One of my favorite writers of macabre tales is the Irishman Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873). The other night I found and read online one of his most eerie tales, “Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter” (1839). In this story the young apprentice painter Schalken is in love with his master’s ward, Rose, and is likely to marry her when, out of the blue, a wealthy suitor makes an offer for her hand. This suitor, popeyed and cold to the touch, appears and vanishes at will; when he IS visible, he does not blink, breathe or remove his gloves. Rose is forced to marry this repellent creature, and the story ends with the terrified girl vanishing forever, forced to accompany her husband to the netherworld from whence he came.
Le Fanu was inspired to write the story after viewing the works of the Dutch Baroque painter Godfried Schalcken (1643-1706), who specialized in nocturnal scenes consisting of small lighted areas surrounded by vast dark ones–a technique called chiaroscuro. Le Fanu’s dreadful suitor, however, is a literary example of a British folklore figure: the Demon Lover.
The Demon Lover–who returns from the dead in the form of the Devil himself–first emerges as a distinct folklore figure in medieval times, from what I’ve been able to find, but made his first appearance in print in a 1657 broadside ballad. Ballad lyrics were published in this form, on one side of a sheet of paper, for distribution from the sixteenth till the early twentieth centuries. Only the lyrics were published early on because England’s Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603) gave a monopoly on the publication of musical notation to two court musicians. Ballads often dealt in musical form over those centuries with current events; many were written, many more vanished. “The Demon Lover” survived because it was collected in the all-important Child canon–it’s Child Ballad 243.
In the ballad the Demon Lover is a ship’s captain who returns after an absence of seven years to claim “the vow you promised me/To be my partner in life” of his sweetheart. Thinking him dead, she has in the meantime married another man (usually identified as a “house carpenter”) and borne his sons; nevertheless she willingly abandons her husband and sons to go with her former lover, only to learn once they are at sea that he is in fact the Devil and is taking her off to hell with him.
“The Demon Lover” was one of the ballads brought across from Britain to America by early ballad singers; here he lost most of his demonic characteristics and the ballad is usually called “The House Carpenter”; the young wife still abandons husband and sons, but ends in a shipwreck, rather than on “a mountain of hell” as does the original. Among professional folk singers, though, he’s come back in his original form, my favorite version of the song being a duet by Tim O’Brien and Karen Kasey on his 2001 CD TWO JOURNEYS.
Le Fanu was not the only writer to make use of the Demon Lover motif. He turns up again in an 1852 story by Charles Dickens called “To Be Read at Dusk,” in which a young English bride in Italy meets a man whose face has terrified her in her dreams; she vanishes at the end of the story, last seen with the man of whom she was so afraid. This story has since gained the status of an urban legend. In 1945, the Anglo-Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen uses the motif in her short story “The Demon Lover,” in which a woman traumatized by the World War II blitz wanders back to her ruined London home, where she encounters the man who was her lover at the time of World War I; ultimately she vanishes with him. And the American writer Shirley Jackson, in her short story collection THE LOTTERY AND OTHER STORIES (1949), has several stories featuring a character called James Harris who may, folklorists theorize, have been the prototype of the Demon Lover, centuries ago.
There is also a tale told in Michael Paul Henson’s MORE KENTUCKY GHOST STORIES (1996) which is alleged to be true, on this same motif. Henson says the events took place in Letcher County, Kentucky, in 1934, and involved a young wife who, before her wedding, was courted by a much older man who was believed by the locals to be a male witch. She married a younger man to escape the older one’s attentions, but on their way home after the wedding were accosted by the old man, who told her that he would die soon, but he would be back for her, and that she would go with him…The old man died. A year after his death, on a snowy night, there came a knock at the front door. The young wife–called Evelyn in Henson’s account–was reading in the living room and called to her husband, who was sitting in the kitchen with his two brothers, that she would see who was at the door. The three men heard the door open, but no one came in; when they went into the living room they found the door wide open and Evelyn gone. Outside the door they found the tracks of her bare feet in the snow; they followed the footprints two miles, to where they vanished at the old man’s grave. The grave was undisturbed, but when they opened it the casket was empty–and neither the old man’s body, nor any trace of the young wife–was ever found.