Wednesday, October 24, 2012

These Stories Bring Paintings to Life in the Most Horrifying Way Possible

Last week at a used bookstore a title caught my eye. Actually it was just a word: "hauntings," and I thought, Perfect! Because I don't expect my obsession with scary stories to end any time soon. Well, not until Halloween is over, at least. So I bought the book: Hauntings and Other Fantastic Tales, by Vernon Lee.

I hadn't read anything by Vernon Lee before this book. Maybe it's because her work, which was published in the 1870s-1890s, fell out of favor in the 1900s. The editors of Hauntings and Other Fantastic Tales have this great line in the introduction where they say that the recent rediscovery of Vernon Lee's work has made her come back from the grave "like the revenants that people her work." Creepiest description of literary scholarship ever!

(Portrait of Vernon Lee by John Singer Sargent, 1881. I prefer not to imagine her as a zombie, but I think she would probably have liked the idea.)

"Vernon Lee" is actually the pen name of Violet Paget. Or it began as a pen name -- she ended up being called "Vernon" by her friends. She lived in Italy and wrote about art history and the philosophy of art. She was fascinated by old paintings, early music (she played the harpsichord), and the past in general. All of her scary stories are about the past -- about the frightening way that the past can haunt the present.

If you want to read the stories of Vernon Lee, you should get her short-story collection Hauntings, which is available as a free ebook.

(You can get this first edition of Hauntings, from 1890, for $600. Almost all of the copies of this edition were destroyed in a warehouse fire. Was it caused by evil ghosts of the past? I'm going to say yes.)

Hauntings has so many of my favorite things in it:

1. Long sentences. Super long, lyrical sentences, like this one from "Dionea:"

"Your boys can go and see the big ironclad at Spezia, and you shall come with me up our lanes fringed with delicate ferns and overhung by big olives, and into the fields where the cherry-trees shed their blossoms on to the budding vines, the fig-trees stretching out their little green gloves, where the goats nibble perched on their hind legs, and the cows low in the huts of reeds, and there rise from the ravines, with the gurgle of the brooks, from the cliffs with the boom of the surf, the voices of unseen boys and girls, singing about love and flowers and death, just as in the days of Theocritus, whom your learned excellency does well to read."

2. Gorgeous scenery. Mostly the kind that makes you want to go to Italy, right now. There are landscapes like the one above, but there are also lovely little villages, the canals of Venice in the moonlight, and magnificent old houses furnished with priceless antiques. Of course all of these places are haunted by evil spirits. But you will still want to go see them.

(John Singer Sargent, The Grand Canal, Venice, 1907.)

3. Creepy portraits that bring their dead subjects back to life. Almost every story in Hauntings is based on a real painting:

("Amour Dure" uses Bronzino's Portrait of Lucrezia di Panciatichi as inspiration for an evil ghost who returns to torment an art historian.)

 ("Oke of Okehurst" uses Whistler's portrait of Lady Archibald Campbell dressed as Orlando as inspiration for an evil ghost who returns to torment a painter.)

("A Wicked Voice" uses Corrado Giaquinto's portrait of Farinelli as inspiration -- guess for what? Hint: it's not a friendly ghost.)

4. Classical allusions. Vernon Lee doesn't just put in allusions; she conjures up the feeling of the classical past. She can make you feel the awe and fear that the classical gods inspired, and it's so real that it gives you goosebumps. This happens in my favorite story, "Dionea." It's told through the letters of a kindly old scholar who is living in Italy and writing an endless book about the Greek and Roman gods. He's writing about how remnants of pagan belief survive in modern folklore. What he doesn't realize is that it's not just belief that has survived: an ancient goddess has returned in human form and is living in his village.

(Spoiler: it's Aphrodite.)

It turns out that you might not want to have the goddess of love as your neighbor. She starts out as an unruly child, then chaos begins to happen all around her, and finally there are tragic results.

(Definitely do not anger this goddess. Or please her. Or come anywhere near her; it never turns out well.)

In fact, all Vernon Lee stories end with tragic results. Don't expect a happy ending in this book! But the ending of "Dionea" is so good; it might be the entire reason why this story is my favorite. It's so good that I'm going to break my usual rule and quote it here. Stop reading now if you don't want to hear the end of the story:

(Image of Aphrodite riding a goose from here.)

"Of Dionea I can tell you nothing certain. We speak of her as little as we can. Some say they have seen her, on stormy nights, wandering among the cliffs: but a sailor-boy assures me, by all the holy things, that ... he met at dawn, off the island of Palmaria, beyond the Strait of PortoVenere, a Greek boat, with eyes painted on the prow, going full sail to sea, the men singing as she went. And against the mast, a robe of purple and gold about her, and a myrtle-wreath on her head, leaned Dionea, singing words in an unknown tongue, the white pigeons circling around her."


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