Friday, May 14, 2021

A Strange Story

Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873), career politician and prolific author, is probably remembered by the general public nowadays only as the inspiration for the annual "It was a dark and stormy night" contest. Classic film buffs may know him as author of the historical novel THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII (1834), on which several movies were based. Many horror fans will have read his often-anthologized story "The Haunters and the Haunted; or, The House and the Brain" (1859). Yet during his lifetime he was considered equal or even superior to Dickens.

While in college, I read Bulwer-Lytton's A STRANGE STORY (1850), one of his numerous works on supernatural and occult themes, because I was intrigued by a statement in E. F. Bleiler's introduction to Polidori's "The Vampyre" (1819) that Bulwer-Lytton's sinister magician Margrave was influenced by Polidori's vampire, Lord Ruthven. Also, as I discovered, several elements in A STRANGE STORY foreshadow motifs in Stoker's DRACULA (1897).

The narrator, small-town physician Allen Fenwick, declares that his "creed was that of a stern materialist." Thus the invasion of his ordered life by Margrave threatens to overturn his entire world-view. The paranormal aspects of Bulwer-Lytton's fiction aren't portrayed as outright supernatural manifestations, at least as seen by Fenwick in his determination to discover natural causes for all the strange phenomena he witnesses, but rather as pseudo-scientific alchemy and occultism. Even when Fenwick gets hold of Margrave's magic wand and subdues the sorcerer with it, the doctor attempts to rationalize a physical explanation for the wand's effect. Like Stoker's doggedly rational character Dr. Seward, Fenwick is in love with—in his case, engaged to—a sheltered young lady. Lytton's Lilian Ashleigh is an unworldly girl in delicate health, subject to fainting spells and disturbing visions. Fenwick shows more impatience than sympathy with what he considers her flights of fantasy, of which he hopes marriage will cure her. The amoral, terribly beautiful Margrave, however, recognizes her as a gifted clairvoyant and wants to make use of her. He literally enchants her to make her forget her fiance. At the same time, his powers render Fenwick helpless to combat his schemes. Although outwardly youthful, Margrave turns out to be actually an ancient, evil alchemist, Louis Grayle, who discovered the Elixir of Life and achieved unnatural immortality. Grayle's apparent "death" and return to life as Margrave recall Lord Ruthven's death and revival in "The Vampyre." Fenwick, to protect his fiancee, has to shield Margrave and eventually help him try to brew a fresh batch of the Elixir to restore his fading youth. In a shattering scene of elemental sorcery, Lilian's health revives and the couple wins their freedom from Margrave only through the latter's destruction.

Margrave pretends friendship to the young doctor but, like Ruthven in "The Vampyre" with that story's naive hero, he systematically destroys Fenwick's happiness. Vampire-like, the sorcerer can't bear the thought of his own death and transforms into a vicious fiend when hurt or frustrated. Like Dracula passing through closed doors and windows as a glowing mist, Margarve can astrally project himself in a "shadow" form, an apparition Fenwick labels "the shining corpse," after a sort of barrow-ghost in Scandinavian legend. Similar to Dracula's manipulation of the mental patient Renfield, Margarve hypnotizes a homicidal maniac into murdering an occultist who has discovered the magician's secret. Margrave's mesmerism offers one of his most striking similarities to Stoker's later vampire. He seems to use that gift to drain Lilian's life-force, and his psychic power lures her from her bed, just as Dracula exercises psychic influence over the sleepwalking Lucy. Indeed, Lilian's trance states foreshadow Lucy's somnambulism. A STRANGE STORY also features a Van Helsing figure, Fenwick's mentor, Dr. Julius Faber, who encourages Fenwick to open his mind to the inexplicable, as Van Helsing does with Seward.

Margrave, like Dracula, is categorized as an alchemist and a necromancer, with the two villains described in strikingly similar terms. One character speculates of Margrave, "And who shall say whether the fiends do not enter at their will this void and deserted temple whence the soul has departed,and use. . . all the faculties which, skillful in memory, still place a mind at the control of their malice?" This sentence neatly summarizes the traditional nature of the vampire in Eastern European folklore, a demon-animated corpse.

Considering Bulwer-Lytton's popularity and prestige in the nineteenth-century, it seems very likely that Bram Stoker was familiar with A STRANGE STORY. I wouldn't be surprised if the earlier novel had some degree of direct influence on events and tropes in DRACULA.

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

1 comment:

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