Authors: Michael Knox Beran
“He hath a demon,” the essayist William Hazlitt said of George Gordon Byron, sixth Baron Byron. Inferior, as a poet, to Coleridge and Wordsworth, and the author of reams of verse that largely bore the modern reader, Lord Byron was yet more scrupulous than his poetical coevals in his investigations of human nastiness. He resembled nothing so much as one of the holy fanatics of Russia who believed that if they were to know the truth of evil, they must descend in their own persons to the lowest pits of depravity. Byron could scarcely bear to be outstripped in the competition for malignant experience. The French writer Chateaubriand had been beguiled by a dream of incest; Byron must out-scandal him by making love to his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. The eighteenth-century
Sir Francis Dashwood had instituted a mock religious order, the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe, consecrated to voluptuous debauchery; Byron must surpass him by establishing, at Newstead Abbey, his own Order of the Skull, and by drinking claret from a defunct human cranium. Casanova had, in a long career of incessant ribaldry, shown himself a notable son of Priapus; Byron, at Venice, must try to out-wench him, with what success we cannot be sure.
As the man, so the verse. It is morbid. “The flowers that adorn his poetry,” Hazlitt writes, “bloom over charnel-houses and the grave.” And yet there was a deeper stratum of horror that Byron could not penetrate, assiduously though he tried. In June 1816, having exiled himself from a too-respectably bourgeois England, he was living in the Villa Diodati at Lake Geneva. His friend, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, had taken a house nearby and, during a long spell of rain, Shelley and his traveling companionsâMary Godwin, the young lady who was soon to become his wife, and her stepsister Claire, Byron's girlfriend at the timeâspent much time in the Villa Diodati. Byron's physician, John William Polidori (a lugubrious young man whom Stendhal mistook for the poet's pimp) recalled how one evening about midnight the group “really began to talk ghostly.” A volume of German horror stories
lay to hand, and the wine and laudanum (opium) flowed freely. At one point, Byron recited part of Coleridge's poem
. The innocent Christabel, having undressed and gotten into bed, is reclining on her elbow as her new-found friend Lady Geraldine (who is in fact a
, or anthropophagic demon) begins to disrobe:
Then drawing in her breath aloud,
Like one that shuddered, she unbound
The cincture from beneath her breast:
Her silken robe, and inner vest,
Dropt to her feet, and in full view,
Behold! her bosom and half her sideâ
Hideous, deformed, and pale of hueâ
O shield her! shield sweet Christabel!
The silence that followed was broken when Shelley, “suddenly shrieking and putting his hands to his head, ran out of the room with a candle.” He afterwards said that as he listened to Coleridge's lines, he “thought of a woman he had heard of who had eyes instead of nipples.”
The participants in the synod in the Villa Diodati agreed that each would write a ghost story. Byron began to compose a vampire tale, but he soon tired of it. Polidori turned the fragment into a novella,
, in which his cloven-footed patron (Byron had a clubfoot) figures as the bloodsucking villain. TouchÃ©! But in other respects
was a weak book, and Byron himself was soon absorbed in the composition of another work, his dramatic poem
. But like the other Byronic heroesâlike Count Lara, the Corsair, and the GiaourâManfred is merely a facsimile of Byron himself: he can disturb no one's sleep. His pose is worse than his bite; he is yet another villain on the model of Mrs. Radcliffe's Montoni, the more tedious, as he mopes about the alpine peaks, on account of his
penchant for extended soliloquies in which he ponders his own mysterious agony and laments the untimely death of his sister, Astarte. (“I loved her, and destroy'd her.”)
Of all the books produced under the inspiration of the symposium in the Villa Diodati, only Mary Godwin's
represented a real advance in the quest for a subtler horror, a truer Gothic. This was because she grounded her castle more firmly in reality than the other Gothic writers did theirs. She converted her demonic hero into a modern laboratory scientist, and she portrayed his diabolic progenyâthe monster himselfâas a rebel against an oppressive social order, ready to stand at the next by-election in the Radical interest. Yet it was not Mary but her seducer, Shelley himself, who in 1816 bid fair to be the new master of the macabre. A butterfly spirit, the poet had abandoned his first wife, Harriet, to run away, in 1814, with Mary, who was then a girl of sixteen. He was from an early age preoccupied with witches, sprites, and demons, and he grew up “a kind of ghastly object, colourless, pallid, without health, or warmth, or vigour; the sound of him shrieky, frosty, as if a ghost were trying to sing. . . .” As he matured, Shelley became conscious of realms of experience that seemed to him to lie beyond the limits of ordinary sense-perception, and he was bedeviled by mental phantoms that haunted him like “vampire bats before the glare of the tropic sun”ânightmarish visions of friends lacerated, a wife strangled, a dead child reanimated.
But Shelley never found a literary form that adequately conveyed the peculiar terror he felt merely in being alive. The “foul fiends,” “pale snakes,” and “semivital worms” of his poems are growths of the Gothic hothouse; they haunt a world too different from the one we know to make us afraid in the way he was afraid. His horror-poetry is in its own way as unreal as the horror-prose
of Mrs. Radcliffe and William Beckford; in it we find the same old Gothic castle, only now perceived hallucinogenically.
Shelley drowned in 1822 when his sailboat sank in the Gulf of Spezia; Byron died two years later at Missolonghi, where he had gone to help the Greek patriots in their struggle against the Turks. The breakthrough that eluded the Romantic poets would instead be made by their cousins, the Romantic prose-mastersâby writers who, like the two Toms, Thomas De Quincey and Thomas Carlyle, found the essence of horror not in the castle, that fabulous and remote place, but in the real if commonplace streets of the modern city. They saw that the daily life of the metropolis, if studied closely and sympathetically, yielded scenes as strange, as pregnant with mysterious terror, as the myths and romances on which the Romantic poets fed. Nowhere did the prose-masters come closer to distilling the essence of this living Gothicism than in their studies of the modern blood-sacrifice, that crime with the “primal eldest curse” upon it, the living hell of the modern metropolitan murder.
By the time the book was completed, Mary had wed Shelley: the volume was published anonymously in London in 1818.
Shelley's hallucinogenic vision may have been heightened by an encounter with the tenth muse, Syphilis. Shelley was convinced that he had contracted the disease when he was a student at Oxford, and he told Leigh Hunt that the memory of this tainted lust inspired the lines in
in which he describes an enchantress “whose voice was venomed melody,” whose touch was “electric poison.”
This lane is a dâd nasty dark place; as dark as the grave.
The Body in the Brook
Horrible thoughts of death, and shrouds with blood upon them, and a fear that has made me burn as if I was on fire, have been upon me all day.
n an autumn day in 1823, a coach set out from the town of Watford, in Hertfordshire, and drove toward the nearby village of Elstree, some ten miles north of London. “That is the place,” a voice said. The coach came to a halt near a brook called Hill Slough; as the occupants alighted, it was evident from the expression on their faces that they were looking for something. With rake, fish-fork, drag, and Indian ladder, they searched the waters of Hill Slough. At last, in the deepest part of it, they found something and drew it up with a grapple. It was a large sackâjust under six bushels. The lower extremities of a human corpse protruded from it: its feet were crossed at the ankles and tied with a cord.
The sack was brought ashore; the body, when taken out, looked as though it had lain in the water for some time. With the exception of a red shawl, which had been tied around the neck and filled with stones, the body was naked; and there were marks of violence about the head and face. The right cheek had been pierced clean through; the throat had been cut; and the skull had been broken open to reveal the brains, in which fragments of skull-bone had become stuck.
The story behind the corpse in the brook at Hill Slough is a story of murder. For “cold-blooded villainy,”
opined shortly after the body was found, the crime was one that had “seldom been equalled.” There was a “ferocity” in it that had “awakened the drowsy sensations of the world into feelings of horror.” As usual in such cases, the public was at once appalled and secretly delighted by an episode that promised to interrupt what
called “the dull uniformity of civil life.” A hundred newspapers followed the story closely; innumerable books, chapbooks, pamphlets, and broadsides were printed and sold; plays dramatizing the crime were put on in London theaters; and penny peep shows re-enacting it were performed at market fairs.
itself, a little defensive, perhaps, on account of its own extensive coverage of the case, said that it would “offer no apology for presenting” its readers with the most minute particulars connected with the “dreadful event.”
For much of the nineteenth century, the murder of the man fished out of Hill Slough was a byword for depravity, its status as a
secured by the lurid impressions it left upon the English mind. The naked body, stuffed into its coarse shroud and thrown into the water; the groans and strange cries that were heard in the nearby village of Radlett after sunset on the Friday before the body was recovered; the revelation that the killing was connected with secretive figures in the London underworldâsuch
were the circumstances of the crime that its horror could not easily be overlooked. Indeed, it was the fascination the case exercised over such figures as Lord Macaulay, William Cobbett, Robert Browning, Edward Bulwer Lytton, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Charles Dickens that accounts for the mark it made upon the literature of the age; in the words of murder scholar Albert Borowitz, it was the most “literary” of British murders.
At length, the case was submerged in the tidal flood of crime in which the nineteenth century culminated, and its notoriety forgotten. But after the lapse of two centuries, it may be instructiveâit may even, in a morbid way, be entertainingâto go back in time and see what all the fuss was about.
A Bad Bet
; a Newmarket
. . .
Gradus ad Cantabrigiam (1824)
he crape-and-bombazine business, a branch of the silk trade, is apt to seem dull to anyone who has tasted a higher sort of life. So, at any rate, it seemed to Jack Thurtell, who in January 1821 was a rising young crape-and-bombazine man in the English city of Norwich. The son of a prosperous burgher, Thurtell devoted laborious days to the production of twilled and twisted silk; but he dreamt of becoming something moreâhe dreamt of becoming a sporting man. He was passionately fond of boxing; and already, at the age of twenty-six, he was a familiar figure in the sporting circles of London. The previous summer he had got up a fight, in a meadow in Norfolk, between Painter and Oliver, the celebrated boxers. The feat favorably impressed even
the jaded connoisseurs of the capital, and in his hour of triumph Thurtell seemed to outshine the pugilists themselves. The author George Borrow, then a mere stripling, remembered how, as Thurtell drove through the twilight in a splendid barouche, his face illumined by a blood-red sky, he seemed the master of the scene, the “lord of the concourse.”