Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Lady of the Shroud

Everybody knows about Bram Stoker’s DRACULA (1897). Few vampire fans, however, much less general readers, are familiar with what might be called Stoker’s “other vampire novel,” THE LADY OF THE SHROUD (1909). Actually (no big spoiler), it’s not a genuine vampire story, but based around a hoax. The hero doesn’t discover the truth until well into the book, though. This novel is an adventure tale with more similarities to THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1894) than DRACULA. A wealthy Englishman unexpectedly leaves his fortune to his world-traveling nephew, Rupert Sent Leger. As a condition of the inheritance, Rupert has to live in a castle in a tiny Balkan country called the Land of the Blue Mountains. The novel follows the typical plot of a Ruritanian romance, in which a dashing foreign hero (English or sometimes American) saves the realm and falls in love with the princess.

Like DRACULA, this novel has an epistolary narrative structure. It begins with a magazine story about an apparition of a coffin-like boat bearing a woman in a shroud. Most of the book consists of entries from Rupert’s journal, supplemented by letters and other documents. Once settled in the castle, formerly the home of the voivode (ruler) of the country, Rupert receives a visit from a woman of unearthly beauty “wrapped in white graveclothes saturated with water.” In addition to the shroud she wears, other factors such the chill of her skin, her need to be helped over the threshold of his room, and her insistence on fleeing at cockcrow lead him to seriously entertain the possibility that she may be a vampire. During the day he explores an ancient church nearby and finds her in the crypt, lying in a glass-topped coffin like a vampiric Snow White. Because of his many extraordinary experiences in exotic parts of the world, Rupert, like Van Helsing, has an open mind about the preternatural and occult. Unlike any of the characters in DRACULA, however, Rupert speculates whether the lady, if a vampire, could be redeemed and restored to life. That idea never comes up in the earlier novel, where vampires are demonically evil by definition.

The lady turns out to be the voivodin (princess) of the Land of the Blue Mountains, carrying out the vampire masquerade for protection from her enemies. Having fallen into a cataleptic trance (one phenomenon that scholars have often cited as a possible source of vampire beliefs), she had been pronounced dead and interred, a mistake she uses to her advantage. Rupert, of course, saves both the voivodin and her nation, rescuing his beloved and her father from Turkish kidnappers. THE LADY OF THE SHROUD has the distinction of being probably the first novel to portray aerial combat, only a few years after the Wright Brothers’ pioneering flights.

Although lesser known than DRACULA, this novel and Stoker’s tale of a mummified Egyptian princess trying to return to life, THE JEWEL OF SEVEN STARS (1903), both hold up well as thrilling stories that are still worth reading today.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt


Melinda Jane Harrison said...

The Jewel of the Seven Stars was always one of my favorite stories. I have all these works, having collected Victorian fiction for a long time now. But I am looking forward to this new addition on Kindle.

Margaret Carter said...

I bought the Kindle edition of LADY OF THE SHROUD with the new introduction and notes; I'm looking forward to reading them. The princess in JEWEL OF SEVEN STARS is sort of a seductive undead character. As you probably know, that novel has two endings, one completely tragic and another in which the modern-day heroine survives.