4 out of 5 stars ★★★★☆
Stevenson’s chilling Victorian gothic novella about decaying aristocracy, vampirism and tormented love. Set in the remote mountains of Spain.
I am so excited for these penguin short classics collection that were released in 2015. They do not seem to be available in American bookstores, which is why I brought 12 of 80 home with me from London! Reviewing a short story feels like a cop-out in terms of calling ourselves “book” reviewers, but I digress that this is just another form of literature, it’s a “classic,” and these types of works should be respected. The above synopsis barely even touches on what the novella is actually about.
Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) published his short story in 1885. A wounded Scottish soldier was fighting with the Spanish Army in the Peninsular War, and now that the war is over, seeks to recover in a small Spanish town. He takes up a room in a residencia of a formerly wealthy and prominent family. He obsesses over a painting of a woman that hangs in his room. He finds the son, Felipe, charming but only because he’s dumb. Soon our narrator, known as Comandante, meets the matriarch of the family la Señora, who chooses to spend her days lazily basking in the sun. The reclusive daughter, Olalla (pronounced O-la-ya) only shows up halfway through the story. One night Comandante hears screams in the courtyard and goes to investigate. He does not find anything, but sneaks around anyway, finding Olalla’s living quarters and falling in love with her by reading some of her poetry. He begins to obsess over her. When they finally meet (some weeks after he’s been at the residencia), they don’t speak, but stare into each other’s eyes intently. She looks exactly like the old painting in his room. One day Comandante is sitting on a rock overlooking a mountainside, Olalla finds him and tells him to leave the residencia. He confesses he loves her. She still tells him to leave because there is nothing for him, the family is dying out.
When he returns to his room he is angry and punches a window. He goes to the courtyard looking for someone to mend his bloody hand, but la Señora comes up to him and bites his arm “to the bone.” Both Olalla and Felipe have to tear la Señora away from Comandante. He leaves in the night, but doesn’t give up on Olalla. He asks Felipe to leave him at the closest town. He hears from the local Padre of how pious Olalla is and how her family is cursed. Comandante runs into a local who calls Olalla’s home a “nest of Basilisks.” Also on the same road is Olalla, who goes on and on about how she can’t marry him because she is with God and her family is cursed. Our narrator finally goes back to his home in Scotland.
So what we can determine is la Señora is a vampire. Her children are also vampires, though they don’t show any outward signs of it (at least signs that us modern people come to expect). Olalla refuses Comandante because she wants to spare him pain. The townsfolk know what is going on in the house, how a once prominent family has slowly died off. What is brilliant about this short story, it’s pretty ambiguous that anyone is actually a vampire. La Señora spent most of her time sunning herself, and her two children did not bite anyone. Two major indicators (nowadays, anyway) that one could be a vampire. It’s only assumed that they are also vampires by association and their curse. We also understand that the painting in Comandante’s room is very old, but when he meets Olalla she is young, a hint at immortality. Some reviewers would place this story as a commentary about inbreeding nobility and la Señora’s action of biting Comandante’s arm is a reflection of needing pure blood, rather than old blood. And further supporting the theory of inbreeding is the picture of Olalla, which the similarities could just be hereditary.
The ambitiousness of the novel returns again and again to this review because that’s how Stevenson intended for it to be read. The only reason I had any indication that they were vampires was the back cover synopsis, but my friend and I pointed to the same actions and how they could be interpreted in different ways. Many of the familiar traits that we have come to understand as “Vampire” are not here, such as aversion to sunlight and insatiable need for blood—not seen in the two children. This is a fun read, I especially recommend reading it out loud with a group of friends. Adds to the drama.
Recommended for fans of Gothic literature, Dracula, and Robert Louis Stevenson.