In which you got trouble, right here in Maxley City, with a capital “T,” that rhymes with “V,” and that stands for “vampires.”
By E. F. Benson
First published in 1922
Available online at Project Gutenberg Australia
Back when I was a mere stripling, when the malaise of the Carter era was extending its heavy metaphorical tentacles across the breadth of the U.S.A., I thought vampires were pretty cool.
Vampires combined the inimical-force-among-us trope (a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers) with the threat of violence. They could exsanguinate you, then ensure you’d still be around to drain all the red stuff out of others, usually your nearest/dearest. Vampires were bad news with extra bad news on top. It’s no wonder I found them fascinating.
Then something awful happened to vampires: they were popularized.
Vampires became the focus of fat boring novels that millions of people loved, people who’d turned up their noses at horror prior to that. These were folks who didn’t know H. P. Lovecraft from a Soviet hovercraft. The books they admired took a disturbing horror subgenre and turned it into softcore — and boring softcore at that, the literary equivalent of those Shannon Tweed movies they used to show on Cinemax at 1 in the morning.*
As a result, the vampire was established as an erotic figure in the public mind, which I did not and do not get.** After all, what is a vampire but a wily, bipedal, sentient tick? And do you come over all hot and bothered whenever you find that a tick has latched onto you? Or do you grab the tweezers and a bottle of rubbing alcohol instead?
The latter, is it? Thought so.
This is not to say that “Mrs. Amworth” isn’t completely and utterly predictable — it is. So is that Robert Johnson song. What makes both great is the purity and continuing freshness of their respective forms, untrammeled by any sort of latter-day marketing trends or commercial pressures. They don’t write ’em like that anymore.
In “Mrs. Amworth,” the sleepy British village of Maxley gains a new citizen, the titular Mrs. Amworth. She is a cheerful widow, lately arrived from the subcontinent:
“Her husband had been a judge in the North-West Provinces, and after his death at Peshawar she came back to England, and after a year in London found herself starving for the ampler air and sunshine of the country to take the place of the fogs and griminess of town. She had, too, a special reason for settling in Maxley, since her ancestors up till a hundred years ago had long been native to the place, and in the old churchyard, now disused, are many gravestones bearing her maiden name of Chaston. Big and energetic, her vigorous and genial personality speedily woke Maxley up to a higher degree of sociality than it had ever known. Most of us were bachelors or spinsters or elderly folk not much inclined to exert ourselves in the expense and effort of hospitality, and hitherto the gaiety of a small tea-party, with bridge afterwards and goloshes (when it was wet) to trip home in again for a solitary dinner, was about the climax of our festivities. But Mrs. Amworth showed us a more gregarious way, and set an example of luncheon-parties and little dinners, which we began to follow.”
Mrs. Amworth seems quite un-vampire-like, what with her midafternoon get-togethers and lack of an Eastern European accent. Her demeanor is so relentlessly mainstream that it invites no suspicion whatsoever, except for the local J. B. Rhine-type, Francis Urcombe, a recent retiree from Cambridge University:
“Indeed his retirement was not unconnected with his passion for the strange uncharted places that lie on the confines and borders of science, the existence of which is so stoutly denied by the more materialistic minds, for he advocated that all medical students should be obliged to pass some sort of examination in mesmerism, and that one of the tripos papers should be designed to test their knowledge in such subjects as appearances at time of death, haunted houses, vampirism, automatic writing, and possession.”
If you think that Mrs. Amworth and Professor Urcombe are the Dracula and Professor Van Helsing of this story, you’d be right. And when a local teenage boy starts to waste away, Urcombe realizes that he’s the only person in the community with the knowledge to prevent the lad’s death. That’s when battle is joined…
As I said, “Mrs. Amworth” is a traditional vampire tale. That doesn’t mean it lacks original elements. Chief among these is that the story is oddly de-Christianized: at no point during the story are crucifixes brandished or vials of holy water splashed. Unlike Dracula, Mrs. Amworth goes about during the day, does not need to sleep in her native soil, has no animus toward crosses or mirrors, and apparently cannot change form (although she can levitate). She seems more like a scientific phenomenon that a supernatural one. Given the period that “Mrs. Amworth” was written in, this approach is highly unusual.
(I also want to make something clear: the use of the term “de-Christianized” above does not mean that the story — or Benson — is anti-Christian. I’m merely remarking on the degree to which vampirism in “Mrs. Amworth” has been secularized.)
Much of Benson’s output consisted of satirical fiction, which certainly influenced his supernatural stories. This literary cross-pollination, as well as a non-standard approach to the genre, gives “Mrs. Amworth” a modern feel that most of the dark fantasy of the period lacks. Even though it’s a vampire story, there’s not one trace of the Gothic in it. That alone makes it unusual enough to warrant your checking it out.
* I hear (ahem).
**And please do not lecture me about the sexual imagery in fiction such as “Carmilla” (1872), or in films such as Nosferatu (1922) or Dracula’s Daughter (1936). These latter-day vampire fanatics took what had been an important element in vampire fiction — one out of many — and made it the whole show. The whole boring show.