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I haven't caught up on unwritten film reviews yet, but this evening I feel like taking on a book. I read this particular book while on holiday in Cyprus last April with the lovely [personal profile] rosamicula, and enjoyed it so much that I quickly started having to ration it out, as I had only brought one other book with me and was afraid of running out of reading material altogether. It is a collection of what its author referred to as 'strange stories', and the full table of contents runs like this:

'The Swords'
'The Real Road to the Church'
'Niemandswasser'
'Pages from a Young Girl's Journal'
'The Hospice'
'The Same Dog'
'Meeting Mr Millar'
'The Clock Watcher'

All are excellent. They generally feature unexplained and possibly supernatural events, as experienced by a character who either speaks in the first person or whose experiences are the primary focus of the narration. As such, the reader isn't usually given any authoritative 'explanation' of what has happened, and thus gets to feel the same pleasant thrills of mystery and unease as the main character. The difference, of course, is that unlike the character (who is trapped in the story), the reader can choose to succumb to its strangeness, reject it entirely, mull over multiple possible explanations or home in one of their preference. Most are set in what seems broadly to be the UK at the time of writing (some are specific about it, others less so), but 'The Real Road to the Church' takes us to rural France, 'Niemandswasser' to the 19th-century Austrian Empire and 'Pages from a Young Girl's Journal' to northern Italy c. 1820.

It was through this latter story that I first encountered Aickman, and it is the one which made me want to buy this book and read more of his work. I'm pleased to have done so, and may well want to explore further amongst his oeuvre in the future - but for the time being, this remains the stand-out story of the collection to me, and the one I want to focus in on here. It happens (of course!) to be a vampire story, and I read it first when I was about 12 or 13 years old in The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories (ed. Alan Ryan). As the title suggests, it presents a first-person narration, told in the form of diary entries written by a young girl while she is travelling around Italy with her parents on some sort of Grand Tour. We join them as they are arriving into Ravenna, where they stay with a contessa and her family, and the story finishes in Rimini, by which time our young narrator is in quite another world.

At face value, what happens is that the contessa holds a party in her English visitors' honour, where our narrator (who is never named) meets a mysterious man whom she considers "an Adonis! an Apollo!", who perceives great depths in her teenage soul, hints at strange and magical things and tells her they will meet again. Thereafter, he calls to her from afar or comes to her in dreams, speaking to her of love, while she begins displaying all the classic signs of being preyed upon by a vampire. By the end of the story she has become very weak and has a wound on her neck which never heals up, but she is only too eager to depart her mortal life, escape her stultifying parents and meet her destiny. Looking down from her bedroom balcony into the town-square at Rimini, filled with wolves gazing up at her, she records:
I smiled at the wolves. Then I crossed my hands on my little bosom and curtsied. They will be prominent among my new people. My blood will be theirs, and theirs mine.
So, she is about to become a vampire. The story ends at this point because, as she says, "I doubt if I shall write any more. I do not think I shall have any more to say."

That, at least, is how I read it as a 12 / 13-year-old, and believe me I was totally there for a story about a young girl saved from her tedious life by a mysterious and powerful vampire at that age. The face-value reading is very pleasant indeed, and quite a good enough story in its own right. Now that I'm an adult, though, I know about unreliable narrators, and I can see that there are at least four major possible readings of this story:
  1. The face-value one: there was a man at the party, he really was a vampire, he really has been turning our narrator into his vampire bride throughout the course of the story, and after the last diary entry that process will be completed and she will go to join him and the wolves as the queen of his supernatural kingdom.
  2. There was a man at the party and he talked to her for a while, but he wasn't a vampire. Everything supernatural is entirely in her head. Possibly she is using it to help her cope with any number of other traumatic experiences, including the onset of menstruation, her own sexual awakening more generally (if read this way this definitely includes same-sex attraction towards the contessa's daughter), sexual assault, physical illness and / or mental illness.
  3. There wasn't even a man at the party at all. Literally everything was in her head.
  4. There was a man all right, he was a vampire and he has been coming to her in her dreams or in a mist to drink her blood as she believes. But he isn't going to make her into his vampire bride. She is just going to die.

I also know a lot more about intertexts than I did when I was 12 / 13, and indeed rather a lot more about Lord Byron and his circle: especially thanks to the DracSoc trip to Lake Geneva in 2016 and some of the reading I did in preparation for it (LJ / DW). So I'm now in a much better position to appreciate the significance of the narrator's interest in Lord Byron. This crops up repeatedly in some of the earlier entries, where we learn that the narrator is very much excited to be in the town where Byron is currently living (he lived in Ravenna from 1819 to '21). We're left in no doubt as to how she feels about him, either:
How well I understand the universal ennui that possesses our neighbour, Lord Byron! I, a tiny slip of a girl, feel, at least in this particular, at one with the great poet!
So, our narrator is of a strongly romantic bent. More specifically, she is clearly familiar with Byron's The Giaour, since she refers to him as such as one point, and thus must know about literary vampires through that at least, if not also through Polidori's The Vampyre (though this isn't mentioned specifically). In other words, I see now that Aickman is playing in that same world, has by doing so provided all the material needed to support the 'it's all in her head' readings, and has certainly left the story open to them quite deliberately by stopping it when he does and not confirming the face-value, vampire queen reading.

This is a story which has grown with me, then. I already loved it when I first read it and the face-value reading was all I saw - enough for it to stay with me and niggle at me and prompt me to look it up again and find more by the same author. But it has rewarded that instinct many times over by proving to have so much more to it when I returned as an adult reader. There are many, many vampire short stories, and I have read a lot of them, but I'm pretty sure I will name this unhestitatingly as my favourite whenever I am asked in the future.

One further note: having read Tom Holland's The Vampyre: the secret history of Lord Byron (LJ / DW), it naturally occurred to me to wonder whether the mysterious man at the party actually was Lord Byron at his most Lord Ruthven-esque. In fact, though, that is one of the few possibilities Aickman explicitly rules out, by having his narrator encounter Lord Byron (and Shelley with him) out riding their horses a few days after the party. She is still quite star-struck at seeing him, but she also notes that both looked "considerably older than I had expected and Lord Byron considerably more corpulent (as well as being quite grey-headed, though I believe only at the start of his life's fourth decade)." So, not the Adonis-like, Apollo-like mysterious secret lover she had met at the party, then; and of course the real human poet falls far short of the romantic image she has constructed for him. Of course.


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