New Book on Spring-Heeled Jack Explores Jack’s History, including Gothic Connections

The Mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack: From Victorian Legend to Steampunk Hero by John Matthews is a fascinating look at a sometimes overlooked character who has had a significant impact on sensational and Gothic literature as well as the public’s imaginations and fears for nearly two centuries now. Matthews, who is perhaps best-known for his many books on the Arthurian legend, has compiled nearly every known reference and possibility related to Spring-Heeled Jack into this book.

The Mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack, just released by author John Matthews

The Mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack, just released by author John Matthews

Those not familiar with Spring-Heeled Jack will wonder why they have never heard of him. He first appeared in London and its surrounding areas in 1838 and continues to be sighted every few years, it seems, both in England and now the United States and perhaps even in a few other places around the globe. His origins lie in several startling attacks he made upon unsuspecting women in the early Victorian period. He is frequently described as dressed in black, wearing a cape, having long fingers, pointy ears, and eyes that glow red or blue. His most famous feature, however, is his amazing ability to spring or leap enormous distances, sometimes twenty feet from the ground to a roof or even thirty feet from one rooftop to the next.

In this encyclopedic book about all things Spring-Heeled Jack, Matthews begins by going back to the original sources. He quotes in detail the numerous newspaper reports of Jack and his attacks upon his victims. Most of his attacks were relatively mild, just appearing and frightening women, or mildly assaulting them, although in some cases, he attacks with knives, especially the men who pursue him.

Jack was likely some sort of criminal who developed a spring mechanism for his shoes, but just who he was has never been fully revealed. He quickly became a legend and soon many copycat crimes were occurring; some of these criminals were caught but others not. Jack also often acted like the typical highwayman who was a popular literary figure in the Newgate novels of the 1830s, and later, Jack the Ripper at least left behind one note where he signed himself as Spring-Heeled Jack, though as Matthews notes, Jack the Ripper was a serial murderer while Spring-Heeled Jack’s crimes are far less severe and seem mostly intended just to shock and frighten people. Nevertheless, the Ripper’s crimes took place in the 1890s, showing that Spring-Heeled Jack retained a hold on the Victorian imagination.

While the historical newspaper accounts are interesting, for me, what is more fascinating is Jack’s appearances in literature. Matthews details how Jack soon became part of popular culture. By 1840, there was a stageplay produced about him. In 1867, there was a penny dreadful published titled Spring-Heeled Jack—The Terror of London, and in 1878, another serial was published with the same name. The difference between these two works is significant. In the first, Jack is depicted as a demon figure. In the latter, he is a young nobleman deprived of his inheritance whose actions are based on his desire to get revenge on those who have cheated him; others copy his crimes, but this second penny dreadful makes it clear that Jack is a clever trickster type of hero. I find this transition in Jack’s character fascinating since I am a firm believer that the Gothic Wanderer figure in nineteenth century literature was eventually transformed into our modern-day superhero figure. In this version, Jack has the qualities of the Gothic Wanderer in being disinherited, although he is lacking guilt and commits no true crimes.

Equally fascinating is the possibility that Jack is an early version of Batman. Matthews notes that there is no evidence that Batman’s creator, Bob Kane, knew anything of Spring-Heeled Jack, but he provides plenty of evidence that bat-man figures were in the popular imagination well before Batman arrived on the scene. (More on that below.)

An illustration of Spring-Heeled Jack from the 1867 serial.

An illustration of Spring-Heeled Jack from the 1867 serial.

Matthews devotes a great deal of time trying to determine the origins of Spring-Heeled Jack as a fictional or popular culture figure beyond whether or not he was a true historical criminal. He digs back into mythology looking at Jack’s origin in devil figures (one of Captain Marryat’s novels, Mr. Midshipman Easy, from 1835 is cited as a source here also; in it a character wears a devil’s costume and springs into a house frightening people), Jack the Giant Killer (with a nod to King Arthur here), the popular Jack-in-a-Box toy, and Robin Hood, since Jack is often depicted as a hero fighting against the rich. That said, Jack is also depicted as aristocratic and possibly preying upon the poor—one of the possibilities for his identity is the historical Marquis of Waterford.

This aristocratic side to Jack fascinates me and brings me to the one omission in the book, for which perhaps there is no evidence, but which seems to me very likely—that Jack influenced the creation of Dracula and the vampire legend. Of course, the vampire figure had already been popularized in England with John Polidori’s The Vampire in 1819. But the depiction of vampires still had a long way to go before Dracula set the standard for vampire characteristics. One of the possible sources for Spring-Heeled Jack that Matthews cites is the “Moon Hoax of 1835” in which it was claimed that a civilization had been discovered on the moon and that it was inhabited by winged men which were called “man-bats.” This may well be the first suggestion of men connected to bats. Of course, Dracula has the ability to change into a bat in Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic, and as I’ve pointed out in my previous blogs about French novelist Paul Féval, vampires were also associated with bats in his novel Vampire City (1875). Could Spring-Heeled Jack, whose cape is often depicted as looking like wings tied to his arm, have also influenced the depiction of Dracula? I have not been able to find any link between Stoker and Spring-Heeled Jack, but the Jack was in the popular imagination so doubtless Stoker knew of him. Note that Dracula is also a count and Stoker’s novel has been read as being a story about how the nobility preyed upon the lower classes. Dracula’s victims, like Jack’s, are also predominantly female.

Another interesting connection between Spring-Heeled Jack and Dracula can be found in another possible version of Jack that Matthews mentions—The Mothman, who was first sighted in 1966 in West Virginia and whom the film The Mothman Prophecies was made about. The Mothman is also winged and can fly. Interestingly, it is claimed he was spotted just before the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001—this suggests he might play a role in political events. Similarly, the Wandering Jew has often been said to appear during historical events, including the French Revolution and the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. The Wandering Jew is often cited as an influence upon Stoker, particularly because Stoker was manager for the actor Henry Irving and he encouraged Irving to consider playing the Wandering Jew. Stoker also wrote about the Wandering Jew in his book Famous Impostors. Jack the Ripper’s murders were also associated with the Jews as instigators of the crimes. Could Spring-Heeled Jack have had some connections to the Wandering Jew in the popular imagination?

The cover of the 1904 serial about Spring-Heeled Jack.

The cover of the 1904 serial about Spring-Heeled Jack.

In any case, the story of Spring-Heeled Jack is a true historical and literary mystery that continues to fascinate. Matthews concludes the book by looking at Jack’s appearances in film, television series, and comic books in more recent years. He omits mention that Jack also was featured in an episode of the short-lived 2016 television series Houdini and Doyle, likely because the book was already being prepared for printing when the series aired, but it shows that Matthews’ prediction at the end of the book that Spring-Heeled Jack will likely be around for many years to come is true without a doubt.

The book also contains numerous illustrations, including several colored plates, and the appendices contain the full text of the 1878 penny dreadful version of Jack’s story.

Overall, The Mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack is a true treasure trove for anyone interested in Jack himself, or popular culture, Victorian crime, the Gothic, comic books, or superheroes. It’s published by Destiny Books and is available worldwide including all the major online booksellers.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love which is largely a sequel to Dracula. His scholarly nonfiction works include King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. You can learn more about him at www.GothicWanderer.com and www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Dracula, Superheroes and the Gothic, The Wandering Jew

Paul Féval and the Vampire Gothic: The Path from Radcliffe to Stoker

In my previous blog, I talked about Paul Féval’s first vampire novel, The Vampire Countess (serialized 1855, published 1865). In this blog, I will discuss his other two vampire novels Knightshade (1860) and Vampire City (1875). But first, let me explain my title.

Ann Radcliffe never wrote a vampire novel, but no one can deny her place at the forefront of Gothic novelists. She was really the first major influential Gothic novelist with the success of her books The Romance of the Forest (1791), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and The Italian (1797). While numerous other Gothic novelists were her contemporaries, they were all likely influenced by her. Her popularity caused even non-Gothic novelists like Fanny Burney and Jane Austen to include Gothic elements in their novels. Consequently, Radcliffe is not only the mother of the Gothic but the mother of the vampire novel.

She also had a tremendous influence upon French literature. In his introduction to the Black Coats press edition of Vampire City, Brian Stableford states that there were no less than forty editions of The Mysteries of Udolpho published in France in the early nineteenth century. Consequently, it is no wonder that Paul Féval chose to pay Radcliffe tribute in a mocking way in his novel Vampire City.

Paul Feval on the cover of a French edition of his works.

Paul Feval on the cover of a French edition of his works.

As for Stoker, my interest in Féval began when I first heard he had written three vampire novels decades before Stoker’s Dracula (1897), so I was naturally curious whether Stoker had read them. I discussed this possibility somewhat in my last blog. There isn’t much of an influence if any apparent between Féval’s novels and Stoker’s Dracula, but nevertheless, there may have been some influence, even if indirectly. I will note a few of the possible influences below.

First, let us look at Féval’s short novel Knightshade (its true French name is Le Chevalier Ténèbre. It was published in book form in 1860, but actually is a later work than The Vampire Countess which was published in 1865, but serialized in 1855. The novel is about two brothers named Ténèbre. One is a vampire and the other an oupire. Vampires, of course, drink blood, while oupires are eaters of human flesh.

The story begins at a party where Baron von Altheimer is entertaining the guests with a story about the brothers. The baron tells how the brothers impersonated gypsies to get inside Prince Jacobi’s home where they abducted his daughter, Lenore, for a ransom. The irony is that the baron is actually one of the brothers and also present is his brother, who is impersonating a clergyman. In fact, the brothers are masters of impersonation. The baron even claims his goal is to capture the brothers and bring them to justice, all part of his ruse.

I won’t spoil the story by telling it all, but eventually, a young marquis, who was at the party, discovers the secret and begins to hunt down the brothers. In the process, he also falls in love with Lenore, and with Prince Jacobi’s help, the brothers’ resting place is discovered. According to Féval, the brothers must return to their graves once a year. If their hearts are burned with a red-hot iron, then the world can be rid of them. (This is one of Féval’s vampire rules—that they die by a red-hot iron, unlike Stoker’s stake through the heart.)

The killing of the vampires is carried out, but at the end, we are told their criminal activities continue, suggesting they have somehow risen from the grave.

Knightshade is considered an early work of metafiction and introduces vampire brothers.

Knightshade is considered an early work of metafiction and introduces vampire brothers.

In the book’s introduction and afterword, Brian Stableford talks about how Féval never quite wanted to give full credit to the supernatural, and so he leaves the reader wondering whether the brothers really were vampires or they are just using vampirism as one of their disguises to confuse people and carry out their crimes. Stableford also notes that Féval is writing an early form of metafiction here where characters tell tales and include themselves in the tales. The novel itself references Galland, and Stableford refers to the novel as using the Galland’s formula. Galland was the translator of The Arabian Nights into French, which had a huge influence on French and indeed on Gothic literature with its stories within stories, but also in its cliffhangers.

But did the novel influence Stoker? There is only one small detail that I think might suggest that Stoker read the novel. Lenore has a small pet dog, and that dog is named Mina. I have at least seen one literary critic remark that the source for Stoker’s female protagonist in Dracula, Mina, is unknown. Mina is not an English name, so why did Stoker choose it? I wonder whether he took it from Féval.

While Knightshade is an interesting and entertaining novel, it suffers from what many of Féval’s other novels, including The Wandering Jew’s Daughter and The Vampire Countess suffer from—a confusing narrative that makes you almost feel like you’re reading a fragment or poor translation. This is largely due to the novels being serialized and Féval making them up as he writes each installment without a master plan or outline. Such, however, is not the case with Vampire City. It was still serialized and the plot wanders about in a nonsensical way at times, but there is a stronger narrative drive to it that makes it entertaining reading and carries the reader along fairly effortlessly.

The premise of Vampire City lies in Féval’s desire to mock Ann Radcliffe and her Gothic form. Stableford suggests it is the first real Gothic parody novel, although I would argue that Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey (1818) and Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818) both are parodies of the form, and as Stableford points out, even what is considered the first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), can hardly be taken seriously.

However, Féval’s parody far surpasses anything prior to it. I agree with Stableford that it is a novel far ahead of its time and may be the first horror-comedy, which is what the Gothic has largely devolved to in our own time. I complained in my last blog about authors who lack sincerity in writing Gothic novels, and that was the case with Féval’s first two vampire stories, but here he is intentionally parodying, and so the lack of sincerity is not grating but amusing.

Like many Gothic novels, Vampire City has a narrative frame. Paul Féval writes himself into the novel, complaining about how the English are pirating his novels. He has a fictional female friend named Milady (perhaps a tribute to Dumas’ character in The Three Musketeers) who tells him she knows where he can get a wonderful story to write about. She takes him to England where he meets the ninety-seven-year-old cousin of Ann Radcliffe, who tells him a story about Radcliffe that explains her fascination with the Gothic and where she got the material for her novels.

Féval’s version of Radcliffe, who is called Anna or She throughout, has been compared to the character of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and not without merit since Anna ends up pursuing and helping to destroy a vampire.

The story begins when Anna Ward is about to marry William Radcliffe (her husband in real life). Féval was aware that very little was known about the details of Ann Radcliffe’s life, and so he felt she was fair game to do with as he liked. In fact, he draws upon a short biography written by Sir Walter Scott for the few details about her life that were known at the time. In the novel, Anna leaves her home on the morning of her wedding, leaving her bridegroom behind, because she has received a letter from her cousin Cornelia’s prospective bridegroom, Ned, that Cornelia has been kidnapped.

Vampire City creates a fictional vampire hunter version of Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe in a way reminiscent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Vampire City creates a fictional vampire hunter version of Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe in a way reminiscent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The kidnapper turns out to be Monsieur Goetzi, who is a vampire. Anna and a servant then head to the continent and end up pursuing Monsieur Goetzi across Europe in an effort to kill him and rescue Cornelia. They first find Ned at an inn where he has been attacked by Goetzi and is lingering near death. They also meet Polly, who has become practically a vampire herself because Goetzi attacked her. She is his first victim, and consequently has a special connection to him. She says that only she can help kill him, which must be done by inserting a key in his breast at a specific hour when he is weak. (Féval is making up his own rules about vampires as he goes along and there are numerous instances of this throughout the novel. Prior to Dracula setting the standard for what vampires can and cannot due, vampire characteristics were fair game to make up, although some standards had already been set in books like Polidori’s The Vampire (1819) and Rymer’s Varney the Vampire (1847), and Féval is intentionally going overboard in his parody.) Meanwhile, Goetzi is able to elude the vampire hunters again and again—he does this partly because all of his victims become part of him in a sense and can even seem to double for him or at least serve his purposes. At one point, he escapes by crossing water and brings all his doubles or companions with him. They all actually enter inside of him and then he lays flat on the water and floats on his back, feet forward to his destination.

The humor is evident throughout the novel. Anna and her companions finally make it to Vampire City where all the vampires reside. They get inside the city and manage to cut out Goetzi’s heart, but then the other vampires awaken and pursue them. Eventually, the vampire hunters are saved by the sound of celestial music. It turns out their rescuer is not an angel, but the godlike Arthur, a young nobleman whose true identity Anna’s cousin says she cannot reveal, and the music is caused by him playing a lute as he drives by. He is completely oblivious to how he has saved Anna and her companions. (At the very end, it is revealed that the godlike Arthur was really the young Duke of Wellington.)

Other humor is often pointed at Radcliffe herself. Allow me to quote a few passages. This first one is taken from the scene where she is about to leave home to go to the continent on her rescue mission:

“Although she had not yet composed any of her admirable works, she already possessed the brilliant and noble style which Sir Walter Scott was to praise to the skies in his biography. Indeed, she could not help exclaiming: ‘Goodbye, dear refuge. Happy shelter of my adolescence, adieu! Verdant countryside, proud hills, woodlands full of trees and mystery, shall I ever see you again?’”

You cannot help laughing out loud if you’ve read Radcliffe because her heroines do talk in such affected style, although the style seems Romantic rather than absurd when reading Radcliffe because she draws the reader so fully into her fictional worlds.

In several places, Féval tries to use Radcliffe’s style of introducing supernatural events and then always providing a realistic explanation for them. In this passage, he explains how at the crucial moment, a supernatural event like the characters falling into a pit that suddenly opens in the ground is possible.

“The earth suddenly opened up to engulf them, thus confirming the presentments of our Anna. If you balk at believing in the instantaneous formation of a deep pit, I will freely confess that the personal opinion of our Anna was that a cave-in had already taken place, caused by the high tides of the new moon. The principal charm of a narrative like ours is its realism. And besides, in making further progress we shall encounter more than enough hyperphysical incidents. She was fond of that word—which could, I suppose, be rendered ‘supernatural.’”

In fact, the novel is supremely funny. I rarely laugh out loud when reading, but I did so several times while reading Vampire City.

One final example of how Féval tries to give rational explanations for the supernatural comes with the very end of the novel when Anna has gotten herself into a very sticky situation, then wakes up to find it was all a dream and that it is her wedding day. But Féval goes a step further, having Anna’s cousin, in telling the story, assure us it wasn’t all a dream because after she marries, Anna goes to the continent and discovers the places she visited and many other events that have happened that seem to have coincided with her dream, perhaps a sign that she has the second sight.

I think Vampire City was simply ahead of its time in its mocking of the Gothic and consequently was overlooked as a minor work, but any student of the Gothic will find it a treat to read.

But what of Féval’s influence on Stoker? In his Afterword, Stableford states without reservation “Stoker certainly never read Féval.” He also mentions the influence of LeFanu’s Carmilla (1871-2) upon Dracula and says that LeFanu probably never read Féval. However, Stableford says that Féval, LeFanu, and Stoker all read Dissertations sur les Apparitions des Esprits, et sur les Vampires (1746) by Dom Augustin Calmet, which clearly was a huge influence on vampire fiction so it is not surprising if there are coincidental similarities in their works.

D

Bram Stoker, whose novel Dracula would set the standard for vampire characteristics.

Bram Stoker, whose novel Dracula would set the standard for vampire characteristics.

Personally, however, I think there are some similarities that might suggest Stoker read Féval. As I mentioned earlier, the name Mina might have come from Féval. Not that it wasn’t an existing name, short for Wilhelmina, but it is not a common English name to my knowledge—perhaps the name similarity is a coincidence, perhaps not.

Perhaps the most striking similarity concerns Mina’s relationship with Dracula and Polly’s relationship with Goetzi. In Dracula, Mina Harker, because she is Dracula’s victim, is able to help lead the men to Dracula when he flees across the continent. In Vampire City, Polly is able to do the same, and throughout the process, she is both longing to destroy Goetzi to get revenge as well as sympathizing with him. Similarly, Mina is torn between the vampirism in her and her desire to destroy Dracula. Polly actually goes a bit further and becomes Goetzi once his actual body is destroyed. I don’t know of any cases where vampires have doubles in the form of their victims before Féval or again until Dracula, which makes me think there could be an influence here.

Another similarity is the use of animals. Neither Polidori’s vampire, nor Varney the Vampire, nor Carmilla, nor any of the other pre-Stoker vampires appear to have doubles or control over animals who serve them. In Vampire City, however, the vampires often have dogs, bats, and other creatures serving them. In Dracula, the vampire not only has control over such creatures but can turn into them.

Many critics have also written about homosexual elements in vampire literature and in Dracula particularly. Stoker never goes so far as to make it explicit, but in Féval when the vampires awaken in Vampire City, they are described as “The men of considerable stature, but for the most part effeminate; the females, by contrast, were both tall and bold.” These sound like typical stereotypes of effeminate gay men and butch lesbians to me.

Finally, is it a coincidence that Arthur is a hero and savior in Vampire City and that there is an Arthur Holmwood among the male heroes in Dracula? Holmwood is Lord Godalming while Féval’s Arthur turns out to be the future Duke of Wellington, who was himself “Honorable” as the third son of an earl in his youth, the age at which he appears in Vampire City.

We may never know whether Stoker read Féval, and to some extent it does not matter. To say Stoker drew from Féval may in some ways limit Stoker’s genius. To say Féval influenced Stoker may make it seem like Féval’s work is inferior to Stoker’s. It may be a detrimental argument for both their sakes. That said, one cannot help wondering, and I do not believe either author is more or less important if Stoker was influenced by Féval. Both made significant contributions to vampire literature and deserve to be read and acknowledged for it.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love which is largely a sequel to Dracula. His scholarly nonfiction works include King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. You can learn more about him at www.GothicWanderer.com and www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Dracula, Literary Criticism, The Wandering Jew

The Vampire Countess: Paul Féval, Vampire Fiction, and the French-British Gothic Influence

When I first heard about Paul Féval (1816-1887)—a writer of serialized French Gothic novels—technically, they are termed feuilletons—meaning serialized novels—who wrote about vampires some forty years before Bram Stoker and whose stories take place in or have characters from Eastern Europe, I was intrigued and wondered whether Stoker knew Féval’s work and was inspired by it in creating Dracula.

Whether or not Stoker ever read Féval is open to question and not something we can accurately determine. However, in this blog and my next one, I will look at the possibilities of an influence. There certainly was a great deal of influence among French and British novelists of the mid-nineteenth century. Féval properly belonged to a generation or even two before Stoker, but he was contemporary with another great British Gothic author, George W.M. Reynolds. Reynolds and Féval would be rivals of a sort in the literary world. After French author Eugene Sue came out with his The Mysteries of Paris (1842-3), Féval wrote an imitation in French he called The Mysteries of London (1843-4), which was published under the pseudonym Francis Trolopp—a play on the name of popular English novelist Frances Trollope (mother to novelist Anthony Trollope). Then Reynolds wrote a serial with the same title (1844-8), but in English. Féval apparently accused Reynolds of plagiarism and thought British authors were pirates ever after that (with no qualms, apparently, from how he had borrowed his own fellow French author’s idea). Obviously, French and British authors, therefore, were influencing one another.

An 1862 caricature of Paul Feval by Etienne Carjat.

An 1862 caricature of Paul Feval by Etienne Carjat.

Another example of this influence concerns Charles Dickens. I discovered in a collection of Charles Dickens’ letters that Dickens knew Féval. Dickens regularly corresponded with French actor Charles Fechter, and in a November 4, 1862 letter to Fechter, Dickens writes:

“Pray tell Paul Féval that I shall be charmed to know him, and that I shall feel the strongest interest in making his acquaintance. It almost puts me out of humour with Paris (and it takes a great deal to do that!) to think that I was not at home to prevail upon him to come with you, and be welcomed to Gad’s Hill; but either there or here, I hope to become his friend before this present old year is out. Pray tell him so.”

Later, in a letter to Fechter from February 4, 1863, Dickens again writes that he is in Paris and says, “Paul Féval was there, and I found him a capital fellow.” If only we could have known what was said at that meeting between two such illustrious authors.

How extensive Dickens and Féval’s relationship was is not known. Féval is not mentioned in either Ackroyd or Johnson’s biographies of Dickens, so it is doubtful they got to know each other well. Despite that, in the prologue to his novel Vampire City (published 1875 but believed to have been written about 1867 and therefore before Dickens’ death in 1870), Féval refers to Dickens as “My dear and excellent friend.” In this passage he is complaining about how English authors have pirated his works and he quotes Dickens for support on the matter, saying “Charles Dickens said to me one day, by way of apology: ‘I am not much better protected than you. When I go to London, if I happen to have an idea about my person, I lock my notecase, put it in my pocket and keep both hands upon it. It is stolen anyway.’” Were Dickens and Féval truly close friends or did Féval simply feel that quoting an English author would support his argument, especially Dickens who was widely known to have had his works pirated?

In any case, there clearly was an influence between French and British authors and they knew of each other’s works. However, Féval, because of the piracy, resisted having most of his works translated into English, although pirated versions happened, though I know of no evidence that his vampire novels were, but that does not mean Stoker might not have known of them. That said, according to Neil Miley in Henry Irving and Bastien-Lepage, Stoker spoke only broken French, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t read it. I myself can read French far better than I can speak it, so it’s possible Stoker did read Féval’s vampire novels.

Féval would publish three vampire novels. The first, The Vampire Countess (1855 serialized; published in book form in 1865), will be the focus of the rest of this blog. The other two Knightshade (1860) and Vampire City (1874), I will discuss in my next blog where I will make some more comparisons between Stoker and Féval’s work. Fortunately for us, Black Coats Press (named for another of Féval’s novels) has reprinted these vampire texts with excellent introductions and afterwords by British author Brian Stableford. Stableford is extremely knowledgeable on the French serialized novels of the mid-nineteenth century and he writes extensively in these books about Féval’s place in his country’s literature alongside his contemporaries like Eugene Sue and Alexander Dumas (who would write a play The Vampire, the success of which may have led to Féval writing The Vampire Countess and whose novel Joseph Balsamo was inspired by English Gothic author Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni).

In Stableford’s afterword to The Vampire Countess, he goes into detail about all of the vampire novels published before it. I was surprised by how many of them there were—The Vampire Countess, Stableford says is probably the sixth full-length novel published. I was only aware of two prior to The Vampire Countess—John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) and James Malcolm Rymer’s serialized Varney the Vampire (1846-7) because my area of interest has been British Gothic. Apparently, the vampire was a popular topic on the Continent as well. According to Stableford, the first five would be:

Der Vampyr (1801) by Ignatz Ferdinand Arnold

Lord Ruthven, ou les Vampires (1820) by Cyprien Bérard

La Vampire, ou La Vierge de Hongrie (1825) by Etienne-Léon Lamothe-Langon.

Varney the Vampyre (1846-7) by James Malcolm Rymer

La Baronne Trépassée (The Late Baroness) (1853) by Pierre-Alexis Ponson du Terrail

Dr. John Polidori, whose story, The Vampire, was a major influence on vampire fiction in both England and France.

Dr. John Polidori, whose story, The Vampire, was a major influence on vampire fiction in both England and France.

Stableford states that no known copy exists any longer of the first novel by Arnold. The second novel should probably be Polidori’s novel The Vampire, but Stableford omits it because it is not a lengthy work, more of a novella, while acknowledging its incredible influence on French Gothic literature. In fact, Bérard’s novel is definitely based on it since Polidori’s vampire was named Lord Ruthven (infamously modeled upon Lord Byron). Also noteworthy from this list is that Lamothe-Langon’s novel’s subtitle translates as The Virgin of Hungary, which shows that Eastern European characters and settings in vampire fiction long predate Stoker. In fact, a scholarly work on vampires to which Lamothe-Langon certainly had access was Dom Augustin Calmet’s treatise, Dissertations sur les Apparitions des Esprits, et sur les Vampires (The Vampires of Hungary and Neighboring Regions in English), first published in Paris in 1746, and reprinted several times. Like The Vampire Countess, Lamothe-Langon’s novel concerned Napoleon, so clearly Féval was influenced by it. In his introduction, Stableford also mentions Theophile Gautier’s novella La Morte Amoureuse (1836), which not only was known to Féval, but was also translated into English under the title Clarimonde, which further proves that French and British authors were reading and influencing each other across the channel.

But what of The Vampire Countess? Is it significant in our vampire journey toward Dracula? As I said, we have no indication that Stoker read it, but there is much in it that sets us up for Dracula.

Let me say here before discussing the novel’s plot that Féval is not always an easy author to read. The first of his novels I read was The Wandering Jew’s Daughter, a more or less comic novel making fun of the popularity of the Wandering Jew in the literature of the time. If there’s one thing I dislike in literature, it is the inability to take your subject seriously. A lack of sincerity, the blending of horror with comedy, is what has spoiled most modern horror films, and while Féval wasn’t the first to mock the Gothic tradition, he certainly didn’t improve on it when it came to the Wandering Jew tradition. Féval would also take the vampire legend less seriously in his later two vampire novels, but in The Vampire Countess, he is at least trying to be serious. There are comical elements to the novel, but a Gothic atmosphere is mostly retained and remains haunting throughout the story.

Paul Feval on the cover of a French edition of his works.

Paul Feval on the cover of a French edition of his works.

That said, the novel has some flaws from a lack of tight plotting—the fault of serialization—as well as because it is a sequel to an earlier novel, La Chambre des Amours (The Love Nest). Unfortunately, I don’t believe The Love Nest has been translated into English and Black Coats Press has reprinted The Vampire Countess without its prequel. The result is that it is difficult to make sense of many of the main characters and understand their relationships to one another since Féval assumes we know them when we read The Vampire Countess. Consequently, I found the novel confusing for quite a while, and like The Wandering Jew’s Daughter, I almost felt like I was reading a fragment of what could be a great book. Not until about a third of the way through this roughly 300-page book does the story become really fascinating.

I won’t go into all of the plot of The Vampire Countess, but just summarize the main points. Féval, as Stableford points out, can’t decide from the opening of the novel whether or not to take his vampire theme seriously. He talks of how vampires are being talked about in Paris, largely because of some bodies found in the Seine, but he also introduces the metaphor that Paris itself is the real vampire of the novel, sucking the life out of people, and suggesting it is not real vampires but simply crime in Paris that is the problem.

That said, the vampire countess is very real as a supernatural being, even if not quite the typical vampire. There is no bloodsucking in the novel, which is what vampires are defined by today. Instead, this vampiress is trying to retain her youth, which she can only do by tearing the scalps off young women and wearing them as if they are her own hair—that transforms her to be youthful again for a short time before she regains her old age. I suspect Féval knew of or drew on sources that knew of Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614), the infamous Hungarian countess who liked to bathe in the blood of young virgins, believing that would help her to retain her youth. (That said, Elizabeth Bathory is not mentioned in Calmet’s work.)

Féval also makes his vampire very sexual. She masquerades as Countess Marcin de Gregory, but in truth, she is Addhema, a legendary vampiress who has a male vampire lover, Szandor. Szandor will only kiss her (Stableford points out that the French word used could mean more than kiss, maybe orgasm) if she brings him large sums of money. The final scene of the novel depicts them in the throes of their passion before Addhema kills her lover and herself by plunging a red hot iron through his heart and then hers—a murder-suicide. It is quite a sexual and disturbing scene, especially for a Victorian era novel.

The Vampire Countess was serialized in 1855 but not published in book form until 1865.

The Vampire Countess was serialized in 1855 but not published in book form until 1865.

There is much else about the Vampire Countess that is both confusing, not necessarily logical, and fascinating. While Addhema passes herself off in France as the Countess Marcin de Gregory, she also at one point claims to be Lila, whom she says is the countess’ sister. Lila seduces the main character Rene and tells him the story of Addhema. She does this because the vampiress cannot have a lover unless she first tells him the truth about her being a vampiress. Lila gets around this by telling Rene the story but not clarifying that she is the vampiress. Later, Rene dreams that Lila turns into the countess, but when he wakes, it’s not clear whether he was with Lila as the vampiress or not. This dream or hallucination of Rene’s is part of Féval’s intentional blending of reality and the supernatural to keep the reader and characters questioning whether vampires are real, as well as Féval’s own inability to be sincere about his vampire fiction.

The novel is set when Napoleon was First Consul, and Féval pulls Napoleon into the plot. One of the men the countess marries ends up accusing Napoleon of being her lover and challenging him—of course, Napoleon comes out on top here. Later, the countess claims Napoleon has given her a letter so military men will do her bidding. In truth, she has a forged document. She also appears to be plotting to overturn Napoleon and is in league with the Brotherhood of Virtue. None of these political activities are completely clear in the novel—least of all why the countess is politically motivated at all since it cannot serve her purpose to stay young or to achieve money to pay Szandor for the kisses she craves.

Altogether, The Vampire Countess is a strange novel, much of it feeling like filler that Féval wrote to fill his serial pages because he wasn’t sure yet where the plot was going. It is far from a perfect or even a truly powerful Gothic novel save perhaps for the final scene where Addhema plunges a red hot iron into Szandor’s heart—the scene reminds me of the passionate scenes in Anne Rice’s vampire novels. In my opinion, Féval lacked the intensity or sincerity of Eugene Sue or James Malcolm Rymer which kept him from being a first rate Gothic novelist. That said, The Vampire Countess is an interesting novel because of its historical place in vampire fiction and because it is the most serious of Féval’s vampire novels. Certainly, no one can deny that Féval holds a significant place in the Gothic and serialized literature of his day.

As for whether he influenced Stoker, more exploration is needed, and I will continue that quest in my next blog.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love which is largely a sequel to Dracula. His scholarly nonfiction works include King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. You can learn more about him at www.GothicWanderer.com and www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

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Failed Redemption and Fantastic Gothic Historical Romance: George W.M. Reynold’s Faust: A Romance of the Secret Tribunals

Faust: A Romance of the Secret Tribunals (1847) is the second of Victorian novelist George W.M. Reynolds’ three Gothic novels. The others, Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (1846-7) and The Necromancer (1851-2), I have written about in this blog previously. Faust is perhaps not as tightly plotted as The Necromancer (understandable due to the serialization of these novels), nor quite as thrilling as Wagner the Wehr-Wolf. There are sections where the plot drags a bit, but all that said, there is plenty here for a lover of classic Gothic literature to enjoy.

Faust: A Romance of the Secret Tribunals - this reprint by the British Library preserves all the original text and illustrations but you need eagle eyes to read the tiny print.

Faust: A Romance of the Secret Tribunals – this reprint by the British Library preserves all the original text and illustrations but you need eagle eyes to read the tiny print.

I admit part of my enjoyment of the novel was affected by my reading the only copy I could find in print, a reproduction of the original book from the historical collection of the British Library. The problem with this reproduction is that it is just a photocopy of the original book, but reduced in size to a 6” x 9” book. The print is the tiniest I have ever seen in a book, such that I had to use a bookmarker under each line to focus my eyes upon it. I even tried a magnifying glass but that just distorted the text too much. Consequently, it was a bit tedious reading at times and caused my enthusiasm to wane, but nevertheless, it is worth the persistence. On the plus side, this reprint also includes the original illustrations.

Part of why I put off reading Faust for so long was I figured I knew the story, as detailed in Marlowe and Goethe, but Reynolds greatly expands on the Faust story, adding all kinds of details and making it a far-reaching novel that takes the reader throughout much of central and Eastern Europe, from Germany to Italy and even into Turkey.

To summarize the plot in its entirety would be tedious and only make it sound like nonsense, so I will just hit upon the highlights of the main plots (there are multiple plots that eventually all tie together but some are far more significant than others). We basically have two main characters in the novel, intended to be opposites representing evil (Faust) and good (Otto). As expected, Faust is the villain since he sells his soul to the devil. In Reynolds’ version, however, he does so to save the woman he loves.

The story begins at the end of the fifteenth century when Faust, a common man, is in love with Therese, the daughter of a baron. Her father refuses to let her marry him and even throws Faust in prison to keep him away from his daughter. The devil appears to Faust and makes a deal with him to help him win Therese and have great power and riches, in exchange that at the end of twenty-four years, Faust’s soul will then belong to him. Faust agrees to the deal, not realizing at first that he is not only damning himself but the soul of the child he and Therese will have. After Faust passes himself off as a young nobleman and rescues Therese when she is abducted, her father gives Faust his approval. Faust adopts the title of Count of Aurana, marries Therese, and happiness seems imminent for the couple—except that Faust doesn’t want to sell his child’s soul to Satan as well.

Fortunately, Faust’s friend the Archduke has a wife who becomes pregnant at the same time as Therese. Therese gives birth to a boy and the Archduke’s wife to a girl, but before either knows the sex of her child, Faust convinces his lover, Ida, to switch the babies, thinking that will protect his son.

Satan shows Therese to Faust but will not let him see her until he signs the contract giving up his soul.

Satan shows Therese to Faust but will not let him see her until he signs the contract giving up his soul.

We could almost sympathize with Faust in wanting to protect his child, but he does so through deceit, and that he has already taken a lover in Ida soon after his marriage is sign of his moral depravity. Meanwhile Ida’s brother, Otto, our hero in the novel, learns of the affair and tries to defend her honor. Faust agrees to do what is right by Ida, but since he is already married to Therese, Faust arranges a marriage for Ida with Baron Czernin.

Meanwhile, Otto, through a series of accidents, ends up imprisoned inside a mountain while traveling. He is the prisoner of the Vehm, a secret tribunal, which is really a secret society manipulating political situations. (At first, I thought this organization was fictional, but it was a historical organization in Germany of the late Middle Ages that often acted in secret. It reappears in other literary works including A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle and The Vampire Countess by Paul Feval.) Eventually, Otto is released from imprisonment, but while there he has learned that Baron Czernin is also imprisoned—it then turns out the prisoner is the true baron and his sister’s husband an impostor.

Here is where the novel really gets complicated. Otto helps Baron Czernin escape, but that puts him on the Vehm’s blacklist. Somehow the plots become convoluted here—one suspects Reynolds was running out of ways to keep the serial going—so he takes us to the Vatican and introduces us to Pope Alexander VI and his children Caesar and Lucrezia Borgia. Otto will unwillingly become involved with the Borgias in an attempt to save his own life. Unfortunately, Lucrezia becomes attracted to him, but when he learns her identity, he is so repelled by her reputation that he spurns her, causing her to vow revenge.

Eventually, the twenty-four years of Faust’s compact with Satan are almost over. By now his son and adopted daughter have grown and have fallen in love, wishing to be married. Faust is against the marriage because he believes if he enters a church, he will instantly become the devil’s before his time is up. Finally, he confesses his secret to Otto since Otto is such a good person. Otto tries to get him to pray, but Faust fears Satan will only come for him if he tries. Otto then asks how else he might help Faust.

Faust confesses there is nothing Otto can do for him, but that he might do something to save his son. If Otto can travel to Mt. Ararat and retrieve a piece of wood from Noah’s Ark, which his son can wear about his person, then Satan cannot take his son. Otto agrees to do this. It’s one of the more fascinating scenes in the novel, and fortunately, Otto succeeds in getting a piece of wood from the ark.

On the way home, Otto travels by ship, but the ship he is on sinks. He is rescued and finds himself on an island where Lucrezia now resides. She is now married to her third husband, the Duke of Ferrara. She has Otto cast into “The Iron Coffin”—a dungeon that has walls and a roof that over the course of several days slowly move inward until it is clear Otto will be crushed to death. Otto is terrified that he will lose his life, but on the last day before he will be crushed, Lucrezia comes to him and asks for his love, but he again refuses on moral principles. She then condemns him to death, but just moments later, the Duke of Ferrara, learning of her schemes, rescues Otto and instead places Lucrezia in the coffin to die.

Lucrezia Borgia throws herself on her knees before Otto, asking him to help save her brother Caesar.

Lucrezia Borgia throws herself on her knees before Otto, asking him to help save her brother Caesar.

Otto then returns to Faust and brings him the talisman to save his son. Faust’s final day now arrives. Satan comes to claim him. Faust begs and pleads for his life. Satan tells him if he had listened to Otto and prayed, he might have still saved his soul, but now it is too late. They travel to Mt. Vesuvius where Satan pushes Faust into the volcano (which we learned earlier in the novel is one of the entrances to hell.)

The plot is far more complicated than all that. There are evil priests and plenty of court intrigue, and the secret tribunal plays a more prominent role, but those are the main points. Reynolds tries to be historical, setting the novel in the 1490s to early 1500s and provides constant dates to the events. He documents the plague killing people in Vienna and he even has footnotes telling us when he has altered events and dates for his own purposes. The book certainly made me want to learn more about the Borgias—Reynolds goes a bit to extremes with them—Lucrezia does have her famous ring that she poisons people with, but she did not die in an iron coffin but from complications following giving birth.

I do hold Reynolds in high regard as a sensational storyteller, and somehow he manages never to drop his various plots but to bring them all to fulfillment, although some more successfully than others. What I found most interesting, however, is that to the very end, I thought Faust would have his soul saved (even though Reynolds intrudes into the narrative to tell the reader Faust and Otto are opposites to show us the differences between good and evil). Furthermore, all of Faust’s intentions were usually carried out to save the woman he loved or his child. He only turned to the devil when in desperate circumstances, and when he did, the devil always went to extremes to make Faust’s crimes worse. For example, at one point, Faust begs the devil to create some form of distraction to make his son and adopted daughter forget their love for one another. The devil obeys by causing the plague to erupt, which kills countless people. An extreme solution Faust did not want.

Faust’s plummeting into the mouth of Mt. Vesuvius is also fascinating since one of Reynold’s fellow writers of penny dreadfuls, James Malcolm Rymer, depicts Varney the Vampire trying to destroy himself by plummeting into a volcano but the volcano always spits him out, refusing to let him lose his existence. However, Varney the Vampire was written in 1846-7, and Rymer allows Varney to find redemption—in fact, I believe it is the first time a Gothic wanderer figure is allowed to achieve any true redemption, but Reynolds apparently prefers to damn his Gothic wanderer.

In the end, I think Reynolds may well win the prize for creating the most fantastic supernatural fiction that blends history on a wide-scale. Earlier Gothic novelists like Mrs. Radcliffe set their novels in the past but did not use historical events to color the plot. Contemporaries to Reynolds like Eugene Sue also had fantastic plots but did not use historical coloring to such an extent. Ainsworth, in his fabulous The Lancashire Witches (1849), limits himself to one specific historical event, but Reynolds takes readers on a rollercoaster ride across half of Europe and brings in the most notorious historical people of the time—Lucrezia Borgia—despite her already bad reputation—truly comes off as one of the greatest female villains in Gothic fiction. While I liked both of Reynolds’ other two supernatural novels better, Faust shows that Reynolds was always at the forefront of fantastic Gothic romance.

Tiny print aside, Faust brings together the Gothic and historical novel genres in surprising ways that create a true page-turner. Is it great literature? Perhaps not, but it makes clear why Reynolds was the bestselling Victorian novelist, outselling his contemporaries, even Charles Dickens.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love which is largely a sequel to Dracula. His scholarly nonfiction works include King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. You can learn more about him at www.GothicWanderer.com and www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

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Giveaway of The Gothic Wanderer at Goodreads

GothicWanderercoverThe Gothic Wanderer

by Tyler R. Tichelaar

Giveaway ends October 21, 2016.

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New Fairytale-Type Story Blends Vampire Lore with Arthurian Legend

Picus the Thief, translated by Robin Bennett, is an original book that takes several traditional storytelling motifs and gives them new life through multiple reimaginings of legends and traditions.

Think of it as fairyland meets Camelot meets Dracula. It’s a little of all of those, and yet not strictly tied to any of them.

PicustheThiefThe title character, Picus, is a vampire, but he’s not your typical vampire—although there is a reference to Dracula as a sort of vampire ancestor—but that’s rather anachronistic—in fact a lot of things about this book are anachronistic. In any case, Picus is not only a vampire but he has fairy-like or, more properly, dragonfly-like wings. He is about the size of your forefinger, and as one of the human characters says when he meets Picus, to Picus’ displeasure, he’s kind of like a mosquito—he can fly and he sucks blood.

Picus is far from a scary vampire. One of his bites probably doesn’t hurt much more than that of a mosquito, so he’s not a bad guy. That said, vampires do think well of themselves; there’s plenty of vampire superiority in this book—a tone that vampires are better than humans—although I’m not sure that that isn’t all vampire propaganda.

To understand why it might be termed propaganda, we have to look at the book’s authorship. It is actually the first book in the Small Vampires series, which will provide a history of the vampires. The book was allegedly discovered in manuscript form in a curious way by Robin Bennett, who explains in the introduction how the strange book in an unfamiliar language eventually came into his hands. After some difficulty he managed to translate it. In short, he learned it was written by vampires, so obviously they will portray themselves in the best light. He also learned that there were people in the world who might be willing to harm him to get their hands on the book, and so he decided to publish it so there would be no one copy that could be stolen from him. All of this is explained in a very engaging way that made me realize that here was the typical eighteenth century Gothic novel technique of the mysterious discovered manuscript, but at the same time, it was written in a fun way that made me feel more like I was entering a playful and mysterious world akin to Narnia or Neverland.

And then the story starts and we are introduced to Picus. It is the year 266 A.D. we are told, which is rather odd and why I say the book is anachronistic since Dracula (if he was first the historical Vlad Tepes) lived in the fifteenth century, and eventually, Picus goes to Angleland at the time soon after the Romans have left—they wouldn’t leave in reality until about 410 A.D. and there were certainly no Angles in England at that time (but this is Angleland not really England). In short, Bennett, whom I suspect is the author despite his claims to being the translator, is writing pseudo-history and consequently everything in this book is “pseudo”—pseudo-vampires and pseudo-Arthurian legend especially.

Despite the vampires’ belief that they are superior to their cousins the Faies (fairies) and to the humans (who may have some distant relationship to both of these more supernatural beings, though the humans are magic-less), the vampires have some issues of their own. At least Picus does. He grew up in a dysfunctional home in which he was asked to murder his Sanguine—a wingless being the vampires have bred as servants and to feed upon. Picus’ refusal to kill his Sanguine led to his flight from home and his mother’s anger. Talk about dysfunction. Before the book ends, this mixed up family turns out to be more like Hamlet’s family than that from any happy fairy tale—come to think of it, most fairy tales do feature dysfunctional families—think of all those evil stepmothers.

Anyway, Picus makes his living as a thief, and we follow him from one theft to another until he finds himself being commissioned to enter the human world and steal the sword Exkylipr, which was forged in the belly of the Chalice and is one of the seven treasures. (Think Excalibur and Merlin collecting the Thirteen Treasures of Britain.) The humans were given the sword many years before, but now the vampires want it back, so Picus is sent to retrieve it. He ends up going to Camelon Castle, but he doesn’t meet any Arthur there. (There is an Art in the book, but he’s a vampire and runs a pawn shop—nothing kingly about him.) Instead, Picus meets an Ambrosias (no uncle to King Arthur but an old lady and the court physician). She is wise enough to know his purpose and eventually befriends him.

I won’t say more because I don’t want to give away the whole plot, but don’t look for an Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle in this book, and don’t look for your typical vampires, even though these vampires do have roots in Transylvania and the Carpathians.

Rather, expect a highly original take on old legends that is playful yet not lacking in adventure or even violence. There’s a feel of almost Irish leprechaun trickery here, a dash of Shakespearean revenge tragedy, and some beautiful prose worthy of Hans Christian Andersen. There’s plenty of whimsical creatures, complete with a glossary of them, an essay explaining magic in the vampires’ world, and even plenty of humor. For example, one of the funniest passages for me was “Gargoyles were also generally accepted to be the most nosey, pernickety, prissy and prying species on the planet after cleaning ladies….”

This is not a book for the die-hard Arthurian fan who likes depictions of the historical King Arthur. It’s more for fans who enjoyed the BBC’s Merlin. It’s also not for lovers of dark Gothic lore with all its angst or even the Twilight crowd—I think you’d be more likely a fan of The Addams Family or Young Frankenstein if you like this book—or maybe The Princess Bride. If you love fairies, I also think you’ll love these vampires, but perhaps not the fairies in the book—Queen Mab is about as awful as they come with her necklace made out of male vampire teeth, which has led to her nickname “The Tooth Fairy.” Actually, I loved hating her.

So it’s a little of everything—a little grotesque, a little funny, a little magical, and a little traditional. Plus, it’s a beautifully-designed book—the cover looks like a true lost manuscript or the kinds of books produced at the turn of the last century, and there are illustrations for each chapter, not of the characters, but of flowers and dragonflies that give it the feel of Victorian fairy tale books. I imagine many young adult readers will enjoy it, but adults may also feel here is some of the magic of childhood they knew that hasn’t been lost but only needs to be found again.

You can find out more about the “translator” Robin Bennett and the future books in this series at www.SmallVampires.com

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, which includes the novels Arthur’s Legacy, Melusine’s Gift, Ogier’s Prayer, and the upcoming Lilith’s Love and Arthur’s Bosom. He has also written the nonfiction scholarly works King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. You can learn more about him at www.GothicWanderer.com.

 

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The Legend of Tarzan and the Gothic Tradition

I just saw the new Tarzan film, The Legend of Tarzan, starring Alexander Skarsgård, and it is absolutely fantastic. In fact, I think Skarsgård may be the best Tarzan ever to hit the screen and the film also the best Tarzan movie ever made. Of course, Johnny Weissmuller is Tarzan for legions of movie fans, but as wonderful as he was, his depiction of Tarzan was not in keeping with author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ vision—Burroughs’ Tarzan was highly educated and articulate, speaking in more than monosyllables. The other actors who have played Tarzan all had their good points, except perhaps Jock Mahoney—worst Tarzan ever. But no one now in my opinion holds a flame to Skarsgård.

Poster for The Legend of Tarzan

Poster for The Legend of Tarzan

Skarsgård is fabulous if for no other reason than his appearance. Not only is he appropriately tall, but he is muscular without being bulky, and has the lithe body Burroughs describes. He also has a fair number of scars on his body in the film, which is appropriate, including a noticeable scar on his forehead as he has in the books—a very Gothic element that scar—in the novels, it pulses and turns red when he grows angry—reminiscent of the mark of Cain and the Wandering Jew’s cross on the forehead—there is no Gothic or supernatural elements in this film, but nevertheless, it’s clear the screenplay writer knew the books. In addition, I thought Margot Robbie quite good as Jane also, and Christopher Waltz was an effective villain. I can’t say it was Samuel L. Jackson’s best role, but he did have a more minor part.

I also admit that the role of Opar in the film was rather disappointing—there was no stunning ancient city depicted and there was no priestess La, ready to try to seduce Tarzan. And yes, some of the vine-swinging was a bit far-fetched, but it was breathtaking regardless. The scene on the train is one of the best kickass action scenes ever filmed in my opinion. Overall, I was very impressed and will likely watch the film several more times—many of the Tarzan films are barely watchable once, by comparison. So overall, I give this film two thumbs up. I’m ready for a whole new Tarzan film franchise with ten sequels!

But why should we care about Tarzan here at the Gothic Wanderer blog? Because I believe Tarzan is the pivotal figure in the transition of the Gothic Wanderer figure into the modern day superhero.

Following is an excerpt from my book The Gothic Wanderer that describes why Tarzan is so important to the Gothic and superhero traditions.

 

Tarzan: The Gothic Wanderer Turned Superhero

Surprisingly, it would be an American author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, who would combine theories of evolution, the Imperial Gothic, and the Gothic wanderer figure to create a superhero Gothic wanderer free of guilt.

I realize some readers will think my discussion of Tarzan of the Apes (1914) is a stretch in terms of my defining it as being within the Gothic novel tradition, but it definitely has Gothic elements. The novel is also a celebration of Darwin’s theory of evolution in many ways. No longer does evolution distance man from God—it makes him like a god—Burroughs is especially fond of calling Tarzan the “forest god” throughout the twenty-four novels in the Tarzan series.

The opening pages of the first book, Tarzan of the Apes, are very Gothic. Lord Greystoke and his wife are aboard a ship taken over by a mutinous crew; the Greystokes see the captain and his loyal men slaughtered, but rather than kill the Greystokes, the mutineers decide to set the husband and wife ashore on the coast of Africa where they are forced to fend for themselves amid the jungle’s horrors. Eventually, the terrifying apes kill the Greystokes, but not before Alice Greystoke gives birth to a son, Tarzan, who survives because Kala, a she-ape, has recently had her own child die, so she adopts Tarzan as her son. Tarzan grows up among the apes, quite the Gothic wanderer in his outcast role among the tribe for how he is different. He is weaker than the apes, although he soon realizes he is smarter.

Gothic elements come into play when the boy discovers his parents’ cabin. Like a ruined castle full of secrets, here Tarzan learns the truth about his origins—that he is human. He also learns to read—discovering his father’s journal—one of those Gothic manuscripts that reveal family secrets. Evolution theory is used in the novel to show that while Tarzan is not physically as strong as the jungle’s beasts, he is able to use his father’s knife to kill them, and over time, he uses his intelligence to create weapons and set traps and prove his superiority, not only over the apes, gorillas, and other beasts, but ultimately, over the black natives of Africa as well—the text is very racist in this respect, but the product of Burroughs’ time. It is no accident that Tarzan is descended from English nobility—had his parents been French peasants or blacks, he doubtless would not have been so successful since evolutionary theories also resulted in racist distinctions. Ultimately, Tarzan’s superiority allows him to kill the apes’ leader, Kerchak, so Tarzan can take his own place as “king” of the apes.

Later, when Professor Porter and his party are marooned in Africa, Tarzan encounters not only Jane but also his cousin, William Cecil Clayton, who has inherited Tarzan’s ancestral estate in England because it is assumed Tarzan’s parents died and no one knows of Tarzan’s birth or existence. Tarzan eventually befriends the party, saving Jane from numerous dangers in the jungle—which provides plenty of moments of Gothic horror for everyone except Tarzan who is himself a Gothic horror to the Americans and English in the party, and later, to anyone in the series who crosses Tarzan and feels his wrath.

Dustjacket cover of the first edition of Tarzan published in 1914 following its publication in All Story Magazine in 1912.

Dustjacket cover of the first edition of Tarzan published in 1914 following its publication in All Story Magazine in 1912.

Eventually, Tarzan, with the help of a friend, is able to prove his identity as Lord Greystoke. At first, he conceals and renounces his heritage because Jane is in love with his cousin, Clayton, but everything is worked out for him in the first sequel The Return of Tarzan (1915). Tarzan’s inheritance goes back to the Gothic emphasis upon primogeniture and concerns over who has the right to inherit property and titles. Tarzan’s desire to keep his identity secret is also Gothic in the sense that he possesses a forbidden secret, one he fears will upset the social order, and especially Jane’s happiness. Tarzan is himself not all that keen on revealing his identity and going to live in civilization, which is full of hypocrisy, thieves, and liars—truly a more evil and Gothic place than the jungle where animals are incapable of lying.

In the sequels, Tarzan and Jane spend their time between England and their large property in Africa. Tarzan frequently goes off on adventures in the jungle, including visiting the lost city of Opar (in keeping with the Lost City genre that H. Rider Haggard first invented) and rescuing the occasional white person lost in the jungle.

Burroughs admittedly focuses on evolution far more than the Gothic in the novels. The most horrible creatures in the novels are actually mutants. For example, the ape men of Opar are evolutionary freaks of nature—not at all supernatural. In other novels, Burroughs makes it clear that the natives are superstitious and their religions fake. There is not space in this work to go into detail about all the references to religion and evolution in the Tarzan novels, much less in Burroughs’ other works—notably the Caspak series where characters evolve within their own lifetimes.

Burroughs turns on their head, or even rejects, Gothic themes by the way he treats religion and superstition. He also was clearly aware of many of his contemporaries and predecessors in terms of Gothic and adventure/lost city works. To this day, perhaps the best book on Burroughs’ works is Richard A. Lupoff’s Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure (1965), which includes a thorough discussion of Tarzan’s literary ancestors and his descendants. Most notable among his literary ancestors is H. Rider Haggard’s Nada and the Lily (1892), in which the main character Galazi slays a wolf, wears its skin, and finds he can command the wolves (Lupoff 225-6). Lupoff notes that we do not know Burroughs’ sources or inspiration but he analyzes the most likely sources.

Despite Burroughs’ usual rejection of the supernatural, he made one significant exception that confirms for me Tarzan’s role as a Gothic wanderer figure transformed into a superhero. Tarzan already had the typical hero and Gothic wanderer origins, but he was lacking the trait of having an extended life until late in the series. As decades passed and the novels remained set in the present day, Tarzan obviously had to be aging so Burroughs may have felt he needed a way to keep Tarzan young since obviously a fifty year old man would be less likely to perform incredible feats of strength, including wrestling with crocodiles. Consequently, Burroughs gifted Tarzan with immortal life—and he did it twice.

In Tarzan’s Quest (1936), Burroughs tells the story of two whites who seek the secret to longevity. The secret is held by a bloodthirsty African tribe that creates longevity pills composed of various ingredients, including parts of young girls; consequently, to gain eternal life by swallowing the pills, one must perform an act of cannibalism—reminiscent of Catholic theology where the consumption of the bread and wine are the literal Body and Blood of Christ and by accepting them, one accepts Christ, thereby guaranteeing one’s eternal life. By the end of Tarzan’s Quest, Tarzan has stopped the tribe from performing its rituals, but he is left with several of the pills that he, Jane, and a couple of other characters, including Nkima, Tarzan’s monkey friend, swallow; Tarzan, thereby, becomes immortal. This form of immortality might be dismissed as a scientific concoction, but curiously, Burroughs did not settle for it.

Later in Tarzan and the Foreign Legion (1947), Burroughs has Tarzan explain that he has perpetual life because of a witch doctor he helped while in his youth and who had lived since the eighteenth century. The witch doctor bestowed extended life upon Tarzan in a lengthy ceremony. As a result, Tarzan looks like he’s still in his twenties (he would have been almost sixty by the time of the novel’s publication since he was born in 1888 in the novels. Tarzan states that he might still die by a bullet or from being killed by a wild animal, but he will not die of old age. This time, Tarzan’s immortality is the result of magic or the supernatural—what Burroughs commonly mocked as superstition in his novels, but here as Burroughs himself was aging—he would have been seventy-one when this twenty-second novel in the series was published, and he lived to complete only two more Tarzan books—he finally decided to let a little of the superstitious supernatural creep into the story to keep his character forever young.

Tarzan has now gone from having a typical Gothic origin to achieving Gothic immortality, but without the Gothic preconditions of committing a transgression that would make him cursed to wander and live forever. Instead, Tarzan chooses to extend his own life—just as he has always chosen to live life on his own terms.

I need not go into great detail about Tarzan being a type of superhero. He is really the first superhero character, the first one in the popular imagination, who would quickly become a staple of film and comic books and influence the creation of other superheroes. Not only does Tarzan have incredible strength and amazing athletic abilities, but he is highly intelligent (the literary Tarzan is a far cry from the grunting Johnny Weissmuller film version), and he creates his own form of justice in the jungle. He is the fulfillment of Nietzsche’s Superman, living by his own moral code and rejecting religious paradigms, long before the comic book Superman existed, and although Burroughs prefers terms like “forest god” for Tarzan—and the books are filled with hero worship type terms for him—in Tarzan and the Forbidden City (1938) he is even referred to as “this super-man” (115). Perhaps because Superman debuted as a comic strip in 1938, Burroughs felt he could not use that term but he liked it nevertheless and realized it could be applied to Tarzan so he hyphenated it. In fact, I would argue that Tarzan, because he is human unlike Superman with super powers and from another planet, is a superior creation as far as superheroes go.

In summary, Tarzan has little of the Gothic about him, yet he has Gothic origins in his lost family history, the manuscript he discovers, and his extended life. He has no guilt, and although he has nothing to transgress against, he would not live with guilt if he did commit a transgression. He is autonomous—what the nineteenth century Gothic wanderer had originally wished for but failed to achieve. He is man free of guilt and religion and able to live on his own terms.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is an expert on Gothic fiction and modern Arthurian fiction. He is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and The Children of Arthur novel series which blends Gothic elements with Arthurian storylines. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Superheroes and the Gothic