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 Honoré 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 Honoré de Balzac stories, “The Elixir of Life” has areas of slowness. Yet one can always rest assured that they are in good hands with Honoré 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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