Before Fraulein…before Frankenstein…there was the GOLEM!

A scholar with arcane knowledge utilizes forbidden forces to bring a manufactured being to blasphemous life. When the hulking, misbegotten monster goes berserk, the horrified creator takes desperate action to destroy his wayward creation.

Does this story sound familiar, Franken-freaks? Any monster maven will recognize the concept as the basis of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the many works that have since emulated it. But the tale I’ve just described predates Shelley’s great Gothic novel, its mythological roots extending back centuries. The creature is the golem of Jewish folklore, arguably the first “man-made” monster in Western culture and a possible progenitor of Victor Frankenstein’s creation.

The Hebrew word golem originally referred to a “shapeless mass,” and, indeed, the golem of legend began as a formless lump of clay, which a Jewish Kabbalist sculpted into a hulking humanoid form. The sorcerer then brought the creature to life through the use of magic Hebrew words. In some cases, the word would be scrawled on a parchment and placed in the creature’s mouth; in other instances, the word was inscribed on the figure’s forehead or chest. While animated, the golem would be its creator’s slave, bound to do his bidding. By removing or altering the magic words, the magician could again reduce the monster to an inert statue.

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References to golems appear in texts as old as the Talmud, but by far the most famous tale of such a creature is that of the Golem of Prague. In the late 16th century, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel ostensibly created a powerful golem to defend the Jewish community in Prague from harassment by hostile locals. However, he made sure to deactivate the sentinel statue every Friday evening so that it would not disturb the devout Jews on the Sabbath the following day. One fateful Friday, however, the rabbi became preoccupied and forgot to incapacitate the golem. The clay being went on a rampage, and Rabbi Loew was forced to risk his own life to stop the monster. Although he stilled the golem once and for all, legend has it that he kept the dormant clay figure in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue in Prague, where it remains ready to be revivified if the Jewish people ever need its protection again.

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My wife and colleague Kelly Dunn and I recently had the pleasure of visiting the ancient and wonderful city of Prague, once the seat of the Kingdom of Bohemia, now the capital of the Czech Republic. The city still venerates Rabbi Loew with a statue in his honor outside the new town hall. As luck would have it, we arrived just before the Sabbath and did not have a chance to go inside the Old-New Synagogue, which was preparing for worship. (Incidentally, we never received an explanation of the apparent oxymoron of the landmark’s name. I imagine that, in the distant past, someone built the city’s first synagogue. Then, when the present building was constructed sometime in the 13th century, it became the “New Synagogue.” At some later date, an even newer synagogue opened its doors, resulting in the confusing taxonomy, like so: “Oh, no, that’s the New-New Synagogue! You want the Old-New Synagogue.”) Kelly and I cannot tell you what, if anything, lies in the attic of that holy place…but that figure behind Kelly in the photo below makes me wonder.

Kelly and Golem

 

Given the similarities between the two narratives, it is tempting to think that the cautionary tale of the Golem of Prague might have inspired Mary Shelley as she conceived of Frankenstein. Certainly, the image of Rabbi Loew and his misshapen figure of animate clay springs to mind when Shelley, in her introduction to the 1831 edition of the book, describes the nightmare that inspired her novel:

I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision,—the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.

In the novel, Victor Frankenstein even speaks of striving “to animate the lifeless clay,” as if his monster of flesh were a sculpted golem. Although film adaptations show Frankenstein assembling his creature from body parts harvested from cadavers, some scholars have pointed out that, in the novel, the scientist seems to fashion the raw material of his monster from scratch, so to speak. Mary Shelley cleverly uses this fact to explain the creature’s gargantuan size:

            As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of gigantic stature, that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionably large.

Like any pragmatic engineer, Frankenstein modifies his prototype to make it easier to work on. Miniaturization can wait until the product is ready for mass production!

As appealing as it is to theorize that Mary Shelley had the story of the Golem of Prague in mind when conceiving of Frankenstein, she makes no explicit reference to the fable in her writings. Indeed, in his article “The Golem of Prague” (Fortean Times #238, August 2008), Czech journalist Ivan Mackerle states that he was unable to find any account of the story in historical documents from the 16th and 17th centuries and says the apocryphal narrative of Rabbi Loew may be an elaboration on a legend brought to Prague by Hassidic Jews from Poland in the early 1800s—too late for Shelley to have used it as the basis for her horror story. Still, Mary Shelley seems to have tapped into the universal archetype the golem represents and reinvented it for the modern age by making its genesis scientific rather than magical, a topic I addressed in this earlier blog post.

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Although not, strictly speaking, science fiction, the cautionary tale of the Golem of Prague could be said to have engendered an entire subgenre of sf, for it is the primordial “Bad Robot” story. It comes as no coincidence, therefore, that in 1920, almost 400 years after Rabbi Loew, Prague also gave the world its first actual Bad Robot story, a science-fictional play entitled R.U.R. by the Czech writer Karel Čapek. The abbreviation stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots, a fictional company in the play that manufactures the world’s first line of artificial humanoids. Karel, with the assistance of his brother Joseph Čapek, derived the term “robot” from the Czech word robota, which can mean either “hard work” or “slave labor.”

The robots in the drama are not mechanical, however, but rather an assemblage of fabricated biological organs and tissue—again, shades of Frankenstein. Like the Golem of Prague, Rossum’s robot servants turn on the humans they were created to serve, rising up in violent rebellion. The play ends with the new beings virtually exterminating humanity—a sobering finale to us in the 21st century, where genetic engineering and burgeoning artificial intelligence threaten to make the grim prognostications of Shelley and Čapek a reality.

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Somewhere, Rabbi Loew shakes his head sadly…and a sleeping golem awaits its ultimate resurrection.

If this post whet your appetite for more monster mayhem, be sure to check out the Kindle ebook of FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN at Amazon here.

And don’t forget that I will be signing copies of the fabulous Shadowridge Press paperback edition of FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN at the venerable Dark Delicacies horror bookstore in Burbank, California, at 4pm on Saturday, July 8th.

You’ll also have the opportunity to get signed copies of books by other wonderful Shadowridge Press authors, including Dennis Etchison (The Death Artist, Red Dreams, The Blood Kiss), Tracy Carbone (The Proteus Cave, The Rainbox), and my ONE NIGHT AT THE VILLA DIODATI co-authors Kelly Dunn (Beloved of the Fallen, editor of Mutation Nation) and the irrepressible Peter Atkins (screenwriter of Hellbound: Hellraiser II and Wishmaster and author of Morningstar, Big Thunder, and Rumours of the Marvellous). We’ll have copies of the DIODATI chapbook available for purchase and signing, as well. Here’s a link to the Dark Delicacies website for more info, including directions to the store:

Dark Delicacies Bookstore Website

For those who can’t make it to Burbank on July 8th, you’ll be happy to hear that Dark Delicacies will take your pre-orders over the phone, and will ship your order for an extra charge. All of us at Shadowridge Press would like to express our sincere gratitude to Del and Sue Howison of Dark Delicacies for hosting the event.

Hope to see you all there!

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Mark Your Monster Calendar! FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN Book Signing!

Greetings, Friends of FRAULEIN! I wanted to let you all know that I will be signing copies of the fabulous Shadowridge Press paperback edition of FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN at the venerable Dark Delicacies horror bookstore in Burbank, California, at 4pm on Saturday, July 8th.

You’ll also have the opportunity to get signed copies of books by other wonderful Shadowridge Press authors, including Dennis Etchison (The Death Artist, Red Dreams, The Blood Kiss), Tracy Carbone (The Proteus Cave, The Rainbox), and my ONE NIGHT AT THE VILLA DIODATI co-authors Kelly Dunn (Beloved of the Fallen, editor of Mutation Nation) and the irrepressible Peter Atkins (screenwriter of Hellbound: Hellraiser II and Wishmaster and author of Morningstar, Big Thunder, and Rumours of the Marvellous). We’ll have copies of the DIODATI chapbook available for purchase and signing, as well. Here’s a link to the Dark Delicacies website for more info, including directions to the store:

Dark Delicacies Bookstore Website

For those who can’t make it to Burbank on July 8th, you’ll be happy to hear that Dark Delicacies will take your pre-orders over the phone, and will ship your order for an extra charge. All of us at Shadowridge Press would like to express our sincere gratitude to Del and Sue Howison of Dark Delicacies for hosting the event.

Hope to see you all there!

 

FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN–The Paperback!

Rejoice, Friends of FRAULEIN!

Now you no longer have to read FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN on a screen. Many of you loyal fans have been longing to hold a real, physical copy of the novel in your hands since it was published as an ebook by Kindle Press last September. Now, publisher Robert Barr and the good folks of Shadowridge Press have made your dream a reality by putting out a beautiful new paperback edition of the book.

To celebrate the paperback’s release, I’ll be signing copies at the Vintage Paperback Show this Sunday, March 19th, at 2pm. And as a special bonus, everyone who buys the book will get a FREE copy of the gorgeous, illustrated chapbook of ONE NIGHT AT THE VILLA DIODATI, the Shadowridge compendium of the Gothic stories written exclusively for this blog. Just take a gander at this cover::

 

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This amazing chapbook, a $10 value, is yours FREE with the purchase of the  FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN paperback (while supplies last). WHAT A DEAL!!!

So, if you are fortunate enough to live in Southern California, come to the Vintage Paperback Show, where you’ll find a slew of other great authors and books, including my Villa Diodati coauthors Kelly Dunn (Mutation Nation and Beloved of the Fallen) and Peter Atkins (Morningstar and Big Thunder and the screenplays for Hellraiser II, III, and IV). You may find details of the event here:

Los Angeles Vintage Paperback Show

Hope to see you there! And stay tuned for news of other upcoming signings and promotions.

For those of you who can’t make it to a SoCal signing…fear not! You may still order your heirloom-worthy paperback copy of FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN here:

Paperback FRAULEIN FRANKSTEIN Order Page on Amazon

You may also purchase a copy of the ONE NIGHT AT THE VILLA DIODATI chapbook here:

One Night at the Villa Diodati Order Page on Amazon

Happy reading and STAY GOTHIC!!!

ONE NIGHT AT THE VILLA DIODATI, PART 5: GEORGE GORDON, LORD BYRON

If such a thing as a “rock star” had existed in 19th century Britain, George Gordon, the 6th Baron Byron, would surely have been that individual. Born in 1788 to Catherine Gordon and Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron (who sounds like a supporting character from Pirates of the Caribbean), Lord Byron inherited his ancestral title, yet managed to earn wealth and eternal fame on his own merits as a best-selling poet (back before that expression became an oxymoron). He remains best-known for epic narrative poems of machismo such as Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan, and Byron’s own love life rivaled that of his legendary fictional libertine. His notorious sexual exploits and the sheer number of lovers—both female and male—he had during his short life would have put even Mick Jagger to shame.

No mere armchair adventurer, Byron lived as large as any of his heroes. Despite being born with a club foot, he became an outstanding swimmer. He even swam the one-mile breadth of the Hellespont, the narrow strait that leads from Turkey into the Aegean Sea, then composed a poem to brag about the exploit. (It’s a pity he didn’t teach Percy Shelley at least to dog-paddle.) He traveled extensively, partook of many and variegated cultures, and indulged in epic hedonism.

Eventually, his desire for real-life swashbuckling led to his downfall. Byron joined with Greek forces to fight for independence from the Turks. Before he could die heroically in battle, however, he contracted a terrible illness that was treated with an even more terrible remedy, a careless bloodletting that resulted in a lethal infection. He died in Missolonghi, Greece, in 1824, at the age of 36, which may not seem very old but is longer than Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain lasted, so for a rock star, he did pretty well.

On that tempestuous night at the Villa Diodati, Byron was the first to propose the ghost-story competition to the Shelleys and Dr. Polidori, yet his Lordship failed his own challenge. His own entry for the competition was a tantalizing “Fragment of a Novel,” which introduces the mysterious yet charismatic character of Augustus Darvell. Some readers believe Darvell may have been a prototype for Polidori’s “Vampyre,” although Byron’s sadly incomplete narrative leaves it open to question whether or not Darvell is a member of the undead.

But let us now imagine what might have been if, instead of a “Fragment of a Novel,” Byron had left us “The Novel of the Fragments.”

Hermit Tarot

 

The Novel of the Fragments

by

Lord Byron

 (as channeled by Peter Atkins)

 

I am to tell you, or so the muse instructs me, of the curious adventure that befell me during my wanderings in that mist-shrouded region of hills and caverns—nestled between two neighboring kingdoms and long the source of their centuries-old enmity—which our unimaginative guidebooks call merely The Taviani Pass (after the Venetian botanist who first mapped it) but which is known to one of its reclusive mountain tribes in their strangely beautiful mongrel tongue as Draumestauch, or The Place of Gentle Misfortune.

I was descending a south-facing slope, aware already of how low the sun was to my right, when I grew conscious of a whistled air, high and lilting and tantalizingly faint. At first convinced it was naught but the wind itself, transmuted into accidental melody by its passage through crevice and crevasse, I was forced to revise my opinion when a sudden sour note in a trilling climb within the tune prefaced a pause and then a renewed attempt at the melodic ascent. Neither wind nor accident then, I realized, and was at once—distance and nightfall be damned—determined to find the mysterious whistler. For you see, the air was not unknown to me; it was in fact one of those ‘Hebrew Melodies’ composed by Mr. Nathan some years earlier as settings for lyrics of my own invention.

A turn or two within the rocky bypaths brought me ere long to the narrow mouth of a cave hidden from the casual glances of most who would brave the mountain, and a walk of but a hundred feet or so within its shadowed reaches brought me to the source of the whistled refrain:

Illuminated by the dancing flame of a torch mounted on the cave-wall, a solitary Hermit in monk-like robes and cowl sat beneath a primitive looking glass of polished obsidian fastened to the rocky surface behind him. As I stepped into the pool of light cast by the torch, the fellow stopped his whistling.

“Welcome, my Lord,” he said, and beckoned me forward.

“You have the advantage of me, Sir,” I said. “In whose company do I find myself?”

“I am the Guardian of the Fragments,” he said, with a certain haughtiness not generally associated with—nor, to my understanding, encouraged in—those of the monkish persuasion.

“Fragments?” said I. For, I confess, curiosity had triumphed over my disdain for his cheap Mummers’ Show theatrics.

“Fragments of Time, my Lord,” he said. “Glimpses of worlds that were, worlds that will be, and even worlds that are.”

Well, the damned fellow had my attention. I had to give him that.

“Do we see them in the glass?” I said, nodding at the obsidian pane behind him.

There was a pause before his reply—“Alas, no,” he eventually said—and I realized I’d inadvertently knocked a chip out of his self-importance. Missed a trick there, he was probably thinking, while no doubt planning a quick bit of redecoration before the next punter wandered in.

Making the best of it, however, he reached within the copious folds of his robe and removed a document.

“From the distant past,” he said, and held the thing out for me to take, which I did.

It was a single sheet of a fine antique parchment and it was folded in half. On the outside of the fold, as one addressing an envelope, someone had written a three-word title in a decent copperplate while the inside, once unfolded, contained a prose passage of some two or three hundred words:

ONLY DEATH, SIR

           When the King of all the lands that were fair asked for berries, berries were brought. When his thirst sought sweet water, sweet water was found. So when he asked for wisdom, it was not long before his courtiers brought to him a man of whom no question had been asked for which he had not found an answer.

          And the King made the man his servant and bade him walk with him all his days so that wisdom was ever at hand.

          And the Servant showed him all the pleasures of the world and how to partake wisely thereof.

          And many years passed and the King, grown old with wandering, spoke again to his servant.

          “And after this, what then? After flesh and fruit and song, what more remains?”

          And the Servant made him an answer and the answer was kind.

          And the King, who by now was not himself unwise, accepted the answer but, seeking consolation, went to his window and looked out at his people below.

          “That sweet girl who runs eagerly, summer on her cheek, to find a faithful lover: Who will receive her embrace?”

          And the Servant made him an answer and the answer was the same.

          “And that young man whose heart seeks glory, be he poet or soldier: What will he find?”

          And the Servant made him an answer and the answer was the same.

          “And those trees, those flowers: To what end do they blossom? Those birds: To what end do they sing?”

          And the Servant made him an answer and the answer was the same.

          And the King looked at his Servant and saw him for the first time and his heart was heavy in his chest and all his joys were ash. And he gave to his Servant one more question.

          “And who are you, o most faithful servant, who has shown me all these wonders, who has walked always beside me, thy footsteps planted next to mine down all my days e’en like those of my own shadow?”

          The Servant smiled. And he made him an answer and the answer was the same.

 

I refolded the paper, handed it back to the hermit, and watched it disappear into the hollows of his monkish robe.

“A lesson the learning of which is hardly the exclusive prerogative of the past,” I said. “Nor one reserved solely for Kings.”

“I know nothing of lessons, my Lord,” he said. “I am merely the Guardian.”

His routine could plainly benefit from better dialogue and I felt a moment’s temptation to offer my services in that regard, but I feared it might bruise his feelings. He was, in any case, getting on with the show.

“From the distant future,” he said, producing the second fragment for my perusal:

 

THE LAST TIME I ALMOST WENT HOME

         The guy we’d actually been hired by, the guy who rounded us up from the club, was just some flunky in a tough-guy suit, spending government money. Nicer than he needed to be, though. “Ladies,” he’d said, as he held the limo door and waved the three of us into the back seat. Not a trace of spin on it. You learn to appreciate the little things, believe me.

          The guy we’ve been hired for is quiet, naked, and not great on eye-contact. It’s hardly surprising that he doesn’t understand the subtleties, that his hand is limp and unresponsive when we shake, that he answers honestly when Brigid asks if he likes her hair. It’s hardly surprising at all. I mean, how far has he come?

           The guy with the clipboard and the ugly machine had tried to explain, but I couldn’t even. I’m like, “Wait, what?” Mind blown.

            “C’mon, Caitlin,” Jeannie says to me, like she hears this sort of shit every day. “Like David Bowie. You know, in that movie.”

            And Brigid’s like, “Right, the one where his eyes are weird.”

            And Jeannie, very offended, is all, “Those are Bowie’s actual eyes, Brigid.”

            But she’s forgetting the scene with the tweezers, I think, and besides, that was a metaphor. This is a man.

            The ugly machine can’t make up its mind about its numbers.

             Jeannie’s tongue is at the corner of her mouth and none of us are sure what to do now.

             “Perhaps you could dance,” Clipboard says. “Perhaps he’d like that.”

 

Fragment, indeed. Somewhat shorter, even, than the first. And certainly more perplexing; full of words which one could understand singly but which, woven together, produced a tapestry so baffling as to court madness. I would not, however, have this fellow—of whom I had come to think, for all his affectation of a monkish spiritual rigour, as being too pleased with himself by half—believe me to be without opinion or insight.

“A machine that works with numbers,” I said. “A sophistication, I assume, of Herr Leibniz’s Stepped Reckoner?”

“Were Herr Leibniz to fall asleep and dream himself into a world of mechanical wonders unguessed-at in our present day and then, within that dreaming world of splendours, to fall asleep and dream of a world whose inventions put those of the first to shame, he would still be some distance from comprehending the …”

Good God. I know that I’ve been accused of as much myself, but it seemed to me that my monastic friend was making his point with an inordinate amount of excessive elaboration. I pretended to stifle a yawn but hints, it appeared, were not to be taken.

“… enormous strides in computational capabilities that await us in—”

“That’s as may be,” I said, finally cutting him off. “But I suspect two and two will probably still make four. In any case, there’s a far more important lesson to be learned from this little curiosity of yours.”

“Indeed?” said the Hermit, raising an eyebrow.

“Indeed,” said I. “It appears that, in the future, ladies shall still dance?”

“It appears so,” he admitted.

“Then the world shall not entirely have gone to Hell,” I said, and held out my hand for the third fragment.

“Past. Future,” I mused. “This next will, I take it, enlighten me regarding the present?”

A solemn nod was his only reply as he placed the document in my hand.

As with its companions, it was a single sheet of paper folded in half. As before, a title was on the outer fold:

HOW LONG DOES THE MAYFLY LIVE?

But the paper, once unfolded, was completely blank.

For a brief moment, I felt a chill of fear, its source unclear to me and its strength disturbingly disproportionate to the circumstance.

My second thought was that this was merely some ill-judged whimsy of the Guardian and that, upon renewed demand, he would provide the real document.

And then I understood. Or thought so, at least.

“The present is not ordained,” I said confidently, as one who has understood a clever puzzle. “It is ours for the writing.”

I looked to my cowled companion for what I fully expected to be an approving nod. But neither word nor gesture escaped him. How could it?

The Guardian was a statue. Man and robe alike hewn by some masterful ancient hand from the very walls of the cavern that appeared to be its home.

I snatched up the flaming torch from its niche in the wall and held it near my former companion. With every second, the thing seemed to be less well wrought until I began to wonder how I could ever have thought it the semblance of a man. A series of natural folds in the rock, and nothing more.

The flicker of the flame’s reflection in the obsidian panel above drew my attention to the looking glass. Holding the torch aloft and close to my own face, I stared into the glass’s darkling surface.

There was absolutely nothing to be seen within.

 THE END

© Peter Atkins 2016

 

For those unfortunates who have been living under rocks for the past few decades and may not be familiar with him, PETER ATKINS is the author of the novels Morningstar, Big Thunder, and Moontown and the screenplays Hellraiser II, Hellraiser III, Hellraiser IV, and Wishmaster. His short fiction has appeared in such anthologies as The Museum of Horrors, Ghosts, Hellbound Hearts, and Cemetery Riots, and has been selected eight times for one or more of the various ‘Year’s Best’ anthologies. His recent book, Rumours of the Marvellous, a collection of his short fiction, was a finalist for the British Fantasy Award. He blogs at peteratkins.blogspot.com.

The author of this blog wishes to offer his obsequious thanks to Mr. Atkins for embodying the immortal Byron for this Villa Diodati recreation.

If you enjoyed this story (and the stories within the story!), please LIKE and SHARE this post with all your fellow Gothic aficionados. And, while you’re at it, don’t forget to mention that, for a limited time, they can get the Kindle ebook of FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN for the pittance of ONLY 99 CENTS! That’s less than a convenience-store king-sized pack of M&M’s! And it’s way better for you–a fraction of the fat and calories. But this SPECIAL OFFER won’t last long. Order yours today! Here’s the link:

FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN Amazon Order Page

Thank you all for joining our party at the Villa Diodati! In the spirit of that fateful evening in June of 1816, I hope we have given you a few memorable shivers for a stormy night. I would love to hear what you think and whether you have suggestions for future features you would like to see in this blog. Until next we meet…HAVE A VERY GOTHIC HOLIDAY SEASON!

 

ONE NIGHT AT THE VILLA DIODATI, PART 4: JOHN WILLIAM POLIDORI

Born in 1795, John Polidori displayed a precocious aptitude for the medical profession, graduating from the University of Edinburgh at the age of nineteen. However, he never seemed content with his promising career as a physician and nurtured literary ambitions that would remain largely unfulfilled, leading to a short and tragic life. Despite his failure to make a name for himself as a writer, Polidori rather unwittingly made an indelible contribution to the field of horror fiction by introducing modern readers to the folkloric figure of the vampire.

His attraction to the glamour of the literati led the young Dr. Polidori to wheedle his way into a position as Lord Byron’s personal physician, and he accompanied the poet on his trip to the Continent in 1816. Indeed, Polidori’s diary serves as one of the primary firsthand accounts of Byron’s meeting with the Shelleys and of the celebrated ghost story competition at the Villa Diodati. The physician doubtless also deserves credit for contributing his medical knowledge to the discussions that inspired Mary Shelley’s conception of the overreaching medical student Victor Frankenstein.

Unfortunately, the relationship between Byron and Polidori was strained from the beginning and deteriorated rapidly. Polidori had an obsessive, fan-like attraction to Byron and quickly became catty and jealous whenever his Lordship lavished attention on Percy Shelley or anyone else. Meanwhile, Byron evidently considered his traveling companion an ingratiating toady and irritating nuisance, “exactly the kind of person to whom, if he fell overboard, one would hold out a straw to know if the adage be true that drowning men catch at straws.” (Byron’s words, not mine.) He effectively sacked Polidori not long after their sojourn at the Villa Diodati, and Polidori’s life entered a downward spiral after the two men parted company. Depressed by gambling debts and failed careers and relationships, John Polidori committed suicide by ingesting a lethal dose of Prussic acid (better known as cyanide) in 1821, just shy of his 26th birthday.

According to Mary Shelley, Polidori’s original contribution to the ghost story challenge at the Villa Diodati centered around a skull-headed lady. At some later date, however, he composed a far more memorable tale. Evidently inspired by the enigmatic character of Augustus Darvell in the “Fragment of a Novel” that Byron produced for the competition—and, more likely, by the aloof and sardonic personality of Byron himself—Polidori wrote “The Vampyre,” featuring “Lord Ruthven,” the first fictional bloodsucking noble in modern English literature. Literary critics generally agree that Lord Ruthven served as a model to Bram Stoker when he created his more illustrious vampire nobleman, Count Dracula.

What follows is a narrative with almost the same title but a very different tale to tell.

 

Schedel_1493

 

THE VAMP-PYRE

by

John William Polidori

(as channeled by Stephen Woodworth)

On my left, Warrick pitched the limp bulk of a pregnant woman onto the heap of corpses in front of us, while Lafontaine tossed a small boy atop the mound from the right.

“Think that’s the last of ’em,” Warrick declared. His shirt was slashed as if by a tiger’s claws, its front blotched and spattered with crimson. The blood was not his.

“We need to be certain,” I said. “We cannot allow even one to rise. Go search again, and make haste—we haven’t much time.” With a torch in one hand and a wooden stake in the other, Warrick headed back to the desolate village, and I turned to Lafontaine. “Philippe, help me scatter the kindling.”

The charnel mountain had piled higher than my head, with more than a hundred livid cadavers sprawled on top of one another in disarray. Old and young, rich and poor, men, women, and children, all tangled together. For nearly a week, the strange contagion had ravaged the village. Every body bore the telltale puncture wounds—most on the neck, some on the wrist, and some…in far more intimate places. The stakes we’d used to despatch them still protruded from the chests of many of the bodies. We’d had to go from door to door, house to house, to get them all.

But one could not rely on the accuracy of the stake. If one missed the heart by even an inch, the accursed victim might still revive and wreak havoc. Immolation was the only sure solution.

I placed bundles of twigs around the heap in a ring, and Lafontaine followed after, using a pitchfork taken from one of the dead farmers to stuff dry straw in among the sticks. We then doused wood and flesh alike with whisky from jugs we’d found in the village’s abandoned tavern. Taking up the burning torches we’d stabbed handle-down into the soft soil, we stood to wait for Warrick.

The will-o’-the-wisp of Warrick’s torch bobbed through the benighted hamlet. The eyes of darkened windows glowed fretfully as he probed each thatched-roof cottage. At last, he returned, carrying no corpse.

“Empty as a drunkard’s purse,” he declared.

“Then let’s have done with it,” I said, and touched my torch to the liquor-soaked barrier of sticks and straw.

The fire caught quickly, the twigs popping and snapping, their evaporating sap spitting smoke redolent of willow and oak. Lafontaine and Warrick continued around the oval, thrusting their torches at the kindling until the entire mound of corpses was skirted by flame.

Then the bodies themselves began to smolder. The acrid stink of singed hair and woolen clothing tainted the air, followed soon by the oddly appetizing scent of fresh, roasting meat.

When it seemed that the fire had engulfed the mass of carrion without incident, I turned to the others. “Enough, lads! Let us rest—”

“Garde-toi!” Lafontaine exclaimed. “Behind you!”

I’d barely glanced back toward the bonfire when I felt a pair of vise-like hands seize the lapels of my frock-coat, dragging me toward the blaze. I found myself nose-to-nose with a face awash in flame, the visage shriveling to a death’s-head as if it were burning paper. The figure’s entire body was sheathed in fire but for its blackened, grasping hands, and I recognized it solely by its distended stomach: the pregnant woman was trying to claw her way out of our mass cremation. She let out a hideous banshee scream, her breath gusting in my face with the hot fury of a forge, and I feared she would set me afire.

Then her wail shrilled even louder as Lafontaine snatched up the pitchfork and drove its prongs into her chest. Still, she did not let go of me. I beat at her with the burning torch I still clutched, and her grip loosened as the fire consumed her limbs. Like the devil he was, Lafontaine used the pitchfork to thrust her back into the pyre.

Even then, the horror did not end. Bubbling with fried fat, the woman’s belly, like a well-cooked sheep’s bladder, burst open, and the unborn infant pawed blindly for freedom. Leeched of blood like its mother, it now shared her curse of abominable resurrection. Still leashed to her by its umbilicus, it scrabbled out of its charred womb only to dangle in the flames, mewling piteously.

“Over here!” Warrick yelled.

Lafontaine and I tore our gaze from the ghastly un-birth to see Warrick swinging his own torch at a tall, emaciated man who had erupted daemoniacally from the other side of the funereal mound. Before we could help Warrick stop him, the flaming figure had leapt onto the grass outside the bonfire’s oval. He began a frantic, staggering run, his scarecrow arms flailing and flaring against the black night sky. Warrick pursued him, and when the man stumbled and fell, Warrick batted at the man’s head with his torch until the burning skull broke from the quivering body and rolled away.

An ominous moaning drew our attention back to the pyre. We saw the dark heart of the fire pulsing, the mountain of corpses undulating as if alive. Flickering silhouettes appeared behind the curtain of flames as buried victims groped their way out of the carnage only to be immolated. They did a horrid dance of agony, screaming and screeching, as if already tormented by the furnace of Hades.

With pitchfork and torches, Lafontaine, Warrick, and I beat back all those who tried to escape the pyre. Penned within, they ultimately succumbed to the flames, their charred skeletons collapsing back into the fire like so much kindling. The heap of corpses diminished and lay still, its only sound the snap and sizzle of burning flesh.

At last, Lafontaine threw down his pitchfork. “C’est tout, mes amis!”

He grinned, his lips and chin still red with dried gore from our most recent feast. Warrick laughed, baring his own crimsoned fangs.

I winced. I could not help but pity the pathetic creatures that I’d seen shrieking and withering in the conflagration, and could not keep from imagining the inferno that awaited us if we ever ended up in the Hell we so richly deserved.

I could still taste the salty, metallic tang of blood on my own tongue. We three had fed well since our arrival in the village, but now that we had exhausted the local prey, we needed to ensure that none of our victims became members of the un-dead themselves. Too many vampyres marauding the countryside would alert the natives to our existence and might endanger our capacity to hunt, and that would never do. Thus, we killed our prey twice—once by draining their blood, and then again by stake when they turned from human souls to creatures of hunger and darkness like ourselves. Afterward, we consigned the bodies to the flames to be certain there were no survivors.

We watched the fire burn late into the night. The mound crumbled into a pile of blackened bones and dimming embers. With dawn approaching, we sought shelter in one of the town’s vacant houses, drawing shades and closing shutters on the windows to keep the sun off our sleeping forms.

At fall of dusk, we shall rise again and journey out under cover of darkness to find another village and more souls to send into fiery perdition.

THE END

Copyright 2016 by Stephen Woodworth

Nothing like a roaring fire to ward off those winter chills, eh, fiends? Er, I mean, “friends.” If you liked this morsel of morbidity, please SHARE it with your own fiends–friends–and check out the terror tales from Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Lord Byron.

And don’t forget: For a limited time, you can get a Kindle ebook of FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN for the INCREDIBLE BARGAIN PRICE of *ONLY 99 CENTS*! That’s a deal so good, it’s scary! But this deal won’t last long. Order yours NOW, and SHARE the deal with everyone on your holiday horror list! Click the link below to order:

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Thanks for reading. Until next we meet at the Villa Diodati…STAY GOTHIC!

ONE NIGHT AT THE VILLA DIODATI, PART 2: PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY

Born in 1792, Percy Shelley lived to just a month shy of his thirtieth birthday, yet during that short time, he managed to secure a reputation as one of the preeminent lyric poets of the Romantic era. Best known today for such classic verse as “Ozymandias” and “To a Skylark,” Shelley was quite the rebel and free-thinker for his time, espousing atheism and nonviolent civil disobedience and taking up with sixteen-year-old Mary Godwin while still technically married to his first wife Harriet. After Harriet conveniently drowned herself (in the Serpentine in Hyde Park, no less!), Percy wed Mary in 1816.

Despite having multiple premonitions of his own death and having never learned to swim, Percy had a perverse, almost pathological penchant for sailing in small, open boats. His pastime proved his undoing in 1822 when his craft evidently capsized during a storm and drowned him.

A quintessential Romantic, Percy Shelley possessed an appropriately morbid sensitivity. Indeed, the ghost story competition at the Villa Diodati in June of 1816 was inspired, in part, by one of Percy’s panic attacks. One stormy night, Lord Byron had been spooking his friends with a reading from “Christabel” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. According to John Polidori, who was present, “the whole took so strong a hold of Mr. Shelly’s [sic] mind, that he suddenly started up and ran out of the room. The physician and Lord Byron followed, and discovered him leaning against a mantle-piece, with cold drops of perspiration trickling down his face. After having given him something to refresh him, upon enquiring into the cause of his alarm, they found that his wild imagination having pictured to him the bosom of one of the ladies with eyes (which was reported of a lady in the neighborhood where he lived) he was obliged to leave the room in order to destroy the impression.”

With that image in mind, consider yourself warned about the content of the story that follows. NOTE: THIS STORY CONTAINS EXPLICIT AND DISTURBING IMAGERY! WE PROMISE!

 

Orbs of Erato

 

THE ORBS OF ERATO

by

Percy Bysshe Shelley

(as channeled by Stephen Woodworth)

 She enters the villa from the courtyard, through the doors I have left open for her.The night, once racked by tempest, has become utterly still and clear, the nimbus dissolving to unveil a brilliant moon. Its beams frost her nude form in spectral white, the limbs sinuous as animate marble. Though the air is bitterly cold, no gooseflesh stipples her polished skin. Hair as wispy and lustrous as spider silk floats about a face so fine as to be featureless, its eyes shut, and she moves with the slow deliberation of a somnambulist. I am reminded again of the figure of blind Justice, but know that she is neither blind nor just.

I do not remember falling asleep, and yet the sudden, awful cessation of thunder has awakened me. I rise from my chair in the parlor and shamble toward the open doors, and I hear nothing in the smothering silence—not a footfall, no, nor even my own labored breath or beating heart.

She steps across the threshold into shadow, and I can see only her silhouette haloed in moonlight. Yet I can feel her nether gaze upon me as she waits with imperious bearing. I extend my hand to her in helpless invitation, and she, the guest, leads me to the bedchamber, as though I were the sightless one.

A single candle sits in a holder on the night table, and its wavering flame makes the rumpled sheets of the four-post bed appear to pitch and roll like an uneasy sea. She reclines on the down mattress, her eyelids still shut as if already in slumber. And that is when I see them—those other eyes that have no lids and never shut. One on each breast of her exposed bosom, the white of the eye like an aureole, a cornea in place of a nipple. The pupils contract in the candlelight, and the limpid orbs peer at me in languid expectation.

Under their stare, I grow faint, sickened, my head numb as the blood drains from it. When she raises her arms to summon me, however, I cannot refuse, nor tear my gaze from that of her nether eyes. Wearing only my nightshirt, I crawl forward like an infant, over the foot of the bed and onto her supine form. Despite my revulsion, I kiss and caress her stone-smooth bosom with insatiable ardor as the eyes follow the ministrations of my mouth. The pigment of their irises appears to shade from one hue to another, now green, now blue, now gray.

She grips me with the longing of a lamia, but she has come to nourish, not devour. As I touch my lips to her throat, to her jaw, to her cheek, the eyelids beneath her fine brows peel apart. Out of each opened eye peeks the iris of a reddish-brown aureole, its pupil a puckering nipple. I feel the flutter of lashes on my tongue as I lap at an exposed teat.

She lifts her breasts with her hands so that the nether eyes may continue to watch me. My mouth probes deeper into the hollow of her open eye until I suckle at the teat in desperate hunger. A taste sweeter than honeydew tingles my tongue, heady and dreadful and delicious, and it feels as if the milk flows not from her body but from the mind and soul behind that exquisite, implacable face. My brain dizzies with an intoxication of lurid visions and strange music, and I succumb to a drowsy numbness.

When I recover my senses, I am alone in the bed. The taper on the night table has melted into a frozen fountain of wax, its wick extinguished, and a haze of wan daylight shafts through the bedchamber window.

Far from lassitude, I feel an irresistible agitation. My skull is bursting, words leaking from its fissures. I jump from the bed and rush to my writing desk in my dressing gown. Verse gushes forth faster than I can capture it with ink and quill. The precious, elusive words threaten to skitter away, and I scribble madly to imprison them on the page. I write until eyes and arm and head are sore and still fail to catch all the fleeing rhymes.

Then the rapture dissipates like a vanishing dream, an ode half-finished on the paper in front of me. I am left with only a ghastly emptiness, a hunger that claws at me as if my stomach were full of rats.

I must see her again.

Night after night, I leave the doors open wide, but she comes no more. My mind is as blank as the sheets of foolscap that litter my writing-desk. Has she found another lover, one more worthy to nurse?

The thought is unbearable. I curl upon my bed and teethe my thumb, bawling, a babe bereft.

THE END

 Copyright 2016 by Stephen Woodworth

 

If you enjoyed this story, just wait until you see what “Mary Shelley,” “John Polidori,” and “Lord Byron” have in store for you! Stay tuned to this blog for more EXCLUSIVE, CHILLING, NEVER-BEFORE-PUBLISHED STORIES in the Gothic tradition, including a SPECIAL CELEBRITY GUEST APPEARANCE by PETER ATKINS, screenwriter of Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 and author of Morningstar and many other classic works of horror fiction! Don’t miss a single post!!! And please COMMENT, LIKE, and SHARE this terror with your friends!

While you’re waiting, if you need more monsters NOW, why not check out FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN? Your ticket to terror is just a click away!:

FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN Amazon Order Page

Until we return to the Villa Diodati…STAY GOTHIC!

One Night at the Villa Diodati…with Monsters!

It was a dark and stormy night…

No, really, it was! That wasn’t just a Bulwer-Lytton/Snoopy reference. I am referring to that tempestuous night in June of 1816 that inspired Mary Shelley to  invent one of the most celebrated monsters in all of horror fiction. As we continue to celebrate both this year’s release of my new novel FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN and the 200th anniversary of the conception of Shelley’s original FRANKENSTEIN, I thought it would be appropriate to revisit that pivotal event in Gothic literature, which many scholars believe also spawned the nineteenth century’s other iconic monster character, Dracula.

Simple necessity occasioned this unlikely but serendipitous event: Not technically married yet due to the inconvenient existence of Percy’s first wife Harriet, Percy and Mary Shelley were up to their cerebral brows in debt, and Percy was persona non grata with his not-yet-father-in-law, William Godwin. With only Percy’s modest income for subsistence, the couple believed they could live more cheaply on the Continent. Mary’s half-sister Claire Claremont was one of the randy Lord Byron’s many groupies, and she convinced the Shelleys to rent the Maison Chapuis, a small villa on the shores of Lake Geneva near the one where his lordship was summering with his fawning sidekick, Dr. John Polidori. Percy and Byron, being mutual admirers of one another’s poetry and of a similar egotistic Romantic temperament, got along famously, and Byron regularly hosted the Shelleys at the Villa Diodati, which you may see as it appears today in the photo accompanying this post. Percy and Mary Shelley are pictured on the left, Byron and Polidori on the right.

It was on one such visit in June of 1816 that a frightful downpour began, and Byron invited the Shelleys to stay at Diodati so they wouldn’t have to venture back to their own villa during the storm. The thunder and lightning excited their morbid imaginations, and since they were cooped up anyway, they took turns creeping each other out by reading outre works of Coleridge and others. Byron puckishly proposed a friendly competition in which they should all write their own ghost stories.

Of the four participants, Shelley and Byron had soon produced abortive fragments of ghostly narratives. Polidori, who had pretentions of being a writer but little talent, even came up with a story. Only Mary seemed to suffer from writer’s block, unable to think of a good idea.

Then she had a nightmare. Evidently inspired by conversations that Percy, Byron, and Polidori had regarding the science of galvanism and how electricity could make the limbs of dead animals and humans twitch as if alive, Mary dreamt of a medical student who brings to life a horrible humanoid monster. Both the medical student and his nameless creation would come to be known by the eventual title of the story she wrote: Frankenstein.

Mary’s was not the only famous work inspired by this unique meeting of minds, however. Inspired by the mysterious main character of Byron’s “Fragment of a Novel,” Polidori  created his own charismatic antihero in “The Vampyre,” a popular novella that became the first modern fictional treatment of vampirism in the English language. Many critics believe Polidori’s work was a seminal influence on Bram Stoker when he first conceived of Dracula.

In honor of this momentous occasion in the history of monsterdom, I thought it would be amusing to recreate the legendary evening at the Villa Diodati in miniature. With the aid of my own lovely wife, Kelly Dunn, and a very special surprise guest writer, we propose to channel each of the celebrated Diodati literati to write four *new* Gothic tales for your enjoyment. You won’t want to miss these new stories, so follow this blog for every chilling installment!

While you’re waiting, you can get your Frankenstein fix by checking out FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN on Amazon. Follow the link below!:

FRAULEIN FRANKENSTEIN Order Page

Thank you, and stay tuned!