Vernon Lee was the pseudonym of Violet Paget, she was born to British parents in France in 1856. Today she is remembered for her numerous works on art, music and travel, but most especially for her superb supernatural fiction. Although British and writing primarily for an English speaking market, she spent most of her life living and working on the continent. Lee is an inspirational female and feminist figure, who dressed as a man and formed passionate long term lesbian relationships. Her subtle supernatural fiction focussed on the exploration of the enduring themes of haunting and possession and sometimes contains elements of palpable terror. A contemporary, Montague Summers, the eccentric British writer and clergyman, noted for his own literary forays into the uncanny, wrote that in his opinion ‘she was the greatest of the modern exponents of the supernatural in fiction.’ This gives some indication of the respect in which Lee was held by her peers. She was a personal friend of the writer Henry James, author of that iconic story of malevolent haunting ‘The Turn of the Screw,’ and it is logical to assume that this relationship would certainly have had an influence on her fiction. Lees collection Hauntings appeared in 1890, and her famous story ‘Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady’ appeared in the Yellow Book in 1895. This notorious and hugely influential publication featured the often erotic art of Aubrey Beardsley and the work of notable writers including Max Beerbohm, Arnold Bennett, Henry James, H. G Wells, William Butler Yeats and many others. Although Lee’s fame may not have endured as abidingly as some of her contemporaries of the fin de siecle period, she rightly deserves a place in the pantheon of authors of the supernatural and this comprehensive, Leonaur collection is the perfect way for readers to reap the many rewards of her work.
Volume two of this special Leonaur edition of Vernon Lee’s excursions into the literature of the other worldly includes the novelette, ‘Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady,’ the novel, ‘Louis Norbert’ and nine short stories including, ‘The Doll,’ ‘Pope Jacynth’ and ‘Limbo.’
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
Then there were the twelve Caesars—they were the twelve Caesars, but multiplied over and over again—busts with flying draperies and spiky garlands, one over every first-floor window, hundreds of them, all fluttering and grimacing round the place. Alberic had always thought them uncanny; but now he positively avoided looking out of the window, lest his eye should catch the stucco eyeball of one of those Caesars in the opposite wing of the building. But there was one thing more especially in the Red Palace, of which a bare glimpse had always filled the youthful Prince with terror, and which now kept recurring to his mind like a nightmare.<br>
This was no other than the famous grotto of the Court of Honour. Its roof was ingeniously inlaid with oyster-shells, forming elegant patterns, among which you could plainly distinguish some colossal satyrs; the sides were built of rockery, and in its depths, disposed in a most natural and tasteful manner, was a herd of life-size animals all carved out of various precious marbles. On holidays the water was turned on, and spurted about in a gallant fashion. On such occasions persons of taste would flock to Luna from all parts of the world to enjoy the spectacle. But ever since his earliest infancy Prince Alberic had held this grotto in abhorrence.<br>
The oyster-shell satyrs on the roof frightened him into fits, particularly when the fountains were playing; and his terror of the marble animals was such that a bare allusion to the porphyry rhinoceros, the giraffe of Cipollino, and the verde antique monkeys, set him screaming for an hour. The grotto, moreover, had become associated in his mind with the other great glory of the Red Palace, to wit, the domed chapel in which Duke Balthasar Maria intended erecting monuments to his immediate ancestors, and in which he had already prepared a monument for himself. And the whole magnificent palace, grotto, chapel and all, had become mysteriously connected with Alberic’s grandfather, owing to a particularly terrible dream. When the boy was eight years old, he was taken one day to see his grandfather.<br>
It was the feast of St Balthasar, one of the Three Wise Kings from the East, as is well known. There had been firing of mortars and ringing of bells ever since daybreak. Alberic had his hair curled, was put into new clothes (his usual raiment being somewhat tattered), a large nosegay was placed in his hand, and he and his nurse were conveyed by complicated relays of lackeys and of pages up to the ducal apartments. Here, in a crowded outer room, he was separated from his nurse and received by a gaunt person in a long black robe like a sheath, and a long shovel hat, whom Alberic identified many years later as his grandfather’s Jesuit confessor. He smiled a long smile, discovering a prodigious number of teeth, in a manner which froze the child’s blood; and lifting an embroidered curtain, pushed Alberic into his grandfather’s presence.<br>
Duke Balthasar Maria, called in all Italy the ever young prince, was at his toilet He was wrapped in a green Chinese wrapper, embroidered with gold pagodas, and round his head was tied an orange scarf of delicate fabric. He was listening to the performance of some fiddlers; and of a lady dressed as a nymph, who was singing the birthday ode with many shrill trills and quavers; and meanwhile his face, in the hands of a valet, was being plastered with a variety of brilliant colours. In his green and gold wrapper and orange head-dress, with the strange patches of vermilion and white on his cheeks, Duke Balthasar looked to the diseased fancy of his nephew as if he had been made of various precious metals, like the celebrated effigy he had erected of himself in the great burial-chapel.<br>
But, just as Alberic was mustering up courage and approaching his magnificent grandparent, his eye fell upon a sight so mysterious and terrible that he fled wildly out of the ducal presence. For through an open door he could see in an adjacent closet a man dressed in white, combing the long flowing locks of what he recognised as his grandfather’s head, stuck on a short pole in the light of a window.