I should start this post with a confession: my brain is a little fuzzy today and the details of last week’s session are hazy. I am pretty certain we didn’t consume copious amounts of alcohol but my memory suggests we did – it was that or my recent reliance on Lemsip Max Strength to get me through the day. Regardless, I fear we also went off topic to discuss the occurrence of female voices in popular culture for longer than was perhaps prudent. Although this did tie in with the fact that both our texts were concerning ‘evil’ woman/ femme fatales.
Marriott Watson’s ‘The Stone Chamber’ is not one of the better known late-Victorian vampire texts – although it contains all the essentials: beautiful countryside, storms, crypts, fainting women, ruined chapels, oppressive rooms, vampire bats, and a wonderful play between light and dark throughout the descriptions. The quality of the vampire is both that of the traditional blood-sucking but also a psychological haunting. In fact the text mingles Gothic haunting with the trope of the vampire.
The vampire in question is a foreign woman who brings ruin to two brothers whose jealousy leads to the destruction of all three. She appears in the form of a vampire bat in order to attacks her victims leaving the traditional red mark on the throat – this text was published after Dracula which mentions both that the vampire can transform into a bat, but also the existence of the species, the vampire bat. The narrator does not question the fact that there is a vampire bat living in a British home: whilst this could be a side-effect of bad research on behalf of the author (oh, Wikipedia, what would we do without you?), it also suggests an unconscious absorption of foreign myth and monsters into British culture. The vampire is increasingly given a British passport for the pages of Victorian fiction.
Whilst it is not clear whether the vampire is already turned once she arrives on British soil, or whether she is only becomes a revenant after her death, she is certainly described as being sordid from the beginning. Her proclivities are deliciously swept aside under the banner of being “too terrible to speak of” – the unspeakable quality of the Gothic being a recurring theme. It was noted that this calls to mind The Accursed, as Joyce Carol Oates repeatedly used the ‘unspeakable’ within her Gothic tome. In “The Stone Chamber”, both the activities of the female vampire, and the attempted rape of a serving girl and the protagonist’s virginal fiancée are elided in their unspeakable quality. This suggests that female sexuality in all its forms was to be hidden from view: either to protect the female body from society, or society from the female body. The attraction of the fiancée according to the narrator, once he has been bitten by the vampire, is her delicate fragility. The more she shies away and grows faint, the more his predatory instincts are inflamed. The passivity of the female character is both ‘proper’ and to be admired, but also leaves them open to masculine domination. This dichotomous relationship between the male/ female in heteronormative texts recurs throughout vampire texts.
In contrast, the attraction between Sweyn, the archetypal masculine ideal, and White Fell in Housman’s “The Werewolf” is based on Sweyn’s belief that he has found his equal in female form. White Fell is described as having masculine traits, certainly in her strength and her clothing – which we later discover allows her to uncover her legs to run faster. She proclaims not to be afraid of man or beast, though both are afraid of her. In an inversion of the maternal instinct, or the role of ‘the angel by the hearth’, White Fell does not nurture the weakest in the group but feeds on them reminiscent of the very animal into which she can transform: the wolf. She is accepted as a female ‘victim’ and ushered into the feasting hall where she can use her position to seek out her victims. She offers both the young boy and the old lady a kiss. The meaning of this is unclear: is she marking them? Or does their willingness to be taken in by her beauty, mean that they are marking themselves? Certainly, her next victim is Sweyn who is entirely consumed by his attraction to her.
Sweyn’s brother, Christian, is the only character, other than the old dog Tyr, not to be taken in by the appearance of White Fell. However, his message is not taken seriously. Sweyn mocks his interest in old wive’s tales – calling to mind the Enlightenment’s rejection of superstition which coincided with the rise of the Gothic. Christian is not as strong, or masculine as Sweyn and his interest in myth and legend is feminised whereas Sweyn’s reason and logic are shown to be masculine ideals. This is undercut with the end of the text when Christian is shown to be correct and Sweyn must live with his guilt embodied in the symbolism of him having to carry the body of Christian, frozen in the shape of the cross, back to his community. (The religious allegory is not subtle).
There was also discussion about whether “The Werewolf” could be called a Gothic text. When contrasted to “The Stone Chamber”, it certainly seemed to lack the central qualities, instead reading as a pseudo-Anglo Saxon/ Scandinavian tale. The setting was non-specific in time and place though it felt medieval. Was the appearance of a werewolf enough to make it a Gothic text? Yet, early Gothic texts were often set in the past as well as inforeign countries, in part to make the superstitious/ supernatural qualities seem more believable. It romanticised the narrative – this temporal and geographical space slowly gets eroded during the 1800s until the monster is in our living room. You could argue that this is still the case – certainly with the recent accusations of the domestication of the Gothic.
These two texts held up archetypes of both monstrous femininity as well as the difference between the vampire and the werewolf. The vampire is quicker to be domesticated and become a regular member of the Gothic family, where the werewolf stays out in the wilds of myth and legend for longer.