REVIEW: Christabel (1816, but written in 1797)

A Poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

For the month of October, I wanted to do a bit of a theme with some of my reviews – I have already been reading a handful of gothic horror novels this year, and wanted to try to read classic vampire literature to get me into the spooky mood. We’re talking VERY classic, like I have purposefully tried to read the absolute origins of the genre. I’m not the biggest fan of modern Vampire stuff, you know sparkly vampires and the like, but I LOVE gothic literature. Today, I wanted to do a book that can be argued as not being a vampire book in any way whatsoever, but as you will see, the building blocks are there for a shocking revelation that never comes. You see, Christabel has the unfortunate classification of being an incomplete work, with Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Rime of the Ancient Mariner) worrying that it was “not perfect” and dropping it entirely. It was later published in this state with no conclusion. As you will soon see, Christabel is likely the inspiration for a later Vampire work called Carmilla, which inspired Bram Stoker to make Dracula and so on.

“Christabel was published by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1816. Coleridge wrote only two parts of the poem. He did not complete it out of concern that the rest might not be as perfect as the beginning. The poem breaks off at a very significant point in the plot. The setting of the poem is a medieval castle owned by Sir Leoline, an old widower and a baron. He has a daughter named Christabel, who is loving, obedient, and pious.”

I’m a big fan of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, and this seems somewhat similar in tone to me. While its written in an ornate manner, the words are not hard to understand, nor pretentious in any way, which is always a plus. It’s a shame that this story is missing the third act, and I wish they would locate any of the attempts the author made to end the story, but it may have all been in his head for all we know.

So, was Christabel’s Geraldine supposed to be a vampire? We absolutely know Geraldine is apparently some kind of monster, but we know not which – perhaps a witch, or ghost, maybe even a lizard woman? The very last section of the story reveals that she is hiding “shrunken serpent eyes”, a fact that correlates to the Gaelic bard’s vision of a serpent in the woods preying on a dove (Christabel). What leads many to accept this as an early vampire tale is the fact that many of the ideas in the story are re-used later on for vampires. First and foremost, we know that she has been feeding on Christabel while she sleeps as seen in the following set of stanzas:

The air is still! through mist and cloud
That merry peal comes ringing loud;
And Geraldine shakes off her dread,
And rises lightly from the bed;
Puts on her silken vestments white,
And tricks her hair in lovely plight,
And nothing doubting of her spell
Awakens the lady Christabel.
‘Sleep you, sweet lady Christabel?
I trust that you have rested well.’

And Christabel awoke and spied
The same who lay down by her side-
O rather say, the same whom she
Raised up beneath the old oak tree!
Nay, fairer yet! and yet more fair!
For she belike hath drunken deep
Of all the blessedness of sleep!
And while she spake, her looks, her air,
Such gentle thankfulness declare,
That (so it seemed) her girded vests
Grew tight beneath her heaving breasts.
‘Sure I have sinned!’ said Christabel,
‘Now heaven be praised if all be well!’
And in low faltering tones, yet sweet,
Did she the lofty lady greet
With such perplexity of mind
As dreams too lively leave behind.

In order to do this she has apparently enchanted her with a spell and preyed on her innocence. This is perhaps the origin of the “lesbian vampire” trope that we see in many bits of vampire lore, most notably Carmilla.

Another of the more important vampiric occurrences in this story is that Geraldine has to be personally invited by the would-be victim into her home. The castle gates are made of iron, and Geraldine seems unable to pass them without blood curdling pain. Christabel, fearing that the girl is dying, picks her up and personally drags her through the gateway. Mysteriously, Geraldine seems to regain her composure once inside. It is in this scene that we also see an aversion to religion as Geraldine claims she is too exhausted to pray when asked to thank The Virgin Mary for her salvation, and ask for protection. She also seems very fearful of an angel statue at various points. Both of these tropes were later used in Le Fanu’s Carmilla and descended from there into lots of other vampire stories.  

Even as an unfinished work, this is still a great poem, and has enough closure for you to surmise what has happened or what will happen. You can also see the beginnings of a lot of vampire literature owe a LOT to this story, and especially Carmilla which is basically a re-imagining of it. This is a quick read, and doesn’t overstay it’s welcome, and for that I recommend checking it out. I found a free Kindle edition of this on Amazon, but due to the story’s age you should have no issue whatsoever in finding a copy for free. Unless you get an edition with some sort of Earth-shattering analysis, I would avoid paying any money for it.

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