Part 1 of 2
In London, we formed a club. It's very exclusive. There are only six members. Five of us live on the premises. Helen, who is married, lives in Bloomsbury, but she comes to have dinner with us twice a week. We need each other. None of us has sisters, except Mary and Diana in a way, so we take the place of sisters for each other. Who else could share or sympathize with our experiences?
I. The House Near Regent's Park
Mary created a trust that holds the deed to the house. We are all listed as beneficiaries:
Miss Justine Frankenstein
Miss Catherine Moreau
Miss Beatrice Rappaccini
Miss Mary Jekyll
Miss Diana Hyde
Mrs. Arthur Meyrinck (née Helen Raymond)
But it is her house, really. Her father left it to her, along with a moderate fortune. She is the only one of us who has inherited any money. Science does not pay well; mad science pays even worse.
From that fortune, she created a fund out of which we can draw for emergencies, but we all work. Mary paints on porcelain. Justine and Beatrice embroider vestments for the church. I write potboilers for the penny press. Diana is on the music-hall stage. She can't, she says, stand the dull, ladylike sort of work the rest of us do. She must have excitement: the footlights, the greasepaint, the admirers. We don't judge. Who, indeed, are we to do so? We have all done things of which we are not proud. The club is a haven for us, a port in a particularly stormy world.
Helen does not work, of course: she has a household to run, a daughter to raise. She is also her husband's model. You might remember her as Helen Vaughan, although she also went by Herbert or Beaumont, at the time of what the newspapers called the West End Horrors. I have seen paintings of her at the Grosvenor, as Medusa with snakes for hair, or a lamia. I envy her sometimes, living in the midst of an artistic ferment, participating in the world. But then I curl up on the sofa by the fire in the clubroom, at peace with the world and myself, and think about how lucky I am to be here, out of the tumult of life, and I am content.
II. How We Live and Work
Beatrice lives in the conservatory. We had it built especially for her, at the back of the house where the laboratory used to be. Looking in through the glass, from the garden, you would think we were growing a jungle. Vines grow up the posts of her bed, orchids and passion flowers hang down over her as she sleeps. I can see the table where she hybridizes her flowers, but only dimly, since there is always a mist on the glass. Some of the plants I recognize: jasmine, oleander, castor bean, hellebore, laburnum, all part of her poisonous pharmacopeia. And plants that she has created, plants only we have seen, and only in glimpses, since it is deadly for any of us to stay in the conservatory too long. She pollinates them herself, since insects can't live in the conservatory. She breathes in their fumes, and they give her a particular luster.
Beatrice is the only one of us other than Helen with any claim to beauty, but it is the beauty of a poisonous flower. Sometimes when she has been sitting with us in the clubroom too long, she tells us that she feels faint, and must return to the conservatory. The powders she makes and sells to the medical school supplement our income.
Apart from Beatrice, only Justine can visit the conservatory for any length of time. Nothing seems to harm her physically, although eventually, breathing those poisonous fumes, even she will begin to feel faint. But she is the most sentimental of us: the pigeons roo-cooing on the roof, the first flowers on the cherry tree outside her window, a book of poetry, will all bring her to tears. Reading Wordsworth will depress her for a week. I can't help laughing sometimes, to myself of course, when I look out my window and see her sitting in the garden, sighing like a sad giantess.
Justine lives in the attic. She says that she likes to be close to the sky and the pigeons, but really I think it's the only room in the house where the ceiling is high enough for her. When you're seven feet tall, even a ten-foot ceiling feels cramped. All of her furniture had to be made to order: the long bed, the wardrobe tall enough to accommodate her dresses, the looking glass that we bought from a magician, who used it to perform tricks. We've offered to help her decorate, to paper the walls, hang lithographs. I've offered to sew her curtains. But no, she says. She prefers the spartan simplicity of whitewash, a bedstead and a single chair, sunlight streaming through the windows. A cross hanging over her bed and a miniature of her grandmother on the dresser are the only decorations. And books. Piles and piles of books. Mostly religious, but also a great deal of poetry. Too much, I think, to be entirely healthy for her.
Mary, Diana, and I live below her, on the second floor. Mary and Diana share a room. We've told them it's not necessary, that we can convert the library into a room for one of them, but they prefer to live together. I think it took so long for them to find each other, they do not want to be parted, even for a night, although they constantly disagree. Mary: tall, slender, fair, a quiet girl who is always either embroidering or reading philosophical works. Diana: short, dark as a gypsy, as temperamental as I imagine all actresses are. When we found her, she was working in a brothel. We are not entirely certain that she has given up her less respectable pursuits. When she comes home, smelling of gin, it is Mary who sits with her and bathes her head while she lies on the sofa, moaning. I suspect Mary has, on more than one occasion, paid Diana's debts.
Mary's side of the room: blue wallpaper with a pattern of white flowers, blue and white checked curtains, a brass bed with white linen, a small desk on which she has put daffodils in a vase. Diana's side of the room: Indian silks in reds and pinks and oranges, like an exotic sunset. A divan covered with pillows beside a table carved to resemble an elephant. Clothes strewn all over the floor, because she is incapable of keeping anything neat. Everywhere: statues of Hindu gods, buddhas with fat bellies, an onyx dog from Africa, a collection of brass bells, dyed baskets, the detritus of Empire. A vanity inlaid with ivory and strewn with cosmetics that, Mary tells her, will eventually ruin her complexion. Mrs. Poole refuses to clean Diana's half of the room. "Let her learn to pick up after herself," she says, uncharacteristically.
What would we do without Mrs. Poole? Her father worked for the Jekylls, and his father before him. She takes care of us all, makes certain that Justine isn't starving herself on a diet of lettuce and parsley, that Diana gets up by noon so she can make her curtain call. She feeds my cats.
My room is not very interesting. I was born in Argentina and then reborn on my father's island in the South Seas. Perhaps that is why my room is as English as possible. Roses on the wallpaper, a rose chintz on the armchair. A mahogany suite: bed, dresser, wardrobe. A bookshelf filled with Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot. A desk where I write my potboilers.
The Mysteries of Astarte
The Adventures of Rick Chambers
Rick Chambers and Astarte
Rick Chambers on Venus
Invasion of the Cat Women
I look down at the page in the typewriter:
"No mortal man can resist me," said Astarte, pulling back her veil. The eyes that looked at him shone like twin stars in the night sky, dark and yet luminous in her white face. The perfect mouth, with lips curved like the famous bows of the Phoenicians, laughed.
Harold fell down before her, worshiping her beauty. Even Professor Hardcastle wiped the sweat from his brow. Only Rick remained calm.
"Your beauty, Madam, is most impressive. But I am an Englishman, and I prefer justice."
That will be The Death of Astarte. I have already been paid for The Resurrection of Astarte and Rick Chambers, Jr. in the Caverns of Doom.
On the bed, three cats lie purring: Alpha, Omega, and Bess. I found them one morning, three ragged kittens mewing by the kitchen door. Poor things. How difficult it must be, to be a kitten in London, always running from dogs, always in danger of being run over by cartwheels. Of course we took them in. The club is a refuge for them as well, and I am particularly fond of cats.
III. What We Talk About
Sometimes we talk about our fathers.
Justine: "My father loved me. He made me from the corpse of a girl who had been a servant of the Frankenstein family. She had been hanged for a crime she did not commit, and he had preserved her body, anticipating that some day he might be able to once again give her life. He even gave me her name, to commemorate her innocence.
"I can't begin to tell you what a wonderful childhood I had! My father guided me gently through the various stages of knowledge. He taught me the words to describe the world around me: the birds, the plants, the phenomena of nature. He taught me to read, and in the evenings we would read together: Paradise Lost, The Sorrows of Werther, Plutarch's Lives. But he was always haunted by the memory of the creature he had created, and eventually that creature came for him. At his death, I lost my father and my only friend. Until," she looks at us, sitting and listening to her, the firelight on our faces, "until I found you." And we look away politely, while she blows her nose into a handkerchief.
Beatrice: "For so many years I was angry at my father. I thought, he had no right to make me poisonous, to make my only playmates the plants of his garden."
Helen: "He had no right. Seriously, Beatrice, you're too forgiving. You need to learn to stand up for yourself."
Mary: "For goodness' sake, let her finish. You're always interrupting."
Helen: "That's because I can't stand to see any of you justifying them. I mean, seriously. They were abusive bastards, and that's all there is to it."
Catherine: "I have to agree with Helen. Abusive bastards seems, you know, fairly accurate. I mean, look at my father."
Beatrice: "I don't think you can compare my father to yours, Cat. No offense, but your father was a butcher. Mine brought me up himself, in a beautiful garden—"
Mary: "I agree that there are relative degrees of—well, although I don't like to say it, abusive bastardhood. But Bea, he never taught you anything. All that time on his hands, and he never took any of it to sit you down, teach you about your own biology. So you ended up poisoning the man you loved, basically by accident—"
Beatrice: "I should have known."
Diana: "Why in the world would you blame yourself? I'm with Helen. They were bastards, the lot of them, even Justine's sainted Papa Frankenstein. Look at me, born in a brothel. My mother died of syphilis."
Mary: "You can't generalize your story to all of us."
Diana: "Oh, right, now you're taking the other side. My story is our story, or have you forgotten, sister?"
Justine: "For goodness' sake, why are we arguing? I know perfectly well that my father wasn't perfect. But why should I remember all his faults? Why can't I remember the good times we had together, how kind he could be?"
Helen: "Because that's like lying to yourself. We've all been lied to. Do we really want to lie to ourselves as well?"
And then we are all quiet, and stare into the fire.
"My father," Helen continues, "was a scientist, like yours. He took my mother from the gutters, where she was starving, fed her, educated her, seduced her, and then experimented on her. She had a vision. She saw something she could not, or perhaps did not have the guts to, understand—the god Pan, source of all order and disorder, Alpha and Omega, to whom all things in the end will come. Nine months later I was born, daughter of the respectable Dr. Raymond and of Pan. It's not hard to understand why, as a teenager, I tried to destroy the world. Sometimes I wish I had. I mean, look at it. The other day, a man tried to steal my pocketbook. He was drunk, red-eyed and reeking of gin, and I turned and started hitting him with my umbrella. I thought, I could have destroyed you all—the beggars, the bankers, the filthy streets of London."
Catherine: "So, why didn't you?"
Helen: "Well, I married Arthur around that time, and then Leda was born. I would have had to destroy Regent's Park, and ice cream, and prams. It just didn't seem practical. Besides, I didn't want to give my father the satisfaction."
Mrs. Poole comes in. "Would any of you ladies like some tea?"
IV. A Peaceful Domestic Scene
Sometimes when Helen comes, she brings her daughter, Leda. She's a solemn child, with black hair that curls past her shoulders, genuinely hyacinthine. When she smiles, you can faintly hear the clashing of cymbals, the strings of the lyre plucked, the chanting of Bacchantes. You pause, thinking, I must be imagining it, and then you realize that no, you really are hearing something otherworldly. Once, I saw her in the garden, playing with a boy who had horns on his head, and the legs and hooves of a goat.
"She can't control it," says Helen. "She's too young. I couldn't control it either, at her age."
Leda is only twelve. But we can see in her, already, what we all seem to have, what I would describe as a mark, if it were not so variable.
I look in the mirror. I am, everywhere, golden brown: brown hair, brown skin, golden eyes. If you look at them too closely, you will begin to feel strange. You will realize that my pupils are slitted, except in the dark. That I do not blink as often as I ought to. And my face, although well-shaped, is seamed with scars.
We all have the mark, but in different ways. Mary, our golden-haired English girl, sits too still, is too placid for human nature. If you sit with her long enough, you will start to become nervous. Justine, willowy, elegant, is too tall for a woman, or even a man. Diana, lively and laughing, suffers from attacks of the hysteria. She will, suddenly, begin to pull out her hair, cut her arm with a dinner knife. Once, when she was younger, she almost bled to death. Beatrice, beautiful Beatrice who moves through the house like a walking calla lily, kills with her breath. When we gather together for dinner, she sits at the far end of the table. She has her own dishes and plates, which Mrs. Poole collects wearing gloves.
You could, I suppose, call us monsters. We are frightening, aren't we? Although we are, in our different ways, attractive. When we walk down the street, men look, and then look away. And then perhaps look again, and away again. Some of us don't leave the house more than we have to. The butcher delivers, and Mrs. Poole goes to the grocer's. But not even Justine can stay inside all the time. Sometimes we have to just, you know, get out. Go to the library, or the park. Personally, I'm sorry that veils are going out of fashion.
Imagine us in the evenings, sitting by the fire in the clubroom. I am reading from The Yellow Book. Justine is darning a sock. Mary is sketching Beatrice, who is posing by the window, which is open at the bottom despite the autumn chill.
"When will Diana return from the theater?" Beatrice asks.
"I really don't know," says Mary. "She has a new—hanger-on, some sort of Viscount. I just wish she'd be more careful."
"Well," I say, "if he does anything to hurt her, we'll sic Beatrice on him."
"Or Justine," says Beatrice.
"Me?" says Justine. "You know I wouldn't hurt a fly."
"Yes," I say, "but he wouldn't know that. You look frightening enough."
"I couldn't. I mean, it would be terrible. . ." says Justine.
"Oh, for goodness' sake, " I say. "When the villagers come with pitchforks, what are you going to do? Hide in a hayloft? We should be ready to—I don't know, tear their throats out." This is London, but how far away are they ever, the villagers with pitchforks?
"Let's get back to the story," says Mary, the conciliator. "I want to know whether what's-her-name is going to have an affair with Lord—what's his name?"
"That was the last story," I say. "Haven't you been listening?"
"You know I don't like that modern stuff, except your books, of course." I happen to know she never finished Rick Chambers and Astarte. "I just want you to stop bothering Justine. Can't you see she's upset by all this talk of violence?" She turns back to her painting. "Bea, hold your head up a little. You're drooping."
A peaceful domestic scene. An ordinary evening among monsters.
V. How I Joined the Club
I knew Justine before we joined the club. We were in the circus together, the Giantess and the Cat Girl. The manager was a good man, a Polish Jew who called himself Lorenzo the Magnificent. When I joined his Traveling Circus of Marvels and Delights, Justine had already been there for two years. She sat outside the sideshow tent, taking tickets from the patrons. She also had an act with two dwarves dressed as clowns and a pony that kicked on command.
There is an etiquette in the circus. Everyone is polite to one another, but still, the performers have a certain contempt for the sideshow, and vice versa. The performers were proud of their tricks, walking the high wire, riding bareback, being shot from a cannon. But we needed no tricks in the sideshow. We were the tricks. We could perform without moving a muscle.
I was Astarte, the Cat Girl from Egypt. I have no tail and my ears are almost normal, just a little pointed at the tips. But you should have seen me in my costume! Cat ears, cat tail. I certainly looked the part. I would growl with fury and show the customers my claws. I even purred for the gentlemen who paid extra to stroke me. Atlas, the Strong Man, stopped them if they went too far. I was always a respectable cat.
Atlas was in love with Justine. He even asked her to marry him.
"Why don't you?" I asked her. We had become friends, in part I think because of our similar family histories. Her father had made men out of corpses. Mine had made men out of animals. They were, in a sense, in the same profession.
"I just can't," she said.
"Is it your sainted Papa? Are you afraid that you'll never find a man with his charm, his erudition? It's true that Atlas is not exactly literate . . ."
"You're making fun of me. Please don't, Cat. No, it's something else."
"You have to promise that you won't tell anyone."
"Who would I tell? It's not as though anyone else would understand."
"All right. The creature—the one my father made. He wanted me to be his mate. One day, he attacked me. You think I'm strong, but he was so much stronger. He had his hand around my throat . . . If he had wanted to kill me, I'm sure he would have. But that wasn't what he wanted, at least not then. I can't . . . I really can't talk about it any more." Tears were streaming down her face.
"Oh, Justine . . ." I said.
"So you see," she said, finally blowing her nose on a handkerchief. She seemed to have an endless supply of them. "I'll never marry any man."
I put my arms around her, and we sat together on one of the packing crates, listening to the elephants trumpet.
With the circus, we toured the provinces. That was when I fell in love with England, its greenness, its freshness. That was when I created Rick Chambers, the quintessential English gentleman, Eton and Oxford and cricket and the sun never setting and all that. Astarte will never defeat the English gentleman, no matter how many times she lures him into her bed. Of course, he'll never defeat her either. It would be boring if the English gentleman ever won.
Those were happy days, more or less, with Justine, and Lola the Bearded Lady, and Harold the Wolf Boy, and the two dwarves, Pip and Squeak. The pay was low, but we were like a family. However, they were destined to end. Lorenzo was in debt, and even the Traveling Circus of Marvels and Delights could not pay the full amount.
"If only I had the Black Widow!" he said mournfully, one evening as we were eating our supper together around a campfire. The Black Widow was a new marvel, a beautiful girl whose breath was as deadly as the deadliest poison. She was not in a circus, but at the Royal College of Surgeons. Medical men were attempting to determine what made her so toxic. It was Beatrice, of course, but Justine and I didn't know that then. We knew of her only from newspaper articles.
"Poor girl," Justine would say, reading them.
"Why? It says that even the Queen has gone to see her. Imagine the price people would pay, if she were in the sideshow."
"To kill everything you touch! I think that must be terrible."
"If you say so. Personally, I think it would come in handy sometimes."
Two days before the circus was to break up, when Justine and I were wondering what we were going to do with ourselves, a woman came to see us. She was dressed in black, and heavily veiled. When she drew back her veil, we saw a beautiful face, with an olive complexion and black eyes, obviously foreign-looking, yet it would have been difficult to tell what country she came from. She looked so completely exotic, yet at the same time so ordinary, like an English lady. Aha! I thought. If I ever write a book about Astarte, I'll make her look just like that.
"Miss Frankenstein, Miss Moreau," she said. "I'm delighted to make your acquaintance." Her voice was deep, musical, and I almost imagined that I heard the sound of lyres as she spoke. "I understand that your employment is almost over. I've been authorized to offer you membership in a very exclusive club."