Wednesday, June 19, 2013

54. Motherhood

“This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.”
“The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire”

After “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” appeared in the Strand in March of 1923, a second seemingly occult-inspired tale appears less than one year later, in January of 1924. Initially, “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” bears the hallmarks of Conan Doyle’s late friend and Dracula author Bram Stoker, but quickly changes, in both content and tone, to an examination not of the supernatural, but of the very much human elements that haunt domestic life. It is perhaps this aspect that has drawn the most attention to “Sussex Vampire” amid the stories comprising the Holmes canon. For the monster whose evil bloodletting is chief cause for Holmes taking up the case is not some otherworldly creature, but, rather, a mother, who, it is alleged to the detective, is quenching her thirst for blood on her own infant child.

For feminist writers, such as Cyndy Hendershot and Elena Maria Emandi, the implications of this horrific scene explore the moral dogma that so typified Victorian middle-class existence (n.b., the story is set in 1896). As Emandi, writing in a 2013 issue of the journal Gender Studies, noted:

An aspect that is worth mentioning is the emphasis on Mrs. Ferguson’s role of devoted wife and mother at the expense of her sexuality and independence…Mrs. Ferguson and her story provide a space for the exploration of otherness: she is suspected to be a vampire, therefore she is otherized. She is also non-English. Her vampirism, sign of her sexual nature, represents a threat to her family… [t]he vampire cast as the wayward woman failing to live up to Victorian virtue.  

This would, at least on the surface, place Conan Doyle’s treatment of the vampire legend at considerable odds with Stoker’s hyper-sexualized conception, albeit with virtually identical plot points (e.g., Mrs. Ferguson suspected of “feeding” on her infant son, Jonathan Harker saved from Count Dracula’s vampiric “sisters” though the introduction of a “wiggling bag,” presumed by Harker to contain an infant). While Stoker’s treatment of the morality within Dracula never strays far from the traditional battle between good and evil that characterized adventure tales of the time, its acknowledgement that the seductiveness of the Count and his ilk are, at very least, difficult temptations to resist places it in a far more complicated position to “Sussex Vampire.”  The rather chaste nature of Conan Doyle’s vampire tale perhaps owes something to his close relationship with his own mother, Mary, who had died in 1920, only a few years prior to his writing of this story. For Holmes, who immediately and resolutely dismisses any belief in vampires, ghosts, or any supernatural cause for the concerns befalling the Ferguson family, the moral question is solved before he even arrives at Cheeseman’s, the Ferguson estate, and, as the story approaches its climax, what the fantastical theory has hidden is something just as horrifying as it is base, petty and, above all, human.

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