Dreads and fears in the sensitive soul

T’is that time of year when the lights oft flicker and fail. Mercifully I have many a crossword puzzle to keep me occupied through the candlelit nights.

Years back, my schedule being tight because of child care and commute issues, I had the choice between two classes: Supernatural Literature and Early Christian Art. At the college I attended, art history classes required field trips and a ton of memorization and so I went with the supernatural. I’d read all the popular sci-fi novels in high school and so figured I’d be rereading books like Dune or Stranger in a Strange Land. I was wrong but I wasn’t the only one with this misconception

On the first day of class the front row of the lecture hall was full of burly young men. It was a sight rarely seen in the English Department. Generally athletes took Eng 101 and then were never seen again. When Professor Hutchins arrived on his bicycle, late and in a fluster, he took one look at the buffed up dudes and raised both eyebrows as if to say “righty-dighty!” Then he began writing the syllabus on the blackboard. He’d had some trouble, he explained, making sure the book store could purchase all of the volumes he wanted to cover. They were quite old and some of them were out of print. But, he went on to explain, he had his sources and if he could figure out the damned Xerox machine, he’d have copies of his syllabus available in his office.

Righty Dighty! (aka Algernon Blackwood)

He began by explaining the difference between science fiction, fantasy and supernatural. Science fiction is what could be or what exists elsewhere (in the future or the past or in a distant galaxy). Fantasy draws heavily on magic. However, supernatural literature is based on what exists but is not understood. For example: obsession, death, prophetic dreams, and yes, even romantic love. He then read this passage from Algernon Blackwood:

My fundamental interest, I suppose, is signs and proofs of other powers that lie hidden in us all; the extension, in other words, of human faculty. So many of my stories, therefore, deal with extension of consciousness; speculative and imaginative treatment of possibilities outside our normal range of consciousness…. Also, all that happens in our universe is natural; under Law; but an extension of our so limited normal consciousness can reveal new, extra-ordinary powers etc., and the word “supernatural” seems the best word for treating these in fiction. I believe it possible for our consciousness to change and grow, and that with this change we may become aware of a new universe. A “change” in consciousness, in its type, I mean, is something more than a mere extension of what we already possess and know.

Algernon Blackwood

As he read, the athletes all began shutting their notebooks and shuffling out of the class. He didn’t seem at all surprised.

We began with the Irish writer J.S. LeFanu (1814 -1873) who has been credited with adding the psychological element to what were previously creaking doors and black cat ghost stories. In his novella, Carmilla, Le Fanu was also credited with equating passionate love with death:

“… my wild heart bleeds with yours. In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die – die, sweetly die – into mine.”

The vampire to her victim
Illustration by DH Fristen who also illustrated the first Sherlock Holmes books

Because Le Fanu was not only a Victorian but also a Calvinist. sexual arousal was a source of contradictory feelings:

“In these mysterious moods, I did not like her. I experienced a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable, ever and anon, mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust.”

Calvinists believed that the only way to salvation was through deprivation. Anything pleasurable could lead to damnation. In Le Fanu, dreams are the portals to all sorts of mischief:

“But dreams come through stone walls, light up dark rooms, or darken light ones and their persons make their exits and their entrances as they please, and laugh at locksmiths.”

Unlike sci-fi and fantasy, in a supernatural novel there is no happy ending. The monster might be killed by the hero or heroine but the conditions that created the monster still exist.

“… to this hour the image of Carmilla returns to memory with ambiguous alternations – sometimes the playful, languid beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend I saw in the ruined church; and often from a reverie I have started, fancying I head the light step of Carmilla at the drawing room door.”

The ending of Carmilla

The title of this post is from the 1963 version of Best Ghost Stories of JS LeFanu, Introduction by E.F. Bleiler.

You can probably guess that Carmilla was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I don’t know which … a beautiful young woman or a handsome middle aged man … makes a more frightening vampire. What do you think?