Notes for the Curious (Part 2)

A more appropriately Carrian title, no? 🙂

Johndicksoncarr

First things first: I’ve been investigating whether or not Lady Pamela Hoyt was a real person and have found that, to the knowledge of every historian I know (not many), a history-connected forum, and the Google corporation, no such figure actually existed.

Why, then, did Carr invent her?

Certainly, her story sets the stage for Carr’s ending (which I shall not spoil here), but it is entirely possible that JDC could have chosen a real historical figure for the same purpose.  I must say that I’m genuinely stumped on this one; if anyone has any suggestions, I’m more than open to hearing them.

He Who Whispers, then (brief spoilers):

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Carr did genuine work in investigating the various unusual and sundry details of the vampire legend, which, we know from Douglas Greene’s biography, he learned largely from the works of the Rev. Montague Summers, an eccentric figure (a less forgiving writer may deem him a lunatic, plain and simple) who might or might not have actually been an ordained Catholic priest. (We do know that he was an ordained Anglican deacon, which gives him the right to the “reverend” title, but his claim to the Catholic priesthood is is uncertain, to say the least.)

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The good padre himself

Summers wrote two books on vampirism–The Vampire: His Kith and Kin (1928) and The Vampire in Europe (1929)–and he recounts numerous tales with similarity to Carr’s, including the Croglin Grange account.

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Carr’s lengthy quotation from a book on the subject–pg. 86 in my edition–is fictional, as was Grimaud’s book on witchcraft in The Burning Court, but it is quite similar to several passages from Summers:

…there is, especially in Slavonic tradition, a very great distinction, for the Slavonic vampire is precisely defined and it is the incorrupt and re-animated dead body which returns from its grave…

It is difficult to say, however, whence Carr derives this notion:

In Western Europe, notably in France, the vampire is a demon living outwardly a normal life in the community, but capable during sleep or trance of projecting its soul in the form of straw or spinning mist to take visible bodily shape.

It too reads like Summers, but Summers goes out of his way to emphasize how little France has contributed to the vampire myth (well–Summers wouldn’t have called it a “myth,” but then he was a little off):

As in England and in Ireland, in France the records of Vampirism are few; one might say not untruthfully designedly few. 

My first thought, then, was that Carr wrote that passage and changed the legend to fit his plot, but “straw or spinning mist” seems oddly specific. After doing some more research, I came to the conclusion that Carr has [probably purposely] conflated several legends here.

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There is an old French legend, with similarities to the vampire tale, about a water-spirit, Melusine (or Melusina), a beautiful woman who was cursed to take the form of a dragon or sea-serpent from the waist down (shadows of Medusa). (On a less grandiose note: the Melusine is actually a major inspiration [along with the Siren] for the two-tailed mermaid in the Starbucks logo. Yup. See what you learn when doing this kind of research?) Wherefore the vampire, then?

In western France, Luxembourg, and Germany, Melusine is considered a succubus, a female demon descended from Lilith–who, while not appearing in the Torah, is Adam’s first wife in the Talmud–who seduces men and often drinks their blood.

In Romanian mythology, there is another spirit that Summers does analyze, a vampire called the varacolaci.  This creature is less the reanimated corpse well-known nowadays than a being that projects its spirit from beyond the grave by a process called “night-spinning.”

Interesting points connecting the varacolaci and Melusine: both are recorded as taking on the form of a dragon, and both are believed to derive from the succubus. Both the varacolaci and the succubus, by the way, are known for this:

In addition, the night-stalkers could take the form of inanimate objects such as straw, beams of light, or wisps of smoke.

There, methinks, is our smoking gun. (Pun intended.)

But why would Carr have gotten the idea to conflate these two legends? I think there’s a source for that, too: Alexandre Dumas’s “The Pale Lady” (1849), which, though not set in France, similarly brings together these stories. Dumas, as we know, was one of Carr’s favorite writers; by what is probably more than happenstance, he also wrote one of the first significant stories about our old friend Mme. de Brinvilliers.

 

Carr is not conflating but rather recording legends, however, with this following line:

The physical characteristics, the red hair and the slender figure and the blue eyes, are always in folklore associated with the vampire…

Yes, indeed: no matter which country in Europe you investigate, every national folklore associates red hair and blue eyes with vampirism. (The “slender figure” came later–early legends in Romania, Hungary, and Greece have the vampire as bloated with blood–but one can find it, especially in western Europe.) Red hair was, in the classical tradition, associated naturally with blood, one of the four humors, and believed to cause “…fieriness and a desire for sexual dominance” (Rhodes 95). The implications of both points seem clear; and, interestingly, Lilith, a postlapsarian Eve, and Judas Iscariot are all commonly depicted with fiery red hair (96).

According to folklorist Chloe Rhodes in her book Black Cats and Evil Eyes, to which I am indebted,

Distrust of redheads was exacerbated by their rarity. Only four per cent of the world’s population have red hair and in many parts of the world it’s barely even seen. (96)

The various sources I’ve consulted are less clear on the subject of why blue eyes were also a sign of vampirism, however. Perhaps their mythological status derives from their relative rarity as well? I should also note that, in mythology, blue- and green-eyed children are often considered more likely to possess the evil eye, from which Prof. Georges Rigaud defends himself when he sees Fay Seton for the first time at Miles Hammond’s house.

(A brief sidenote: Carr has chosen his character names well. Fay’s Christian name refers to the word fay, meaning fairy–a connection which has significance both to her character and to the vampire legend as a whole.)

 

It is difficult to discuss the next part without spoilers, but I shall try. Still, those who haven’t read He Who Whispers may wish to read it and then return here.

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Count Alessando di Cagliostro was the cognomen of one of the more unusual characters in history, Giuseppe Balsamo (1743-1795), a magician, adventurer, and con artist (Carlyle called him “the prince of the quacks”) who was involved in the lead-up to the French Revolution. Indeed, Cagliostro convinced various crowned heads of Europe of his psychic powers until he was exiled from France because of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace and, because of it, sentenced first to the Bastille in ’85 and later, because of his Freemasonry, to Italy’s Sant’Angelo and San Leone prisons in ’89.

Speaking of his Freemasonry, it is this point which is so vital to Carr’s book. I shall try to be as circumspect as possible because of the spoiler question, but Carr was completely accurate as regards the Banquet of the Dead, which Cagliostro hosted in his “mysterious house in the rue St. Claude,” and London’s claim on Signor Balsamo. He was initiated into the Esperance Lodge of Masons in 1777 at the King’s Head pub in Gerrard Street, London [as Carr records], from which he [Cagliostro] brought the Egyptian Rite to France and there founded his own secret society, which also borrowed elements from Swedenborgianism and Rosicrucianism. Readers of He Who Whispers will want to know if a certain fact is true, and they will be happy to know that it is. Said readers will probably know what I’m talking about. 🙂 (Sources at the links.)

Interestingly enough, can you guess who referenced Cagliostro in several novels? That’s right, Dumas again!

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Now, the question of Dumas’ influence on Carr is an excellent one, and I’d say the influence is indeed significant, if infrequently noted.

OK, then: is there anything else?

There is indeed a river Eure in northwest France, and it seems aptly eerie for the setting of the ruined tower in Carr’s story.

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I spent so much time on the vampire legend–mea culpa, but, like Prof. Grimaud in The Three Coffins, the topic interests me–that I think I’ll save The Crooked Hinge for another time, because there’s a lot of material there.

Hope you’re enjoying these “investigations” at least somewhat–I like all of these topics, so I enjoy finding out the details behind them. I hope to have The Crooked Hinge covered soon, though Lord knows when “soon” is, now that I’m reluctant to set myself to a hard and fast date again… 🙂

Karl

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