Bloody Valentines: Mary Shelley’s Tell-Tale Heart

 

We all know that Mary Shelley is the author of Frankenstein, a phenomenal work of Gothic horror. But did you know that the gory details of Mary Shelley’s life itself read better than any novel? Perhaps the strangest fact of all is that she kept her dead husband’s heart as a keepsake, carrying it with her and storing it in her drawer until her own death in 1851!

In honor of Valentine’s Day and my February Women in Horror Series, I would be remiss if I did not include the strange, romantic and horrific life of Mary Shelley.

In her short lifetime, Mary Godwin Shelley saw a great deal of death: her mother, three of her own children, her half sister Fanny Imlay, her husband Percy Shelley, her step-mother, her father and father-in-law. It comes as no surprise that the woman who experienced a cavalcade of grim reapers became obsessed with resurrecting and recreating life. Her character, mad scientist Victor Frankenstein, was the embodiment of this obsession.

Bleak Beginnings

Mary Godwin’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft was an early feminist and free thinker. She is best known for her work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Wollstonecraft argued that women, given the proper education, were “intellectually equivalent” to men –  a “radical” idea for the times.

Mary Wollstonecraft died of a post partum infection when daughter Mary was less than a month old. Little Mary’s father, William Godwin, a political activist and publisher, raised her along with her half sister Fanny Imlay – a child from another of Mary Wollstonecraft’s relationships. Godwin took a new wife –  one Mary Jane Clairmont – who had two children of her own, Claire and Charles. The family set up housekeeping in London where William opened a publishing company that eventually went bankrupt.

Young Mary was given a somewhat radical education by her free-thinking father. When she was just seventeen, she became acquainted with the poet Percy Bysse Shelley – a friend and “political disciple” of William Godwin. Percy was twenty-two.

Percy and Mary fell deeply in love. The only problem was, Percy was already married. His wife was a woman named Harriet Westbrook – with whom he had eloped when she was just sixteen and he nineteen – much to the dismay of Percy’s aristocratic family. They subsequently cut him off from his inheritance, although Percy loved to flaunt his wealthy roots and often claimed that large sums of money would eventually be his. Percy and Harriet had one child, and to make matters worse, Harriet was once again pregnant.

Cemetery Trysts and Love Triangles

Nonetheless, Mary and Percy began having secret meetings in – of all great Gothic places — Saint Pancras Cemetery where Mary’s mother was buried!

Percy said he could not hide his “ardent passion” for her. Mary wrote she was attracted to Percy’s “wild, intellectual, unearthly look.”

The two made love for the first time in the cemetery, Mary losing her virginity to Percy.  After that, forget it. Mary was ruined. RUINED, I tell you!!!! A social pariah!! A leper among women!! (I am only being slightly sarcastic here. Remember, in Victorian times, virginity was sacrosanct, an indication of breeding and virtue. No way in hell could Mary get away with this!) Even the so-called liberal thinking and politically radical William Godwin disapproved of their relationship.

The only sensible thing to do was run away. And so, Mary and Percy ran away to France. They took Mary’s step-sister Claire (daughter of her step-mother Mary Jane Clairmont) along with them. According to Percy, this was because Claire was “the only one among them who could speak French.” However, Claire and Percy reportedly had many “excursions” together, and historians believe the two were lovers as well.

Furthermore, older sister Fanny Imlay who was left behind, also expressed having feelings for Percy.  He may have been three-timing the sisters. Of course, Percy’s pregnant wife Harriet also got left behind.

Mary, Claire and Percy traveled together throughout France and Switzerland until, broke and destitute, they could no longer survive. They then returned to England. Mary was pregnant. Mary’s father – apparently growing more traditional by the minute – still disapproved of their relationship and refused to take them in. The baby was born premature and died shortly after. Mary became pregnant again and in 1816 gave birth to a son, named William.

That same year, Mary, Percy, little William and Claire all traveled back to Switzerland. Soon after they were joined by Percy’s friends, the poet Lord Byron and physician John William Polidori. It was a meeting of the minds.

There, in Geneva, the group passed one of the coldest summers ever by telling ghost stories around the fire and challenging each other to write horror. It was one of these challenges that led 18 year old Mary to write her masterpiece Frankenstein.

Mary became pregnant again and gave birth to a daughter – but both children would be dead within two years. In the meantime, Mary completed Frankenstein and had it first published anonymously in 1818.

The couple returned to England in September, 1816.  They settled in Bath with Claire Clairmont – who was now (ironically) pregnant with Lord Byron’s child. Mary then received a letter from her half-sister, Fanny Imlay, who alluded to her unhappy life. The letter was apparently so alarming that, on October 9, Percy took it upon himself to go looking for Fanny, worried about her state of mind. He never found her. On the morning of October 10, Fanny Imlay was found dead in a room at an inn in Swansea, Wales. She left a suicide note and an empty bottle of laudanum.

Fanny was not the only suicide that year.  On December 10, Percy Shelley’s wife, Harriet, was discovered drowned in the Serpentine, a lake in Hyde Park, London. It seems the two women who got left behind decided to leave forever.

Both suicides were hushed up, as suicide in Victorian times was illegal, considered disgraceful, and brought great shame to the families.

Percy, for his part, tried to gain custody of his two children by Harriet. His lawyers told him it would be a good idea for him to take a wife, so he finally married Mary on December 30, 1816 at St Mildred’s Church in London. Although Harriet’s family gained custody of their children, the couple remained in London and attempted their new married life.

It was not long before Percy’s debt collectors came calling. The couple left England again, this time bound for Italy, with Claire and her new born daughter Allegra (the child of Lord Byron) in tow.

In Italy, Mary’s two children developed malaria and died. On November 12, 1819, Mary gave birth to her fourth child, Percy Florence, the only one who would survive to adulthood.  Mary became pregnant again in 1822. She suffered a miscarriage and almost bled to death. Percy, too distraught to call a doctor, put Mary in a tub of ice water to staunch the bleeding. It was later agreed that he had saved his wife’s life.

That same year, Percy Shelly set out on a sailing adventure from which he would never return.

The Heart That Would Not Die

On July 1, 1822, Percy Shelley, Edward Ellerker Williams, and Captain Daniel Roberts sailed south down the coast to Livorno. On July 8, he and Edward Williams set out on the return journey to Lerici — minus the captain — but with an eighteen-year-old boatboy, Charles Vivian. They were detained by a storm and lost at sea. Ten days later, three bodies washed up on the coast near Viareggio, midway between Livorno and Lerici.

Percy Shelley’s body was so mangled it was only identifiable by his clothing and a book of John Keats’ poetry that he had stashed away in his pocket. It was decided that Percy’s body would be cremated on the beach at Viareggio. However, something bizarre happened.

His heart would not burn.

Before we get too carried away with supernatural implications, it is only fair to say that modern-day physicians believe the heart may have calcified due to Percy’s earlier bout with tuberculosis – thus rendering it inflammable.  Whatever the reason, Mary Shelley decided to save and preserve her husband’s heart.

Mary kept the heart as a prized possession, wrapping it a silken shroud. She is said to have carried it with her everywhere.

In 1852, a year after she died, Percy’s heart was found in Mary’s desk. It was wrapped in the pages of one of his last poems, Adonais – a tribute to John Keats.

Interesting aside —  when Rolling Stones musician Brian Jones died in 1969 by drowning in his own swimming pool, it was the poem Adonais that Mick Jagger chose to read at his memorial service.

“Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep
He hath awakened from the dream of life
‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife…”

Another interesting aside: Brian Jones died of drowning. Harriet Shelley died of drowning. Percy Shelley died of drowning. Harriet died in a lake in Hyde Park. Brian Jones’ Memorial Service was held in Hyde Park.

See how that works? I suspect Mick saw some significance in this.

The entire poem can be read HERE.

Author Legacy

Although Mary is most remembered for Frankenstein, it was by no means the full extent of her writing career. After the death of Percy, Mary was active as a writer and editor. She wrote the novels The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835), and Falkner (1837). She contributed five volumes of Lives of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French authors to Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia. She wrote short stories, including sixteen for The Keepsake. She also championed Percy Shelley’s poetry, promoting its publication and quoting it in her writing. By 1837, Percy’s works were well-known and increasingly admired.

Believe it or not, in 1830, financially strapped, Mary sold the copyright for a new edition of Frankenstein for only £60!

In the summer of 1838 Edward Moxon (the publisher of Tennyson and the son-in-law of Charles Lamb) proposed publishing the collected works of Percy Shelley.  Mary was paid £500 to edit the collection, called Poetical Works (1838).

Tragic Endings

Mary Shelley’s last years were blighted by illness. From 1839, she suffered from headaches and bouts of paralysis in parts of her body.  On  February 1, 1851, at Chester Square, she died at the young age of fifty-three from a brain tumor. Her son and daughter in law had her buried at St Peter’s Church in Bournemouth, although Mary’s request was to be buried at Saint Pancras near her mother.  (She obviously had fond memories of the place.)  However, Mary’s daughter in law, Jane Shelley, had decided that by then Saint Pancras was simply “too dreadful” a place to bury her.

On the first anniversary of Mary Shelley’s death, Percy Florence and Jane decided to open Mary’s box-desk. Inside they found locks of her dead children’s hair, a notebook she had shared with Percy Bysshe Shelley, and, of course, the tell-tale heart!

 

 

 

Women in Horror: Coven

 

As part of my February Women in Horror series, today I am featuring the fabulous actresses of American Horror Story.  The most famous of these are perhaps Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates and Jessica Lange.

These three ladies did not begin, nor spend their acting careers exclusively in Horror. All three had Oscar-nominated silver screen performances in a variety of genres before they came together on the bizarre cast of AHS. Yet they make the small screen sizzle in their frightful performances. The characters they have played range from carnival freaks to asylum inmates to psychopathic killers. And of course, witches!

No season of AHS showcases women as well as Season Three: Coven.

It all begins at Miss Robichaux’s Academy in New Orleans. The resident students are modern day descendants of those who escaped Salem hundreds of years before. Current coven members include the clueless Zoe (Taiessa Farmiga) who recently discovered her dark powers cause brain hemorrhages. Zoe will uncover more talents slowly and find she can operate a chain saw well.

Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) is a descendant of Tituba. Queenie, like a human voodoo doll, has an ability to inflict pain upon others while doing herself harm which she does not feel.

Nan (Jamie Brewer) is an autistic clairvoyant who will read your every thought.

Madison (Emma Roberts) is  a spoiled actress who has seen the seamier side of life.  (Madison has more rough times ahead including death and resurrection. Stay tuned.)

The girls are under the care of Ms. Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulsen)  owner and operator of the Academy. Cordelia will be given a very interesting “sight”…

At the academy, the girls are to learn the fine arts of sorcery and magick that will help them lead their coven into the future.

The only problem is, the academy is falling apart. Cordelia’s leadership is weak. She has always lived in the shadow of her estranged mother Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange) who happens to be the Supreme Witch – the powerful queen who is able to perform the Seven Wonders.

To make matters worse, back in the bayou, a swamp witch named Misty Day (Lily Rabe) has been burned at the stake. Luckily for Misty, she is a necromancer and is able to revive herself from death.

Fiona, worried about the new persecution, heads back the academy to take matters in her own hands. A few field trips are in order for the trainees.

But it won’t be easy.

Dark and evil happenings have long occurred in New Orleans. Back in the 1800’s Madame LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) became so sadistic toward her slaves and family members that voodoo queen Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett) decided to bury her alive! Madame LaLaurie has been living in a casket for three hundred years.

The aging Fiona, obsessed by the notion of youth and eternal life, frees Madame LaLaurie from her coffin in hopes of discovering some longevity secrets. She also makes her way into the 9th ward where the ageless Marie LaVeau has operated the same beauty shop for some three hundred years.

Her secret? Marie has made a deal with voodoo god Papa Legba. And his terms didn’t come cheap. But Marie won’t be revealing her secrets to Fiona any time soon; the voodoo priestess has been engaged in a power war with the witches for centuries.

Excitement ensues as Fiona’s powers dwindle, while she realizes that one of the young prodigies is destined to be the next Supreme. But who?

Watch the series to find out!

Fiction and Truth: Madame LaLaurie

The truth behind some of the characters of Coven is as gory as the series itself. Take, for example, Madame LaLaurie.

The real Madame Delphine LaLaurie (1787 – 1849) was a Creole socialite who spent her time hobnobbing with the upper echelon of fashionable New Orleans.

Madame LaLaurie, a three time widow, apparently kept a respected place in society until April 10, 1834, when a fire broke out in the LaLaurie residence. Police and fire marshals arrived. There in the raging flames they found Madame LaLaurie’s cook, a seventy-year-old woman, chained to the stove by her ankle. The cook later said she herself had set the fire as a suicide attempt, as living under the confines of Madame LaLaurie had become intolerable and she was afraid she might be “punished” by being sent to the “upper chamber”.  Slaves taken to this chamber never came back.

Bystanders responding to the fire attempted to enter the upper chamber to ensure that everyone had been evacuated. Upon being refused the keys by Delphine, they broke down the doors.

As you may have suspected, the “upper chamber” was a real life chamber of horrors.

According to the New Orleans Bee, they found “seven slaves, horribly mutilated … suspended by the neck, with their limbs stretched and torn from one extremity to the other.”

The slaves had been imprisoned in the chamber for several months. They were “emaciated, and showed signs of having been flogged with a whip, bound in restrictive postures, and wore spiked iron collars which kept their heads in static positions.”

When the discovery of the abused slaves became widely known, the good people of New Orleans came to attack the LaLaurie residence. According to the newspaper, this angry mob “demolished and destroyed everything upon which they could lay their hands”. The sheriff intervened, but by the time the destruction was complete, “scarcely any thing remained but the walls.”

The real, restored LaLaurie Mansion can still be found on Royal Street in the French Quarter.

The real Delphine LaLaurie then reportedly high tailed it to the docks where she jumped a boat for France and was never heard from again,

In American Horror Story, Delphine does not get off so easy. Suffice it to say, she will pay for her crimes in unusual ways…

Once exhumed from her coffin, Fiona brings Delphine back to the house and decides it might be fun to make her serve as the slave of Queenie. When Marie Laveau gets involved, there is further hell to pay.

You can’t blame Marie for being angry. Among Delphine’s many crimes, perhaps the worst was when she took her houseboy Bastien – who happened to be Marie’s lover – and changed him into a real life minotaur by attaching a bull’s head to his body.

Marie Laveau

The real Marie Laveau  (1801– 1881) was a highly respected Louisiana Creole practitioner of Voodoo.  Her practice included rootwork, conjuring, Native American and African spiritualism, mystic Catholicism and what is known today as “New Orleans Voodoo.”

Marie Catherine Laveau was born as a free woman of color in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Her mother, Marguerite Henry, also a free woman of color, was of Native American, African and French descent. Her father, Charles Laveau Trudeau, was a white surveyor & politician who served on the New Orleans City Council and also as an interim mayor.

On August 4, 1819, Marie married Jacques Paris, a French immigrant who had fled the  Haitian Revolution in the former French territory Saint-Domingue.   Their marriage certificate is preserved in the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans.  The wedding mass was performed by Father Antonio de Sedella. They had two daughters, Felicite in 1817 and Angele in 1820. Jacques died in 1820.

Marie then entered a domestic partnership with Christophe Dominick Duminy de Glapion, (a white man of French descent) with whom she lived until his death in 1855. They had 7 children according to birth and baptismal records. Apparently, two of her daughters were also named Marie — and had striking resemblances to their mother. The daughters also practiced voodoo, and may have been confused with their mother. This lead to the belief that Marie could be “in two places at one time” and also had abnormal longevity — as her daughters were seen about town after her death and may have been confused with Marie Sr.

Or were they? Many superstitions are still associated with Marie’s grave. Some folk believe she still walks the earth, and have been known to petition her for favors.

Marie is, of course, most famous for her magick.  Rumors state she had a pet snake, Zombi, named after an African god. She was also a devout Catholic. Her practice mixed invocations of  Roman Catholic saints with African spirits. She was known to cure mysterious ailments. She could exact revenge when justice was needed.

The real Marie Laveau did indeed own a beauty parlor.  She was a hair-dresser for wealthy New Orleans women.  It is said she had a network of informants she developed through her beauty shop connections. She appeared to excel at “obtaining inside information” on her wealthy patrons. (She was, after all, a politician’s daughter!)

The Marie of American Horror Story is just as slick politically. However, due to her bargain with Papa Legba she will bear no children of her own (although she may have to kidnap a few from the local hospital to keep Legba happy.)

With this much historical and horrific material, you can imagine the gore that peppers this series. If you have not yet seen it, I suggest you do so immediately! Cook up a pot of jambalaya, watch by candlelight and be transported. Appreciating the performances of these amazing women is a great way to celebrate Women in Horror Month.

 

 

 

February: Women in Horror Month!

 

This February, 2019, kicks off the tenth annual Women in Horror Month, a celebration of all things feminine and horrific. The two go together perfectly 🙂

Women in Horror Month is the brainchild of one Hannah Neurotica, creator of the Ax Wound website,  and winner of a Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Award. According to the website:

“Women in Horror Month (WiHM) is an international, grassroots initiative, which encourages supporters to learn about and showcase the underrepresented work of women in the horror industries. Whether they are on the screen, behind the scenes, or contributing in their other various artistic ways, it is clear that women love, appreciate, and contribute to the horror genre.” 

Horror is traditionally male dominated — as it is thought men are naturally more “violent” than women. But au contraire!  A closer look reveals that women are the true mothers of invention when it comes to the sinister, the supernatural, the occult and the ominous.

Women are vessels of the blood, keepers of intuition, soldiers of psychic activity and warriors of witchery.  We are the breeders, the birthers, the shadow dwellers and the invisible observers.  Nothing gets past our perceptive eyes and so, in creating horror, women are the deft and delving masters!

Consider for a moment all that women have contributed. Without women, the macabre would be missing out on some of  its finest moments.

There would be no Frankenstein — creator Mary Shelley — who wondered  what it might be like to give birth to a monster.

There would be no Mysteries of Udolpho.  This novel by Ann Radcliffe (arguably the ‘grandmother of Goth’) was first published in 1794. It is considered to be the prototype of Gothic romance, complete with sudden death, creepy castles, unprecedented misfortune, cruel strangers and forbidden love.

Jane Austen even used The Mysteries of Udolpho in her novel Northranger Abbey, to illustrate the idea of horror-loving women reading one too many Gothic novels and letting their imaginations take over their lives.

Let’s not forget vampires! Without women, there would be no Count Saint Germain (creator Chelsea Quinn Yarbro) no Dark Cathedral (creator Freda Warrington) and no Trueblood (creator Charlaine Harris.)

There would also be no infamous and notorious Vampire Lestat (creator Anne Rice.) Ms. Rice took it upon herself to explore these blood thirsty outsiders as they drifted through hundreds of years of history and struggled to survive. The result was The Vampire Chronicles, a compilation of over twenty  novels, delving into everything from ancient Egyptian deities to modern day rock stars.

Bring on the haunted houses!  Without women, there would be no Hill House (creator Shirley Jackson.)  Shirley wanted to explore poltergeists and paranormal activity in an eerie mansion. The result was overnight guests, foreboding dread and one of the best ghost stories in 20th century literature.

Let’s not forget the heart stopping Agatha Christie mysteries, the dark moor encounters of Emily Bronte,  the real world creepiness of Daphne Du Maurier and Joyce Carol Oates. And of course, the horrific dystopia created by Margaret Atwood in A Handmaid’s Tale, where fertile women are kidnapped and then forced to serve as baby making ‘handmaids’ to the powers that be. If you have not yet seen it, check out the series on Hulu, starring Elizabeth Moss.

According to Atwood, everything in  A Handmaid’s Tale had occurred at some point in history, somewhere in the real world, so it was not as fantastical as most people think…

Without women in horror, there would also be no Hitchcock Blondes — the whipped cream cool females that broke under the pressure of psychopaths, thanks to the acting expertise of Tippi Hedron, Janet Leigh, Kim Novak and Grace Kelly, to name a few.

There would be no Birds (writer Daphne Du Maurier) no Creature From the Black Lagoon (costume design by Milicent Patrick) and of course, no Halloween franchise (thanks to co-writer Debra Hill and the incomparable Jamie Lee Curtis!)

On a lighter note, plenty of women have taken horror and combined it with comedy. Consider Elvia, Mistress of the Dark (Cassandra Peterson),  Lilly Munster (Yvonne De Carlo)  and the fabulous Morticia Addams (Carolyn Jones.)

Morticia served as the general matriarch to the iconic Addams Family, complete with “Lurch” the butler, “Thing” (a severed hand with a mind of its own) her Gothic children Pugsly and Wednesday, her husband Gomez, weird Uncle Fester and crone Grandmama. Morticia had her hands full but she ruled with a funeral parlor cool, far removed from the average sitcom.

Who is your favorite woman in horror?

And finally, if you find yourself craving more tales of the terrible, please check out my very own horror stories in The Box Under The Bed and Dark Visions.  Here, you’ll find Jack the Ripper, scary fairies, Charon the death messenger and Lucifer himself 🙂

Happy February frights!