Laudanum Summons the Dreams

 

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It was a perilous trip to the sideboard across Byron’s library; stepping over piles of books, I successfully managed to keep my skirts out of harm’s way from the numerous lit candles in silver holders scattered about the floor. I made a mental note to myself that it would be healthier to wear trousers on successive voyages.

On my way, I happened to notice an unpretentious bottle resting on a small wooden table. Its cork unsuccessfully thrust into the bottleneck, it stood next to a diminutive wine glass that appeared half-full with a golden brown liquor.

The label read Laudanum. Hmmm, the tincture of opium – a potent drink of choice and particularly effective in inducing a soporific retreat for poets seeking visions, inspiration and a really good night’s sleep.

I picked up the tiny glass. In one quick whiff, I smelled brandy and just a trace of cinnamon. Laudanum is notoriously bitter and was often drunk diffused into a flavored liquor to help hide its wretched taste. Treacherous stuff this laudanum, it was considered the “cure all elixir” for a vast array of ailments ranging from flatulence to teething problems in infants. Percy Bysshe Shelley was known to depend on Laudanum’s languid effects and many believed that Lord Byron’s wild mood swings ensued from his use of the drug. I wondered if Mary’s horrifying dreams were summoned by the laudanum as well.

As thought-provoking this small bottle was, I turned around and continued across the room to my original objective, a table laden with midnight mouthfuls for Lord Byron’s guests. I followed my nose and my nose did not disappoint me…

A Bohemian Scene Greeted Me…

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My timing was perfect, although it was nearly dawn, I arrived just after Lord Byron and his guests had retired for the night.

Fortunately for me the candles were still lit, it seemed that the servants were unaware that everyone upstairs had finally drifted off to their beds. Those downstairs would be waking up soon enough for breakfast, no need to rush through their own dreams I suppose.

A bohemian scene greeted me in the library of the Villa Diodati. Silk pillows lay strewn about on a Persian rug in front of the fire. Claret and sack decanters sat haphazardly about and small, half-filled wine glasses teetered on vast piles of books.  A fitting scene for a group of young romantic poets determined to write something terrifying yet witty.

A cat sauntered by me.  As I absent-mindedly reached down to stroke its head, I was startled by a large bird that flew through the hallway across the open doorway. Apparently Lord Byron’s menagerie had settled in comfortably alongside him at the villa.

So, despite the exceedingly dramatic and monstrously electrifying dreams manifesting themselves in Mary’s head upstairs at that very moment, I decided to wander over and peruse the sideboard.

An Unbidden Vision and the Birth Of a Monster

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Mary Shelley went to bed that evening having accepted the challenge to write a ghost story.  Describing her sleeplessness during that stormy night at Lord Byron’s villa she wrote, “…my imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie.  I saw, with shut eyes but acute mental vision.”

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts knelling beside the thing that he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion…his success would terrify the artist.”

The Doctor “…would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror-stricken.  He would hope that, left to itself, the spark of life which he had communicated would fade, that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter. He hoped that he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench forever the transient existence of that hideous thing.”

Dr. Frankenstein sleeps “…but he is awakened, he opens his eyes, and behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening the curtains and looking at him with yellow, watery but speculative eyes.”

Mary Shelley’s ghost story had begun and the tale of Frankenstein was born.   Now that her story has been told, I am ready to travel back to that blustery evening at the Villa Diodati.

It will be a dangerous night to travel to, but the food should be worth it.

The Specter That Haunts a Midnight Pillow

WP-Final-Mary-WindowIn a surreal atmosphere ripe for imagination, Lord Byron challenged his guests to each write a ghost story.

It was well past the witching hour when Mary Shelley finally placed her head upon her pillow for a night’s rest.

Storms rippled across the lake and lightning strikes illuminated her windows momentarily before plunging them back into pitchy darkness.

She could not sleep and fell into a restless state of “waking dreams”.  Sweet slumber eluded her and she was drawn instead into a vision of a hideous phantasm…

Of Ghosts and a Metamorphosis

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Lord Byron and his guests spent the stormy evening in the Villa Diodati’s library immersed in conversation and the talk was of metaphysics and experiments in the reanimation of dead things using the newly discovered force of electricity.

Invoking darker horrors, they read stories of ghosts and tales of the dead from a book entitled Fantasmagoriana.

Minds were fertile with imagined terrors and as Lord Byron read aloud a haunting passage from Christabel by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Shelly suddenly leapt up and ran shrieking from the room.

In the smokey candlelight, Percy had hallucinated that Mary’s chest had metamorphosed into a pair of eyes coldly staring at him.

…And The World Turned Cold

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Up at the Villa Diodati, the candles were lit as at midnight all day under the perpetually dark sky.

The inclement weather prevented Lord Byron’s visitors from returning to their own rented villa that night and so they settled in as overnight guests for a evening’s entertainment.

Inside the library, the fire flared and crackled, but no one gathered there noticed.  The claret and laudanum flowed copiously and a dreamy boredom descended over the group.

The Summer That Never Was

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It was a dark and stormy night during the summer that never was.  It is June in the year 1816 and a group of five English free-thinkers gathered together at the Villa Diodati on the edge of a storm lashed Lake Geneva.  Confined inside in front of a fire in the library were Lord Byron, Percy Shelly, Mary Shelly, Claire Clairmont and Dr. John Polidori.

All those present were on holiday and visiting Lord Byron at his interim home during his self-imposed exile from England.  A voluntary expulsion, I believe, initiated from a scandalous incident involving his unfortunate wife.

Unknown to them, on the other side of the world in Indonesia, Mt.Tambora had erupted with such fury, that it created a blanket of ash over the Earth so dense that sunspots could be seen with the naked eye.

This is to when I am headed…