So, too, is a third, less familiar novel of 1897: Florence Marryat’s troubling “The Blood of the Vampire.” It opens at a Belgian seaside resort called Heyst when a new guest unexpectedly appears in the dining room:
“She was a remarkable looking girl — more remarkable, perhaps, than beautiful, for her beauty did not strike one at first sight. Her figure was tall but slight and lissom. It looked almost boneless as she swayed easily from side to side of her chair. Her skin was colourless but clear. Her eyes [were] long-shaped, dark, and narrow with heavy lids and thick black lashes . . . and her nose was straight and small. Not so her mouth however, which was large, with lips of a deep blood colour, displaying small white teeth.”
Ignoring those around her, the stranger focuses entirely on the hotel’s lunch. Miss Leyton — another guest — “thought she had never seen any young person devour her food with so much avidity and enjoyment. . . . It was not so much that she ate rapidly and with evident appetite, but that she kept her eyes fixed upon her food, as if she feared someone might deprive her of it. As soon as the plate was empty, she called sharply to the waiter in French and ordered him to get her some more.”
We soon learn that this enigmatic young woman is the orphaned Harriet Brandt, age 21 and newly arrived from an Ursuline convent in Jamaica. Having inherited a small fortune, the long-cloistered heiress hungers for friendship and love. She had been traveling with a Mademoiselle Brimont, but during the voyage to Europe this cabin mate grew seriously ill and almost died, despite Harriet’s tireless attention, night after night.
By the end of the first chapter, Marryat has introduced, or mentioned by name, all the other important characters in her story. Among the women are the kindly Margaret Pullen and her little baby Ethel; Margaret’s future sister-in-law, the aforementioned Elinor Leyton, who is prim and moralistic; and the blowsy and elephantine, but mysteriously well-connected Baroness Gobelli, who talks like a Cockney fishwife and mercilessly browbeats her frail 19-year-old son, Bobby. In due course, we also meet Elinor’s conceited, skirt-chasing fiance, Captain Ralph Pullen, a Dr. Phillips — who knew Harriet’s long-dead parents in Jamaica — and the novelist Anthony Pennell, who nobly champions the downtrodden. All these people will find their lives dramatically changed — or shortened — because of Harriet Brandt.
Outlining the principles of the ghost story, of which he was a master, M.R. James once said: “Let us . . . be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage. It is not amiss sometimes to leave a loophole for a natural explanation; but, I would say, let the loophole be so narrow as not to be quite practicable.”
James’s narrow “loophole” is essential to the dramatic tension in Marryat’s novel. The reader initially concludes that Harriet Brandt is a psychic vampire, draining all the vitality from those she loves, until they eventually sicken and die. According to Phillips, she has been cursed from birth. Her father had been a madman who practiced vivisection on human beings; the cruel scientist’s mistress — and Harriet’s mother — was a partly black Creole, who had inherited a taste for blood from the bite of a vampire bat. It is impossible, argues Phillips, for anyone to escape such a vicious, degenerate heritage. In Harriet’s veins runs “the blood of the vampire.”
Or does it? Marryat leaves open the possibility that various deaths might be attributed to natural causes, such as tropical disease or suicide. Could Harriet be innately quite innocent, nothing more than the victim of social and racial prejudice? Unlike Arthur Machen’s contemporary femme fatale Helen Vaughan (in “The Great God Pan”), Harriet certainly isn’t a conscious destroyer of people’s lives. That said, no man can resist her dark, magnetic eyes while her impulsive, passionate nature sometimes seems tigerish. Still, only once does she demonstrate an inexcusable heartlessness.
Throughout the novel, Marryat raises questions we still grapple with — about race, nature vs. nurture and women’s place in society — but she never forgets to be scary. “The Blood of the Vampire” remains viscerally suspenseful, despite some piety and pathos toward the end. It also echoes themes from a classic tale by Marryat’s father, the nautical adventure writer Capt. Frederick Marryat. In “The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains” a female shape-changer seduces and marries a widowed hunter, then devours two of his three children before she is killed. In the younger Marryat’s book, Harriet kisses little babies so much that one observer says, “I think she would like to eat them.”
The best modern edition of “The Blood of the Vampire” is that from Valancourt Books, with an excellent scholarly introduction by Brenda Hammack. Marryat herself was quite remarkable: Besides writing scores of popular novels, she also worked as an actress, edited a successful literary magazine, ran a school for would-be journalists, divorced two husbands while bearing eight children, eventually took up with a much younger man and actively promoted spiritualism. This last plays a small part in the haunting, death-strewn history of Miss Harriet Brandt.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
Valancourt. 227 pp. Paperback, $16.99