BOOK REVIEW | The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre (Oxford World’s Classics)

The vampire as we know it today — often suave, aristocratic, and deadly deceptive — was first conjured during that famous “Haunted Summer” of 1816, when Lord Byron proposed to his guests Mary Godwin (soon to be Mary Shelley), Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Byron’s personal physician, John Polidori, that they each come up with their own supernatural chiller after having just read some German ghost stories. Famously, Frankenstein was born from this contest, but few know that Dracula was as well, or at least its precursor. Polidori and Shelley quickly abandoned their attempts, and Lord Byron began a treatment of prose that he too lost interest with. Byron’s story, about a man who dies while traveling with his friend yet is seen by that same friend upon his return home, was taken up by Polidori and fleshed out into the short story “The Vampyre”. It appears that the tale was left at the Villa Diodati and found by publishers, who mistook it for Byron’s work when they published it a few years later.

Title page for The Vampyre; A Tale (London: Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, 1819)

There is a great deal in the yarn that we recognize today. Modeled after Byron himself, the vampire is mysterious and a corrupter of young women. The story can be read as a supernatural thriller as much as a cautionary tale to girls about marrying or consorting with young libertines like Byron.

John William Polidori

The rest of the Oxford World Classics collection in which I read the story consists of macabre tales which were published in British magazines during the 1830s (aside from those in Blackwood magazine, which are collected separately). Surprisingly, while some tales are dated and even seemingly pointless (like a man trying to get cats off of a corpse), others are still entertaining, like Sheridan Le Fanu’s story about an attempted murder which would later be expanded into his novel, Uncle Silas, or one inspired by the recent murder spree of Burke and Hare. Others are still disturbing, such as a true story about the massacre of a Protestant family in Ireland, where a baby is bayoneted and thrown into a burning house.

As someone who is genuinely interested in early Gothic and who views these stories as historical artifacts in addition to entertainment, I really enjoyed reading this collection. It certainly won’t be for everyone, especially if you have no patience for loquacious writing and single paragraphs that stretch for pages. As for me, it has kept me thirsty for more nineteenth-century Gothic.

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BOOK REVIEW | A History of Horror

Wheeler Winston Dixon’s A History of Horror offers a substantial list of horror films from the silent beginnings to the first decade of the twenty-first century. He takes a studio approach, highlighting the directors, producers, and a few of the actors which thrived under certain eras. Only on rare occasions does he touch upon the cultural aspects under which these films were made, and a great deal of the text is taken up by various plot synopses. For someone new to the genre looking for a curated list of horror films to seek out, this book will suffice.

However, for a reader who’s been baptized in the blood and gore of the genre, curious inaccuracies will have one scratching their head. Some errors can be brushed off as innocently typographic, such as placing the release of Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn as 1986 and not 1996, or referring to Chucky as Charles Ray Lee instead of Charles Lee Ray. Others are more difficult to ignore, such as claiming that Henry Frankenstein perishes with the Monster and the Bride in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), when the Monster actually tells Henry and Elizabeth, “Yes! Go! You live!” and then proceeds to kill himself, the Bride, and Dr. Pretorius while his creator makes his escape. Dixon’s obvious distaste for slashers and, in particular, the Friday the 13th franchise, likely accounts for why he inaccurately describes the first installment: “Jason, played in the first film by Ari Lehman, is a mute, imbecilic, homicidal maniac in a hockey mask who runs amok at Camp Crystal Lake, where an assembly line of teens who smoke pot, have sex, and drink are hacked to death for their ‘transgressions’.” This description may serve to characterize some of the later installments, but it calls into question how much Dixon remembers the first film, or the second for that matter.

While Dixon’s long catalogs of films are largely comprehensive, he neglects the atomic age creature features, such as 1954’s Them! and many other influential sci-fi horror films of the 1950s. Where he proves most useful is in his inventory of foreign horror films for the first decade of the 21st century, which he rightly designates as being superior to the Hollywood horror offerings of the time (though he leaves out the most famous French Extremity film, 2008’s Martyrs). Dixon will, however, find few who are sympathetic to his favorable analysis of Twilight as a positive influence on the genre, and rightly so.

For someone new to the horror genre, Dixon’s history is a useful guide to finding which films one should explore. For a veteran fan, though, there’s not enough to recommend it.

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ALBUM REVIEW | CARACH ANGREN – Franckensteina Strataemontanus

The Dutch act Carach Angren, often categorized as symphonic black metal, prefers to describe itself as horror metal. The latter description more fittingly describes their latest release, Franckensteina Strataemontanus. The concept album tackles Mary Shelley’s classic story in refreshing ways, mixing black metal sensibilities with emotional strings and choruses, as well as with punching moments of industrial flair. Vocalist Dennis “Seregor” Droomers varies his approach between death metal growls, black metal screeches, and smatterings of clean vocals. His pronunciations are nevertheless clear and articulate and worthy of the strong lyrical content, and they help to create a cinematic sense of story. Keyboardist Clemens “Ardek” Wijers effectively orchestrates a marriage of the harsh and the beautiful, appropriate for an album that tackles the Gothic Romanticism of Shelley’s original tale. (Unfortunately, the drummer Ivo “Namtar” Wijers left the group before the release of the album.)

Carach Angran. Photo by HEILEMANIA

Sonically dense, the album operates as a horror opera that drags the listener down different facets of the Frankenstein mythos as it has been told over the centuries: the desire to conquer death and to vanquish grief, the corrupting influence of power, the failure of the creator to take responsibility for his creation, and the questions regarding what a monster is and what makes them monstrous.

From the womb to the tomb and back again

Once a son of light now a creature in the night

Grunting, moaning, groaning and gnawing off her face

Eaten alive in her dear son’s embrace

From “Scourged Ghoul Undead”

They also incorporate historical elements from the life of Johann Conrad Dippel (1673-1734), a German physician, alchemist and occultist. Believed by some to be an inspiration for Shelley’s story, Dippel was born at Castle Frankenstein and the album’s title comes from his name’s addendum. Dippel experimented widely and his reputation for grim experiments on human cadavers spread over the time, though perhaps unjustifiably. He did manage to invent “Dippel’s oil,” an ichor made by distilling animal bones that was claimed to be the ever-elusive “elixir of life.” Used for a while as an insect repellent, its use eventually fell out of favor. However, in the Second World War it was employed during the desert campaign to make wells impotable — because it was not lethal, it was thought to be an acceptable form of chemical warfare. References to Dippel’s oil and to the desert campaign are found within the tracks.

Johann Conrad Dippel

The album is not a straight narrative, though the last track does seem to serve as a prologue to the first, hence creating a cyclical listening experience. The album is more like a series of vignettes related to the common theme of Frankenstein, to macabre attempts to prolong life (such as in the song “Der Vampir Von Nürnberg” about the necrophiliac and murderer, Kuno Hofmann), and to ideas of monstrosity. Nevertheless, nods to both Shelley’s novel and to some cinematic versions of the Frankenstein story are present. An example of the latter can be heard in the title track, in which Seregor declaratively sings, “Oh, in the name of God, now I know how it feels to be God!” These are in fact the infamous lines uttered by Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) in James Whale’s 1931 classic that were once censored for being considered too blasphemous.

The perfume of death is my sweetest cologne.

From “Franckensteina Strataemontanus”

Carach Angren succeeds in crafting a horror experience that is multilayered both musically and thematically. Franckensteina Strataemontanus serves as a grim love letter to Mary Shelley’s creation that refuses to walk the well-worn path of so many adaptations. Horror metal, indeed.

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If you would like to deeper into the Frankenstein story and its author, see my article, A More Horrid Contrast: Mary Shelley and Her Monster, on The Revenant Review.

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