Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Gothic fantasy “Christabel” (1816) begins with an archetypal moment, familiar to fans of monster stories everywhere. The innocent maiden Christabel has been wandering at midnight in the dark forest surrounding the castle of Sir Leoline, her father. In the forest she encounters the lady Geraldine, who appears to be a damsel in distress. The kindly Christabel offers Geraldine her father’s protection, but something strange happens as the two women approach the castle’s entrance:
The lady sank, belike through pain,
And Christabel with might and main
Lifted her up, a weary weight,
Over the threshold of the gate:
Then the lady rose again,
And moved, as she were not in pain.
Naive as she is, Christabel does not see anything suspicious here, but those of us who know our monster lore realize that something sinister is afoot. Geraldine is some kind of evil being—perhaps a witch or vampire—and as such she cannot enter a household uninvited. She feigns pain to account for her inability to cross the threshold, inducing Christabel to carry her over it and thereby to invite her in. Her pain then disappears as mysteriously as it appeared, and Geraldine has successfully invaded Sir Leoline’s castle.
This invitation motif is most familiar from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), but it persists to this day, even in the titles of contemporary vampire movies, such as the Swedish Let the Right One In (2008) and its American remake Let Me In (2010). The prevalence of this motif reflects an intuition that evil is more complicated than we would like to think. We believe that good and evil are polar opposites, and therefore that, when evil enters the lives of good people, it does so wholly from outside, as a completely alien force. Good people are in no way responsible for or even implicated in the invasion of evil. But the folk wisdom embodied in vampire lore knows better. As innocent as good people may appear to be, if they were not somehow open to the influence of evil, they could not be possessed by it. It may sound like blaming the victim, but folklore is relentless, and it suspects that good people must have some affinity with the evil they claim to abhor and reject. That is why in so many horror stories the monster comes to mirror the hero or heroine.
In “Christabel,” for example, the heroine appears to be as pure as she could be, and yet one might well ask: What is an innocent maiden doing walking in a forest at midnight? Christabel is acting suspiciously, as if she were trying to conceal her movements. (“She stole along, she nothing spoke”; later she will “creep in stealth.”) She has been dreaming of her “betrothèd knight”—in a “dream that made her moan and leap.” Is Christabel experiencing a sexual awakening that has caused her to flee the confines of her father’s castle, in search of a freedom greater than he allows her? The opening of “Christabel” is filled with ambivalent images: It is midnight, yet the cock is crowing; “the night is chilly, but not dark”; the cloud “covers but not hides the sky”; the moon is “at the full; / And yet she looks both small and dull.” With all these lines blurring before our eyes, it is no wonder that when Christabel confronts Geraldine, it is not a case of absolute good versus absolute evil.
Geraldine brings trouble into Leoline’s castle, but it is by no means clear that his household was untroubled until her arrival. Christabel’s mother evidently died giving birth to her. Does Leoline perhaps on some level blame his daughter for his wife’s death? In any case, Leoline has imposed a regime of perpetual mourning on his castle that makes it feel more like a tomb than a home—hardly a place for young Christabel to flourish. The poem is filled with love-hate relationships. Leoline was once the great friend of Geraldine’s father, Lord Roland de Vaux of Tryermaine. But they fell out and now are enemies. The narrator adds, “And to be wroth with one we love / Doth work like madness in the brain.” As a conclusion to Part II of the poem, Coleridge attached a seemingly irrelevant passage about why a father might speak bitter words to a child he loves. Coleridge offers a lame explanation for this phenomenon, but the poem itself provides a more direct one: Sometimes we come to hate the people we profess to love. Having mixed feelings about people is the central theme of “Christabel,” as it is of several of Coleridge’s poems.
That ambiguity of feeling is conveyed by the way Christabel—the supposedly good character—becomes the mirror image of Geraldine—the supposedly evil character. Evil proves to be contagious in “Christabel.” Geraldine is imaged as some kind of serpent—Christabel responds to her with a “hissing sound.” When Bracy the bard relates his dream of a snake attacking a dove—Geraldine is clearly the snake and Christabel the dove—the two creatures mirror each other, with the snake “swelling its neck as [the dove] swelled hers.” Entranced by Geraldine’s “serpent eyes,” Christabel “passively did imitate” her and, “with forced unconscious sympathy,” she glares at her father.
Geraldine is Christabel’s monstrous double. She appears fair in public but in private, preparing for bed, she reveals that she is half a witch-hag. If Geraldine is half a beautiful lady, half a monster, perhaps the fair Christabel contains a dark side as well. Coleridge never completed “Christabel,” but he took the poem far enough for us to realize that Geraldine is not creating evil out of nothing in Leoline’s household; she is merely exploiting ill feelings and conflicts that were already present, simmering beneath the surface and ready to break out at the first opportunity.