Monday 30 November 2009

"Time has no respect for beauty"

Being 38 and worried about wrinkles and age setting in is hardly uncommon, but in the case of Erzebet Bathory it becomes an obsession when she finds out that her skin looks and feels smoother when touched by virgin blood.

The Bathory character has become immensely popular in works of fiction, turning up in e.g. the 'official sequel' to Dracula that I recently mentioned. She also serves as inspiration for a novel that also fictionalizes von Schertz's Magia Posthuma: Blood Legacy by Prudence Foster which I wrote about on another blog.

Bathory also turns up in regular vampire movies as well as in more regular historical dramas. I have yet to find a copy of the Czech Bathory (2008), but the German-French The Countess (2009) starring Julie Delpy was recently released on DVD here in Denmark. Curiously, the first nearly 40 years of Bathory's life are told in the opening minutes, so the movie focuses on her years as a widow, falling in love with a young man and becoming obsessed with using blood to retain her looks, before finally being punished.

Although there are some pretty unpleasant scenes, The Countess never turns into out and out horror. It even attempts to be somewhat ambigous as to how much of the charges against Bathory were based in reality or in a plot to gain her wealth and power. So it is definitely very much unlike e.g. the Hammer Horror of Countess Dracula, but perhaps not quite as entertaining :-)

In general it touches on many of the themes of the strange mixture of fact and fiction about Bathory that has made her a household name in books on horror and mass murder, but in my opinion it does not really attempt to answer any of the questions. Still, it is interesting to see a more 'realistic' and relatively sympathetic portrayal of Bathory that at least appears to be closer to history than e.g. Hammer's effort.

Monday 23 November 2009

Isle of the Dead

Boris Karloff Blogathon: Like Fuseli’s Nightmare has become an iconic image, so the famous Die Toteninsel (Isle of the Dead) painting by Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901) has inspired music, literature and popular culture, most notably in the symphonic work by Rachmaninov. Itself inspired by the images of Hades from classical mythology, it clearly lends itself perfectly to imagery of an otherworld of the dead.

American film producer Val Lewton minutely recreated Böcklin’s island in his 1945 movie Isle of the Dead. Set in Greece in 1912 during the First Balkan War, the Greeks have just conquered the Ottomans in a battle, but also have to work hard to avoid suffering plague and typhus. Boston journalist Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) follows the Greek general Pherides (Boris Karloff) on a visit to a cemetery on an island just off the coast. The general, a tough and rational patriot with the nickname The Watchdog, wishes to visit the grave of his wife, but finds that her grave as well as all other graves are empty. Although guarded by a statue of Cerberus, the island is apparently not a peaceful resting place for the dead.

Pherides and Davis are greeted by a Swiss archaeologist who has settled on the island at the house of a Greek lady, Madame Kyra. The archaeologist tells them that his archaeological excavations on the island had inspired locals to rob the graves, and that is why the graves are now empty. Kyra on the other hand informs the general that one of the corpses was an ‘evil one’, a vorvolaka, and she suggests that evil is still going on. At the house a handful of foreigners have sought refuge from the war, and one of them, Mrs. St. Aubyn, is ill and grows paler and weaker, while the young Thea is ‘rosy and red and full of blood’. The general tells her that it is nonsense, but when one of the people in the company dies from septicemic plague and they have to quarantine the island, fear and superstition begins nagging even the general Pherides.

Isle of the Dead then pits science and medicine against religion and superstition. As the plague takes it toll on doctor Drossor and even on the general himself, they accept that there may be higher powers at large, and the old Watchdog finds himself begins to believe that Thea is indeed a vorvolaka. He almost succeeds in convincing Thea herself that she may be the cause of the plague and illness.

When Mrs. St. Aubyn suffers a cataleptic trance, everybody assumes that she is dead, and she is placed in one of the burial rooms of the cemetery. She, however, awakens and finds herself prematurely buried, screams and scratches at the coffin, and eventually succeeds in getting out and avenging herself - almost like a vorvolaka. Kyra and the general both are certain that she has indeed become a vorvolaka: 'Who dies by a Vorvolaka, becomes a Vorvolaka.'

Ancient mythological images of Hades, Charon and Cerberus mix with the Greek folk belief in the vorvolaka and plague, catalepsy, premature burial as well as what some term ‘psychic vampirism’. All of that told within just 71 minutes: They certainly knew that ‘less is more’ back then. The acting, not least by Karloff himself, is impeccable and as always in Lewton’s movies, the horrors are done rather by suggestion than by effect, and they work very well.

‘Vorvolaka’ is one of the variants of what is usually called ‘vrykolakas’. Karen Hartnup in On the Beliefs of the Greeks: Leo Allatios and Popular Orthodoxy (Brill, 2004), mentions it in the form ‘vourvourlakas’:

‘It may be misleading to use the term vampire in the context of the Greek revenant. The vampire with which we in the West are most familiar is the Dracula of Bram Stoker and ‘B’ movie fame, with his long flowing cape, fangs, and thirst for blood. Although both the Greek vampire and its so-called Transylvanian cousin are revenants, that is, resurrected dead bodies, they differ greatly in style and in their relationships with members of society. It is not helpful to call this creature a vampire as the word carries with it connotations alien to the phenomenon. What should be used in its stead? A plethora of terms for the revenant existed, with each area having its own variation of the species. It was called among other things, vrykolakas, vourvoulakas and katachtonios. Vrykolakas, however, is the most common Greek word for the creature and so seems to most suitable.

Although the
vrykolakas exhibited non of the traditional behaviour of the ‘Transylvanian’ vampire, nonetheless it had the ability to cause great terror within a community. The creature was so frightening that could drive whole villages to decamp. Tournefort described the reaction of a village in Mykonos which discovered a vrykolakas in its midst:

Whole families quitted their Hourses, and brought their Tent-Beds from the farthest parts of the Town into the publick Place, there to spend the night. They were every instant complaining of some new Insult; nothing was to be heard but Sighs and Groans at the approach of Night: the better Sort of People retired into the Country. (p. 173-4)

Some of the most famous sources on the vrykolakas are the De quorundam Graecorum Opinationibus by Allatios (1645), Relation de l’isle de Santerini (1657) by father Francois Richard and the Relation d'une voyage du Levant by Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1717), all of them well-known in the literature on vampires. A careful analysis of Allatios with the evidence on vrykolakas found in Greek texts of ecclesiastical law, nomokanones, in comparison to popular beliefs, is found in Hartnup’s book, which is highly recommended.

This blog post is part of the so-called Boris Karloff Blogathon, commemorating Karloff's 122nd birthday on November 23 2009!

Saturday 21 November 2009

Romancing the Vampire

I was quite surprised when I went to the post office earlier today to fetch a new vampire book I had ordered, because I received a large parcel. However, when I had unpacked it, it really was no surprise because Romancing the Vampire: From Past to Present by David J. Skal is quite an unusual book about vampires.

Mind you, it's mostly about fictional vampires as one might expect, but it's a large format book illustrated throughout and it has extra 'goodies' added: post cards, reproductions of book covers, poems, posters, even a vampire mask and a fake tattoo that you can use to 'impress your friends' :-)

Skal is well-known as an author of numerous books on fictional vampires as well as the horror genre in general, and he is also a prominent commentator and documentarist on various DVD editions of e.g. Universal's horror movies from the 1930's and 1940's. He is in particular the author of Hollywood Gothic, one of the best and carefully researched books on Dracula's transition from novel to motion picture.

In Romancing the Vampire, he traces the vampire in its various guises in fiction and popular culture over the past more than 200 years. In that respect, it is an excellent introduction to the subject as well as a delightful treasure trove for anyone interested in the subject. It should amuse both young and mature readers and will probably be a welcome gift under many a christmas tree this year.

For those of us who are particularly interested in the vampires and vampire debate of the 17th and 18th century, it is as weak as one would sadly expect. Which is a bit sad, because the format would lend itself nicely to include a translation of the Visum et Repertum and other texts from that period. 'Arnold Paole', however, does get a mention, and the cover of Dom Calmet's Dissertation is included.

But there are still many things to explore in the book, and as it is reasonably priced (just $49.95), this is an ideal christmas present to any Twilight or horror fan you may know, and I am sure a lot of you will have fun getting a copy for yourself at the same time.

Click on the photos to have a closer look.

Monday 16 November 2009

Haralde ou Hrappe

Rob Brautigam has recently added quite a number of new cases to his Shroudeater web site, one of them listed as coming from my native country, Denmark. He is referring to a paragraph in the second volume of Augustin Calmet's Dissertation, which is shown above, the story of 'Haralde ou Hrappe, Danois'. Here in the English translation of Henry Christmas:

'Haralde, or Harappe, a Dane, who caused himself to be buried at the entrance of his kitchen, appeared after his death, and was wounded by one Olaüs Pa, who left the iron of his lance in the wound.'

Calmet refers to this story because he discusses the nature of the apparition or revenant: 'This Dane, then, appeared bodily. Was it his soul which moved the body, or a demon which made use of this corpse to disturb and frighten the living? Did he do this by his own strength, or by the permission of God? And what glory to God, what advantage to men, could accrue from these apparitions? Shall we deny all these facts, related in so circumstantial a manner by enlightened authors, who have no interest in deceiving us, nor any wish to do so?'

Calmet does not mention the source of the story of Hrappe, but it can be found in one of the Icelandic Sagas: Laxdæla Saga. Written in the 13th century, the Saga covers the story of seven generations of settlers in the Laxdæla region of Iceland from the 9th to the early 11th century, Hrappe or Hrapp being introduced in chapter X:

'Hrapp was the name of a man who lived in Salmon-river-Dale, on the north bank of the river on the opposite side to Hoskuldstead, at the place that was called later on Hrappstead, where there is now waste land. Hrapp was the son of Sumarlid, and was called Fight-Hrapp. He was Scotch on his father's side, and his mother's kin came from Sodor, where he was brought up. He was a very big, strong man, and one not willing to give in even in face of some odds; and for the reason that he was most overbearing, and would never make good what he had misdone, he had had to fly from West-over-the-sea, and had bought the land on which he afterwards lived. His wife was named Vigdis, and was Hallstein's daughter; and their son was named Sumarlid.'

The death and return of Hrapp is dealt with in the Saga's chapter XVII:

'It is said of Hrapp that be became most violent in his behaviour, and did his neighbours such harm that they could hardly hold their own against him ... but his power waned, in that old age was fast coming upon him, so that he had to lie in bed. Hrapp called his wife Vigdis to him and said, "I have never been of ailing health in my life, and it is therefore most likely that this illness will put an end to our life together. Now, when I am dead, I wish my grave to be dug in the doorway of my fire hall, and I want to be placed in it, standing there in the doorway. In that way I shall be able to keep a more searching eye on my dwelling."

After that Hrapp died, and all was done as he said, for Vigdis did dnot dare do otherwise. And evil as he had been to deal with in his lifetime, he was even more so when he was dead, for he walked again a great deal after his death. People say he killed most of his servants in his ghostly appearances. He caused a great deal of trouble to those who lived near, and the house of Hrappstead became deserted, since Vigdis, Hrapp's wife, had taken herself west to her brother's house and settled there with all her goods. Things went on like this, until men went to find Hoskuld and told him all the things Hrapp was doing to them, and asked him to do something to put and end to this. Hoskuld said something should be done, and he went with some men to Hrappstead, and had Hrapp dug up, and taken away to a place where cattle were unlikely to roam and men unlikely to venture. After that Hrapp's walking-about abated somewhat...'

The ghost of Hrapp returns in chapter XXIV where he is confronted by Olaf the Peacock whom we are introduced to in chapter XVI. This is the character Calmet calls Olaüs Pa, 'Pa' being the nickname 'peacock':

'One evening the man who looked after the dry cattle came to Olaf and asked him to make some other man look after the neat and "set apart for me some other work."

Olaf answered, "I wish you to go on with this same work of yours."

The man said he would sooner go away. "Then you think there is something wrong," said Olaf. "I will go this evening with you when you do up the cattle, and if I think there is any excuse for you in this I will say nothing about it, but otherwise you will find that your lot will take some turn for the worse."

Olaf took his gold-set spear, the king's gift, in his hand, and left home, and with him the house-carle. There was some snow on the ground. They came to the fold, which was open, and Olaf bade the house-carle go in. "I will drive up the cattle and you tie them up as they come in."

The house-carle went to the fold-door. And all unawares Olaf finds him leaping into his open arms. Olaf asked why he went on so terrified?

He replied, "Hrapp stands in the doorway of the fold, and felt after me, but I have had my fill of wrestling with him."

Olaf went to the fold-door and struck at him with his spear. Hrapp took the socket of the spear in both hands and wrenched it aside, so that forthwith the spear shaft broke. Olaf was about to run at Hrapp but he disappeared there where he stood, and there they parted, Olaf having the shaft and Hrapp the spearhead. After that Olaf and the house-carle tied up the cattle and went home. Olaf saw the house-carle was not to blame for his grumbling. The next morning Olaf went to where Hrapp was buried and had him dug up. Hrapp was found undecayed, and there Olaf also found his spearhead. After that he had a pyre made and had Hrapp burnt on it, and his ashes were flung out to sea. After that no one had any more trouble with Hrapp's ghost.'

Although Iceland was once under Danish rule (and many people in Iceland still speak and read Danish), I think it is a bit misleading to talk of Hrapp as a Dane.

Witchcraft, werewolves and masculinity

'Men and masculinities are still incorporated inadequately into the history of early modern witch-trials, despite the fact that 20-25% of all the people accused of witchcraft across early modern Europe were male. This book redresses this imbalance by making men the main focus of analysis. What sort of men risked being accused of witchcraft in early modern Europe, and why did some regions persecute more men as witches than others? Did the numbers of male victims increase during large-scale witch-panics? What ideas about masculinity underpinned the zeal of the men who acted as witch-hunters? To what extent were beliefs about the practice of magic gendered, and how did gender shape the ways in which werewolves were imagined and demonic possession was experienced? In this groundbreaking collection of essays, leading historians of early modern European witchcraft offer answers to these questions through original case-studies from England, Germany, Scotland, Italy and France.'

This is the description of a new anthology, Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe edited by Alison Rowland and published on November 20.

Sunday 15 November 2009

A vampire in Serbia in 2009

A vampire recently haunted a Serbian village, if we are to believe Serbian newspapers and national TV. I have a reader of this blog, Predrag Djordevic, to thank for kindly informing me.

According to a news story from September 17 in PressOnline, a vampire has terrified the inhabitants of a village called Gornje Stopanje located by the river Jablanica near Leskovac in Southern Serbia!

Show large map

The vampire apparently haunted one of the village streets (seen in the photo below), causing the people to stay indoors from dusk till dawn. There was unexplained knocking at the gates, windors and doors, scratching on walls, and breaking of glass. The animals were disturbed, and dogs kept barking all night.

A woman called Ljiljana Stefanovic saw the vampire or spirit and describes it as a shadow in the form of a man. Some young men were brave enough to try to take photos of the spirit and claim to have photos that show the shadow like spirit or vampire.

The villagers asked two priests to help them against the vampire, and their prayers seem to have made the vampire calm down. The villagers also carry grass in their belts to keep the evil away.

Senior villagers are not surprised of the incident, because they are familiar with stories of vampires and spirits.

A professor called Sreten Petrovic says that there are still many people in Serbia who believe in vampires, particularly in Eastern Serbia. He refers to a legal case in Nis in which people were accused of being vampires.

Unfortunately, as I do not read the language, this is as best as I am able to understand the story. There are quite a number of web sites referring to this news story, most of them more or less identical. Below is a video about the vampire, but I am unable to tell you what they say (click on the screen icon to view it fullscreen). If anyone can enlighten me on the details of the story, I will post more information here.

P.S. Serbian Wikipedia page on Gornje Stopanje.

Sunday 8 November 2009

Comic book Calmet

According to the seller of this ebay item, this Mexican comic book (Aventuras de la vida real no 203) is based on Dom Calmet! For that reason one might assume that the hooded person on the cover should be Calmet himself. He is clearly surrounded by images that he may not have found particularly relevant to the subject of vampires, but then he himself looks much more sinister than in contemporary portraits like the one on the cover of Une itinéraire intellectuel.
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