10 July 2013
Robert Louis Stevenson and the Strange Case of the Spanish Vampire
The Victorian fin de siècle was an era noted for its decadents, aesthetes, dandies and New Women. Viewed from a sunny perspective all could be seen as positive signs of a new age of liberation and freedom dawning within society. Viewed from a gloomier aspect however all could be seen as signs of transgression, perversity and moral and physical degeneration. Perhaps the latter view had something to do with the prevalence of another popular figure during the Victorian fin de siècle, albeit one mercifully confined to the pages of novels and short stories, namely the vampire. As a metaphor for vile transgression, disease and decay few literary tropes served quite so well as a pale undead figure with a taste for human blood. Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula sits at the summit of late-Victorian vampire fiction but the Transylvanian Count had plenty of company. Mary Elizabeth Braddon's short story 'Good Lady Ducayne' deals with the attempts of an elderly woman to remain ever youthful by surreptitiously draining the blood from her chloroformed servants while Florence Marryat's The Blood of the Vampire from 1897 tells of a young girl - the daughter of a mad scientist and a voodoo priestess no less which as a basis for a potentially difficult childhood takes some beating - who drains the life-force from those around her. One slightly earlier tale sits strangely neglected however, which is a shame as it is arguably the most elegantly written and haunting vampire tale of them all - a tale featuring a Spanish woman with beautiful but strangely empty eyes who gazes from her crumbling mansion over a sun-drenched landscape of ravines, mountain-passes and woodland.
(Above: A copy of Philip Burne-Jones's painting The Vampire, first displayed in 1897 - you couldn't move for vampires in the 1880s and 1890s, in art and literature at least)
Robert Louis Stevenson's enigmatic short story 'Olalla', published in the Christmas of 1885, sits in the shadow of the more illustrious Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). Stevenson was writing the former at the same time as he was going through the proofs for the latter but while Jekyll and Hyde opened a Pandora's Box of new urban, scientific and psychological horrors 'Olalla' acts as something of a loving farewell to the golden age of Gothic fiction. Taken together they serve as a staging post between old and new nightmares.
(Above: Robert Louis Stevenson, pondering both past and future horrors)
'Olalla' tells the tale of an unnamed English soldier wounded during the Peninsular Wars of the early nineteenth century and sent to recuperate in an isolated Spanish mansion. While there he meets Felipe, a simple-minded youth, and his sister the enigmatic Olalla together with their mother who sits staring out endlessly at the sun-baked hills and valleys. The mother remains languid in the heat until the soldier accidentally cuts his hand at which point, when she sees the strong flow of blood, she becomes notably more wide-eyed and animated - indeed she leaps from her chair and bites him.
'Olalla' has the air of a feverish dream throughout and contains several typically Gothic elements. It is set in the past and takes place in an exotic Southern European Catholic country. The landscape, in the tradition of Ann Radcliffe, is beautifully described. There is even a portrait on a wall which depicts a long-dead ancestor who bears an uncanny resemblance to someone still living - an echo of both Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto and Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables (and a device later used by Arthur Conan Doyle in The Hound of the Baskervilles). The decayed Spanish house and the strangely lifeless figure of the mother mirror each other in the same fashion as the unravelling once grand Ushers mirror their literally collapsing mansion in Edgar Allan Poe's famous tale. Ancestral secrets and physical decay were staples of early Gothic fiction and Stevenson gathers together the traditional themes and adds a twist of post-Darwinian theory in the idea of physical and mental flaws being inherited, rather than ancestral sins. As a late summation of all that was wonderful about the first flowering of Gothic fiction 'Olalla' could hardly be bettered, something which renders its neglected status all the more baffling. Having completed the tale Stevenson returned to the proofs of Jekyll and Hyde, a narrative in which he held up a mirror to the very different dawning nightmares of the future - nightmares being played out not in a foreign land of long ago but in the here and now of London. Sweet dreams .....