Sunday, 7 June 2015

Review: The Bloody Countess

PENROSE, Valentine (Alexander Trocchi, trans.), The Bloody Countess, Calder & Boyars Ltd., London, 1970.

Octavo; paperback; 192pp., with 4pp. of monochrome plates. Covers rubbed; top joint cracked; very faint toning to the text block and page edges; text block top edge spotted. Very good.

I’ve had a bit of a history with Elisabeth Bathory. Back in 1972-ish, at the age of seven, my parents took my sister and I to a drive-in movie theatre to see “Countess Dracula”, the Hammer Horror production starring Ingrid Pitt. Now, you might well regard this act as an instance of poor parenting, but in fact, we kids were more interested in the playground at the theatre and the junk food at the take-away joint than the film: during most of these screenings we were asleep on the backseat of the car anyway. Regardless, it was at this movie that my father discovered that I couldn’t even see the screen and that I needed spectacles. My inability to see Ingrid Pitt bathing in blood was a revelation to all involved.

Many, many years later, I found a copy of the DVD “Countess Dracula” in the shop I was working at and I borrowed it for the evening to see what the fuss was all about. I chucked the disc on my computer and it irrevocably switched my machine to Region 1 coding; then, as the disc was faulty, I saw only about 20 minutes of the show before everything came to a screeching halt. Elisabeth Bathory strikes again!

In the meantime I’ve encountered her in the works of Mike Mignola; one of my Call of Cthulhu players wanted to play a character descended from her (which went in interesting places); and I picked up a book once called (rather luridly) Dracula was a Woman! which turned out to be all about her. And so, hardly surprising that I should see this book and take it under my wing.

Firstly, I was completely unaware that the Hammer Horror movie was based on a book at all – I thought it had been cobbled together from general histories by some erstwhile screen writer riffing on some meagre concepts lobbed at them by a producer. Kind of like the way that Val Lewton put movies together. Instead, here is a sweeping overview of the life of Erzsébet Báthory (to give her un-Anglicised name) in all her sanguine glory, translated from its moody French patois into even murkier English.

The first thing I noticed jumping in, was that the translation is a bit ham-fisted. There are some dodgy expressions and turns of phrase that jar as the reading progresses. In some places, the writing is very unfocussed and wanders a bit, hovering over the intent of the paragraph without actually pinning it down. I’m unsure how much of this is down to the translator and how much is the source material, but it lends a dreamlike quality to the narrative. Too, M. Penrose is prone to wandering off-piste as far as the history is concerned, and this would be an issue if not for the fascinating nuggets that he dispenses in the execution of these little asides. At one point he lists the “Top Ten” magical stones of the European Renaissance; in another he provides a fairly detailed overview of the layout of Vienna in the day. These meanderings would be quite distracting anywhere else, but here, they serve to build up a solid sense of the society of the period.

One quibble I have with the text is that Penrose deliberately obfuscates what was going on in the gloomy apartments of the Countess. In describing her wicked acts, he starts by outlining the beginning of one of her depraved bloodletting sessions, then moves on to suggestion, and then, at the climax, falls back upon inference. In only a few cases does he explicitly discuss what Báthory is actually doing to these poor peasant girls. Not that I want a blow-by-blow description of each jab and thrust in all their gory detail, but I would like to have some notion of what’s going on. Perhaps he was just writing to the sensibilities of the time (given that it was originally penned in 1957), or that he felt that obscuring the horror would heighten its impact; but this is not a novel and purports to be history, so perhaps the strategy is a little at fault.

Penrose is able to sketch the chilling sociopathy of Báthory to a high degree and she emerges from the text as a formidable and thoroughly unnerving individual. Springboarding from the sole remaining portrait of the Countess, he at first describes the image and then builds upon this to reveal the hidden depths of depravity to which her beautiful exterior was the key. Along the way he makes a few sweeping generalisations that nowadays ring somewhat hollow, but the portrait that emerges is utterly compelling. Try this:

“Her looks would not have made one think of love, although she was very beautiful, with an excellent figure and no blemishes; for one sensed she was ripped out of time just as mandragora was plucked from the earth; and the seed from which she was fashioned was as malignant as that of a man hanged.”

Such references to occult notions and beliefs litter the descriptions and show M. Penrose to be well-versed in arcane lore. At all times, it is possible to hear the Devil tripping along behind the typeface.

Penrose paints a picture of the Hungarian wilderness as a lugubrious, wolf-haunted hotbed of witchcraft, feudalism and savagery. The country’s cruel leaders are depicted as being awash with cynicism and couched in luxury and entitlement, and the ghoulish, dreamlike figure of Erzsébet Báthory dominates them all. This book captures everything that Bram Stoker tried to bring to life in his novel Dracula (1897), and, since it is based upon fact, is all the more terrifying for it.

It’s not a commonly-found item, but I would encourage anyone interested in vampires – real vampires, not the glittery, ersatz Meyer variety and their contemporaries – to locate a copy and investigate. I’m giving it three-and-a-half tentacled horrors.