Engraving from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
In 1815, Indonesia’s Mt. Tambora erupted. It was the largest eruption since New Zealand’s Hatepe eruption in 180AD. Combined with a few years worth of accumulated fall-out from smaller eruptions all over the globe, the air by 1816 was full of swirling clouds of particulate matter (the reverse of what’s happening today–– the cooling cover of ash, not the intensifying power of gas). Temperatures went crazy –– freezing in summer, sudden jumps to 95º then back to freezing in a few hours –– climate change on steroids. Crops failed all over the world. Hundreds of thousands died in Europe and America (just Vermont lost between 10,000 and 15,000 people – the loss caused the great migration to the plains). Skies were colored a ghastly yellow, snow was red in Italy and gray in Hungary.
|Chichester Canal, JMW Turner|
Yes, the sky was yellow and even for fairly advanced and rational European civilizations, terror of impending apocalypse added to the physical misery of the cold, dark atmosphere (think about it, even today some scream "End Times" when cataclysms occur even though we DO know the causes). In the early 19th century they had no idea about the eruption and its effects –– science was still struggling to find a reason that Mother Nature was punishing the Earth –– and the punishment was very, very bad.
Not unexpectedly, the dramatic weather inspired art and literature.
Not unexpectedly, the dramatic weather inspired art and literature.
|Villa Diodati on Switzerland’s Lake Geneva|
Most famously effected were a group of friends vacationing at and around Lake Geneva's Villa Diodati. They were forced indoors by perpetual rain, unrelenting lightning storms and pervasive cold and dark in that “Year Without a Summer”. This dramatic weather was rocket fuel for their creative engines. The names are now terribly familiar, Lord Byron, Mary and Percy Shelley, “Monk” Lewis (famous gothic writer of the day) and Dr. John Polidori. Also in attendance was Mary’s stepsister and Byron’s unwanted lover, Claire Clairmont (“ I never loved her nor pretended to love her,” he later wrote, “but a man is a man — & if a girl of eighteen comes prancing to you at all hours — there is but one way…”) to add spice to the mix.
|19th c cartoon of corpse brought to life|
To while away the time in the cold and damp, they read ghost stories from a hot new French translation of old German ghost stories and spoke passionately about new discoveries in modern science, especially galvanism. That great quantities of alcohol and laudanum were consumed at the house may have had something to do with the literary output the stories and conversations inspired.
The French title for the story collection, Fantasmagoriana, came from a special effects-ful horror show called "Phantasmagoria" that was sweeping Europe and America in the late 18th and early 19th centuries –– sort of the Cirque de Soleil of its time.
Etienne Robert created a sensation with a spectacle combining science and showmanship –– it was terrifyingly entertaining. You know the phrase, “location, location, location”? Robert’s show chose its location brilliantly, it opened in a real Paris crypt near the Place Vendôme using ground-breaking technology to awe the audience ––lantern projectors made ghosts, spirits and lightning appear in the space!
Robert said “ I am only satisfied if my spectators, shivering and shuddering, raise their hands or cover their eyes out of fear of ghosts and devils dashing toward them.” And they did.
Knock-off productions started appearing everywhere once Robert’s magic lantern techniques were revealed (in defending himself against an assistant who had stolen his ideas, he had to reveal them in court where his secrets were made public –– certainly not the result he was hoping for –– he won the case but lost the war).
People loved to be scared out of their wits –– borrowing the name was a perfect way to sell a book of horror stories.
|The Fated Hour, Illustration from Fantasmagoriana|
The book, Fantasmagoriana (Tales of the Dead in English), had 8 stories in it : The Family Portraits, The Fated Hour, The Deaths Head, The Death Bride, The Spectre-Barber, The Returning, The Gray Room, The Black Room.
Mary Shelley wrote of their challenge that came from the quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore: “We will each write a ghost story, said Lord Byron; and his proposition was acceded to … I busied myself to think of a story, –– a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror- one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beating of the heart.”
From this excitement came Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and The Vampyre by John Polidori (although he was also inspired by Byron’s short vampire story which was in turn was inspired by contemporary Northern European/Russian reporting of the undead terrorizing small villages). Only fragments remain of Byron and Shelley’s works from that summer.
|1820 Engraving of Byron at Villa Diodati in 1816|
In his book, Fantasmagoriana (Tales Of The Dead) author A.J. Day cites various descriptions that Mary Shelley absorbed from The Gray Room that ended up in her Frankenstein. Day also mentions that her Frankenstein was touched by the relationship of her talented step mother with German fairytales –– Mary Clairmont worked with the brother’s Grimm (she translated Grimm’s Fairytales into English). A letter from Grimm to Clairmont told of a:
“horror-story that should, under no circumstances be published in the fairy tales collection because it is nothing more than a horrible story. The people who live at the foot of the Frankenstein ruins tell their children stories of occurrences in and around the castle to frighten them into avoiding the castle and nearby woods during winter evenings.”
In fact, the story involved a magician and his corpse-part monster who lived in the forest after killing his creator and who grabbed children to play with and then ate them when he was bored with them.
Sound familiar? Mary Shelley, like her own Dr. Frankenstein, created a fairytale for grownups from the corpse-parts of a story too horrible for children and German adult horror stories. For you horror fans, both the inspiration of the old tales in Fantasmagoriana and the resulting stories are great reads (if you haven’t seen them before you can get a Kindle version of the stories the gang wrote in a collection also called Fantasmagoriana for $1.99).
As you curl up in a chair before a fire with your Ipad, reading your tales of terror, why not indulge in a wicked sweet?
I sort of knew what I wanted – a boozy, raspberry-bloodied Baba au Rhum named by a Polish Prince after Ali Baba in The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights – it is insanely, addictively good, but I couldn’t stop there.
I thought a drink to sup whilst enjoying your scary read would be a great idea. I call it a French Ghost or Fantôme Française. It’s a champagne cocktail with blood orange and a hint of absinthe if you would like a green fairy, but with a ghostly twist –– the orange is a spirit that comes through the magical Mandy Aftel –– her Aftelier blood orange spray that is spritzed over the glass of bubbly. A beautiful spirit to be sure and wondrous good to sip on a dark and lonely night
Bloody, Boozy Baba au Rhum (with help from Julia)
1 t yeast
3 T warm water
2 T sugar
1/8 t salt
2 large eggs
4 T melted butter, cooled
1 1/3 c unsifted measure flour (you might need a pinch more)
1 T clarified butter for the pan
2 T rum
Aftelier Blood Orange Spray or 1/4 c warm apricot jam (optional)
Mix the yeast, water sugar and salt and let sit for a few moments. Add the eggs and whip well.
Add the butter and flour and knead in the mixer with a hook for 5 minutes. It is a very loose, sticky dough. If you are doing it by hand just keep pulling and pushing it for a few minutes. Let sit for 2 hours. When it comes out it will be very elastic. Butter a Savarin or bundt pan with a center column. Pull the dough around the pan and press down –– try to make it even. Cover and let rise for 2 hours.
Heat the oven to 375º. Cook the Savarin for 20 minutes or until the top is golden brown. Cool somewhat and remove from pan, sit it on a wire rack. It's best to put the syrup on a warm cake.
Poke the Savarin full of holes and liberally spoon the rum syrup over it. Some people dunk it in syrup but I would worry it would break up. Safer to spoon and brush and wait a bit after each addition before adding more. It may seem like it's too much syrup but it isn't.
Pipe or spoon the Pastry Cream in the center. Spoon the last rum over the top of the cake. You can spray a bit of Blood Orange on the cake or brush on the apricot jam if you would like. Add the raspberries and plant your sugar ax accordingly.
1 1/2 cup milk
6 egg yolks
1/3 c sugar
3 T cornstarch
1 1/2 T butter
1 t vanilla
1/3 c heavy cream, whipped
Boil the milk. As it comes to the boil, whisk the yolks and blend the cornstarch with the sugar. Add that to the yolks. Slowly pour the boiled milk into the yolk mixture, whisking all the time. Then add that back into the pan and cook. If there are any lumps, put it through a sieve and return to the pan. Cook until quite thick - it is almost like a dough. Add the vanilla and the butter. Stir together and chill, covered. When cool, add the cream.
1 c water
1/2 c sugar
1/3 c dark rum
Boil water and sugar. Stir till sugar is dissolved. Cool then add the rum.
1 pt raspberries
1/4 c raspberry or current jelly
Melt the jelly, add the berries to it to soften but not cook through.
1/2 c sugar
1 T water
Melt the sugar and water and cook till darkened to a good dark brown. Have a silpat laid out and a general idea of the shape you want to make and pour the caramel in the shape with a spoon. Any fly-away bits can be removed with heat or hot water.
|Auguste Edouart silhouette behind the Fantôme Française cocktail|
1 glass of champagne
Aftelier Blood Orange Spray or 1 t of orange liqueur
2 t to1 T absinthe* to taste (optional)
1 small cube of sugar
Place the sugar in the champagne glass. Spray some Aftelier Blood orange spray into it. Add a spoon of Absinthe if you would like and then pour the champagne into the glass. Drink on a dark and stormy night to warm you.
* I have finally made my own absinthe with brandy and herbs from my little garden. It was an extreme blast and the absinthe is as green as green could be.