Those of delicate sensibilities should be appraised that this masque touches upon matters that may prove terrifying, offensive and unnaturally stimulating. Be assured the intent is not to shock but delight, not to appal but inform, not to dwell on bloody horrors and licentiousness in the French manner but impart a moral lesson such as any concerned parent or guardian would wish his or her own children to learn. Our tale is laid in a former century, in the wild and untamed middle parts of England, where nestles Mildew Manor, country seat of Sir Eustace Orfe. Responding to an urgent and mysterious summons comes Sir Eustace's boyhood friend, the worthy Mr Nicholas Goodman, accompanied by his confidante and helpmeet Signorina Valeria Nefaria, an Italian widow.
NICHOLAS: An urgent and mysterious summons should be answered promptly, Valeria. Especially when it comes from my boyhood friend, Sir Eustace Orfe.
VALERIA: Is true.
NICHOLAS: Comparing Mildew Manor with my own lowly dwelling, it strikes me as ironic that the paths of two childhood friends should so diverge in life. Why, from his humble beginnings, Sir Eustace has risen to wealth and influence, while I, Nicholas Goodman, have devoted my life to charitable works and remained impecunious and obscure. Still, for all his worldly finery, I believe Sir Eustace deems me richer than he. For I possess that which cannot be bought or bargained for, a spotless reputation.
VALERIA: Spotless, oh si. Still, little worldly finery would be, as you say in England, just the wicket. Hark, Sir Eustace is almost come upon us.
EUSTACE: Goodman, welcome.
The bell strikes the quarter hour...
NICHOLAS: The good old bell at Mildew Manor. You can set your watch by it.
EUSTACE: The hour is a quarter to midnight. A mere fifteen minutes to go...
NICHOLAS: Whatever is your concern, friend? You are white as a sheet painted white.
EUSTACE: At midnight, an old debt must be paid. That troubles me not. My path through life has led to great wealth and influence. I cannot complain. But before my last appointment, I must charge you with a vital task, Goodman.
EUSTACE: My only fear is that my daughter, Eithne, an innocent of some sixteen summers, should be left alone in a world that often mistreats such as she. Linoline, her companion and protector, is a woman of fine character but, it must be said, susceptible intellect. Goodman, I wish you to hold my estate in trust for my daughter until she comes of age and is married. Of course, it will be down to you to weed out rogues and fortune-hunters and ensure she makes a suitable match. Are you prepared to take on such a sacred duty?
NICHOLAS: On my soul, I am.
EUSTACE: On your soul, you have it. Midnight draws close, my friend. Tonight, the Mildew Manor bell will strike twelve times... and then once more to signal my appointment.
NICHOLAS: A toll of thirteen. Why, that's not possible.
The bell sounds midnight...
EUSTACE: Look, candles are snuffed out as if a spectral breath blows through the halls of Mildew Manor. See, looming beyond the French windows, a Dark Figure of terrible appearance, bony finger beckoning. It is time for my appointment.
The toll is louder...
NICHOLAS and VALERIA: ... seven... eight... nine... ten... eleven... twelve ...
NICHOLAS: Twelve. Why, twelve as ever. Only twelve.
A very loud bong...
VALERIA: The French windows fly open!
NICHOLAS: The Dark Figure is upon us.
An unnatural storm has risen.
DARK FIGURE: Sir Eustace Orfe. Your debt is due. You are claimed.
EUSTACE: Into the storm I go, tugged by the skeletal hand of the Dark Figure of Mildew Manor, resigned to the fate I have earned many times over.
NICHOLAS: I've never seen such a thing, Father Balsamo. The look of sheer agony on my boyhood friend's face, the contortion of his limbs, the fearful wounds ...
BALSAMO: The wounds are shallow. Mere scratches, perhaps from a household cat. Sir Eustace died of some specie of severe shock. His heart has burst with terror. You say you saw a dark figure?
VALERIA: Was midnight. Shadows trick.
EITHNE: Mr Goodman, I am bereft! My father has been torn from me and the beauty of existence is shredded. Where yesterday I saw songbirds and blossoming flowers, today are only carrion ravens and pestilential weeds.
LINOLINE: Eithne and I came at once we heard. Your honest neighbour, Mr John Straight, was kind enough to put his carriage at our disposal.
JOHN: Least I could do, sir. Anything for Miss Orfe. Why, that such distress should befall so tender a heart is beyond all imagining.
NICHOLAS: Eithne is young, and the grief will pass.
EITHNE: Let me look upon his dear, dead face... it can't be, such an expression of horror and torment, I can barely recognise my father. I am quite overcome, and close to swooning.
JOHN: Fear not, I am positioned perfectly to catch Miss Orfe. In a respectful manner. She has fainted dead away. Don't worry. She's light as a feather.
LINOLINE: How did he get those holes in his throat?
NICHOLAS: Father Balsamo thinks the cat...
LINOLINE: What, dear old Smudge? A terror to mousies, perhaps, but no harm to anyone else.
VALERIA: Footman drowned cat in the tarn. As precaution.
LINOLINE: What, dear old Smudge, drowned?! This is a black day.
JOHN: Miss Orfe stirs in her swoon.
EITHNE: Oh, it's too much to bear. I find myself a limp body supported only by the arms of a kind stranger.
JOHN: I meant no liberty, Miss Orfe...
VALERIA: You were fortunate such a gallant was at hand in your moment of weakness.
EITHNE: Indeed, though I am recovered and his services as leaning post are now surplus to requirements.
NICHOLAS: I have not met this gentleman before.
JOHN: I'm John Straight, sir. I have Forthright Hall, the adjoining estate. Sadly far less magnificent than Mildew Manor, for my means are limited. The bulk of my capital was squandered in an unwise speculation.
NICHOLAS: How unfortunate.
JOHN: Oddly, the late Sir Eustace suggested the investment. I must have misunderstood his advice, for he prospered greatly from an affair which came close to ruining me. No father of Eithne's could be a deceiver, a villain, a usurer or a profiteer of swindles and schemes.
LINOLINE: Nonsense, he was so crooked his grave will have to be dug with a corkscrew.
VALERIA: Perhaps not best time to mention it. Eithne close to sniffles.
LINOLINE: ... is what some will say, though those who loved him knew he was a man beyond reproach. Still, it's a mystery.
VALERIA: Bell struck thirteen.
BALSAMO: And there is talk of a Dark Figure.
JOHN: When I was a lad, they used to tell tales of a spectral apparition stalking the grounds of Mildew Manor. Some revenant with a black cloak and a long pale face, and eyes as red as blood. But such stories are not to be credited. We live in an age of enlightened reason. We know the dead do not return to life.
A ghastly creak is heard.
LINOLINE: But see, Sir Eustace has sat up, the sheet falling away from his ghastly face, extended arms reaching out as if clutching at life from beyond the grave.
EITHNE: I believe I might swoon again.
JOHN: I'm still here, positioned to... oof. Quite a bit weightier this time.
NICHOLAS: Good Lord, can it be that Sir Eustace still lives?
BALSAMO: A post-mortem contraction of the muscles. It is not uncommon.
EUSTACE: On your soul, Nick Goodman, on your soul...
BALSAMO: Air escaping from the lungs, playing over the vocal cords. Permit me to press this recalcitrant cadaver back into its prone position.
NICHOLAS: It is fortunate Sir Eustace entrusted his estate to me. Sweet Eithne is so unknowing in the ways of the world that a dishonest man might take advantage of her.
VALERIA: How so?
NICHOLAS: Why, our purely hypothesised rogue could impress her into a loveless marriage and reap the benefits not only of her sizeable wealth but of her fair person. Thank the Lord such a despicable personage does not now sit here at this desk with these powers of attourney at his vile disposal.
VALERIA: Indeed, heaven is merciful.
NICHOLAS: It must be kept from Eithne, but the accounts have confirmed my fears. My late friend was an unregenerate villain. Though he wore a mask of respectability, he was no better than Malkovitch, the King of Banditti so feared in these parts. He robbed and burgled and stole and swindled...
VALERIA: Is not big surprise.
NICHOLAS: And yet, Sir Eustace's great wealth could be put to good use, could repair much of the damage done in his lifetime. How would Eithne feel if she learned upon attaining her majority that the colossal fortune passed down to her was bloodied with evil associations?
VALERIA: I know how I feel if bloody colossal fortune came to me.
NICHOLAS: Might it not be our duty to cleanse Eithne's inheritance? The capital could be channelled into works as honourable and useful as they are profitable.
VALERIA: I could see no objection to that.
NICHOLAS: Admirable Valeria, you are as ever my devoted helpmeet and conscience. Permit me to bestow a chaste, fraternal kiss upon your cheek.
VALERIA: Cheek, only? Will take what is offered, with hope of greater gift at later point.
NICHOLAS: You are the finest of your sex... except for Eithne, of course. She is quite a miracle, you know, so simple and unspoiled and delicate, so fair of face and feature, so pure in heart as to be almost provocative. I think a great deal of Eithne.
VALERIA: I notice. Young Mr Straight, our neighbour, also think a great deal of Eithne.
NICHOLAS: Does he? Does he indeed? I don't mind saying something about the fellow rubs me the wrong way.
VALERIA: In my country, such a man would be dragged from his home by masked assassins and left in his well with his throat cut from ear to ear. It is called the Italian Smile, a big grin that shows white bone in red meat.
NICHOLAS: In England, we prefer to drop his name from the guest list at Eithne's birthday ball.
VALERIA: Is less extreme... will probably do...
NICHOLAS: Still, it's a nice thought... the Italian Smile, you say?
Kim Newman is a well known author and film critic, whose distinctive sideburns and Victorianesque style are regularly seen on television.
He has published over twenty novels, plus many short stories and non-fiction works, and has won awards including the International Horror Guild Award for Coppola's Dracula and The British Fantasy Society Award for the collection Where the Bodies are Buried. His website is at www.johnnyalucard.com
Here's Kim's notes on the writing of the tale:
The specific brief was to produce a vampire story - but I've done a whole series of post-modern bloodsucker pieces (the Anno Dracula books) and didn't want to go down that route again. So, I dusted off a gothic masque lying around unfinished, which happened to feature a vampire (or, rather, vampyre) along with much other gothic apparatus.
The original idea was for a performance piece suitable for staging by amateurs at a house party, with opportunities for overacting and sundry horseplay. Of course, I'm playing around with the gothic tradition of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, epitomised by Mrs Anne Radcliffe, M.G. Lewis's The Monk (model of the good-man-goes-horribly-wrong plot) and many other full-blooded melodramas, not to mention the satire of same in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey or the less well-known works of Thomas Love Peacock (whose titles inspired this one - he wrote Headlong Hall, Crotchet Castle and Nightmare Abbey).
I'm a great admirer of the obscure films of Tod Slaughter, the great barnstorming villain whose major roles were the wicked squire in Maria Marten; or: Murder in the Red Barn and the demon barber of Fleet Street in Sweeney Todd. So, I've delivered a piece where it would be impossible to overact, laced with the wonderfully snide morality that panders to audience desires for luridness while delivering a reassuring, if slightly dull moral.
By providing three alternate endings (a simplification of the technique I use in my "interactive" novel Life's Lottery), I give modern audiences the opportunity to have a wider array of possibilities beyond the sort of happy finish obligatory in 1790.
I experimented by sending the piece out as a Christmas card and asking people to choose an ending: very few picked Option Number One.