Posts Tagged taboos

Who Haunted Betsy Bell?

14 January 2012

Elizabeth Bell

The visitations began with sightings of strange animals about the Bell homestead, and of a unknown girl in green swinging to the limb of a tall oak. Soon there came an unaccountable knocking about the door and exterior walls of the house, followed by scratching and gnawing sounds that searched from room to room. It assaulted the boys in the night, ripping the sheets from their beds and pulling their hair as they tried to sleep. Whenever candles were lit to investigate, they would soon hear screams coming from their sister’s room. 

Betsy Bell was 12 years old in 1818 when she became the thrall of an unseen tormentor who, for some three years, relentlessly beat her, mangled her hair, pinched and pricked her skin, and once caused her to vomit pins and needles. Her family, early, well-respected settlers of Robertson County, TN, at first tried removing her from the home, but to no avail—the disturbances followed her wherever she went. It was intelligent and, moreover, able to communicate. 

At first the communication was mediated through conventional spirit rapping techniques, but soon it achieved a faltering whisper that grew into a disembodied voice, able to be heard distinctly by everyone in the room. The so-called Bell Witch—or “Kate,” as she came to be known—went on to grant many interviews, over the course of which she sang, gossiped, played tricks, and aped the sermons of local ministers, all the while heaping violent torments on Betsy, her family, and visiting skeptics.

Above all, “Kate” hated Betsy’s father—John Bell, or “Old Jack,” as she addressed him—and swore that she would torture him to death. Coincident with her arrival, he had begun suffering from facial seizures that limited his ability to speak and consume food, and when he ultimately died in 1820, the witch pointed out a vial of poison that she had used to do him in. It was only after John Bell was thus dead that the witch began to release her grip on Betsy, the manifestations more or less coming to an end by 1821. 

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Before Dracula, there was Carmilla

10 December 2011

“Love will have its sacrifices. No sacrifice without blood.”

—Carmilla

First published in 1897, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was destined to become the universally-acknowledged masterwork of vampire fiction, but it was not, by any means, the first of its kind. Stokers genius consisted not in having invented the modern vampire monster, but in the imaginative way he synthesized and expanded upon the ideas that prior authors had already been exploring.

One of these was J. Sheridan Le Fanu, whose 1872 tale Carmilla provided a template for many of Dracula’s best-remembered characters and motifs, including the occult doctor (Dr. Hesselius), and the lonely Gothic castle set in a barbarous region of Europe. Many of the proper names in Dracula, in fact, are direct allusions to Carmilla’s characters and settings: “Karnstein” became “Carfax,” “Reinfeldt” became “Renfield,” and so on. Le Fanu’s protagonist, Laura, corresponds roughly to Stoker’s Mina; both are afflicted young women whose souls come depend upon their families’ efforts to unravel the vampire mystery. 

Carmilla is told in the first person, from Laura’s point of view. She is a lonely Englishwoman who lives with her father and governesses in an ancient scholss in Styria (southeast Austria). After receiving word of the sudden death of a would-be guest, Bertha Reinfeldt, Laura and company gather on the castle drawbridge to admire a calm, full-moon night when an out-of-control carriage crashes in upon the scene. A weak, unconscious Carmilla is thrown from the compartment in the accident that ensues. Her “mother,” a mysterious noblewomen, professes to be on an urgent, secret mission, but reluctantly consents to leave Carmilla to recover in the family’s care. 

Laura quickly recognizes Carmilla from a dream she had as a child; a dream of being visited in bed at night, and bitten on the shoulder. Carmilla, too, professes to remember Laura from a corresponding dream, wherein she awoke to find herself in an unfamiliar bed chamber, and Laura there. Quickly, they develop an intimate friendship, characterized pressings of hands, kissing of cheeks, and plenty of blushing. 

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Aleister Crowley’s “White Stains”

16 July 2011

Aleister Crowley - The Big Book of Weirdos

Aleister Crowley in "The Big Book of Weirdos"

Readers will likely be familiar with Aleister Crowley, the notorious English occultist, bisexual libertine, recreational drug user, founder of the Thelemic religion, leader of the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.), and all-around scary wicked person. Those familiar with Crowley strictly through his esoteric writings, however, may be interested to know that one the “Great Beast’s” first forays into publishing consisted of a perverse little volume of erotic poetry entitled White Stains.

It was issued in Amsterdam in 1898 by Leonard Smithers; a leading publisher of English pornography, but also of controversial literature. His clients included Aubrey Beardsley, Arthur Symons, and Oscar Wilde. White Stains was published in a print run of one hundred copies which, according to rumors in the book world, Crowley is said to have white-stained himself. Most of these were destroyed in 1924 by British Customs; the surviving first editions currently sell for around $4,000 – $10,000.

The authorship of White Stains was attributed to George Archibald Bishop, a “neuropath of the second empire;” Bishop being the family name of Crowley’s hated, fundamentalist uncle. A lyrical exploration of every sexual taboo from bestiality to pederasty to necrophilia, Crowley conceived it as a literary response to Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis. “The thesis of von Krafft-Ebing’s book was that sexual aberrations were the result of physiological disease,” says an essayist at lashtal.com, but Crowley…

“…was of the opinion that any such aberration were psychological in nature and turned to artistic expression to make his point. Crowley states [in his 1989 Confessions] “I therefore invented a poet who went wrong, who began with normal innocent enthusiasms, and gradually developed various vices. He ends by being stricken with disease and madness, culminating in murder. In his poems he describes his downfall, always explaining the psychology of each act.”

True to form, Crowley saw fit to invoke the blessing of the Virgin Mary in the prefatory sonnet to this work. Let’s look at some excerpts.

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