Tuesday, May 19, 2009

FATAL KISSES by Elliott O'Donnell

Hmph. Elliott O'Donnell can be a fun read, but this book, first published in 1929, left a sour taste in my mouth.

O'Donnell (1872-1965) was an Irish-born author who published a huge number of stories purporting to be true tales of ghosts that he personally investigated. I've read a number of his stories, and while I find them preposterous and utterly unbelievable, they're still great fun from a sheer-entertainment viewpoint. Even his contemporaries believed that O'Donnell embroidered his stories with fictitious elements, if not made them up entirely.

He also wrote several novels, including FOR SATAN'S SAKE (1904), THE SORCERY CLUB (1912), and THE DEAD RIDERS (1953), all of which I'll be reviewing at some point in the future (really). This odd book, a collection of historical essays with some ghostly elements, was interesting at first, but a growing mood of sheer misogyny began to taint the books' enjoyment.

It's basically tales of seduction and murder, and every tale features an evil, destructive woman whose kiss presages some violent end. Now, to be fair, some of these harridans are well-documented murderesses....

This charming scene, for instance, is the lovely Marie de Brinvilliers poisoning her father in 1666. Married to an inconstant husband (although O'Donnell makes him out to be an innocent dupe), she became infatuated with a young officer named Ste. Croix...but Marie's father had him thrown in the Bastille. There, however, he learned the fine arts of poisoning from the noted Exili and Marie proceeded to experiment on her servants, then killing her father, then her brothers, then finally trying to kill her husband. Ste. Croix, according to one source, had no desire to marry and slipped de Brinvilliers an antidote, shortly before Ste. Croix himself died (some sources say natural causes, others say he was also poisoned). Marie was eventually arrested, tried, and executed in 1676. O'Donnell makes her out to be ruthless and cunning, which was probably pretty much the truth.

This lovely is Bianca Capello, Duchess of Tuscany and second wife of Francesco I de' Medici. Venetian by birth, she eloped with a Florentine clerk, only to find life with his poor family oppressive. She eventually caught Francesco's eye...and historical sources say he seduced her, but O'Donnell holds that she seduced him. Francesco was already married, to Joanna of Austria, but she eventually died (O'Donnell holds Bianca responsible, and she may have been). Francesco had also given Bianca's husband a job in court, to keep her near, and hubby began to dally with other women until he was killed himself. (O'Donnell holds Bianca responsible, and she may have been, but it's all speculation.) Francesco married Bianca in 1578, and while she had better relations with her family, she had no end of troubles with the other Medicis, including her brother-in-law, Cardinal Ferdinand. Now...history says that both Bianca and Francesco died on the same day; the usual story is malarial fever, but O'Donnell's story (probably fictitious) holds that she and Francesco attempted to poison Ferdinand but ended up taking the poison themselves. Interestingly, in 2006 an investigation of their bones found the presence of arsenic.

Mary Blandy, shown here, is still an object of debate. She was a wealthy young woman, but her miserly father controlled her money, and would never approve of any man who came calling. An unwilling spinster, in 1746 she fell under the spell of the charming Hon. William Cranstoun, who supplied her with "love powders" to give her father, with the idea that they would ease his opposition to her marrying Cranstoun (who was already married, and may or may not have been trying to annul his own unhappy marriage). Of course, the love potion was really arsenic, and Papa Blandy died (some sources say it was a lingering death). She was arrested after writing a letter to Cranstoun begging him to burn her letters, and was found guilty of murder and hanged in 1752. Her final words were a request to not be strung up too high, for modesty's sake.

At the time, she was made out to be a bawdy, unrepentant murderess, and O'Donnell takes a similar view. However, modern scholars (when they look back on the case at all; it's largely forgotten today) tend to view Mary as an innocent lovestruck girl who made a series of foolish mistakes and trusted the wrong man.

The inclusion of Maria Tarnowska makes sense; for many of O'Donnell's readers, she would be remembered as a cause celebe. The daughter of a prominent Irishman who had emigrated to Russia and become a count (thus establishing the rather absurd idea of the Ukrainian O'Rourkes), she had married a minor count but had a number of affairs on the side. In Venice in 1907, one of her lovers, Nicholas Naumov, killed another of her lovers, Count Pavel Kamarovsky, supposedly at her instigation. (O'Donnell holds that she was responsible for a number of deaths, manipulating men to satisfy her vanity.) She was arrested in Vienna and tried in 1910 in Venice, and became the subject of a media circus on both sides of the Atlantic. "The Russian Affair" had people stuck to their newspapers for months. Both she and Naumov were found guilty, but she was sentenced to a mere eight years in prison and was released after only five. (O'Donnell claims that she died in prison, but that is untrue; she moved to South America and died there in 1949.)

Many of the other tales are hard to pin down, and some are obviously reworked versions of folktales, ghost stories, and fairy tales. The first story of the book, "Nuzzly the Beautiful," appears to use a real character, the daughter of Muhammad Ali, the Wali of Egypt from 1805 to 1848. However, it's unknown if Hatice, or "Nazli," was truly the drop-dead-gorgeous homicidal maniac that O'Donnell makes her out to be. However, the tale is very reminiscent of Sax Rohmer's Egyptian stories and I wonder if there wasn't an influence there. "Queen Elizabeth and the O'Rourke" is perhaps the mildest of the bunch, with a probably apocryphal tale of an Irish noble who briefly was the lover of Elizabeth I (and who died mysteriously not long after). "A Fiendish Mother" has a woman who's willing to kill her own daughter out of jealousy, and whose ghost haunts Oulton House in London (although I have no idea if it's still standing). "The Dark Angels of Jeypore" is several tales of women who were behind the court intrigues in India (although in this one, the evil women are balanced by several upstanding, virtuous women characters). "The Kiss in the Crystal" tells of a curse put on a Scottish family (thanks to a cruel matriarch) by a seer; the curse was actually part of popular folklore and written about by Sir Walter Scott. "Gerlinde" is simply a German fairy tale about a man who promises his heart to a girl who turns out to be a ghost. "The Kiss on the Scaffold" appears to be merely a write-up of a tabloid tale from the early 1800s, in which a West Country wife murders her inconvenient older husband, is executed, then her spirit comes to get her lover after seven months. "A Kiss and a Curse" is a retold legend of the Valley of the Rocks in Devon. "The Marble Head" is a purportedly true story of an Italian family under a hideous curse, all thanks to a woman's greed. Finally, "The Kiss in the Theatre" is based on newspaper reports from the 1880s of a heartless woman and a jealous husband.

Really, I have to say...the writing itself isn't so bad. O'Donnell had a straightforward, almost journalistic style, which made his embroidered tales all the more shuddersome. But, when it becomes clear that every fatal kiss is going to involve some evil and destructive woman, it becomes a little hard to deal with, and toward the end, when O'Donnell launches into an anti-feminist rant, going on about how they all hate men, you just have to put it aside for a while. I know I did.

I got this through interlibrary loan; I browsed the 'net and found copies for sale for well over $100, so unless you're a diehard collector, I wouldn't recommend going after this. As I said, O'Donnell can be fun, but this is a glimpse into a darker side. I'm not sure if he was ever married, but the misogyny that radiates from this book makes me wonder. I've caught whiffs of snobbery from his works before, but this is the most out-and-out prejudiced that I've ever seen him be. I may put other O'Donnell works on the Required Reading list, but not this one.


Anonymous said...

I want a Dust and Corruption t-shirt.

Anonymous said...

O'Donnell was married; one of the books he published towards the end of his life is "dedicated to the memory of my beloved wife." He also mentions his wife in several of his ghost stories. I think he was just a product of his time; raised to view independent, free-thinking women with suspicion.

Vagrarian said...

Good to know; in my readings of him since then, I've come across references to his wife. But his antifeminist pontificating in this book, plus alterations of facts and putting things in as negative a light as possible, were turnoffs for me.

It's been a couple years but this is one of the more popular postings here; when I check what search terms people use to find this blog, there's almost always someone looking for info on Maria Tarnowska. Makes me wonder what's up.