Halloween Month continues as Balladeer’s Blog takes a look at another tale of Gothic Horror which, like The Lost Stradivarius, centers around a violin player.
THE ENSOULED VIOLIN (1880) Written by Helena Blavatsky, aka Madame Blavatsky, famous for the Theosophy Movement and its premier work Isis Unveiled. Later she wrote The Secret Doctrine, another milestone theosophical opus.
This tale of Gothic Horror is set in the 1820s. The main character is a young violin virtuoso named Franz Stenio from Styria in Austria. Though studying the occult arts and alchemy while away at college his central passion had remained music.
Franz’s skill was extraordinary but eventually his widowed mother ran short of money, ending his studies. He left university and moved back home. Franz devoted his every waking moment to his violin and he refused even to go to church with his mother when she begged him.
The youth’s occult studies had filled him with contempt for Christianity and he preferred to think of himself as a pagan. Franz’s mother worried herself sick over the potential fate of her son’s soul and eventually she put such a strain on herself that she died. Some dark whispers hinted that her son had killed her.
Stenio sold his family homestead and banked the money to finance a few years of wandering Europe with his beloved violin. Here and there he supplemented his income with fees as a freelance musician.
At length, his money exhausted, Franz renewed his acquaintance with one of his old instructors, one Samuel Klaus. This elderly bachelor had no children of his own so he took on Franz as if he was a son.
The pair made their way to Paris, where the talented violinist tried to make a name for himself. However, like so many others, he labored in the shadow of the real-life Niccolo Paganini. Niccolo’s skill with a violin was such that supernatural legends grew around him.
There are considerable amounts of European folklore centered around the allegedly occult origins of Paganini’s skill. Those tales ranged from the trope of having sold his soul to the Devil all the way to the more eccentric story that Paganini had disemboweled a sacrificial victim and used violin strings made from the late victim’s intestines. (Now THAT’S a high-fiber diet!)
With the struggling violinist Franz increasingly embittered and envious of Paganini’s success, Klaus picks the wrong time to relate the legends about Niccolo’s talent. He conversationally treats Stenio to other tales of violinists supposedly trapping the souls of sacrificial victims in their instrument to give their violin an eerie sound akin to a human voice.
To the surprise of no one Franz tears out his violin’s current strings and burns them in the fireplace. Next he ritually sacrifices Samuel Klaus to get his intestines in order to craft new violin strings from them. He courteously names the rock upon which the bloody deed was done after his late teacher and seeks out Niccolo Paganini.
The wild-eyed Franz approaches Paganini at a high-class restaurant living it up with his friends and challenges him to a duel, like an old west gunfighter wanting to make a name for himself by knocking off a well-known rival. Or like a violin version of Six-String Samurai. (Hey, come to think of it, Paganini DID play classical guitar on the side.)
The night before the scheduled duel strange events occur around Franz’s violin case holding his instrument with its ill-gotten strings. The case won’t stay shut and after a time Stenio can hear the voice of the late Samuel Klaus emerging from the violin itself.
Klaus weepingly admonishes Franz for killing him, the man who loved him like a son. Stenio exchanges harsh words with the disembodied voice and even grapples with a serpentine ghost bearing Klaus’ face. Come morning, Franz convinces himself that it was just a dream.
That night, in a packed concert hall the competition is held between Niccolo Paganini and Franz Stenio. SPOILERS AHEAD!
After Paganini dazzles the crowd, Franz takes his turn. Astonishingly, Stenio far surpasses Paganini but at the height of his performance his violin strings begin weeping in Samuel Klaus’ voice.
A smoky ghost of Klaus emerges from the violin, positioning itself so that the strings can be seen to be his knifed-out intestines. As the ghost and Franz grappled, the latter visibly ages and dies as the violin explodes into a thousand fragments.
The spectators are all horrified and in the aftermath Paganini pays for his dead challenger’s burial, but has all the fragments of Franz’s shattered violin gathered up so he may take them with him in his travels.
This story makes for some nice Halloween reading. I was afraid that we might be headed for an ending in which everything supernatural was just in our main character’s mind, but happily the horror was quite real.
Madame Blavatsky’s writing makes you feel like there are goblins or other supernatural beings forever lurking in the shadows around Franz Stenio. When she was describing his upbringing in Styria her prose reminded me of H.P. Lovecraft’s way of making readers feel dread toward the Miskatonic Valley.
If you enjoyed Anne Rice’s Violin you would probably like this story. +++
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8 responses to “THE ENSOULED VIOLIN (1880): GOTHIC HORROR”
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Creepy story. Madam Blavatsky is creepy too.
I agree she was kind of eccentric.
The high fiber diet joke was fantastic!
Ha! Thank you!
Way too creepy at the end.