Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Victorian Undead: Doyle and Vampires

The Wildstorm comic Victorian Undead: Holmes vs Dracula draws to a conclusion. Despite its strong beginning and melding of the Dracula story with the Sherlock Holmes mythos, it increasingly became more of a Sherlock Holmes story to the detriment of the Bram Stoker novel and characters. The artwork, clear and concise in many regards became a liability in that Holmes was generic enough looking that he's not readily identifiable apart from any other character that has brown hair which sadly is most of them. The final battle against Dracula is neither horrific nor all that exciting as Holmes never seems to be really at a disadvantage even against a monstrous supernatural foe.

Vampire Stories aka The Vampire Stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, edited by Robert Eighteen-Bissang and Martin H. Greenberg. This is a great paperback collection with some good historical bits and trivia behind a collection of short stories. However, the title is doubly misleading. One, these aren't really vampire stories, if you're looking for undead blood-sucking fiends, look elsewhere. There are possible ghosts, man-eating plants, an ancient man who's lived for centuries due to a long lost science, several murderous psychic seducers, and a couple of more normal though equally insidious seducers and a couple of con-artists. Two, one of the stories isn't even written by Doyle, but is a modern writer's pastiche of Sherlock Holmes confronting the possibility of vampires! The editor is at least up front about that in his foreword as well as little afterwords of each story, giving a little bit of historical and literary context.

"The American's Tale" is Doyle's second published story and is very anachronistic by today's standards. The story is set in the American West which is presented as exotic and foreign as Burrough's tales of Africa and Mars. Central to the story is the concept of the West having the marsh loving venus flytraps, only large enough to eat a man and thus a danger to the unwary. Doyle also presents the narrator and characters using strong dialect and slang, to the point of slowing the story down to translate from english to english! It's as confounding as an American writer trying to write a character with a Cockney accent. Ah, two countries separated by a "common" language! Other than being one of Doyle's earliest tales and actually having something that survives on consuming blood, there's not much to really recommend with this thankfully short story.

"The Captain of the Pole Star" has more readily in common with Shelley's Frankenstein novel than Dracula as it concerns a strange and driven captain of a whaling ship trapped amongst the freezing seas of the North. Like much of Doyle's fiction, there's the narrator who is at the edges of the story, neither hero nor villain of the piece. Like Doyle and Dr. Watson, he's a doctor, ship's surgeon and as such is presented as an impeccable witness of a scientific and educated mind, thus not easily swayed by the common sailors' superstitions and wild tales. The captain at times seem to be almost Ahab like. He's an able captain, smart and well-liked. But, he also has dark secrets and frequently mercurial in his temperaments, manifesting in sudden conversation and action shifts. As the sailors more and more often talk about odd moaning sounds and a strange figure on the ice, the captain grows more erratic. Ultimately, even the trusted narrator becomes a witness and believer to something haunting the ice as the story builds its foreboding dread. Just what they have found or has found them is never spelled out.

"John Barrington Cowles" is a wonderful story with a sadly mundane and boring name. One might expect it to be a character sketch or pastoral such as Doyle's novel Rodney Stone. Indeed it has some surface similarities to that novel. The narrator is fairly colorless, though likable fellow, while the title character is dynamic with an exotic flair or cast to him. And, in both, while events surround the title character, he's not really the hero of the story. In this case, it concerns mainly with a woman Cowles falls in love with the extremely beautiful Katherine Northcott. By degrees, we get to know her depravity and dangerousness. There's her casual cruelty, manifesting in her treatment of her dog. A former ex-fiance is slowly drinking himself to death, ranting over some hidden secret revealed after falling in love with her, forcing him to flee yet he sees her when he closes her eyes. Later he dies after it's revealed that he had talked concerning her to the narrator. Her own aunt lives in fear of her, fearful of dread punishment if seen talking to others. When attending a show by a hypnotist, the hypnotist seems to struggle when trying to put Cowles into a trance, the narrator clearly seeing it as a battle of will between the hypnotist and Miss Northcott to the point that the hypnotist must make excuses and leaves the stage, talking about a more formidable will than his own. What emerges is a sketch of a truly engaging scary villain and adversary. Ultimately Cowles runs the risk of suffering the same fate as her other lover, once he is completely in love with her, she tells him some secret, something he has to agree to before taking their relationship further. What this secret or task is remains unknown, but the horror of agreeing to it, that he sees it as threatening his soul is evident. Like her former lover, he spurns her and is consumed by his love and hate and horror of her, threatening his own self destruction.

"The Ring of Thoth" is a complete oddball in this collection. With the exotic nature of ancient Egypt and mummies involved, it's more of a mummy tale than a vampire one, although it's not really a mummy tale either. The only mummy involved stays dead. It is the story of a man that has uncovered the secret of eternal life and found that it's not much to his liking and his quest for the cure.

"The Winning Shot" is akin to "John Barrington Cowles" in that it tells of a person that may or may not have psychic powers and becomes a sketch of a fascinating villain. And, like that other short-story, it's ending is a little open-ended, leaving the reader to wonder what happened next, what were the secrets to his abilities and strange nature. It's one of the few stories by Doyle to be narrated by a female, in this case warning people of a dangerous man calling Dr. Gaster and how her, her fiance and their families' befriending him lead to her fiance's death. We know of the death of her fiance up front, so the story is one of mounting impending and inevitable doom. They befriend Dr. Gaster, finding him while out walking one evening and he becomes a guest at her fiance's father's home. Seemingly amiable and sometimes befuddled by English customs and idioms, he becomes more eccentric and threatening as the story progresses. Smitten and soon obsessed with the narrator, his baser nature comes out and the story rockets to its foretold conclusion. Yet, it still manages to end with an element of mystery and horror.

"The Parasite" falls along the same lines as those two short stories. It's a notable departure in that the narrator Professor Gilroy is also the active hero of the story and thus he's portrayed as possessing a bit of a dual nature. He's a scientist, and thus practical and logic minded. He believes nothing that he cannot see or prove or test, but he claims it as nurture over nature as his nature is more of a dreamer. He's dark haired, thin and olive skinned. While his own specialty is physiology, his best friend Wilson's is psychology, a discipline the narrator dismisses. Especially, as one of the things that interests Wilson are hypnotists and other psychic phenomenon.

Things change when he accompanies Wilson to meet with Miss Penclosa a woman of purported psychic abilities though frail in body and partially crippled, in need of a crutch. When Miss Penclosa is able to hypnotize Gilroy's fiance and instill a post-hypnotic suggestion that she unknowingly carries out, Gilroy becomes a converted believer.

Soon Professor Gilroy is allowing himself to be hypnotized by Miss Penclosa in the presence of Professor Wilson and/or Wilson's wife in the pursuit of science, to write down all that occurs to the body and mind as it happens (Wilson himself is impervious to hypnotism). However, as things progress and some sessions are held apart from Wilson, Gilroy becomes aware that Miss Penclosa has feelings for him. Worse, he finds that while under a trance, he feels compelled to reciprocate those feelings through utterances, though horrified at the very idea later. He tries to break things off, to resist her, but finds himself compelled to visit her each night, as if a slave to addiction. In this regard, he is remarkably similar to the classic vampire victims. When she suffers a moment of weakness and he is able to finally make his repulsion and horror known to her while in her presence, she turns into a woman scorned and a dangerous enemy. He is so much in her power that through her will, she can exert control over his actions. He finds himself the laughing stock of the University as he's prone to non-sequitors and ramblings in the middle of lectures, almost arrested for breaking and entering, though with no conscious memory of the deeds. Things come to a head when he almost maims or kills his fiance, thankfully coming out of the trance before doing anything.

Miss Penclosa comes off as a little more complicated of a character than the other two. Her actions seem driven not by lust but loneliness and sadness. She seems genuinely confused when Gilroy professes that he does not and could not love her, as if she doesn't realize that she had been subconsciously manipulating him into the role of a suitor. Thus, the story becomes one of two different types of addiction and obsession. Gilroy's story is of the addict that recognizes his addiction and the cause and even takes different and drastic steps of conquering it, such as that of the Lon Chaney Jr. werewolf who locks himself in at night. He has periods of lucidity where he seems to be winning followed by increasing despair of when he fails. Hers is that of many jilted lovers, obsessed with the lover they cannot have and the fire of love turning into the equally burning fires of hate. Their obsessions and addictions can only be solved by the death of one, and they race towards destruction, but whose will it be.

Thus, the ending is sadly ambivalent and anti-climactic. It may be simply because Doyle could not write his hero actually killing a crippled woman, though monstrous in her mental ability. Or, maybe it's hinting at some subtext or allusion that I'm not getting. Why was Professor Wilson running from Miss Penclosa's home while Gilroy was racing towards it in murderous rage?

The story has other interesting parallels and possible insights to Doyle himself. Like the Gilroy, Doyle was a man of education and science. And, he would be an almost fanatical convert to the beliefs and causes of spiritualism that would seem to be so antithetical to his background. Is Gilroy's first dismissal and then acceptance of the metaphysical world of psychic phenomenon meant to be a map of Doyle's own changing worldviews?

I find it interesting that while Gilroy dismisses psychology as a science, what he accepts and how its treated by him and, through him, by Doyle is not psychology but hypnotism which becomes a gateway drug for psychic phenomenon. Miss Penclosa's first displays are elements of hypnotism and hypnotic suggestion and form the basics of many stage acts. But, the story treats it not as something that can be explained psychologically but meta-physically with the talks of replacing one soul with another and her powers becoming more and more fantastic.

The book finishes up with several Sherlock Holmes stories. Surprising to me, that they could make the case for stories other than "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire" as fitting thematically to this book. In addition to that obvious one are "The Illustrious Client" and "The Three Gables" each with allusions and similarities of their own to Stoker's novel and the above short stories. The final story, "The Adventure of the Missing Vampire" is by Bill Crider and concerns a writer coming to Holmes and Watson to investigate a case of a vampire's corpse which has disappeared.

After the short-stories is a bibliography relating other books and tales that feature Holmes and Dracula, or at least some shared characters between the two. A few which I've read, my favorite being Loren Estleman's take on the subject.

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