though she often lapsed into indifference – and a claim of love for her chosen victim that was more a jealous possessiveness than love. Given the year of publication I find the story to be very exciting, giving us another insight into the development of the genre.

You can download an e-version of “the Novels and Stories of Ivan Turgenieff: Phantoms and Other Stories” from the Internet Archive.

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