Friday, 6 December 2013
Welcome to me is sleep, and dearer still,
While wrong and shame endure, my stony death.
Neither to see nor hear is my good luck.
Do not awake me: pass with bated breath.
I think I can call myself a bit of an artist; I am particularly attracted to the Italian language and culture. And I am not a little fascinated by the beauty of my own gender, especially the darker specimens. None of which has been able to hold me back from worming my way into the respectable straitjacket that once belonged to my unimaginative father and grandfather, from marrying as they did, from raising children and exercising the dignified profession of a solicitor: quite the model Flemish, middle-class existence.
I shan't dwell on my public life - it's of little consequence. Like all solicitors, doctors, pharmacists, surgeons and other representatives of the liberal professions in Flanders, I speak French, earn heaps of money that I don't work for and that I salt away in my accounts in Geneva and Monaco, am a member of my local Lyons club and, in my village, just outside Brussels, am respected and invited to all the weddings and so-called cultural events. My wife, a covetous grande bourgeoise, dresses in haute couture, my three children are boarders at a strict private school, and if everything goes as one would wish - and for the haut bourgeois, God ensures that everything always goes as one would wish - in fifteen years or so, my eldest son, Frederic, will take over the baton of my solicitor's practice.
An easy life, isn't it? A dreadful life! A double life! Fear gnaws at me constantly, the fear of being uncloaked, the fear of losing the respect of the people for whom I myself no longer have respect, the fear of having to give up all those things for which I ultimately couldn't care less any more: money, standing, a boring job, a boring and snobbish wife, snobbish children who think that the world is theirs just because their father happens to be rich.
Drastic decisions are often the best decisions that you take in your life, except unfortunately I haven't yet, at forty-three, got that far. With my financial means, I should be able to pack my bags, turn my back on my office, and ditch my wife and children to go and rent a flat somewhere in Brussels so that I can have a buzz-cut done and don a leather jacket to go and get smashed drinking in the gay bars and give vent to my desires. My own experience has told me that there is no future for two men once they've shot their bolts, and solidarity is an empty concept in the ghetto. And so, for the time being, I stay with my wife and children, and thus am doomed to dreaming up a thousand excuses and wriggling out of a thousand corners in order to be able, unbeknownst to them and to my neighbours, to satisfy my homosexual urges.
During a meeting, I sit in a sauna. I conclude a public sale with a hurried visit to a porn cinema. A conference at Brussels university becomes a pretext for an afternoon in a hotel with rooms by the hour in the company of a little Moroccan picked up in Place Fontainas. And afterwards, always afterwards, those damned mints and chewing gum, so that no one’ ll smell that my tongue and lips were between another man's legs a quarter of an hour previously. Or that dull dread of returning home with a little ailment, crabs or - God forbid! - AIDS.
Summertime is perhaps the period when I can most be myself, within the limits that I have self-imposed. I can hand over the reins of my office to my associates, put on my casual clothes, devote myself to sports activities and depart for warmer parts with my wife and children. As befits a true, upright family man, it is I of course who select the destination, a destination where, in addition to sunbathing and swimming, we can also do something cultural and relax. Where, without being a gay mecca, there is of course something that men like me can get up to on the sly. Sitges, Ibiza and Mykonos are therefore out, due to their excessively open homosexual atmosphere; but, alongside these Mediterranean Sodoms, there is a whole string of other places on the Mediterranean Sea with a beach, a wood, or a park where you can get a pick-up. Just look in the Spartacus, the gay bible. Every gay bar's got a copy, and for the price of a pint, you can quickly note down a couple of 'useful' addresses or - as I do in my paranoia of being caught - you can learn them off by heart.
What kind of places have I been to as a good husband with his family?
Nice - classy, French and a little rocky coastline just outside the town centre almost exclusively for men. Hammamet - Tunisian, exotic and with drop-dead gorgeous young men, who'll drop their pants or lift their djellabahs for a couple of dinars. And Viareggio, of course, Viareggio, Italy. Viareggio is the pearl of the Tyrrhenian coast and for me virtually heaven on earth.
Just imagine: alongside delicious food, a fine climate and the proximity of artistic cities like Pisa, Lucca and Florence, Viareggio boasts a wood of pine trees situated behind the beach and dunes, which stretches from the harbour to the Torre del Lago. There, between the pines and bushes and to the happy rhythm of chirping crickets, shameless open-air sex - my favourite fantasy - is all the rage. For a voyeur on the look-out for scenes to awaken the senses, all he often has to do is step off the widest tracks that criss-cross the wood and follow the trail of used condoms and paper hankies through the thick undergrowth. With a bit of luck, he can remain concealed and witness some duo in the course of their lovemaking. Or a trio. Or a quartet. Traditional, paying or same-sex.
The area behind the restaurant called 'La Casetta dei Tigli' is the exclusive domain of a number of Felliniesque whores, who ride around on their Vespas looking for clients, and then disappear into the bushes. Around the 'Bocciodromo', the older men meet for a chat and maybe to pick up some young boy or girl that has wandered astray. But the most secluded spot in the wood, a place behind the beach that can only be reached at the end of a walk of over a mile through the greenery, is the traditional tryst for the gays. Yes, in the summer, about half the homosexual population of Tuscany frolic around there in the nude or very scantily clad, on the hunt for ecologically responsible but not always equally safe erotic entertainment with one or more others of the same sex. On three occasions, I have rented a summer residence in Viareggio for my family and me, in the district of 'Campo d'Aviazione', situated next to the pineta. Always with the excuse that the wood is an ideal place for me to do my daily jog, I have often been able to make contacts with a number of Italian soul-mates.
They can be good-looking, Italians, pretty and fickle, and maybe a tad unattainable, but if you take your time to study their southern cruising ways and adjust yourself to their signals, they are just as willing as our more northerly specimens to submit to the love gods. Or maybe even more willing, since they are able to dispense with the entire vestimentary carnival that seems to be the winning ticket on the Brussels gay scene, in order to distinguish themselves from heterosexuals. Probably because the boundary between homo- and heterosexuality in Italy remains somewhat more vague and undefined. Did they not describe same-sex love at the court of Versailles as le vice italien, and was the Italian version of La Cage aux Folles not called Il Vizietto? It's as if homosexuality is not a way of life or philosophy, but merely an ignored little vice to which people occasionally yield but that does not denote a life and cannot deviate from the normal pattern. And so, a large number of visitors to the pineta are, like me, nicely married-with-children and not pathologically disgusted by the female sex organ, although it is not rare for them to prefer the male body. 'Men,' someone once said to me in the wood, 'have more beautiful behinds and a more dexterous mouth.' I can't say that he was wrong ?
But, let me backtrack a little - Monday, the twenty-sixth of August, 19** to be precise - and recount to you the most unusual adventure that I have ever experienced in the pineta, or anywhere else for that matter. A bittersweet adventure that has been a source of some deep reflection on my part, that until the end of my days will make me feel guilty, and that I shall maybe one day tell to a judge, should the fatal day break on which I draw a close to my mendacious marital existence.
As most holidaymakers will know, the Italians go on vacation en masse on 1 August and return to their work and occupations - the so-called contresodo - likewise en masse on the last Monday of the month. As I awoke next to my wife on that Monday, now four years since, with an overwhelming desire for male flesh, I then hardly dared to hope that I would get what I was wanting that day. There probably wouldn't be much happening in the pineta. The skies over Viareggio were grey and ominous, and on top of that my younger son was unwell.
An unsatisfied lust for sex evokes hatred for everything that stands in the way of fulfilling that lust. No verbal vitriol can describe the hatred that I felt for my family on that day, seemingly without end. I hated my wife, my snobbish, bourgeois wife, whom I was only able to kiss and penetrate with closed eyes as I recalled the memories of my conquests in the wood. I hated my only daughter because she didn't like olive oil and because pasta purportedly made her fat, and above all I hated the little cry-baby that was my younger son, Paul, who, on the pretext of a slight temperature, constantly demanded my attention and ceaselessly asked me to play cards with him. Eventually, at about six in the evening, the proverbial gasket blew. I couldn't have taken it to be with them for another minute, with those parasites who lived off my money and for whom I had sacrificed my life. With loud cursing and swearing - and with my wife in hysterics - I changed into my running gear and closed the door to our apartment behind me. I was alone.
Once in the wood, I calmed down a little. I had been right, there was much less happening than a few days previously, but the sight of all those majestic pine trees and the bushes beneath them - in short, a Fragonard landscape - went some way to tempering my aggression and stirred my sexual urges. If I found nobody, I would undress in some hidden spot and, if necessary, leaning against the resin-odoured bark of a tree, masturbate, imagining that the soft summer breeze caressing my tanned skin was the thousand fingertips of a hundred men and that I was shedding my lonesome seed over a pair of strapping male buttocks.
A surprise, a vision of exceptional beauty awaited me, however, when I had eventually forged a way through the Mediterranean overgrowth to one of the darkest areas of the wood, ready to touch myself there. There, in a spot strewn with withered pine needles, lonely and alone on a fiery red towel in the pose of a classical painting, lay a naked young man, asleep. He had rolled onto his belly, his left leg drawn up, his right leg stretched out, so that he not only afforded me a view of his innocent but provocative buttocks, which were turned toward me, but also of the ridge of his scrotum and the exposed glans of his member.
I may not be very poetically-minded but this sleeping beauty nearly moved me to laud his body in verse and rhyme: his short-cut dark hair, his face, which he concealed in his arms, his muscular neck, his tanned shoulders, back and legs, and, of course, his white buttocks, the only place that the sun had been unable to touch him over the summer months and which seemed to be sculpted from marble. White, virginal marble from the quarries of Carrara that can be descried from the beach; white, veined marble that seemed all the whiter and flawless against the bronzed colour of the rest of his young, unblemished skin and the deep red of his bathing towel.
For a number of minutes I must have looked upon this spectacle, for a number of minutes I must have stood still, as quiet as a mouse, with bated breath, until my desire gained the upper hand over my asexual sense of beauty and aesthetics. I coughed gently. No move came from the sleeping beauty. I broke a twig from a bush with a dry crack. Still no reaction. Eventually, I stepped silently up to him and went and sat next to him on the corner of his towel. I must have been so hypnotised up to that point by his rear end that it was only then that I noticed a number of objects that lent the vision a certain tragic character: a letter written in ink, a half-empty bottle of mineral water and a number of empty canisters of pills with fatal-sounding names like Xeraxat, Lexotan and Xarax. This beautiful boy, who might well have made so many people happy through his mere existence, had decided to give himself up into the cold hands of death. And somehow his body had indeed already cooled as I carefully laid my hand on his right calf and then allowed my fingers to dwell on his buttocks.
'Giovanotto, wake up,' I whispered to him as I rolled him onto his back with a delicate motion. His eyelids and his mouth opened and stared at me with a hazy, hazel-eyed gaze as he murmured a few incomprehensible words. What then got into me I don't know, but so beautiful, so regular was his visage that I pressed my mouth against his fleshy lips and, under the first few drops of a summer storm, started to kiss him. Yes, I explored the inside of his dying mouth with my tongue as I held his chin in the grip of my hands, that proud, sturdy chin with its growth of beard and moustache.
Then I turned him over like a clothier's dummy, my sleeping beauty, and, under raindrops that were falling more and more heavily to the accompaniment of still far-off thunderclaps, I buried my head between his legs. Only a lizard that had found a shelter under a nearby bush and a squirrel that observed us with his keen little eyes from the branches of a pine tree were able to witness how I experienced the most extraordinary moments of my otherwise, oh, so banal life on that stormy August evening with a boy who was soon to breath his last. Yes, even now, after four years and now that I am back with my family in Viareggio, I can still recall the minutest details; I can remember the slightest detail without difficulty and again wallow in those voluptuous moments in my memories, in those sensuous moments that brought my five senses to a satisfaction extraordinaire. For, after a while, I, too, undressed and procured the dying youth a worthy, corporeal departure from this earth. The fact that he had sunk into a deadly sleep and yielded to my lust, the lust of a man unknown to him from far-off Flanders who under normal circumstances he probably wouldn't have deigned to glance at, and this made me hotter than ever, if such were possible. I tasted the odour and savour of his anus. Gently, I inserted my spit-moistened finger into that hidden place, where the last remnants of his bodily warmth seemed to have gathered. I sucked on his member and testicles until he, somewhat to my wonderment, got a suspicion of a nocturnal erection. I nestled up against him so that I could better feel the contact between our skin - mine at normal, human temperature, his a few degrees lower. This entire love game - if one can speak of love when one of the partners doesn't even have the strength to consent - this entire love game, then, played out under a sultry summer storm that made the entire wood, the entire surroundings, smell of damp earth and moss, that lighted up the dark, purple sky above the high peaks with tremendous thunderbolts and the screeching of panic-stricken crows and gulls, was drowned out by clashes of thunder.
After quarter of an hour, without having touched myself, I reached a climax and smeared his back and buttocks with my warm semen, which was quickly washed away by the rain. Meanwhile, we were both soaked, and whilst I pulled on my equally wet running gear in a state as if I'd been awoken out of a wet dream, I glanced again at my sleeping beauty. He still seemed to be gently breathing and, in a last, convulsive attempt, he slowly turned back to exactly the same position he'd been in when I had found him. He reached his despondent hand out toward the piece of paper before him. Like my sperm, his last words, written on the farewell note, were washed away by the pitiless raindrops.
I then set off running, again forged a path through the gorse bushes and, panting and enervated from the enjoyment, I reached the track that led directly out of the pineta. Only then, only there did I realise the extent of what I had done: I, me, a decent, married solicitor from far-off Flanders, had abused a poor Italian boy in his last sleep. Whatever, I thought, maybe it was not yet too late to do something, perhaps I could quickly hurry to the police not far away or ring for an ambulance or call a doctor or, once I reached the Viale dei Tigli, I could just flag down a car.
But what could I say? How could I have explained my presence at the gayest place in the wood? That would have given me away, I would have blown my cover. The police and the local population knew only too well the reputation of the isolated area where my sleeping beauty had intended to meet his death, not least because two murders had once been committed there against gays. The police or ambulance men would certainly have asked me questions and had me fill in forms, and questioned me as to why I had been there at that moment. The whole situation would have grown into a local scandal, into an, oh, so typical Italian fatto di cronaca, a fatto di cronaca of a decent Flemish citizen who sticks his bureaucratic finger in the arse of a suicide victim. In my paranoia, I was naturally convinced that they would have found my finger prints or - more simply - would have spotted the brown tip of my right index finger.
And so I made off like a cowardly, vile person back to my rented flat, to my family, in full realisation that my hypocrisy meant the death of a boy.
Once home, I immediately withdrew to the bathroom where I stood before the mirror, gazing into my own eyes, and again sensuously licked at my finger. And my wife, that awful person, spoke not a word to me during the whole evening, no, she didn't once ask how come I had scratches on my arm and mud stains on my jogging suit.
Two days later, two days after my shameful deed, news of the boy's act of desperation did indeed make the front page of the local paper: 'Young gay commits suicide in woods' was the headline that could be read all over Viareggio on the posters that were renewed each day in front of the news kiosks.
I bought a copy. As far as my knowledge of Italian permitted, I understood after reading the article that the boy - his name was given as Salvatore Barzi - had seemingly taken his life because he and his family had not been able to accept his being different. It was also said that his farewell note had been made unreadable due to the heavy rain. At the same time, the reporter wondered about the feeling of solidarity amongst gays. According to the medical report, the boy was only discovered eighteen hours after taking the sleeping pills, by someone who wanted to remain anonymous. The reporter also said that it was extremely improbable that no other clandestine visitor to the gay part of the pineta had noticed him earlier. Newspaper in hand, and a swelling in my throat, I went and sat at an open-air cafe and ordered a grappa.
Yesterday, about four years after my adventure with the sleeping beauty and back with my family in Viareggio, I went and paid a visit to the cemetery in order to see the grave of Salvatore Barzi. I bought a fiery red rose from the flower-girl at the entrance to the graveyard, and then I enquired of the attendant where the grave of a certain Salvatore Barzi was situated.
'Salvatore Barzi, the sleeping beauty?' rapped the attendant, as he looked at me somewhat quizzically. 'You go to the central sector and, when you're there, you can't miss his tomb.'
The attendant was right. The tomb of Salvatore - the boy whose saviour I had not been - did indeed stand out amongst the last resting places of all the other deceased. The pit containing his mortal remains was covered with a heavy, black porphyry slab. On the slab was sculpted a likeness of Salvatore in white marble and in exactly the same position as I had encountered him on that pernicious summer's evening. The artist must have been truly gifted and had probably been inspired by police photos whilst creating this classic work of art, for no detail was missing: the rear end and the glimpse of the boy's genitals were shown without false diffidence, his marble limbs seemed to be as muscular as they seemed weary and indeed it looked as though his marble left hand was grasping for a sculpted letter in front of him. 'Salvatore Barzi' were the words in the letter, together with his dates of birth and death. He had been but twenty-six?
With a respectful gesture, I lay the red rose at his graceful feet. I gazed long at his effigy, so long that it seemed to come alive in my mind's eye.
Eventually, I stretched out my hand and caressed his stone buttocks. I wasn' t the first to have done so, for I now noticed that the marble on his rear end gleamed from having been repeatedly touched by human hands. It gleamed like the holy foot of St. Peter in the Basilica in Rome, or the lucky arm of Everard 't Serclaes on the Market Square in Brussels. Barely had I withdrawn my hand when I was approached by a little women dressed in black whom I had not seen earlier, so bewitched was I by the statue.
'How do you know Salvatore?' she barked at me.
When I was unable to think of a suitable reply, she grasped my rose and struck me in the face with it.
'My Salvatore wasn't like that, leave him alone, you pervert!' she yelled indignantly, whereupon she tried to push me away from her son's grave.
I left the cemetery of Viareggio with sullen shoulders , my left cheek scratched with the rose thorns, with a mind to head for the pineta. There was more to do there than at a cemetery.
When I got there, an older, married man explained to me more about Salvatore. His tomb had adorned the front page of Babilonia, a militant Italian gay magazine, in a call for greater solidarity, and since then the monument had grown into a holy place, a place of pilgrimage for the Italian gay community. Touching Salvatore's buttocks brought luck, to the horror of the boy's mother, of course, who watched over his grave virtually every day.
I wept, crocodile tears probably, but tears in any event and when, at dinner that evening, my wife asked me where I had got the scratches on my face, I again brushed away a teardrop. 'I have heard that the wood at the back here has a reputation that is by no means very good,' she said, yet with a slight reproach.
'Let's not talk about such things in front of our children,' I answered curtly with a tone of authority.
My wife seemed to be satisfied. The middle classes don't like at all to talk about the more colourful things in life and it is therefore unlikely that I shall ever tell anyone my story of Salvatore Barzi, the Sleeping Beauty of Viareggio. I can be as silent as a grave...
From a review of Jan’s Sleeping Beauty.
“Epistle of the Sleeping Beauty” by Jan Vander Laenen is a truly delightful tale reporting an unusual erotic adventure on the gay side taking place in the famous pineta (pinewood) of Viareggio, Italy.
“Belgian writer Jan Vander Laenen's “Epistle of the Sleeping Beauty” was translated into English for the anthology, and is among the most unsettling of the stories: a man on holiday, hiding his homosexual cravings from his wife and children, seeks risky public sex and discovers a naked, dying, young man in the woods. This like many of the tales in the collection divulges the horrifying lengths some will go to fulfill lust, and is more cutting and critical than celebratory of many gay lifestyles.”
Jan Vander Laenen lives in Brussels, Belgium, where he works as an art historian and translator (Dutch, French and Italian). He is also the author of eight collections of short stories, plays, and screenplays which have attracted keen interest abroad. A romantic comedy, Oscar Divo, and a thriller, The Card Game, are presently in the hands of a competent producer in Hollywood, while his short fiction collections The Butler and Poète mauditare eliciting the requisite accolades in Italy. He credits Karen Blixen and Edgar Allan Poe as his literary influences.
The Sleeping Beauty has been published in Dutch as “De Schone Slaper” and in French as “Le bel au bois dormant”. Vander Laenen's "The Corpse Washer" appeared in Ignavia.
The Sleeping Beauty is available at Amazon UK
And at Amazon US
Friday, 29 November 2013
It was the first notorious killing of the twentieth century. July 1910 Britain was gripped by the progress of a huge man hunt. It was on a scale that hadn’t been seen since Jack the Ripper.
The fugitive was Doctor Hawley Harvey Crippen and he was wanted for the murder and mutilation of his wife Cora. Together with his mistress, Ethel le Neve, Doctor Crippen had fled from London. Handbills had been printed and pasted everywhere and distributed to police around the world. Everyone was talking about this case.
The Home Secretary, a certain Winston Churchill had organised a reward of £250, worth £20,000 in today’s money for their capture.
So where was Doctor Crippen and his lover Ethel le Neve? In fact they had already left the country and were holed up in a hotel in Belgium. They had plans to leave for North America.
Henry Kendal was the captain of a steam ship heading across the Atlantic to Canada. But two of his passengers had aroused his suspicions. The SS Montrose had only been at sea for one day when Captain Kendal noticed a father and son behaving strangely on deck. He thought it was very odd that they squeezed each other’s hands immoderately, as he put it, and that they would sometimes disappear behind the lifeboats. The two of them were travelling as Mr and Master Robinson.
What happened next was just like a detective novel, with the Captain playing the part of Sherlock Holmes. Captain Kendal decided to carry out an experiment to try and confirm his suspicions that he had Doctor Crippen on board. He took a newspaper photograph of Doctor Crippen and using chalk he whitened out the Doctor’s moustache and then blackened out the frames of his spectacles and it was a photo fit. Without his moustache and spectacles the mysterious Mr Robinson was clearly Doctor Crippen.
Captain Kendal had access to a pioneering piece of technology that would speed up the process of twentieth century crime investigation. It was the Marconi wireless, but the transmitter only had a range of 150 miles. When Captain Kendal made his breakthrough he was already 130 miles from the nearest receiver; he had 20 miles left to get the message out. Rushing along the lower deck to the wireless room he handed the wireless operator the message that would electrify the world.
“Have strong suspicions that Crippen the London cellar murderer and accomplice are amongst the passengers. Accomplice dressed as a boy but with voice manners and build undoubtedly a girl.”
But would the message get through in time?
So what exactly were the events that had led up to this extraordinary situation?
Doctor Crippen, an American, who dabbled in cheap patent medicines and dentistry had been living what seemed a pretty conventional life in a North London villa. His wife, Cora, was a would be music hall artiste. But the marriage was troubled and Crippen had begun an affair with his young secretary, Ethel le Neve. On the 19th January 1910, Crippen visited a chemist to purchase five grains of hydro bromide of hyosin; an enormous dosage of a deadly poison. He signed the poison book like he was supposed to, with the words “for homeopathic purposes.”
On the 31st January, the Crippens held a little party at home. Later, Crippen would claim that it had been followed by a terrible quarrel between him and his wife. Cora had said that she was leaving him the very next day. Whatever really happened that night the guests at that party were the last people to see Cora Crippen alive. To explain Cora’s absence Crippen claimed that she had gone back to America and then he later said that she had died out there. Very suspicious Cora’s friends now paid a visit to New Scotland Yard. The case was taken up by Detective Chief Inspector Walter Dew, a veteran of the Ripper murders. He was a member of the Yard’s newly formed “murder squad”. Its members prided themselves on their prowess and their skills in disguises – however unconvincing. Chief Inspector Dew searched Crippen’s house for evidence but found nothing. But he wasn’t quite satisfied. He went back three days later for another look and discovered that Crippen had disappeared. “My quarry has gone,” he said.
Crippen’s house, where a block of flats now stands held a strange attraction for Dew. “That sinister cellar,” he wrote, “draws me to it.” His sergeant began to work away at the brick floor, then to remove the earth beneath. There was a nauseating stench and Dew and his men had to rush out to the garden for fresh air. Fortifying themselves with brandy, they returned to the cellar and soon made a grim discovery. There, in a shallow grave, lay a limbless headless torso. What kind of person could have done this? Surely not gentle Doctor Crippen?
The story caused a frenzy of excitement, with lurid headlines in the popular press. Inspector Dew was now under enormous pressure to catch the killer.
And then, that sensational telegram arrived from the mid-Atlantic.
Chief Inspector Dew now hatched an ingenious plan – he had to take a faster ship to overtake the Montrose before it reached Canada and to arrest Crippen on board. And the press were hard on his heels. Word had leaked out about what was happening on the SS Montrose. Newspaper readers could follow Dew’s pursuit as he closed in on his suspects at the rate of three and a half miles an hour.
This story has it all. As well as a gruesome murder, there is an illicit romance and a chase across the Atlantic. And best of all, the suspects didn’t have a clue that the police were onto them, although every newspaper reader in Britain did. Doctor Crippen had become the most famous murderer in the world.
Dew attempted to evade the journalists by disguising himself as a harbour pilot in order to board the Montrose. But it was no good. Reporters were there to capture the moment when Dew finally greeted his suspect with the words; “Good morning Doctor Crippen.” Can you imagine an actor and director lingering over that line – the pace, the dramatic pause?
Press photographers caught everything that happened next. The crowds waiting at Liverpool docks. Dew escorting Crippen off the boat. The anticipation outside Bow Streets magistrate’s court for the committal of Crippen and Le Neve.
The press had made the couple into a highly marketable commodity. This was a very modern murder.
Bizarre offers now began to come in. If they were acquitted Crippen would get £1000 a week for a twenty week tour. le Neve would receive £200 a week for a performance including a musical sketch entitled “Caught by Wireless.”
On the 18th of October the trial of Doctor Crippen began at the Old Bailey. This was going to be a huge spectacle. Four thousand people applied for tickets, the court had to issue special half day passes so that double the normal numbers could get in. In the words of the Daily Mail’s reporter;
“…the crowds begged, pleaded and argued for seats in the public gallery.”
Inside there was even more chaos. There was a rowdy atmosphere, like a music hall. People were shouting ‘blue tickets that way, red tickets up here.”
The trial ended on Saturday the 22nd of October. The jury only took twenty seven minutes to find Crippen guilty of wilful murder. He was sentenced to death.
In his evidence on oath, Crippen said that his wife had often threatened to leave him and had picked a quarrel with him over his behaviour while they were having friends round for dinner. Recounting the last time he saw her, he said:
She abused me, and said some very strong things; she said that if I could not be a gentleman she had had enough of it and could not stand it any longer and she was going to leave. That was similar to her former threats, but she said besides something she had not said before; she said that after she had gone it would be necessary for me to cover up any scandal there might be by her leaving me, and I might do it in the very best way I could. I came back the next day at my usual time, which would be about half-past seven or eight o'clock, and found that the house was vacant.
The trial ended on Saturday the 22nd of October. The jury only too twenty seven minutes to find Crippen guilty of wilful murder. He was sentenced to death.
The jury took just 27 minutes to reject Crippen's explanations for his wife's disappearance and convict him of murder.
Crippen was executed on 23 November 1910, less than four months after his arrest. His last request was to have a photo of Ethel Le Neve in his top pocket when he was hanged. He was buried in the cemetery at Pentonville prison.
Ethel le Neve, at a separate trial was acquitted and she lost no time in selling her side of the story. A publicity shot shows her in her infamous disguise as a boy. But her fame was short lived. It was Crippen himself that would be imortalised. Even during his trial sculptors at Madame Taussaud’s had been preparing a wax figure based on those snatched court photographs. Within days of the passing of Crippen’s death sentence Taussaud’s unveiled their new addition to the chamber of horrors. Crippen was on display to the public before he’d even met the hangman.
And over one hundred years later he is still on show.
In the 1912 catalogue to the Chamber of Horrors he takes his place amongst the greats. His fellow doctor, William Palmer the poisoner. And opposite the 19th century murderess, Maria Manning. They have a description of their crimes in the catalogue. Doctor Crippen has none. Everyone knows who he is; what he did.
And a contemporary journalist described this place, the Chamber of Horrors as “the holiest of holies.” These were the people everyone wanted to see. What does that say about the Edwardians?
Indeed; what does it say about all of us? Public hangings are no more; but I bet people would go to see them if they were. I recall watching the Crime channel (I’m addicted to it. It’s my version of a seat in the public gallery at the Old Bailey) there were crowds outside the jail where they’d got Ted Bundy. They cheered when it was announced that his death sentence had been carried out.
It seems that a lurid fascination with murderers and death did not die with the Edwardians.
You can read statements taken by the police and transcripts from the trial here; http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=def1-75-19101011&div=t19101011-75
TV viewers of BBC 4 will recognise that I have plundered parts of “A Very British Murder” presented by Lucy Worsley. The rest of the post has been put together using sources from the web.
Friday, 22 November 2013
The Swing, or The Happy Accidents of the Swing was painted in 1767 by Jean-Honore Fragonard. It is painted in the Rococo style, an iconic piece of frothy boudoir chic; which quite intentionally takes the privacy of the inside space – a woman’s bedroom – to the out of doors space, where there are flashes of danger and anything can happen.
Commissioned by the notorious French libertine Baron de St. Julien as a portrait of his mistress, The Swing was to be painted to the following specificity: "I should like you to paint Madame seated on a swing being pushed by a Bishop."
While this odd request was turned down by other painters such as Gabriel François Doyen, a painter of more serious historical subjects, Fragonard leapt to the occasion, producing what became the most iconic work of the French Rococo.
In the foreground the playboy Baron himself is depicted, reclining in the lush shrubbery, one arm outstretched towards the woman’s skirts, his other arm holding his balance. He gave very specific instructions to Fragonard, stating "Place me in a position where I can observe the legs of that charming girl."
Not only can the Baron see the woman’s shapely legs, his gaze is fixed onto what he can see between her soft, plump thighs and that makes the image highly arousing. The viewer knows that the woman is deliberately exposing her fat, moist genitalia to her lover.
His mistress flies through the air on a sylvan swing, the lovely young woman giving herself away to frivolous abandon, her shoe flying off in the heat of the moment.
In the background of the composition one can see what was originally going to be the Bishop, requested by the Baron, but which was changed to the mistress's husband by Fragonard. The husband plays a lesser role, being immersed in shadow while the Baron is illuminated under the woman’s dress.
The inanimate objects add to the narrative. Two cherubs below the swing appear concerned by the sordid actions of the humans above them, one looking up at the women in trepidation and the other looking away from the action with a scowl. On the left side of the image is a stone statue of Cupid who raises a finger to his lips to point out the secretive nature of the impending affair.
The Swing, rich with symbolism, not only manages to capture a moment of complete spontaneity and joie de vivre, but also alludes to the illicit affair that may have already been going on, or is about to begin.
The painting draws on fetish to flesh out the narrative. The Baron is a voyeur feasting on the moment of frivolity. Maybe the husband is aroused by his wife’s lewd behaviour and enjoying her exposing herself to another man, or maybe the husband, exerting himself pushing the weight of his bride on the swing does not have a clue about what is really going on; secrecy that idea is a fetish too. The secret is part of the erotic journey.
The woman herself is an exhibitionist enjoying being the focus of male appreciation. And we are voyeurs too spying on their moment of titivation.
The young woman is the main focus of the painting, delicious in her froth of pink silk, poised mid-air tantalizingly beyond the reach of both her elderly husband and her excited young lover.
The woman’s slipper, which flies off her foot as she swings so easily, is another playful touch which helps accentuate the erotic subject matter, as well as providing a visual focus in the splash of sunlight.
One of Fragonard's first teachers, Francois Boucher seems to have made an impression on the young painter; this can be seen this erotic confection.
Boucher specialized in the combination of the pastoral scene with a passionate sensibility. While originally commissioned to paint mythological scenes, Fragonard had a knack for turning them into boudoir scenes in the open air and this provocative sensibility is reflected in The Swing.
Always a fan of the Dutch Masters, the inspiration that Rubens provides is clear in this portrait with its attention to detail, loose fluid brushwork, and the uncaring attitude to the convention of the narrative.
In addition, the Dutch of this time period were notorious for their inclusion of small symbolic items, which appear in The Swing in the case of the embracing putti and Cupid with his finger over his lips, to symbolize the secrecy of the affair. These are all reminiscent of earlier works by Rubens.
Fragonard painted The Swing with the intention of flattering the Baron and his mistress, to supply them with a lighthearted, frivolous painting and to provide an intimate memento of their relationship. To this end, he utilized only the finest of the Rococo techniques.
The Swing is composed in a triangular shape, with the Baron and the husband forming the base of the pyramid, and the woman in the air at the top of the triangle, in the center of the space.
She is illuminated by the soft lighting coming from above, and the fanciful trees form an oval frame for the action in the center.
Fragonard includes a number of hidden details within the composition to heighten the message of playful love, including two putti embracing, a stone lap dog and dolphin, and a stone statue of Cupid.
Considered to be Fragonard's most successful painting, the Swing stands alone today as an emblem of Rococo art. The combination of insouciant attitude, naughty eroticism, faded pastel swirls and pastoral scenery creates an irresistible testament to the beauty of youth and illegitimate affairs. In prerevolutionary France adultery is but a playful contrivance to pass the time.
There are a number of copies of the Swing – none by Fragonard. You can see The Swing in the Wallace collection which is conveniently located in Central London, just a few minutes walk from Oxford Street, Baker Street and Marylebone Village.
This blog post has been put together using sources from the web.
Friday, 15 November 2013
I’ve read Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” a few times. I read it again quite recently. It’s still as disturbingly, quietly brilliant as ever. It will always be disturbing, it will always leave the reader shaken; it is meant to. But more than anything, it is a brave book. Nabokov doesn’t just tip-toe around this huge, very difficult subject. He hits you with it hard.
Paedophilia. It’s a word to make you shudder. What can you say about it, other than it is the horror of a nightmare?
Nabokov isn’t defending paedophilia and he’s not attempting to explain it. Through his unreliable narrator, Humbert Humbert, he explores the nature of the predatory, salacious psyche, and shows paedophilia up for the totally selfishly, depravity fuelled lifestyle that it is.
Some books, it has been seen, as with “Lady Chatterley’ Lover” public taste has finally embraced Indeed, it is now hard to believe that Penguin books were actually put on trial for publishing it. “Ulysses” was also considered depraved. People don’t think that way now. Yes, times change, we grow up, we mature. But public taste will never embrace “Lolita,” it will always be read with a shudder.
. "Oh, no, not again. Please, leave me alone, will you."
Lolita cries, as she sees Humbert sobbing lustfully, because he wants to fuck her, yet again. And this is a novel about a grown man fucking a twelve year old girl, let’s not be shy.
Humbert fucks Lolita relentlessly.
Humbert insists that he is not a monster. True, he may not look like one. I have the image of a tall, dark, intellectual. Distinguished; he’s an academic, a bit of a bumbler. A debonair European; Lolita’s mother, who is also Humbert’s landlady, falls for him and they marry. When she dies, Humbert, who is now Lolita’s stepfather, also has total control over her. It all worked out so well for him, didn’t it?
But Humbert Humbert is a monster. Although he is our narrator, he tells things only from his point of view. He dissembles and Nabokov makes it clear to the reader that in his planned seduction of Lolita, this is a pervert planning to fulfil his lascivious desires.
"So let us get started. I have a difficult job before me." Humbert addresses the reader.
He describes the process.
“She was musical and apple-sweet. Her legs twitched a little as they lay across my live lap; I stroked them; there she lolled on in the right-hand corner, almost asprawl, Lola, the bobbysoxer, devouring her immemorial fruit, singing through its juice, losing her slipper, rubbing the heel of her slipperless foot in its sloppy anklet, against the pile of old magazines heaped on my left on the sofa—and every movement she made, every shuffle and ripple, helped me to conceal and improve the secret system of tactile correspondence between beast and beauty—between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her dimpled body in its innocent cotton frock …”
Nabokov guides the reader. No matter how much Humbert dresses it up, what he wants to do is ejaculate without Lolita knowing. Humbert shields himself from how repulsively he has acted.
“Her teeth rested on her glistening underlip as she half-turned away, and my moaning mouth, gentlemen of the jury, almost reached her bare neck, while I crushed out against her left buttock the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known.”
“With the deep hot sweetness thus established and well on its way to its ultimate convulsion I felt I could slow down in order to prolong the glow. …”
But the most perverse, shocking scene occurs later in the book. Humbert shows no contrition, just plain evil, salaciousness when he is confronted by Lolita’s school teacher. The teacher tells him that Lolita is; "antagonistic, dissatisfied, cagey" and "obsessed with sexual thoughts for which she finds no outlet."
Nabokov is using the schoolteacher as a mouthpiece to show the damage done to Lolita. Humbert sneers inwardly and goes to find Lolita at study. Here is the
passage. Humbert Humbert finds her:
“with a sepia print of Reynolds' 'The Age of Innocence' above the chalkboard, and several rows of clumsy-looking pupil desks. At one of these, my Lolita was reading … and there was another girl with a very naked, porcelain-white neck and wonderful platinum hair, who sat in front reading too, absolutely lost to the world and interminably winding a soft curl around one finger, and I sat beside Dolly [Lolita] just behind that neck and that hair, and unbuttoned my overcoat and for sixty-five cents plus the permission to participate in the school play, had Dolly put her inky, chalky, red-knuckled hand under the desk. Oh, stupid and reckless of me, no doubt, but after the torture I had been subjected to, I simply had to take advantage of a combination that I knew would never occur again.”
“Lolita” is a shocking book; it is also brilliant in Nabokov’s delineation of character, both of Humbert and Lolita. It is about 55 years since “Lolita” was published. But I’m glad that it was published. The book was rejected by five American publishers, who feared they'd be prosecuted on obscenity charges. It was first published in France by Olympia Press, which put out some serious books — and lots of pornography.
Nabokov didn't know that — he was just relieved that someone agreed to publish his book. And so Lolita was published in a plain green cover, in Paris, on Sept. 15, 1955. It was published in America three years later and was an immediate success.
A while ago I watched a television programme about paedophiles. They dragged out the usual brigade of psychologists, psychiatrists and criminologists. And a collection of paedophiles. They asked the usual questions: Can paedophilia be cured? Does one choose to be a paedophile? And they didn’t really come up with any answers. They interviewed a few self-confessed paedophiles, their responses were quite sickening.
But for one man. This guy knew that he was a paedophile, always had been, always would be.
But he chose not to act on it. I was impressed.
Friday, 8 November 2013
I am so pleased and yes, honoured that George Pappas comes to my blog this week to talk about the Swinging life style and his great novels, “Monogamy Sucks” and “Dear Hef”!
Monogamy sucks for me and I think for a lot of other people too. Every time you turn around there’s another celebrity or politician cheating scandal. I believe this is a microcosm for what is happening in our larger society. I mean studies say there is a 50 percent chance someone will cheat during a marriage and of course we know that 50 percent of marriages fail in this country. So all is not well with monogamy and relationship contrary to popular belief, which is what I explore in my novel Monogamy Sucks.
I don’t think people are realistic about monogamy and its potential limits. I personally don’t think monogamy is natural. It is something that is imposed and encouraged by society and tradition, but it doesn’t work for a lot of us in this modern world so ripe with temptations. So people stray and cheat, and the whole notion of monogamy begins to appear hypocritical.
Open relationships and swinging are not for everyone. You have to keep an open mind and can’t be judgmental. But swinging is much better than cheating. Swingers don’t have to lie about their desires for others. All I ask with my book is for people to consider alternatives, keep an open mind and not judge others.
Swingers are not freaks - -- they come from all walks of life. You probably know a swinger right now and don’t know it.
Swingers fall in love, have families, own houses with picket fences, work day jobs, go on vacations and live the mainstream life except in their bedrooms and sex lives.
This book all started with my own monogamy crisis. When I was in my mid- thirties, I grew dissatisfied with monogamy and conventional relationships. It led me on an interesting journey into the swinging lifestyle. I wanted to write honestly about my experiences and to dispel a lot myths about swinging and swingers in the media, TV and movies. I essentially learned that swingers are like everyone else except in the area of their sex lives.
I started writing my novel Monogamy Sucks in March 1998, however, because of my fears and doubts that anyone would be interested in my story, I kept my novel in my computer for more than 12 years as I worked on many drafts. Early in 2009, I read an article on the Huffington Post about how a number of bestselling books started out first as blogs. So I decided to launch my novel on a blog one chapter a time in May 2010. Several months later, digital publisher Lazy Day Publishing offered me a book deal. I seriously doubt if that would have happened if I hadn’t put my novel out in the blogosphere and tweeted about it on Twitter. I believe Twitter is an essential tool in promoting my book and novels in general as is Facebook, blogs and the Internet overall.
I call my book real life erotica or reality fiction. I hold nothing back. It is like Tucker Max meets Sex and the City -- an unflinching look into the male sexual mind.
My book is frank, funny and shocking at times but above all -- it is painfully honest.
My novel -- really all my novels -- give women intriguing insight into how some men -- more than would admit it -- really think about sex, monogamy and relationships.
I have also has started a sequel to “Monogamy Sucks,” and I am eventually is looking to turn Jake Dalmas’ erotic adventures into a trilogy of books.
The story is told in the form of a fictional diary by my book’s protagonist Jake Dalmas, who is looking for answers to deal with his growing disillusionment with conventional relationships and monogamy.
A few years later, I realized that these sexy, bizarre, funny and even at times inspirational experiences would make an interesting novel.
I knew nothing about the swinging lifestyle before my own personal journey. I was going on myths and misconceptions about this hidden world that still persist today. So I had to research everything about swinging for this novel. To just write about it without participating seems patently dishonest to me and would only perpetuate the myths about swingers that are already out there.
The story is loosely based on my experiences in the swing world, and the stories of others I met along the way, but I want to stress that this is a work of fiction and it’s not non-fiction, a memoir or autobiographical.
I see Jake’s journey as one that has largely gone untold in fiction. There are a lot of books out there honestly documenting the female point of view when it comes to sex and relationships, which I think it a great thing, but there are too few novels detailing the male view on the subject. Furthermore, swinging has not been adequately explored in fiction as it no doubt should be. Contrary to popular perception, there is a lot more interest in swinging among the general public than people might think. Just look at the explosion of porn on the Internet and sex and swinging Web sites.
This is a great time to be a writer. Finally, authors are finding that they have many avenues to pursue their dreams of being a novelist.
Readers and my fellow writers and critics have started to embrace my book and my character’s journey which is reflected in the growing number of impressive reviews on my Amazon page and on the Internet.
As with the rest of the entertainment industry, the Internet will completely transform the publishing business in the coming years. Writers should embrace the immediacy of the Internet as a beneficial means to expose their work and develop their own audiences rather than wait around to be discovered by an agent or publisher. That’s the future of publishing – do it yourself -- whether the publishing industry wants to acknowledge it or not.
The next best selling writer or literary star more than likely will be found on the Internet and not in the usual places such as writer workshops or universities.
Look at Amanda Hocking. She was discovered through her blog and now has prosperous writing career. Stories like hers have been an inspiration for many of us writers.
I have also has started a sequel to “Monogamy Sucks,” and I am eventually looking to turn Jake Dalmas’ erotic adventures into a trilogy of books.
In my most recent novel entitled DEAR HEF released in September, the dark side of Internet hook ups meets Hugh Hefner and Playboy cool. It is also funny, sexy and explicit in detailing my character’s online adventures and how he e-mails Hef the details (or what he calls his "Playboy Training") as a clueless fan.
I’ve also been invited to write a story for an erotica anthology coming out in October on Lazy Day Publishing entitled "Indulgence." It will have some paranormal elements which will be new territory for me.
In an interview with “The Next Big Thing”, George Pappas was asked what other writers does he compare to within the Erotica genre?
George talks enthusiastically about Charles Bukowki’s “Women,” Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” Anais Nin’s “Henry and June,” to name a few.
“Each of them bravely and uniquely explored controversial sexual and societal issues in a frank, unsentimental manner exposing truth and hypocrisy alike. I treasure novels that truly take me on a journey and challenge my preconceptions about life.”
George was then asked about the inspirational writers; writers who had influenced him to write MONOGAMY SUCKS.
“The two most influential books on me as a writer are Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” and Anais Nin’s “Henry and June.” Miller’s and Nin’s eagerness to explore erotic subjects in a serious way that were considered taboo at the time (1930s and 1940s) has always impressed me. Miller’s frank and brutal honest prose and Nin’s sensual, erotic and insightful diaries and description of her own sexual awakening have impacted my own writing. I say this humbly, but I view my novels “Monogamy Sucks” and “Dear Hef” as my attempts to write modern versions of Miller’s and Nin’s seminal novels.
“I wanted to write honest books about swinging, monogamy, sex, Internet sex, but leave in all the troubling, shocking and funny encounters most other erotica books leave out. Despite its explicit content, I don’t consider what I write erotica. I call it real life erotica or reality fiction without the erotic trappings of your typical erotica novel. I want to make you think and laugh not just turn you on.
An interesting and intriguing essay from George I think you’ll agree. I don’t believe that the mainstream and its conventions take kindly to criticism. It isn’t at all surprising. We’re talking about a hegemony that has propped up the status quo for centuries. Open any book on English critical theory, or the social sciences and you’ll find chapters devoted to hegemony. One definition of hegemony talks about the concept of Imperialism. But hegemony is also about the construct of society; basically how we organise ourselves; how we run things. We are protective about our social order; in terms of monogamy – one man, one woman for life, but as George Pappas so succinctly puts it, “monogamy sucks.” It does for him, and for a lot of other people too. Monogamy has certainly sucked for me and I’ve had to find my own way around its suffocating conventions. Monogamy is there because it always has been, because that’s the way it is. Okay, monogamy is there for good reasons; financial security, emotional security, love, but it increasingly appears that monogamy is not for everyone.
All that George Pappas is asking through his books, is that we consider that there might be another way, and the statistics that he cites in the first paragraph of his essay for failing relationships are persuasive. His books convey a personal politics that is frightening for the mainstream.
“…but right now I have no illusions about the prospects of my books in the mainstream...
as an author, poet, etc...I scare people in the mainstream it seems...”
The message in George Pappas’ books is revolutionary and in some ways shocking, but I think that his quest rings of integrity and wholeness. Dark forbidden desires…that’s what we are talking about – isn’t it? And as writers and readers of Erotica we delve into the darker side of desire every time we open a book or open our word processor. All swingers do is to act on those desires.
And George is in esteemed company. DH Lawrence first published Lady Chatterly’s Lover in Italy in 1928. It was 1960 before an unexpurgated version could be read here in England after a famous court case where the Crown accused Penguin Books of peddling pornography.
James Joyce, probably one on the most influential writers of the 20th century, famously said that public reception of his work made him feel like an exile in his own country.
And my own writer friend, Jan Vander Laenen is clearly irritated by the way his work is viewed in his own city, Brussels.
“About the Flemings and the gays here, they treat me as if I don't exist anymore although many people begin to recognize me in the streets. Maybe they read me in private and loathe me in public. The literary agent here was afraid of the consequences taking me as a client, the politicians are afraid to help me, and a lot of gays don’t simply accept that I also describe the darker side of the gay world."
I’ll let George have the final word.
“I hope readers will take a chance and read my provocative novel Monogamy Sucks, or Dear Hef and won’t be put off by the controversial content. They really are like no other novels they will have read. However, my books have some relevant and interesting things to say about sex, relationships and monogamy, and is an intriguing exploration of the male sexual mind. I think my novels appeals to both sexes, but it really seems to have struck a chord among women, which was unexpected. Yes, my books are explicit, but I believe the themes are more universal than one might think.”
Monogamy Sucks is available at Amazon UK
and at Amazon US
Dear Hef is also at Amazon UK
and at Amazon US
Both books are at Lazy Day Publishing
You can also visit George’s Author page at Amazon.
Friday, 1 November 2013
The beacon fires in the British towns and villages smouldered. They had smouldered since 1815 and the threat of French invasion. All through Napoleon’s incarceration on the British island of Saint Helena they smouldered and even with the death of Napoleon in 1821 the beacon fires never quite went out. The British are nervous and protective of their little island.
But invaders come in many guises and they find a variety of ways to break down resistance. It only took a tiny crack in a sturdy oak door and our popular culture was set ablaze and the beacon fires flared once more.
In 1897, Bram Stoker breathed on the smouldering kindling when he published his horror novel “Dracula”. The kindling had been stacked up for centuries, in the form of mythologies, rumours and stories; those creepy tales whispered about Vampires. Creatures of the night; the undead, seeking you out, to sink their fangs into your tender jugular and drink your blood; draining you. The stories go back thousands of years. Now, in 2013, the beacons have crossed oceans; the fires flame fiercely, proclaiming that the old stories are still being told and new tales are being written.
Stoker could have had no idea, that his short novel would precipitate a whole genre of writing that would hold sway on our collective imagination for decades.
Although Stoker did not invent the vampire, the novel's influence on the popularity of vampires has been singularly responsible for many theatrical, film and television interpretations throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
From the beginning of history, vampire-like spirits and beings have been recorded. The Akhkharu were blood-sucking demons, written about back in the time of Sumer. We’re talking about 5,000 years BC. The ancient Chinese wrote about "hopping corpses" which would go around and consume a victim’s life essence (commonly known as chi). Even ancient Egyptian lore had a story where the goddess Sakhmet was consumed with bloodlust. From the earliest of times, vampire like beings have been prominent in folklore from several different cultures.
The most well-known versions of vampire myth are those of the Slavic and Romanian cultures, which, due to their proximity, are similar. And it is from Eastern Europe, that Stoker’s Count Dracula originates.
There are several reasons that a person may become a vampire, such as unnatural death, birth defects, or conception on certain days. Romanian legend gave rise to the belief that being bitten by a vampire would doom one to become a vampire after death. Both Slavic and Romanian myths hold the belief that, with the advent of a vampire, there would be deaths of livestock and family members of the vampire. The favoured way to kill a vampire in these two myths is by driving a stake through the heart, decapitation, and if necessary, dismemberment. Slavic and Romanian vampire myths have given rise to the most popular world-view of vampires.
But what’s the fascination? Why the endless retelling of this old story? Are we playing with danger from the safety of fiction? The horror of vampires is very real; I should know. I spent my adolescence terrified of them; especially Dracula. I invented bizarre little rituals to ward him off and keep me safe. Positioning on my left side as I lay in my bed, was paramount -- as was a convoluted prayer; a mantra that I would recite over and over again. Sleep would be a long time coming.
The success of “Dracula” spawned a distinctive vampire genre. The vampire is such a dominant figure in the horror genre that literary historian Susan Sellers places the current vampire myth in the "comparative safety of nightmare fantasy".
We relinquish control to the vampire. He swirls his cloak around his victim and bites. His teeth penetrate us. It’s a reconstructed image of the sexual act; in fact actual copulation seems tame, compared with what the vampire can do. The victim has no control over his ghastly lover. The victim flirts with death.
But it’s not just the Count we have to fear. He is scary, but his entourage of female vampires more so. Female vampires are predatory and take their pleasure where they will. Women who take control of the sex act itself! Victorian men -- beware! The ideal Victorian woman was chaste, innocent, a good mother. She definitely wasn’t sexually aggressive; a predator.
The three beautiful vampires, Jonathan Harker, Stoker’s narrator, encounters in Dracula’s castle, are both his dream and his nightmare—indeed, they embody both the dream and the nightmare of the Victorian male imagination in general. The weird sisters represent what the Victorian ideal stipulates women should not be—voluptuous and sexually aggressive—thus making their beauty both a promise of sexual fulfilment and a curse. These women offer Harker more sexual gratification in two paragraphs than his fiancée Mina does during the course of the entire novel. However, this sexual proficiency threatens to undermine the foundations of a male-dominated society by compromising men’s ability to reason and maintain control. For this reason, the sexually aggressive women in the novel must be destroyed.
In a passage highly charged with erotic symbolism, Jonathan Harker, writes in his journal;
“I was afraid to raise my eyelids, but looked out and saw perfectly under the lashes. The girl went on her knees, and bent over me, simply gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck -- she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight, the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth. Lower and lower went her head as the lips went below the range of my mouth and chin and seemed to fasten on my throat. Then she paused, and I could hear the churning sound of her tongue as it licked her teeth and lips, and I could feel the hot breath on my neck. Then the skin of my throat began to tingle as one's flesh does when the hand that is to tickle it approaches nearer, nearer. I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the super sensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in languorous ecstasy and waited, waited with beating heart.”
The vampire lover is erotica personified. You relinquish control; you do nothing, other than give yourself up to the seduction.
Janine Ashbless suggests; “We don't fantasise about controlling vampires - we fantasise about how we have NO control over them. They are stand-ins for Death itself.”
Stoker’s narrator, flirts with the promise of an intercourse so erotic, that he will give up his life.
Later in the novel, Count Dracula has made his way to England, and sets about possessing the upper-middle class Lucy.
Once infected by Dracula, Lucy becomes sexually overt and aggressive, and is portrayed as a monster and a social outcast. She feeds on children making her the maternal antithesis as well as a child molester. In order to rectify Lucy’s condition she is sexually overpowered by her fiancée, Holmwood; the scene is witnessed by Jonathan Harker and Van Helsing. Holmwood penetrates her to death with a stake through the chest, a staking which is openly sexual in interpretation;
“the thing in the coffin writhed; and a hideous, blood-curdling screech came from the opened red lips. The body shook and quivered and twisted in wild contortions; the sharp white teeth champed together till the lips were cut, and the mouth was smeared with a crimson foam.........He (Holmwood) looked like a figure of Thor as his untrembling arm rose and fell, driving deeper and deeper”
The killing of Lucy is a sort of legitimised gang rape, legitimised because the Victorian balance of sexual penetration from the female domain is back in its accepted station within the male domain.
The reasons for our fear of, and fascination with vampires change with the times we live in. To Stoker’s contemporaries, Count Dracula posed many threats to Victorian social, moral and political values: he changes virtuous women into beasts with ravenous sexual appetites; he is a foreigner who invades England and threatens English superiority; he is the embodiment of evil that can only be destroyed by reasserting the beliefs of traditional Christianity in an increasingly sceptical and secular age; he represents the fear of regression, a reversal of evolution, a return to our more primal animal state.
Think of the wealth of literature, film and television dramas that we wouldn’t have if Bram Stoker hadn’t written “Dracula.”
Perhaps they leave you cold -- I love them! I’m over my teenage angst about them. There’d be no exotic Lestat, from Ann Rice. No Hammer house of Horror. No vampires with a conscience; M.Christian wouldn’t have written his vampire novel; “Running Dry.” Neither would Janine Ashbless have written; "The Blood of the Martyrs" All wonderful stuff; my favourite writers digging around in my agonised psyche.
And then there’s those TV shows; “Buffy,” “True Blood,” “The Vampire Diaries.” A bloodletting, tinged with magic. I lose myself in a world, of exotic, erotic fantasy. A strange world of death and immortality. Stories that speak to us once again of an ancient, horrid rite and fear. And through the re-telling of the tale we absolve ourselves; we flirt with sex and death safely and sanely.
Friday, 25 October 2013
“Even if we have not read Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, “The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde,” most of us are familiar with the concept -- a Jekyll and Hyde personality. The concept connotes a rare mental condition of a “split personality,” where within the same person there are two distinct personalities. The novella's impact is such that it has become a part of the language, with the phrase "Jekyll and Hyde" coming to mean a person who is vastly different in moral character from one situation to the next. In Doctor Jekyll’s case the two personalities are apparently good and evil, with completely opposite levels of morality.
“Written in 1886, it was an immediate success and is one of Stevenson's best-selling works. Stage adaptations began in Boston and London within a year of its publication and it has gone on to inspire scores of major film, television and stage performances.”
The tale is well known. Amiable Doctor Jekyll, invents a potion, which transforms him into the brutish Mr Hyde. There is another potion that changes him back to Doctor Jekyll. In the persona of Mr Hyde, he commits the sort of atrocities that nightmares are made of. But the transformation becomes involuntary, and Doctor Jekyll is unable to reverse it because he has run out of the original batch of the powders. “The brute that slept within me” is now in control.
When he falls asleep as Jekyll, he wakes as Mr Hyde. Could the character of Hyde irrevocably take over? Concerned that he had overstepped his bounds, Jekyll chooses to give up the freedom of Hyde and for two months maintains the identity of Doctor Jekyll. But he is tortured with Hyde's longing to freely take part in evil doings, and he once again he takes the potion. During this transformation, Hyde commits murder.
There is a manhunt for Hyde, and Doctor Jekyll vows never again to make the transformation. He sets out to try to remedy the evil inside him. But he has given too much power to his evil side. Hyde is an irrevocable part of Jekyll's character, and the many transformations and evil behaviours have only strengthened his power. One night, while contemplating Hyde's deeds, Jekyll spontaneously transformed into Edward Hyde.
Finally, Hyde kills himself, thus finally releasing both Jekyll and Hyde.
Stevenson never says exactly what Hyde takes pleasure in on his nightly forays, generally saying that it is something of an evil and lustful nature; so Stevenson is writing within the context of the times. Whatever Hyde has done, it is abhorrent to Victorian religious morality. Stevenson had to take into account Victorian sensibilities. Hyde may have been revelling in activities that were not appropriate to a man of Jekyll's stature, such as engaging with prostitutes or burglary. However, it is Hyde's violent activities that seem to give him the most thrill, driving him to attack and murder Sir Danvers Carew without apparent reason, making him a hunted outlaw throughout England.
I think that if it were written today, Mr Hyde would be a counterpart to someone like Josef Fritzl. We wouldn’t be talking in veiled terms of evil and lust. We would be talking explicitly about rape, sodomy, torture, incest, bestiality, necrophilia. We’d be thinking about stuff that even Hannibal Lector couldn’t dream up. But I think that Stevenson’s novella is all the more compelling, because of what he doesn’t say. Our own imaginations are more powerful than anything that can be written down.
Realizing he will soon be Hyde forever, Jekyll leaves behind a testament; pointing out that while Jekyll often felt like a charlatan, Hyde felt like a "genuine man" years younger and far more energetic than his more "sociable" self. He also states in his final confession that although Hyde knew people recoiled from him, he, Jekyll, did not.
“The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde,” pre-empts Freudian psychoanalysis. As far as I can ascertain, Sigmund Freud was not talking about the Id, the Ego and the Super Ego, before 1899, when he published “The Interpretation of Dreams.” As I said earlier, Stevenson published his book in 1886.
So, Stevenson was talking about repression, and the return of the repressed and demonstrating the concept through his characters, before Freud had even thought of it. Although the reader of Jekyll and Hyde is led to believe that the threat of evil comes--as in earlier Gothic stories--from without, it is actually within the breast of the good and kind Jekyll that the danger lurks. Perhaps Stevenson himself, was afraid of what he had unleashed in his creation, Mr Hyde.
It is a creepy tale. It has been a long time since I read it, but whenever I think about Stevenson’s novella, I think about the CI programmes on Sky, that I am addicted to. Sky even has “Serial Killer Sunday”. I watch programmes about Ted Bundy, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. Before Ted Bundy was executed a senior policeman asked; “what’s all this about Ted?” Ted Bundy’s response was; “I like it…”
It seems that serial killers, really cannot stop killing. And neither can Mr Hyde. Stevenson’s creation, revels in the choking ashes of the dark and primal.
I think of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita”, where the monstrous Humbert Humbert, the handsome academic, who hides his paedophilia so well, constantly insists -- “I am not a monster.”
Is there a monster lurking beneath the surface in all of us? When I think about some of the weird stuff that I think about, that I write about in my fiction, I sometimes think -- where the hell did that come from?
The only honest answer that I can give is -- I don’t know. And what is “normal?” Is that knock on the door Mr Hyde rattling to get out?
I read this in the Observer newspaper some years ago.
“We acknowledge the receipt of your order for 5 triple furnaces, including 2 electric elevators for raising the corpses. For transporting the corpses, we suggest light carts on wheels. We are submitting plans for our cremation ovens which operate with coal and have hitherto given full satisfaction.”
So went the estimate from the Berlin heating firm, to the Commandant at Auschwitz.
Who typed it? Who priced it? Who put it in the mail? Nice normal people I don’t doubt.
From Bruce Kent in an open letter to the Observer newspaper. 13th November 1988
“ ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,’ was initially sold as a paperback for one shilling in the UK and one dollar in the U.S. The American publisher issued the book on 5 January 1886, four days before the first appearance of the UK edition issued by Longmans; Scribner's published 3000 copies, only 1250 of them bound in cloth. Initially stores would not stock it until a review appeared in The Times, on 25 January 1886, giving it a favourable reception. Within the next six months, close to forty thousand copies were sold. The book's success was probably due more to the "moral instincts of the public" than any perception of its artistic merits; it was widely read by those who never otherwise read fiction, quoted in pulpit sermons and in religious papers. By 1901 it was estimated to have sold over 250,000 copies.”
Here is Johnny Cash, growling out the lyrics to “The beast in me.” It seems appropriate…