Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Review of "The Elixir of Life" Scary Story by Honore de Balzac

“L'Elixir de Longue Vie” was first published in the Revue de Paris for October 1830. It is, of course, better known today in America as the scary story called The Elixir of Life. In it HonorĂ© de Balzac (1799-1850) gives us an excellent story that melds religious and supernatural elements into a horrific concoction sure to induce nightmares. Surely the ending will be remembered the next time any reader steps foot in their place of worship. In the horror story Balzac subjects his readers to a Gothic setting at the deathbed scene:
Before long Don Juan had crossed the lofty, chilly suite of rooms in which his father lived; the penetrating influences of the damp close air, the mustiness diffused by old tapestries and presses thickly covered with dust had passed into him, and now he stood in the old man's antiquated room, in the repulsive presence of the deathbed, beside a dying fire. A flickering lamp on a Gothic table sent broad uncertain shafts of light, fainter or brighter, across the bed, so that the dying man's face seemed to wear a different look at every moment. The bitter wind whistled through the crannies of the ill-fitting casements; there was a smothered sound of snow lashing the windows. The harsh contrast of these sights and sounds with the scenes which Don Juan had just quitted was se sudden that he could not help shuddering. He turned cold as he came towards the bed; the lamp flared in a sudden vehement gust of wind and lighted up his father's face; the features were wasted and distorted; the skin that cleaved to their bony outlines had taken wan livid hues, all the more ghastly by force of contrast with the white pillows on which he lay. The muscles about the toothless mouth had contracted with pain and drawn apart the lips; the moans that issued between them with appalling energy found an accompaniment in the howling of the storm without.
When the father passes away, the son grabs a "mysterious phial." He tries a dab of the liquid on her father's eye and it comes back to life. Unlike Nathaniel Hawthorne's Doctor Heidegger's Experiment, Balzac's elixir of life is not ingested, but rather spread on the body. This opens the door to the body only being partly animated and the terrifying results if the elixir is spilled part way through the process of reanimation. When the son is near death, he gets the elixir and has his own son spread it on his face and rest of his body. But when the face and first arm was covered, the following horrific event happens.
By the soft moonlight that lit strange gleams across the country without, Felipe could dimly see his father's body, a vague white thing among the shadows. The dutiful son moistened a linen cloth with the liquid, and, absorbed in prayer, he anointed the revered face. A deep silence reigned. Felipe heard faint, indescribable rustlings; it was the breeze in the tree-tops, he thought. But when he had moistened the right arm, he felt himself caught by the throat, a young strong hand held him in a tight grip—it was his father's hand! He shrieked aloud; the flask dropped from his hand and broke in pieces. The liquid evaporated; the whole household hurried into the room, holding torches aloft. That shriek had startled them, and filled.them with as much terror as if the Trumpet of the Angel sounding on the Last Day had rung through earth and sky. The room was full of people, and a horror-stricken crowd beheld the fainting Felipe upheld by the strong arm of his father, who clutched him by the throat. They saw another thing, an unearthly spectacle—Don Juan's face grown young and beautiful as Antinoiis, with its dark hair and brilliant eyes and red lips, a head that made horrible efforts, but could not move the dead, wasted body.
 The partially animated corpse is taken to church and Balzac gives his readers a unique terror that will not be forgotten.
Te Deum laudamus! cried the many voices.
"Go to the devil, brute beasts that you are! Dios! Dios! Garajos demonios! Idiots! What fools you are with your dotard God!" and a torrent of imprecations poured forth like a stream of red-hot lava from the mouth of Vesuvius.
"Deus Sabaoth! . . . Sabaoth!" cried the believers.
"You are insulting the majesty of Hell," shouted Don Juan, gnashing his teeth. In another moment the living arm struggled out of the reliquary, and was brandished over the assembly in mockery and despair.
"The saint is blessing us," cried the old women, children, lovers, and the credulous among the crowd.
And note how often we are deceived in the homage we pay; the great man scoffs at those who praise him, and pays compliments now and again to those whom he laughs at in the depths of his heart.
Just as the Abbot, prostrate before the altar, was chanting "Sancte Johannes, ora pro nobis!" he heard a voice exclaim sufficiently distinctly: "0 coglione!"
"What can be going on up there?" cried the Sub-prior, ar he saw the reliquary move.
"The saint is playing the devil," replied the Abbot.
Even as he spoke the living head tore itself away from the lifeless body, and dropped upon the sallow cranium of the officiating priest.
"Remember Dona Elvira!" cried the thing, with its teeth set fast in the Abbot's head.
The Abbot's horror-stricken shriek disturbed the ceremony; all the ecclesiastics hurried up and crowded about their chief.
"Idiot, tell us now if there is a God!" the voice cried, as the Abbot, bitten through the brain, drew his last breath.
In the introduction Balzac refers to a “stray fancy of the brain” by German author E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) for the general idea of the story. He is referring to “The Devil’s Elixirs” (Die Elixire de Teufels) by Hoffmann that was first published in 1814. While Balzac is quick to give Hoffmann his due, he is being too humble. As with many HonorĂ© de Balzac stories, “The Elixir of Life” has areas of slowness. Yet one can always rest assured that they are in good hands with HonorĂ© de Balzac who forged new ground in the scary short story genre. Balzac's unique blending of religious and supernatural elements, along with an ending that rivals anything penned by Edgar Allan Poe, make this story one of the foremost elixir of life stories ever written.
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Monday, June 28, 2010

The 13th Best Scary Story 1800-1849 is The Elixir of Life by Honore de Balzac

For the 13th best scary short story from 1800-1849 I pick The Elixir of Life by Honore de Balzac. It is a "long" short story. Please enjoy it and I will comment on it in my next post. Thanks!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Author of the 13 Best Scary Short Story 1800-1849 is Honore de Balzac

Honore de Balzac (1799-1850), that rotund French author of romances and scary stories, appears next on my countdown of the best horror tales from 1800-1849. I will post a link to his scary story tomorrow. It is one of the longest stories on the countdown and draws some parallels to Edgar Allan Poe's The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar as well as Nathaniel Hawthorne's Dr. Heidegger's Experiment.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Review of A Descent Into the Maelstrom by Edgar Allan Poe for the Scary Short Stories Countdown of 1800-1849

Yesterday I chose A Descent Into the Maelstrom by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) as the 14th best scary short story originally published in the English language (or later translated into English) from 1800-1849. The story is considered as one of Poe's best science fiction tales, yet it contains many scary elements that are original in design and implementation. The story was first published in the May 1841 issue of Graham's Magazine. This is what Robert Armistead Stewart, professor of Richmond College, had to say about it in 1911:
"A Descent into the Maelstrom" is the most enthralling of that trio of tales of pseudo-science that demonstrate Poe's wizard power of sweeping the reader from the solid basis of human experience into an acceptance of fancies repugnant to all physical laws. In verisimilitude and compelling interest it excels both the MS. Found in a Bottle and Hans Pfaal, and displays its supernatural element in the products of the subtle faculty of exaggeration which Poe may have developed under the stimulus of opium. . . . . The commencement of the tale is abrupt and succinct, in accordance with Poe's dictum in 'Marginalia': 'It is far better that we commence irregularly—immethodically—than that we fail to arrest attention; but the two points, method and pungency, may always be combined.' At all risks, let there be a few vivid sentences imprimis, by way of the electric bell to the telegraph. The vividness of the old man's story is wonderfully enhanced by being told with the localities under review, and the wild welter of wind and water sustains the narrative like some great orchestral accompaniment. The final sentence, allowing for incredulity on the part of the reader, is an artistic touch, and fully worthy of Poe's ingenuity."
Following is one of the most haunting passages of a shipwreck and maelstrom one will find in the literature for this time period:
Looking about me upon the wide waste of liquid ebony on which we were thus borne, I perceived that our boat was not the only object in the embrace of the whirl. Both above and below us were visible fragments of vessels, large masses of building timber and trunks of trees, with many smaller articles, such as pieces of house furniture, broken boxes, barrels, and staves. I have already described the unnatural curiosity which had taken the place of my original terrors. It appeared to grow upon me as I drew nearer and nearer to my dreadful doom. I now began to watch, with a strange interest, the numerous things that floated in our company. I must have been delirious, for I even sought amusement in speculating upon the relative velocities of their several descents toward the foam below. "This fir-tree," I found myself at one time saying, "will certainly be the next thing that takes the awful plunge and disappears;" and then I was disappointed to find that the wreck of a Dutch merchant ship overtook it and went down before.
I find it hard to believe that the protagonist of the scary story would have uttered the words as Poe has presented them, but this is a minor flaw in a major tale with a transitioning plot, terror, and characters that incite emotion to the end. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Author of the 14th Best Scary Short Story 1800-1849 is Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) has appeared on this countdown of the Top 40 scary stories from 1800-1849 no less than four other times. He first appeared at spot 28 with Hop-Frog. His next appearance was at spot 22 with The Cask of Amontillado. Poe's third appearance was at spot 18 for his devilish story The Black Cat. He next appeared at 16 with The Masque of the Red Death. Once again he appears on the list at number fourteen. Tomorrow I will post a link to his next scary tale on the list.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Andrew's Comments on Le Revenant by Henry Thomson

"There are but two classes of persons in the world—those who are hanged, and those who are not hanged; and it has been my lot to belong to the former." Those haunting words are the preamble to Le Revenant by Henry Thomson and set the stage for the tale that I have picked as the 15th best scary short story from 1800-1849. The title means "The Ghost" in English, but this is misleading since it is about a man who lives through a hanging due to a malfunction. Afterward he watches his coffin being filled with rocks and buried. This is a tale of sensation and in it Thomson gives us one of the best descriptions of a person being led from a jail to the gallows.
I felt the transition from these dim, close, hot, lamp-lighted subterranean passages, to the open platform, and steps, at the foot of the scaffold, and to day. I saw the immense crowd blackening the whole area of the street below me. The windows of the shops and houses opposite, to the fourth story, choaked with gazers. I saw St Sepulchre's church through the yellow fog in the distance, and heard the pealing of its bell. I recollect the cloudy, misty morning; the wet that lay upon the scaffold— the huge dark mass of building, the prison itself, that rose beside, and seemed to cast a shadow over us—the cold, fresh breeze, that as I emerged from it, broke upon my face. I see it all now—the whole horrible landscape is before me. The scaffold—the rain— the faces of the multitude—the people clinging to the house-tops—the smoke that beat heavily downwards from the chimneys—the waggons filled with women, staring in the innyards opposite—the hoarse low roar that ran through the gathered crowd as we appeared. I never saw so many objects at once, so plainly and distinctly, in all my life, as at that one glance; but it lasted only for an instant.
It was first published anonymously in the April 1827 issue of Blackwood's Magazine, then later ascribed to Henry Thomson. The fine writing and compelling storyline ensure that it is one of the best scary stories for the first half of the nineteenth century.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The 15th Best Scary Short Story 1800-1849 is Le Revenant by Henry Thomson

For the 15th best scary short story in the English language for the period 1800-1849, I pick Le Revenant by Henry Thomson. This is a tale of sensation and I will comment on it later in the week. Enjoy!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Author of the 15th Best Scary Short Story 1800-1849 is Henry Thomson

Henry Thomson is not well known among readers of scary short stories because he didn't write many of them. Yet Thomson gave us one gem of a scary story that I will provide a link to in my next post. It is a tale of sensation and is one of the best of the bunch for this fifty year period.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Andrew's Thoughts on "The Masque of the Red Death" by Edgar Allan Poe

The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe was first published in the May 1842 issue of Graham's Magazine. The horror short story tells of a disease ravaging the land, a disease with no cure. Here Poe calls it the Red Death in a play on the term Black Death that previously invaded Europe.

The seven differently colored rooms in the palace represent the seven stages of life, with the last being the black room, or death. Poe may have drawn on the famous lines from Shakespeare’s play “As You Like It.” All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages. As, first the infant, mewling and pewking in his nurse’s arms. And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school. And then the lover, sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then the soldier, full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard, jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel, seeking the bubble reputation even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice in fair round belly with good capon lined, with eyes severe and beard of formal cut, full of wise saws and modern instances; and so he plays his part. The six age slips into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon, with spectacles on nose and pouch on side; his youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide for his shrunk shrank; and his manly voice, turning again toward childish treble, pipes and whistles in his sound. Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. Here Prince Prospero (also the name of a character in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”) chases the figure. Note the first room is on the east end of the abbey and the final death room is on the west end, mirroring the birth and death of the sun each day as though life is short.

Poe is also saying that no matter how rich one is and no matter what lengths one goes to avoid death, it is inevitable; just as he knew it was inevitable for his wife Virginia to die of tuberculosis that she contracted in 1842, the year this horror story was written.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The 16th Best Scary Short Story 1800-1850 is the Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe

I pick as the 16th best scary short story for the first half of the nineteenth century Edgar Allan Poe's The Masque of the Red Death. Enjoy the free link and I will give some thoughts on the classic story later in the week.