The much-ballyhooed monster BFI season in celebration of the Gothic is now underway all around the country and will roll on through the dark and misty autumn now before us. Your correspondent recommends BFI Gothic to you keenly, not least because he has written a chapter for the season’s scholarly and beautifully illustrated tie-in catalogue. But there is another reason… one that has lain within the vaults of Finds for some years now.
Our library here contains many panelled sub-chambers, nooks and corner cabinets. And within one moody recess you will find our offerings in the genre of the supernatural – ‘tales of mystery and imagination’, to borrow a phrase from a master. One title we cherish especially is our edition of J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s story collection In a Glass Darkly (which revives a 1929 printing with illustrations by Edward Ardizzone, one of the best and most distinctive illustrators of the twentieth century.)
In A Glass Darkly is famous above all for the tale called ‘Carmilla’ (1872) – a delicate, rather touching, sensuous and deeply sinister fairytale about a young girl who makes a lovely but disconcerting female friend of her own age, one who takes to visiting her by night. J. Sheridan Le Fanu was just one leading figure in the distinctive Irish contribution to the Gothic. Another, of course, was Bram Stoker, who unquestionably borrowed a trick or two from ‘Carmilla’ for his later Dracula (1897).
The most adored of ‘Carmilla’’s several movie adaptations is The Vampire Lovers, a 1970 offering from the UK’s mighty Hammer Films, and a deathless testament to the screen presence of its leading lady, the late Ingrid Pitt (1937-2010), whose life story was more extraordinary than any supernatural yarn. (Born Ingoushka Petrov in Warsaw, 1937, she was a childhood survivor of Stutthof concentration camp and an alumnus of the Berliner Ensemble before she and Hammer made their bloodily marvellous marriage of talents.)The Vampire Lovers was considered highly racy at the time of its release, and it remains a souvenir of Pitt’s lustrous good looks. It is reasonably faithful to Le Fanu, too, in serving up the story of a beautiful stranger who insinuates herself into a respectable Styrian household so as to prey upon the young mistress. Pitt is a persuasive incarnation of the creature described by Le Fanu’s narrator Laura (‘Her movements were languid — very languid… her eyes large, dark, and lustrous; her hair was quite wonderful, I never saw hair so magnificently thick and long…’)
Relations between the two young females soon turn physical, very darkly so; but if you think Hammer made matters a little over-steamy then consider how unrestrained Le Fanu was for his time in limning the Sapphic tendency. Here is Laura speaking of her
‘strange and beautiful companion… gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover… she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, “You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever”…’
Yes, it’s probably that kind of thing that has led my fellow catalogue contributor Charlie Higson to describe the Gothic style as “straight-laced, buttoned-up, boring kitchen-sink Britain letting its hair down.” Except that the London readership enjoyed in his day by the Dubliner Le Fanu reminds us that the Victorians were drunk with passion for all this stuff too…