By Christina Morin
I began to emerge last week from the enervating fug of research funding applications that has literally engulfed me since early December. Physically, I escaped relatively unscathed; mentally and intellectually, however, I was reduced to a fraction of my former self. In terms of my long abandoned leisure reading, I knew now was not the time to embark on War and Peace. So, instead, I picked up a collection of short stories I’d been meaning to read for a while, The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre (Oxford UP, 1997). An assortment of Gothic short stories published in a variety of British magazines during the first half of the nineteenth century, Tales of the Macabre definitely suited my inert post-funding-application despondency and lack of attention. Short enough to read in a bus journey to town, and dark enough to satisfy the most pessimistic, recession-obsessed mind, the tales in this collection are definitive examples of the Gothic short story tradition in Britain during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These short stories often merged with, or later became, full blown novels, suggesting the fluidity of borders during the Romantic period between genres such as the ‘novel’ and the ‘short story’, while also highlighting the continued, cross-generic appeal of the Gothic mode. Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ (1819), originally published in the New Monthly magazine, for instance, was penned alongside Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and, in ‘introduc[ing] the vampire into English fiction’, as the editors, Robert Morrison and Chris Baldick argue, undoubtedly influenced countless novels and short stories to come, including Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) and Stoker’s Dracula (1897). In the story, the rather hapless young gentleman, Aubrey, becomes fascinated by the intriguingly suave and enigmatic Lord Ruthven, only to become the victim of his own curiosity. Having renounced his friendship with Ruthven after learning of his less than gentlemanly conduct towards an innocent young girl, Aubrey travels to Greece and falls in love with a beautiful peasant woman. Refusing to connect two and two together when she tells him superstitious tales of vampires, describing them as the exact match of Ruthven, Aubrey loses all, including, in the end, his sanity and his life.
A similarly influential tale in terms of generic cross-pollination is Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess’. Originally published in 1838 in the Dublin University Magazine, this tale was later republished by Le Fanu under a different title and then reworked into his most famous novel, Uncle Silas (1864). Although it doesn’t feature a vampire, like Polidori’s story, it does have a creepy, mercenary uncle willing to do anything to save himself from penury, even if it means killing his own niece, left in his charge after the deaths of her parents. Supernatural it’s not, but menacing, chilling, and utterly terrifying it is.
The other tales in the collection are equally disturbing. James Hogg’s ‘Some Terrible Letters from Scotland’ (1832), for instance, plays on contemporary fears and anxieties over the ongoing cholera epidemic by documenting three supposedly real letters from sufferers in Scotland. All of the correspondents managed to survive cholera themselves only to find themselves cursed by the memory of the inexplicable events that had befallen them: the first, for example, rises from his cholera-induced, death-like coma to witness the fatal sufferings of his fiancée and her mother. Convinced that they will rise from the dead, just as he did, he wishes death upon them and is devastated to find himself not only mistaken in his understanding of mortality but also ostracised as a freak in his community.
I read these stories with a sense of delighted horror and, while I certainly wouldn’t like to meet Lord Ruthven or any living dead cholera victims either in my dreams or on the street, they definitely took my mind off of the dreariness of my own personal funding application nightmare.