Monday, December 14, 2020

Doctors Wear Scarlet

I consider DOCTORS WEAR SCARLET (1960), by Simon Raven, one of the four best pre-1970 vampire novels of the twentieth century. The other three, by the way, are Richard Matheson's I AM LEGEND (1954), Theodore Sturgeon's SOME OF YOUR BLOOD (1961), and PROGENY OF THE ADDER (1965), by Leslie H. Whitten. A tale of slowly mounting suspense and creeping horror, DOCTORS WEAR SCARLET combines psychic and physical vampirism with, perhaps, ambiguous hints of the supernatural. To the very end, I remain not quite sure whether the vampire seductress is meant to be understood as more than human or not. The ominous-sounding title refers to a line on an invitation to the Michaelmas Feast at a college in Cambridge University where the climactic catastrophe occurs. "Doctors wear scarlet" simply means holders of doctoral degrees are expected to attend in their academic regalia. It's eerily evocative, though, isn't it?

The story begins as the narrator, Anthony Seymour, receives a surprise visit from a London police officer, Inspector Tyrrel, asking for information about Richard Fountain, a slightly younger former school friend of Anthony's. Richard, now a junior faculty member at Cambridge, has been traveling in Greece on an ostensible research trip. The London police have been contacted by the Greek authorities with sinister but vague complaints about Richard; they want him out of the country. Tyrrel persuades Anthony to recount his past association with Richard. A portrait emerges of a bright, well-behaved, but self-contained boy and young man who seems too good to be true. The first fifty pages or so of the novel comprise the conversation between Anthony and Tyrell about Richard's youth, his Army service, and his academic career so far. Yet this backstory exposition in the form of dialogue never becomes dull, for we receive constant hints of something "off" about Richard, an underlying strain of ruthlessness or even cruelty. At Cambridge, a distinguished professor, Dr. Goodrich, appoints himself Richard's mentor and patron, intent on shaping not only his career but his entire life. This plan includes marrying Richard to Goodrich's daughter, Penelope, and Richard has fled to Greece mainly as a temporary escape from the older man's dominance. His research focuses on archaic cults of a bizarre, licentious, perhaps bloodthirsty nature. His possible involvement with modern remnants of such practices has attracted the authorities' attention.

With several friends, Anthony travels to Greece in search of Richard. Their quest proves to be an adventure in itself, for he clearly doesn't want to be found. The searchers hear rumors of his liaison with a dangerous woman, perhaps a priestess of one such illicit cult, and many locals speak of Richard himself with repugnance and fear. When his rescuers find him in an abandoned medieval fortress, he's weak and ill. The woman, Chriseis, attacks him by night, mesmerizing Anthony and the other man keeping watch. She seems to have some degree of supernatural power, so they deal with her as they would a traditional vampire. Saving Richard and taking him back to England doesn't end the danger, though. He behaves oddly, sometimes speaking of Chriseis as if she's still alive. Anthony consults an expert, a Van Helsing figure who refuses to get involved aside from providing information. He explains vampirism as a kind of contagious psychological disease. Richard's experience of figurative psychic vampirism under the influence of Dr. Goodrich predisposed him to falling under the spell of Chriseis. It becomes obvious Richard hasn't actually recovered from his ordeal. The disastrous Michaelmas Feast reveals the full extent of his corruption.

Except for the confrontation with Chriseis and the shattering climax, DOCTORS WEAR SCARLET is a deeply unsettling story rather than one of outright terror. The novel's cryptic title suits its tone very well.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

1 comment:

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