This week’s weird fiction is …
Review: “Schalken the Painter”, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, 1851.
Like Vernon Lee’s “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady“, a work of art is at the center of this story. It shows a woman robed and partly veiled in white confronting a shadowy figure drawing a sword.
The painter was Schalken. The scene, the narrator tells us, was drawn from life.
Le Fanu presents a simple plot but with mysteries not completely answered.
When he was an apprentice painter, Schalken, an apprentice painter, was in love with Rose Velderkaust, the ward and niece of his master Gerard Douw. She is the woman in the painting.
One day a mysterious visitor shows up (and mysteriously leaves since Schalken doesn’t spot him in the street afterwards) and asks to talk to Douw. The stranger is curt, impatient, and unrevealing of his station, but he wants to make a deal to marry Rose and will pay a large some of money to do so.
A deal is struck though neither Rose nor Schalken know this nor does Douw know they have sworn their love for each other. And, as the story says, it wouldn’t make much difference if he had. On an economic level, the stranger Minheer Vanderhausen’s offer is way more than Rose’s dowry.
When Vanderhausen shows up at Douw’s home to seal the deal, he is strangely still, looks deathly, and never blinks his eyes. Rose is repulsed by his looks. But Sheridan’s narrator tells us what kind of story this isn’t going to be. There
are no sentimental scenes to describe, no cruelty of guardians, no magnanimity of wards, no agonies, or transport of lovers.
The marriage occurs and Vanderhausen goes off with Rose.
When Douw doesn’t hear from his niece, he gets concerned and investigates Vanderhausen’s reputation in Rotterdam. He finds no knowledge of him there.
Then one day Rose shows up, in fear, and enigmatically says “the dead and the living can never be one”. She begs for a priest to be called and to absolutely not be left alone in her bedroom. Douw steps out of the bedroom for just a minute. Rose shrieks for him not to go. The door slams shut and can’t be opened, and screams of terror come from the room, and the sound of the window being opened is heard. Douw and Schalken then are able to open the door. They don’t see a trace of Rose or Vanderhausen, but Schalken thinks he sees rings of ripples in the canal below.
Rose is never seen again.
Years later, Schalken is in a church to attend a funeral and he goes into its crypt. There he sees what seems to be the ghost of Rose. She takes him to a bed where “the demoniac and livid form of Vanderhausen” lays. Schalken faints and is found the next day in a room with a coffin.
As with Le Fanu’s more famous Carmilla, we seem to be dealing with a menace from the grave. Is Vanderhausen a vampire? We hear nothing of him drinking blood, but why does he want Rose? To keep him alive? If so, the plan seems to have failed though we don’t know who is in that coffin that Schalken wakes up to. Is she a sacrifice of some sort?
Still, it’s an effective tale not only for its mystery, but for Le Fanu’s ability to not only describe a work of art but also to evoke the visuals of scenes, particularly the ones with the menacing Vanderhausen.
And, of course, there is the unmitigated tragedy of Rose. Unlike the heroine of Carmilla, she will not be rescued.
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