The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem feels, in some ways, like one of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which may explain why it was dubbed by Robert Southey as a “Dutch attempt at German sublimity” (Source). Coleridge went on to compose works that were anything but imaginative poetry — highly intellectual essays that spoke well to his critical abilities; therefore it’s perplexing that he’s so remembered for this exercise in fantastical story-telling. His collaborator, William Wordsworth, came to dislike the poem, a feeling inspired by lackluster reviews, and so it is that time is once again the true arbitrator as to what can stand as a lasting, beloved phenomenon of literature.

The story is about a ship’s captain, the Mariner, who comes to suffer consequences after he shoots a bird with his cross-bow. The moment when he commits this act is tinctured by the temporal aspect of the poem; that is, we’re introduced to the Mariner, in the present, as a “grey-beard loon” with a “glittering eye,” only to learn about him as someone, in the past, who was capable of being in charge of a ship at sea, with the kind of impulses that would lead him to kill a harmless animal. The technique of introducing these contrasting versions of the mariner at the outset is masterful for the way it coaxes us into wanting to know more about how the change took place.

What follows comes the answer to our questions: the change took place because the Mariner has endured suffering, to which we are then forced to ask, rhetorically, “Why did the Mariner have to endure suffering?” The obvious answer is because he killed a bird, the Albatross, and it’s in this manner that the fairy tale touch steps in to play its role, the moral lesson. Which is odd if you look at it from the perspective of all the English land owners at the time — who shot pheasants regularly. Exactly what moral imperative is Coleridge trying to establish? Is an albatross to be distinguished from a pheasant? The poem certainly induces a sort of societal cognitive dissonance, that uneasy distinction we’ve come to make between dog and pig, horse and cow. The story has not only drawn us in to be entertained, it’s forced us to think.

Moral quandaries aside, it’s that the poem is, in fact, a story is why it has endured in its own unique way. It was published as part of a collection entitled Lyrical Ballads, With a Few Other Poems (1798), and stands in sharp contrast to the poem that follows it on the table of contents, “Lines written above Tintern Abbey” by William Wordsworth. Tintern Abbey contributes to the breakthrough in poetry characteristic to the age, but it has no plot; it provides a vivid display of the poet’s experience — “A worshipper of Nature, hither came,” — but there’s nothing interesting really happening. The Ancient Mariner, alternatively, feeds on that craving for experiencing the unknown. Remember the Virgin Queen’s comment to Sir Walter Raleigh (from the movie), where she’s jealous of him, how she desires to explore the ocean? Coleridge with incisive skill has tapped into this seemingly ever-pervading desire to explore the realms of the unknown, the kind we find nowadays in our vibrant need to explore the universe.

Coleridge fuses a sense of story-telling adventure with a setting that satisfies our craving with supreme effect. The Mariner’s crew traverses the wide open sea before a storm blows them into the “mist and snow” — “And ice, mast-high, came floating by, / As green as emerald.” To be sure, common English folk knew full well the sights described in Wordsworth’s poem, but the thought of ice mast-high has to be one of awe and intrigue. Following the Mariner’s crime, the fusion of story-telling and descriptive setting becomes intensified by the element certain to raise eyebrows: the element of the supernatural. Personifications of Death appear, spirits materialize, humans become zombies, and in the water, “Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs / Upon the slimy sea.” It’s a brazen move for a poet to dive into this realm, but we’re very glad to this day that he did.

Commemorative statue of the Ancient Mariner at Watchet, Somerset

Of particular note, for my part, is a motif that is interesting for the way it appears twice, before and after the crime. Before, we are told that the ship drove fast, “As who pursued with yell and blow / Still treads the shadow of his foe.” Later in the poem the same sentiment is expressed as part of the Mariner’s submission to dread:

Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

I can understand the second iteration, since the crime has been committed, which makes it essential to the Mariner’s punishment; the earlier iteration, then, must be a kind of foreshadowing. The feeling itself can be likened unto the feeling of, say, walking late at night alone through the downtown area, worse even if you have enemies. It makes sense to incur this feeling of intimidation onto the Mariner after he’s committed the crime, because he deserves it. But to observe the sentiment before the crime, however, injects the poem with some kind of subtextual foreboding which concerns a more generalized thought of walking alone in fear, whether a person has enemies or not. Either way, it creates the sensation that someone or something malevolent is watching us; it speaks to some sense of anxiety on behalf of the English social atmosphere of the day.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is one of those literary masterpieces that can be situated in the canon as being slightly above works like The Monk (1796) by Matthew Gregory Lewis, or Vathek (1786) by William Beckford, because of the intellectual prowess that Coleridge developed throughout his life, serving to polish his reputation; because of his collaborative effort with William Wordsworth, serving to establish the foundations of a new outlook on poetry; and because the work is, indeed, a poetic effort and not prose, allowing for a sense of mystique that prose may not have provided. The oddity of the situation is that the poem’s meter, combined with the element of the supernatural, make it a target for a certain range of critics. Consider the opening pentameter lines from Tintern Abbey:

Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a sweet inland murmur. Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,

Compared to Coleridge’s tetrameter:

It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?

Naturally the tetrameter has more of a nursery rhyme feel; combine this notion with plot elements of spirits and zombies, and the field is wide open for criticism, a load of “cock and bull” as one contemporary critic so eloquently put it. But it’s Coleridge who has the last laugh because, as Drew Barrymore would say, he “let his freak flag fly,” without even really realizing it. Like his other famous poem, “Kubla Khan” (1816), Coleridge hadn’t intended for these fantastical poems to stand as his trademark, and yet they’re mostly what we remember about him. It’s because of the response of readers through the passing of time that has shown us how interested we are in things we can’t explain or truly define, like spirits and zombies; the genre of the paranormal in the modern age, for example, is a never-ending source of income for those who know how to tap into it. The poem additionally has that readerly intrigue that couples with the ever-infamous stormy night, for who doesn’t love a good ghost story on a stormy night? And to aid in the atmosphere of the Mariner’s tale, I’ve created this video specifically for the purpose at hand, and I hope that whoever may’ve read this far may at some point in time, enjoy:

Published July 10, 1854, engraved by Samuel Cousins (1801-1887) after a painting by Washington Allston, private collection. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Arabian Nights

The Arabian Nights is an explosion of the imagination, a cacophony of the impossible, a cornucopia of fairy tale delights. At once it has you appalled by savagery, and impressed by the human heart; it tickles the mind with magic and strokes the heart with emotions, all the while leading you through a world that is nothing short of dazzling, for the difference it is so much from our own. And yet the similarities are there, which explains why The Arabian Nights withstands the test of time. Because it shows us that no matter how much we sense the essence of difference as we turn through the pages, it’s the commonality of the human condition that remains forever transcendental.

Scheherazade by Sophie Anderson, circa 19th Century.

Scheherazade is the star of The Arabian Nights. She’s archetypal, a woman of courage and intelligence (she’s strong and she’s smart). She is courageous for her self-sacrifice, which means that her courage is imbued with second-sight: no matter the cost, she’s possessed of the urge to implement change, according to the injustice that she perceives. And she’s intelligent for the way she calculates her solutions — for the treatment of women — and equally so for the preservation of her own life. Her method of operation, the telling of stories, is as spell-binding as the tales which are told. I mean, who defeats the enemy by telling stories?

What we find within the stories is the reason why The Arabian Nights is so captivating: the feature of elevated implausibility. In the first story there is the merchant, which gives us our someone to identify with; and then there’s the genie that accosts him, who transforms reality into spectacle. His behavior adds to this spectacle. He threatens to execute the merchant because he’s killed his son, a situation made stranger for the way the son died: the merchant had been throwing stones while eating, and had accidentally hit the genie’s son in the eye, causing instant death. The merchant is horrified by the thought of being executed and pleads — that he may return in one year to receive his sentence.

The Merchant and the Genie, illustrator unknown.

We have to consider the intended audience when we realize how ludicrous this all sounds. Are we to believe that the ancients believed genies existed? Did people back then really keep their word like that? It’s a clue that ties into Scheherazade’s tactics: she’s trying to exact an outcome by activating the imagination. The story-writer of The Merchant and the Genie has a mission to accomplish as well, both of whom seek to occupy the faculties of the mind with the power of elevated implausibility. The goal for one is to save lives while the other is to lay a moral groundwork — but then, Scheherazade’s story is a work of fiction, which means the wool has been pulled there as well. It’s all geared to keep listeners focused on being distracted until goals have been achieved.

Does this mean The Arabian Nights is solely didactic? Not hardly, and that is why the first question that really comes to mind when considering a review remains: Where do we even begin? Each story that is told may boil down to a storyteller attempting to entertain, all the while providing a moral to consider. But rumor has it that the collection has its roots in ancient Persian, Indian, Chinese, Greek and Jewish lore, for starters. The stories of Sinbad, with mention of the many “islands,” leads me to consider input from Indochina and the Indonesian Islands among others. On the whole, we’re not learning about the lives and ways of any one particular group, only to close our study guides and move on to the next text. We’re talking about the cross-pollination of world culture over the span of hundreds if not thousands of years, over a vast area, effecting stories that seem to have materialized from everywhere out of thin air. It’s staggering to think of and tends to induce a sort of literary vertigo.

In 1981, British explorer Tim Severin led The Sohar, a ship constructed in the vein of Sinbad’s voyages, along a route that could potentially have been taken by Arab explorers over 2000 years ago.

The form is based on the morphing of the oral tradition into the written. Now, because we’re dealing with “ancient” material, it’s for a dissertation to define exactly “why” people began telling these stories, but it’s fair to say that keeping hold of the attention span had been of vital importance: hence the form of getting right to the point, going from one plot point to the next in a matter of sentences, not chapters. We’re so attuned to vivid passages of description that reading The Arabian Nights can seem rushed; it’s hard to remember that it’s meant to be heard, not read. And if this comes across as the “fairy tale” form, then the collection has a distinct trait unto its own, not only in the “frame narrative” (the story told is a about a woman who tells stories); but also in what I would call the “Russian Doll” narrative technique (nesting), wherein a story is told about someone who is telling a story, wherein another character has a story to tell, and so on and so forth. Maybe The Arabian Nights takes time for acclimating, but encountering the Russian Doll narrative technique for the first time is really something else.

Russian Dolls are renowned for being self-replicating down to the smallest size. When packaged, they are “nested” into each other for easy transport.

The thematic aspects speak to some of the more profound characteristics of humankind. This is because the stories come to us from an ancient world and yet, if there’s something we can relate to as modern people, then it becomes possible to understand how humankind has fared throughout the passage of time. For example, there’s a visible preoccupation with wealth. In the Gutenberg-Lang text, the word “gold” is mentioned 114 times. Sinbad’s second voyage has him finding a spot where the “ground was strewed with diamonds.” An orphan grows up to gain access to a “treasure so great that if my eighty camels were loaded till they could carry no more, the hiding place would seem as full as if it had never been touched.” And Ali Baba can be remembered for the “bags of gold which he carried in to his wife.” Stories that revolve around the accumulation of abundant wealth, as it comes to us from ancient times, are indicative of a collective consciousness that pits mankind as forever anxious about the prospect of poverty, forever mired in the need for money.

Kasim went to the cave of treasure, based on his brother Ali Baba’s story; he becomes trapped and his demise is not so pleasant. From Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

These dreams of wealth are offset in the slightest way — the word “alms” comes up 4 times. In The Merchant and the Genie, during the year before he’s scheduled to die, the merchant is sure to give “large alms to the poor.” On returning home after finding wealth, Sinbad’s “first action was to bestow large sums of money upon the poor.” Sinbad additionally feels obligated to give money to a wretched man who had complained about his wealth. In The Story of the Blind Baba-Abdalla, the Caliph tells the beggar: “I will see that enough money is given you day by day for all your wants.” In fact, the word “poor” is used 33 times which means, in comparison to the amount of gold mentioned, the thought of being poor is a much less-attractive topic for discussion; but it doesn’t detract from the notion that some collective conscience is at work which considers the plight of the less-fortunate.

Inevitably, this leads into the long-standing theme and phenomenon of class distinction. The Arabian Nights is about the story of a great king and from there, the word “king” is used 174 times. “Prince” comes in at 235 and “Princess” at 243. The awareness of class superiority is lucidly evident: people were orating about the nobility (notorious 1%) because it’s dreamy to think of being a king, or a prince, or a princess. Or maybe it’s envy, or being respectable, or obsessiveness — as our modern Brits are infatuated with the royal line. From the modern perspective, the phenomenon explained is frustratingly simple: life once it forms cannot progress without dividing into social strata, in which, some people will always have it better than others.

Aladdin and Princess Jasmine ride a magic carpet in Disney’s Aladdin (1992).

The problem with considering additional themes concerns the nature of the text itself. That is, I want to discuss Morgiana the slave-girl who, along with Scheherazade, function to defy the female stereotype that Schahriar establishes in order to justify his actions. But Morgiana’s story is from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, which is not included in the Gutenberg-Lang version, nor is the conclusion to Scheherazade’s story. The only way I knew about either of these was through research, but the question stands: Why am I thinking about them if they’re not part of the text? The problem opens up a can of worms as to constitution, provenance and interpretation. The best that can be done for a blog-post is that we know, with some degree of certainty, that The Arabian Nights exploded onto the world stage circa 1704-1717 by the efforts of a Frenchman named Antoine Galland (1646-1715). Grub Street produced the English version Jane Austen would’ve read, and the versions we have today start with Lane and Burton, on to the Lang version which I’ve read; from which nowadays any number of versions can be chosen from in most languages from around the world.

First European edition of Arabian Nights, “Les Mille et une Nuit” by Antoine Galland, Vol. 11, 1730 CE, Paris.

The Gutenberg-Lang text is one of the many online versions of The Arabian Nights.

The table of contents to the Gutenberg-Lang text shows that many of the stories are missing, along with no conclusion to Scheherazade’s story, which is somewhat understandable since it’s purported that at one point, there were 1,001 stories for 1,001 nights. That’s a lot of reading.

The timeline that extends from Galland-past and Galland-forward spells disaster for trying to define exactly what The Arabian Nights is and the specifics of the content that it delivers; which means it’s problematic for thematic interpretation. For example, the Youtube version of Scheherazade’s story does not include her sister, Dinarzade. This poses a difference to be discerned between work accomplished as an individual versus accomplishment as a team. Would women of the time have thought more in terms of individual agency versus the enlisting of a family member to attempt dangerous efforts? This is only the tip of the iceberg as to the messiness of the interpretive scheme. Additionally speaking, having read Burton’s Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves after reading the entirety of Lang’s version had me feeling queasy, because I enjoyed the one and singular Burton experience more than I did the entire Lang reading. The aesthetics of a text can play a large role in how we feel about the story points and characters of a story to which we’re exposed.

During Sinbad’s adventures, he encounters the egg of a mythical bird known as a Roc. He sees the bird itself and latches onto it for a ride.

Without delving too far into how destabilized the original version of The Arabian Nights have become, there seems a curious reliability in that which remains the most intriguing aspect of the collection, the spirit of elevated implausibility. Apart from genies the stories include talking fish, giant birds, magic spells, magic lamps, fairies, spirits, demons, ghouls, horrible giants, creeping snakes, flying carpets, enchanted horses, people-dogs, etc., etc. — the list could go on and on. This is the world of the imagination that comprises the storyteller’s toolbox, because everyone knows that stories of the mundane do not work. We don’t want to hear about how long it took to pull a donkey back and forth along a field so that some seeds could be planted, really. We want to hear about magic genies who threaten our lives and we want to know how people escaped danger. We want to dream that we were the ones who found bags of gold, and we want listeners to consider the value of sharing the wealth we find. For all the princes that find their princesses, we want to dream about living happily ever, and for the voyages that are taken, we want to know that life has meaning. And when we tell these tall tales to our children before they go to bed at night, we take great pleasure in how it feels to tuck their angelic forms in, ready for sleep, so that we can kiss them goodnight knowing that life really isn’t so bad. In this way, The Arabian Nights of new are The Arabian Nights of old, transmogrified from ancient times, because there’s something about the magic they contain that is purely unchangeable.

Summer of 1816: Villa Diodati on the Shores of Lake Geneva

“DURING A STRETCH OF COLD, dismal summer days brought about by an environmental catastrophe, two of the most influential Gothic horror stories were born within the walls of this villa.” —

Non-comprehensive timeline:

July 18, 1814 — Percy and Mary’s initial elopement, with Jane (Claire): first to Calais, then to Paris, and on to Switzerland. Back in England by September 13, 1814.

February 18, 1815 — Mary gives birth prematurely, baby dies in infancy.

April 10, 1815 — Eruption of Mount Tamboro in Indonesia; causes worldwide climate change such that the following year became known as the Year Without a Summer. This is to explain the excessive amount of darkened skies and rainfall at Villa Diodati, Summer 1816.

January 15, 1816 — Lord Byron experiences the official loss of his wife; Lady Byron and daughter Augusta Ada left London by carriage for Kirkby Mallory before Byron rose that morning.

January 24, 1816 — Mary Shelley gives birth to a healthy son, William.

Spring 1816 — Jane (Claire) deepens her status as Lord Byron’s mistress. Later, she persuades Percy and Mary, with Baby William, to travel to Switzerland to meet up with Byron at Lake Geneva.

May 25, 1816 — Lord Byron with John Polidori arrive in Geneva, Switzerland; Percy, Mary, Baby William, and Jane (Claire) are waiting for them. Byron and Polidori lease the Villa Diodati, a large porticoed house once occupied by John Milton; Percy will lease Maison Chapuis at Montalègre.

June 10, 1816 — There begins days of ongoing darkness and rainy weather, which led to immense boredom among the group.

June 16, 1816 — A book of ghost stories entitled Fantasmagoriana (1812) is presented as a means to quell the ennui. Lord Byron then suggested having a contest in which each of them would write a ghost story. Byron didn’t follow through entirely, producing what has come to be known as “A Fragment.” And yet this is the work which John Polidori built upon to produce The Vampyre (1819). Percy wrote “A Fragment of a Ghost Story” while Mary conceived and essentially drafted what was to become her master-stroke of unparalleled, literary art.

By the hearth at Villa Diodati. From the left: Mary Shelley (Elle Fanning), Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley), Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge), John Polidori (Ben Hardy), and Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth). As seen in the movie Mary Shelley (2017).

July 1816 — Percy and Mary travel through the valley of Chamonix, which contributed to the realism of setting in Frankenstein.

August 29, 1816 — Percy and Mary are returned to England where, over time and with input from Percy, Frankenstein is refined into its 1818 version.

December 30, 1816 — Percy and Mary are married.

January 1, 1818 — Publication of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus

April 1, 1819 — Publication of Polidori’s The Vampyre

October 31, 1831 — Publication of revised edition of Frankenstein

The publication of these two works will go on to become supreme icons of literature, phenomena unto themselves by which, their status as influence over the realm of storytelling approaches that of existing among the gods. The level by which the Villa Diodati and its surroundings contributed to the production of these works cannot be understated.

Polidori’s Vampyre

Lord Ruthven is John Polidori’s Vampyre. As a nobleman, he stands at the pinnacle of England’s Great Chain of Being, corresponding eerily with his status at the top of the food chain. Together these attributes make him an apex predator. He lurks among the fashionable elites of London high society, scanning the scene as an outsider looking in, not because of some neurotic insecurity, but because he simply doesn’t relate to people, because people are his prey. No one’s able to figure out what is so exotic about him and thus, paradoxically, he is wanted in every household for the nature of his “peculiarities.” That he exudes the essence of power and domination is undeniable; this is the source of his attraction, to those who are blind to what he really is — a very dangerous individual.

Supreme in his narcissism, the ability to manipulate is foremost in Lord Ruthven’s skill set. He combines his charismatic singularities with a “hatred of vice,” obscuring the view into his natural disposition. Believing him to be a man of wealth who is, in the same vein, a man of morals, women of rank seek to have him, and women with eligible daughters heed him in the hope that he will marry into the family. Likewise, when his sovereignty is threatened, he does not act on his emotions irrationally, lashing out with carelessness. Instead he showers his rivals with friendship and compassion, keeping his enemies close if you will, before going in for the kill, devouring them without mercy.

Lord Ruthven’s manipulative prowess is concerned with accessing, and protecting that access, to women, but there is more to what makes him dangerous. He’s sadistic. “[H]is eyes sparkled with more fire than that of the cat whilst dallying with the half-dead mouse.” This refers to his penchant for creating and increasing the suffering of those who participate in dissipation. When a drinker needs wine, he provides plentiful; when a gambler needs more money for gambling, he gives freely. Lord Ruthven takes it a step further by employing subtle tricks of the supernatural to influence the future: when a player at the table is winning, he will ensure many wins to come, increasing the likelihood of an addiction to form within said player. Lord Ruthven’s beneficiaries live to see their families starve, and on to face the most abject misery, and may even come to be “led to the scaffold.” It is all the kind of sadism that becomes glaring when, on encountering virtuous beggars merely fallen on hard times, he becomes indignant knowing that he cannot ruin them further because of their innate goodness.

We don’t grasp the full iniquity of Lord Ruthven as a vampire until we witness the actions of his bloodlust. Following the screams of a young woman and the “exultant mockery of a laugh,” we find that “upon her neck and breast was blood, and upon her throat were the marks of teeth having opened the vein.” It is the defining moment, the everlasting trope of the vampire: Lord Ruthven’s immortality is secured by partaking of the blood of an innocent, young female. The associative power which extends between the mocking laugh, the draining of another’s life-force for the sake of self, and the resulting loss of life, forever enjoins the larger phenomenon of vampirism with the essence of pure evil. John Polidori’s work is done.

Polidori’s story, The Vampyre, was published in the April 1819 issue of The New Monthly Magazine. Much to both his and Byron’s chagrin, it was released as a new work by Byron. The poet released his own “Fragment of a Novel” in an attempt to fix the misunderstanding, but The Vampyre continued to be attributed to him nevertheless.

The interpretive framework from here is multitudinous, the main one being Lord Ruthven as a stand in for the aristocracy. But there are gray areas to explore: as a hunter himself, the “female hunters after notoriety” seem to get what they deserve when they chase after him, at the level that they play. For those who insist on leading lives of dissipation, the negative effects of Lord Ruthven’s actions function as a form of karma. And for notions of good vs. evil, what are we to think when we learn how Lord Ruthven’s nemesis, a young man named Aubrey, “ridiculed the idea of a young man of English habits, marrying an uneducated Greek girl.” Lord Ruthven is most certainly despicable, but this person Aubrey is actually more of a snob.

Claes Bang stars as the vampire-as-nobleman in BBC’s Dracula (2020).

The subject of attraction is difficult to miss throughout. Scientific research has produced a term called “baby schema,” which concerns the care we as humans extend towards our offspring based on the level of how “cute” we believe them to be. Of course that’s only part of the equation, but it’s behavior that is based on visual cues; and we can find the same kind of visual cues provoking behavior in the realm of physical attraction. Lord Ruthven’s vampiric activity may be nefarious, but his sustenance is derived “by feeding upon the life of a lovely female.” There is knowledge to be gleaned in understanding that the female he chooses has to be “lovely.” From an evolutionary standpoint, the human species has propagated itself by becoming better looking: people distinguish between what is attractive from what isn’t, in terms of their sexual practices, and the next generation comes into being.

But it’s not the just the “lovely female” that defines the phenomenon. Consider the amount of times the term “tall, dark and handsome” has been tossed about, and the opposite side of the coin presents itself. Lord Ruthven is the quintessential lady’s man, adapted and represented across thousands upon thousands of romance novels, their lustrous manly book covers seething with raw, masculine sexuality, archetypical of Lord Ruthven himself. The grayness of the question becomes: What is it about the stereotypical, potentially dangerous, tall, dark and handsome male that functions to trigger the interest of a “lovely female”? Is this really the evolutionary medium at work, or is there something more to the picture?

John Polidori’s The Vampyre has served as the blueprint for the vampire as we know it ever since its publication. From here we get tales such as Varney the Vampire (1845), Carmilla (1872) [which is curiously out of place since it involves lesbianism], Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and so forth and so on until we find, in some of its latest incarnations, the vampire is still a tall, dark and handsome aristocratic leaning creature in the film, Fright Night (1985/2011), with Chris Sarandon and Colin Farrell respectively. Love them or hate them, it’s certainly peculiar, even oxymoronic, that vampires have become one of humankind’s most beloved creatures of literary and filmic lore.

Chris Sarandon and Colin Farrell play modern versions of Lord Ruthven in separate versions of the film Fright Night (1985/2011).


Other Characters:

Aubrey is an orphan from a wealthy family entering into manhood; he is “handsome, frank, and rich.” It’s a mistake when, new to London life, he decides to study the mysterious Lord Ruthven. He draws attention to himself and becomes a study unto himself. When Aubrey foils Ruthven’s plan to victimize an Italian countess and her daughter, he becomes an enemy. Aubrey’s ensuing situation formulates the viewpoint by which Lord Ruthven’s depravity is perceived.

Miss Aubrey is Aubrey’s 18-year-old sister. She’s Aubrey’s only family and dearly beloved by him. Though she is connected to the wealth of the family, she is nevertheless subject to the necessary rite of marriage during age. This is the means by which Lord Ruthven enacts his horrid scheme against Aubrey.

Ianthe, sweet and infantile, can do no wrong in the eyes of Aubrey. Her beauty and simplicity as a peasant girl endears him to her, though her stories about vampires cause him to see her as rather overly provincial. Her demise is tragic and it symbolizes the beginning of Aubrey’s descent into madness.

Lady Mercer was an adulteress fallen from grace, “who had been the mockery of every monster shewn in drawing-rooms since her marriage.” She’s one of those who sought Lord Ruthven for the sake of looking to be associated with the aristocratic classes, only to have her life ruined in the process.

The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage is a compact novel of character development that distinguishes itself with the visceral elements of sheer battle terror. Henry Fleming is a young man who is more than aware that a war is taking place, he’s compelled to make decisions with regard to his relationship with that war. This is a personal affair that doesn’t concern the larger issues at hand but rather, focuses on the effects that war can have on a person who is eligible for recruitment. Crane’s novel delivers on the introspection required to understand how someone in this situation might really feel, while naturally questioning the purpose of enduring the experience.

Now, if there were any novel in print that would demand analysis for its “form and content,” this is one that most certainly fits the bill. With its one and two sentence paragraphs, each of their terse and concise natures, always avoiding the drawl and forever getting to the point, reading through the chapters is exceptionally navigated — much like the act of being suctioned into a war might actually be. And because the overall narrative clocks in at around 50,000 words, every sentence, every word, becomes critical to a storytelling performance that is mired in a sense of being hurried along: Henry Fleming had taken note of the atmosphere of war around him, made the announcement to his mother that he’s joining rank, and was thrust into the life of a soldier — the elevated rate of the memory is supremely crafted, as it takes place during the regiment’s tense wait for its first battle. What we get is the realistic sensation of what it might be like to learn that a family member has decided to join the armed forces: time runs out; the person is at once, there with us, and is soon, gone, off in the military for reasons that seem to defy rational explanation.

Stokes County Arts Council presents the community theater production of The Red Badge of Courage (Summer of 2016).

By Crane’s masterful understanding of the art of literary storytelling, there’s a sort of fearful sublimity that trickles in and even comes to dominate the narration. That is, in a manner that comes off as innate, gifted, yet not overbearing, he colors his passages with imagery and metaphor so that the mind is frightfully energized by the relational power of the technique. Here are some lines taken at random to illustrate the point:

“The slaves toiling in the temple of this god began to feel rebellion at his harsh tasks.”

“He knew at once that the steel fibers had been washed from their hearts.”

“It was not well to drive men into final corners; at those moments they could all develop teeth and claws.”

“The song of the bullets was in the air and shells snarled among the treetops.”

This last one is my favorite for the way it transforms the turbulence of battle into a musical piece in which the instruments themselves assume the prospect of being animals that snarl — it’s metaphor within metaphor, simply phenomenal.

The action of this linguistic power goes beyond mere “showing” vs “telling.” In fact, what it tends to reveal is how the writerly act of “showing” is nothing more than the process of giving narrative stage directions, which can often become tedious in and of themselves, e.g. “she rolled over in the bed and slammed the alarm off,” or the “dog’s ears fell over the bowl as he ate.” Skilled used of the metaphor does more; it conveys meaning in the act of showing so that not only is the reader perceiving what is happening, but by the associative imagery, comes to “understand” the messages that are being conveyed at a deeper level, as they relate to the overall narrative arc.

Audie Murphy as Henry Fleming in the movie version of The Red Badge of Courage (1951).

The war’s causes themselves are not mentioned and so the thematic material is different from what it could’ve been; that is, issues of slavery and secession are not intended to play a role in the novel’s design. Instead, at surface level, the main theme is brought to us not only by the progression of Henry Fleming’s psychological development, but the narrative exposition itself even speaks about “manhood” during its final passages. Part of the trick up the author’s sleeve is that people knew in advance that the book was about the Civil War when it was published — and so it is, in this way — Henry’s transformation into manhood has been coupled with and sanctified by the notion that he was fighting for the good guys (on the side of the “blue demonstration”), all the while becoming a man. The result is a feel good moment, for the individual, for the moral portrait.

Consider by contrast that the causes of the war have nothing to do with Henry’s transformation, and the matter becomes more complicated. We learned at the beginning that Henry had become alert to his surroundings, because there was obviously something going on in and around the community. The scale of these activities “might not be distinctly Homeric, but there seemed to be much glory in them.” When the church bell rings, he becomes overwhelmed and decides to join in on the effort, but there doesn’t seem to be any critical thinking as to exactly why he should be fighting. Henry probably knew the politics of the war, but his feelings are drawn towards glory for glory’s sake. The moral portrait in this case is happenstance, rendering the morality itself moot: as he went through the journey of becoming a man, he just so happened to be fighting for the good guys.

If we imagine in the same vein some soldier, say, during the Stalin era, who heeds the call of service without completely understanding this leader’s propensity for evil, the question becomes: Can manhood be achieved out of loyalty itself, blind to the larger reasons at hand? Why would anyone take up arms for a man who killed millions of his own people? For glory? Likewise, if Henry saw glory in the fight, it’s safe to say that a rebel soldier felt the same and thus, if the south had won the war, would that make this person a man?

By not delving into the causes of the Civil War, and instead focusing how recruitment might’ve really felt, we do get the story of overcoming cowardice, learning how to be brave. At a different level, though, the novel’s message seems in some ways to be, that this is how the battles are fought — by destroying the lives of citizens no matter what they may or may not believe, and that valor is a means by which the motivation to fight can be secured. Of the statistics that emerge from the American Civil War, one in particular is exceptionally depressing: “[O]ver 30% of Union bodies in national cemeteries are marked as ‘unknown,’ and the ratio of Confederate unmarked graves likely exceeds 50%, which deprived hundreds of thousands of surviving loved ones a sense of closure” (Source). This is a statistic that represents a vast gulf of death in its ultimate form: the effacement of the individual from the realm of existence, never to be heard or known of again for all time. It’s obliterative, such that Stephen Crane has given them a name in the person of Henry Fleming. These men may have fought for glory or they may have been die-hard abolitionists or they may have been completely on the wrong side of the fence, but they’re existence was served at the grunt level, which means, in all honesty, most were probably and merely plain people with feelings and emotions of their own, and now they’ve been erased from the book of life.

A Modern Genre Novel: Labyrinth (2019) by Catherine Coulter

Catherine Coulter is one of those powerhouse writers whose oeuvre is comprised of 85 novels and counting. Her novel Labyrinth was published in 2019 and is part of a series that follows Savich and Sherlock, a pair of FBI agents who happened to be married. This particular novel is an oddity in that two different plots are developed, but are curiously intertwined by themes of family and the different kinds of family life that are described, apart from the essence of deception that ties everything all together.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is one of the more popular agencies that writers of crime fiction like to tap in to, because of the realism it provides to the stories being told.

Coulter’s two plots are launched into action in media res: a wonderfully described car accident directs the course of the first plot-line. And what are the odds that the perpetrators of the accident just so happen to be involved in a scheme of international intrigue? It’s very delicious and mind-tickling, considering that the accident victim is none other than Agent Sherlock herself, who proceeds to experience a case of retrograde amnesia. From this point another plot-path forms from out of the woodwork: in a different part of the country, one of Agent Sherlock’s associates encounters a crime-in-progress, and it’s through the connective force of an FBI camaraderie that the two stories are interwoven.

But if the notion of two plots isn’t enough to dazzle a reader, leave it to a master-of-the-craft like Coulter to introduce supernatural elements to spice up the game. Psychic powers are introduced and mind-control concepts are layered in so that the whole of the novel starts to bear the semblance of a gigantic chocolate cake, dripping with chocolate icing and syrup, topped with fresh strawberries. In truth, it does seem a little much, but it’s highly entertaining, and I believe this is entirely the point.

Imagine a novel that is so enticing and delicious you could reach out and eat it like a cake.

Many people the world over believe that psychic powers are a natural, very realistic phenomenon.

Much has been written about the differences between “genre” writing and that which may be considered “literature,” to the extent that it tends to generate controversy. For someone like Coulter, I don’t think it really matters, her résumé speaks for itself. As a reader, what I noticed most was that no matter how much a person was described “tossing their keys in the air,” or that I got to visualize “cute little dog ears over the side of a food bowl,” or that I encountered myriad variations on the “painting of her toenails” — I didn’t find myself caring as much about the characters as I did the plot. I kept glossing over phrases and whizzing through sentences so that I could hurry to the end of the book, so that I could find out what all the fuss was about. In this fashion, one thing I most certainly noticed was the difference between how long it took to read Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) and Coulter’s Labyrinth: around 22 days to read the one, about 8 hours to read the other.

Another noticeable thing were the continuous descriptions of FBI agents reputed to be astonishingly “good-looking.” Agent Savich is depicted as seriously in-shape and great to look at; Agent Sherlock is quite the looker, known to her husband for wearing tiger-striped underclothes; their colleague Agent Hammersmith is something of a living god of whom, women apparently get hot and heavy when they see him; and wouldn’t you know it — the girl he saves just so happens to have the looks of a supermodel. When the task force assembles to fill in the blanks of a later scene, it’s like we’re being treated to a law enforcement team that was formed from a workout club in Los Angeles. No less than four of these individuals have some kind of telepathic power, not counting the antagonist, and so it strays a little into the theater of the absurd; and yet it also feels a little like being drawn into superhero territory, the FBI being the people we can count on to give us hope. Alternatively, the details of their good looks, I believe, is quite naturally intentional, the goal being to make the experience feel as though it’s all playing out on television, which is part of the appeal of genre writing.

From Emmy Award winner Dick Wolf and the team behind FBI and the “Law & Order” franchise, FBI: MOST WANTED is a high-stakes drama that focuses on the Fugitive Task Force, which relentlessly tracks and captures the notorious criminals on the Bureau’s Most Wanted list. Seasoned agent Jess LaCroix oversees the highly skilled team that functions as a mobile undercover unit that is always out in the field, pursuing those who are most desperate to elude justice. Series premieres Tuesday, Jan. 7 (10:00-11:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Pictured (L-R) Kellan Lutz as Kenny Crosby, Keisha Castle-Hughes as Hana Gibson, Roxy Sternberg as Sheryll Barnes, Julian McMahon as Jess LaCroix and Nathaniel Arcand as Clinton Skye Photo: Mark SchaferCBS ©2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved

At one point, members of the team end up at the CIA building in Langley, Virginia, where I was intrigued to have KRYPTOS brought to my attention. KRYPTOS is a sculptured cryptogram created by the American artist, Jim Sanborn.

“Since its dedication on November 3, 1990, there has been much speculation about the meaning of the four encrypted messages it bears. Of these four messages, the first three have been solved, while the fourth message remains one of the most famous unsolved codes in the world. The sculpture continues to be of interest to cryptanalysts, both amateur and professional, who are attempting to decipher the fourth passage. The artist has so far given three clues to this passage” (Source).

I run the risk of spoiling Coulter’s book if I analyze too much of it, since it’s relatively new, but I also get the feeling that if I did, it might be like trying to analyze a mini-series from the Rockford Files (1974-80). I mean, why would you want to do that? Not every published beast needs to undergo critical scrutiny; sometimes it’s nice just to have fun and let the words fly. Catherine Coulter’s novel is perfect for doing this, though it should be noted that her career is like a wannabe author’s dream. She’s in that position the woeful writers of the world, whose manuscripts rot away in the slush piles of publishing companies in and around New York City, imagine they’ll be in someday when that prized contract finally comes through. Coulter is the real deal, and I’m sure the day will come when I find myself blazing through another one of her fine crime thrillers.

In fact, as I’m always trying to balance out the tendencies I have for reading historic literature, I may as well fit Coulter’s novel into the list of contemporary works I’ve managed to read thus far:

Red Dragon (1981) by Thomas Harris
The Body Farm (1994) by Patricia Cornwell
Pure Instinct (1995) by Robert Walker
Black Lightning (1995) by John Saul
The Poet (1996) by Michael Connelly
Lake of Dead Languages (2002) by Carol Goodman
Sharp Objects (2006) by Gillian Flynn
Labyrinth (2019) by Catherine Coulter

Harris’s book is the one I remember being riveted by the most, probably because I’m a character/atmosphere person; a view into the life of Francis Dolarhyde is something I will never forget.

The Body Farm will always stick in my memory for the novel idea that bodies were left to rot in the open for the purposes of conducting forensic science.

Pure Instinct draws forth memories of a nasty serial killer, mad Matthew Matisak, and the terror he instilled into the poor woman trying to conduct her investigation.

John Saul’s Black Lightning is impossible to forget because the killer was the only one I ever learned about who stripped naked to commit his crimes, after shaving his whole body, committing his acts on vast sheets of clear plastic; truly demented.

The Poet is memorable for precisely just how unmemorable it is, but I believe there were poetry quotes throughout the book.

Carol Goodman gets a bad wrap for this book, and it is just so wrong because it has everything I love: snow and frozen lakes, suspicious characters, dank gothic atmosphere, and plenty of mystery.

How can anyone forget the look of Amy Adams as she drives around the Mid-west with her spaced-out, alcoholic gaze? It’s because I saw the show before I read the book, so memorable.

And, of course, Labyrinth is the latest addition to this excellent genre list, because it has dueling plots — and nothing short of a matriarch with Force-powers.