(I’ve had a backlog of fiction I’ve wanted to blog about, and a lack of energy for physics blogging thanks to heavy work on my book. I’ll get back to science-y posts in a few days.)
1897 was a very good year for Gothic fiction! That year saw the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Richard Marsh’s wildly successful The Beetle, which I’ve blogged about previously. Even more works were published that year, however, which thankfully have been resurrected in recent months by the good folks at Valancourt Books. A couple of days ago, I finished their edition of Marie Corelli’s Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul:
The novel tells a story of supernatural romance and revenge, set in Cairo and set against the backdrop of ancient Egypt. I found it an very enjoyable and atmospheric read and am glad it has been rediscovered after so many years of neglect.
Marie Corelli (1855-1924) was an author with a colorful background, which apparently was reflected in her equally colorful personality. She was illegitimate daughter of a Scottish poet and his servant, and was put into a Parisian convent to further her education. She began her career in the arts as a musician before turning to writing, and her novels were wildly successful but panned by critics.
To her contemporaries, she had somewhat a reputation as an egotistical, shameless self-promoter. At least one prominent author — Mark Twain — took an immediate dislike to her. Nevertheless, he accepted an invitation to visit her at her home in Stratford, an event he later referred to as “the most hateful day my seventy-two years have ever known.” Her overzealous attempts to provide a proper reception to him were interpreted as the “self-advertising scheme” of “a conscienceless fool.”1 My personal first impression is more charitable: she was a larger-than-life character whose success and eccentricities brought a bit of a backlash against her. At the very least, her novel Ziska deserves respect as a quality work of literature.
The opening of the novel immediately captures ones attention; midnight, near the Great Pyramid:
a Voice suddenly as it were a wind in the desert, crying aloud: “Araxes! Araxes!” and wailing past, sank with a profound echo into the deep recesses of the vast Egyptian tomb. Moonlight and the Hour wove their own mystery; the mystery of a Shadow and a Shape that flitted out like a thin vapour from the very portals of Death’s ancient temple, and drifting forward a few paces resolved itself into the visionary fairness of a Woman’s form — a Woman whose dark hair fell about her heavily, like the black remnants of a long-buried corpse’s wrappings; a Woman whose eyes flashed with an unholy fire as she lifted her face to the white moon and waved her ghostly arms upon the air.
The next chapter has a much more mundane setting, although remaining in Egypt. An unflattering essay2 describes the phenomenon of western “cheap trippers,” spending the winter season holidaying in temperate Cairo. Prior to a fancy costume ball, we are introduced to an eclectic collection of these westerners: Sir Chetwynd Lyle, in Cairo to attempt to marry off his aging daughters; Ross Courtney, a sporting young man of independent means; Lord Fulkeward, recent inheritor of his father’s estate; Lady Fulkeward, the Lord’s mother, recently widowed and now a charming socialite; Dr. Maxwell Dean, an observant researcher of history, spiritualism, and people; Denzil Murray, a young man stricken with love; Helen Murray, Denzil’s sister, also in love. The various players discuss two luminaries recently arrived in Cairo, the famous French artist Armand Gervase, a man who lives purely for material pursuits and has forsaken all belief in a higher power, and the seductive foreign princess Ziska.
Gervase is intrigued by the descriptions of the mysterious princess, and is taken aback when he meets her: not just because of her stunning beauty, but also because of the overwhelming feeling that he has met her somewhere before. Ziska entertains the westerners with tales of ancient Egypt, in particular the story of the warrior Araxes, who murdered his lover Charmazel, a story that seems directed pointedly towards Gervase. He is irresistibly drawn into Ziska’s influence, even as he begins to suspect more and more that he has a connection to her from a previous life, and that she has a rather nasty plan for him.
The novel is somewhat unusual in that there is no real mystery as to what Ziska’s intentions are! Heck, Ziska pretty much spells out her plan to all of the characters in the novel, though they laugh off her stories and suggestions. The effect for the reader is somewhat akin to watching a baseball game after having a psychic premonition that the game will be decided by one pitch in the ninth inning! This doesn’t hurt the story, however; it is still wonderfully atmospheric, and the interplay of the various characters as the events unfold is sufficiently compelling to make the book worthwhile.
The characters alone make the book an interesting read! Corelli paints a rather dark portrait of Gervase as a man who has tossed aside conventional notions of morality. Ziska is portrayed as a woman with irresistible charm and single-minded purpose. Dr. Dean plays a central role as a learned scholar and ardent observer of people, a man who always seems to know more about what is going on than he will tell.
Though I know very little about Marie Corelli, the actions of a number of characters appear to be a reflection of her views on gender roles in society. The aging but charming and alluring Lady Fulkeward, who scoffs at the stuffy conventions of London society, seems to be an idealized self-portrait of the sensational author herself, who was single and 42 at the time she wrote the novel. The Princess Ziska performs an exotic Egyptian dance at one of her galas which draws the approval of Lady Fulkeward and all the young men, and the condemnation of the stuffier partygoers; this is an attention-getting act similar in spirit to those Corelli herself performed, such as bringing a gondola and gondolier from Italy to boat on the River Avon.
The notion of marriage is treated rather negatively throughout the book. Not only does Lady Fulkeward only truly begin to live after the death of her husband, the attempts of Sir Lyle to marry off his daughters are treated as a bit of a fool’s errand. Furthermore, the story of Araxes and Charmazel is centered around Araxes’ unwillingness to take Charmazel as a wife.
The similarities of this novel with its contemporaries Dracula and The Beetle are rather striking. All three books are centered around a “monster” which is disguised as a human, walks freely in society, and has a mesmerizing power over its victims. All three books possess an intelligent man of reason who is able to see through the deceptions — Dr. Dean in Ziska, van Helsing in Dracula, private eye Augustus Champnell in The Beetle. All stories focus on Londoners facing off against a threat from an exotic foreign locale. There is no obvious reason for such similarities, but it is fascinating to speculate!
Corelli was a very spiritual woman whose writing is credited with helping to spur the New Age movement. The book is centered around the concept of reincarnation and has a very moralistic tone which is somewhat ironic considering its views of contemporary society. The book introduces a bit of additional horror unintentionally with its views on reincarnation: bad acts are not punished in the familiar karmic way of being reborn in a lesser form; instead, bad acts are punished by acts of direct revenge from the wronged party throughout one’s multiple lifetimes!
Nevertheless, I found Ziska a very enjoyable novel. It provides few real surprises, but tells an atmospheric tale centered on interesting characters, and has a quite strong climactic scene. The Valancourt edition, which contains an introduction by Curt Herr (super-scholar of Varney the Vampire, among other things), is recommended.
And Ziska is still not the last noteworthy Gothic novel of 1897! In a future post, I’ll talk about Florence Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire.
1 Twain wrote about the event in his two-volume, posthumously-published Autobiography. As I only have an abridged version of said book, I am quoting from Idol of Suburbia, by Annette Federico, a biography of Corelli.
2 Interestingly, Corelli briefly quotes Twain in her description.