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.
This special two volume edition contains twenty four fantastic examples of Lee’s tales of the haunted and possessed. Volume one includes the novelettes ‘Winthrop’s Adventure,’ ‘A Phantom Lover,’ ‘A Seeker of Pagan Perfection’ and the ‘The Gods and Ritter Tanhuser’ together with ‘The Hidden Door’ and six more short stories.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
A few strides took me from my lodgings to San Giovanni Decollato. I confess I was excited; one is not twenty-four and a Pole for nothing. On getting to the kind of little platform at the bifurcation of the two precipitous streets, I found, to my surprise, that the windows of the church or oratory were not lighted, and that the door was locked! So this was the precious joke that had been played upon me; to send me on a bitter cold, sleety night, to a church which was shut up and had perhaps been shut up for years! I don’t know what I couldn’t have done in that moment of rage; I felt inclined to break open the church door, or to go and pull the Vice-Prefect’s son out of bed (for I felt sure that the joke was his).<br>
I determined upon the latter course; and was walking towards his door, along the black alley to the left of the church, when I was suddenly stopped by the sound as of an organ close by, an organ, yes, quite plainly, and the voice of choristers and the drone of a litany. So the church was not shut, after all! I retraced my steps to the top of the lane. All was dark and in complete silence. Suddenly there came again a faint gust of organ and voices. I listened; it clearly came from the other lane, the one on the right-hand side. Was there, perhaps, another door there? I passed beneath the archway, and descended a little way in the direction whence the sounds seemed to come.<br>
But no door, no light, only the black walls, the black wet flags, with their faint yellow reflections of flickering oil-lamps; moreover, complete silence. I stopped a minute, and then the chant rose again; this time it seemed to me most certainly from the lane I had just left. I went back—nothing. Thus backwards and forwards, the sounds always beckoning, as it were, one way, only to beckon me back, vainly, to the other.<br>
At last I lost patience; and I felt a sort of creeping terror, which only a violent action could dispel. If the mysterious sounds came neither from the street to the right, nor from the street to the left, they could come only from the church. Half-maddened, I rushed up the two or three steps, and prepared to wrench the door open with a tremendous effort. To my amazement, it opened with the greatest ease. I entered, and the sounds of the litany met me louder than before, as I paused a moment between the outer door and the heavy leathern curtain. I raised the latter and crept in. The altar was brilliantly illuminated with tapers and garlands of chandeliers; this was evidently some evening service connected with Christmas. The nave and aisles were comparatively dark, and about half-full. I elbowed my way along the right aisle towards the altar.<br>
When my eyes had got accustomed to the unexpected light, I began to look round me, and with a beating heart. The idea that all this was a hoax, that I should meet merely some acquaintance of my friend the Cavaliere’s, had somehow departed: I looked about. The people were all wrapped up, the men in big cloaks, the women in woollen veils and mantles. The body of the church was comparatively dark, and I could not make out anything very clearly, but it seemed to me, somehow, as if, under the cloaks and veils, these people were dressed in a rather extraordinary fashion. The man in front of me, I remarked, showed yellow stockings beneath his cloak; a woman, hard by, a red bodice, laced behind with gold tags. Could these be peasants from some remote part come for the Christmas festivities, or did the inhabitants of Urbania don some old-fashioned garb in honour of Christmas?<br>
As I was wondering, my eye suddenly caught that of a woman standing in the opposite aisle, close to the altar, and in the full blaze of its lights. She was wrapped in black, but held, in a very conspicuous way, a red rose, an unknown luxury at this time of the year in a place like Urbania. She evidently saw me, and turning even more fully into the light, she loosened her heavy black cloak, displaying a dress of deep red, with gleams of silver and gold embroideries; she turned her face towards me; the full blaze of the chandeliers and tapers fell upon it. It was the face of Medea da Carpi! I dashed across the nave, pushing people roughly aside, or rather, it seemed to me, passing through impalpable bodies.<br>
But the lady turned and walked rapidly down the aisle towards the door. I followed close upon her, but somehow I could not get up with her. Once, at the curtain, she turned round again. She was within a few paces of me. Yes, it was Medea. Medea herself, no mistake, no delusion, no sham; the oval face, the lips tightened over the mouth, the eyelids tight over the corner of the eyes, the exquisite alabaster complexion! She raised the curtain and glided out. I followed; the curtain alone separated me from her. I saw the wooden door swing to behind her. One step ahead of me! I tore open the door; she must be on the steps, within reach of my arm!<br>
I stood outside the church. All was empty, merely the wet pavement and the yellow reflections in the pools: a sudden cold seized me; I could not go on. I tried to re-enter the church; it was shut. I rushed home, my hair standing on end, and trembling in all my limbs, and remained for an hour like a maniac. Is it a delusion? Am I too going mad? O God, God! am I going mad?