PseudoPod 844: Gothic Duo: The Oval Portrait & Not More Lovely than Full of Glee
The Oval Portrait
by Edgar Allan Poe
The chateau into which my valet had ventured to make forcible entrance, rather than permit me, in my desperately wounded condition, to pass a night in the open air, was one of those piles of commingled gloom and grandeur which have so long frowned among the Appenines, not less in fact than in the fancy of Mrs. Radcliffe. To all appearance it had been temporarily and very lately abandoned. We established ourselves in one of the smallest and least sumptuously furnished apartments. It lay in a remote turret of the building. Its decorations were rich, yet tattered and antique. Its walls were hung with tapestry and bedecked with manifold and multiform armorial trophies, together with an unusually great number of very spirited modern paintings in frames of rich golden arabesque. In these paintings, which depended from the walls not only in their main surfaces, but in very many nooks which the bizarre architecture of the chateau rendered necessary—in these paintings my incipient delirium, perhaps, had caused me to take deep interest; so that I bade Pedro to close the heavy shutters of the room—since it was already night—to light the tongues of a tall candelabrum which stood by the head of my bed—and to throw open far and wide the fringed curtains of black velvet which enveloped the bed itself. I wished all this done that I might resign myself, if not to sleep, at least alternately to the contemplation of these pictures, and the perusal of a small volume which had been found upon the pillow, and which purported to criticise and describe them.
Long—long I read—and devoutly, devoutedly I gazed. Rapidly and gloriously the hours flew by, and the deep midnight came. The position of the candelabrum displeased me, and outreaching my hand with difficulty, rather than disturb my slumbering valet, I placed it so as to throw its rays more fully upon the book.
But the action produced an effect altogether unanticipated. The rays of the numerous candles (for there were many) now fell within a niche of the room which had hitherto been thrown into deep shade by one of the bed-posts. I thus saw in vivid light a picture all unnoticed before. It was the portrait of a young girl just ripening into womanhood. I glanced at the painting hurriedly, and then closed my eyes. Why I did this was not at first apparent even to my own perception. But while my lids remained thus shut, I ran over in mind my reason for so shutting them. It was an impulsive movement to gain time for thought—to make sure that my vision had not deceived me—to calm and subdue my fancy for a more sober and more certain gaze. In a very few moments I again looked fixedly at the painting.
That I now saw aright I could not and would not doubt; for the first flashing of the candles upon that canvass had seemed to dissipate the dreamy stupor which was stealing over my senses, and to startle me at once into waking life.
The portrait, I have already said, was that of a young girl. It was a mere head and shoulders, done in what is technically termed a vignette manner; much in the style of the favorite heads of Sully. The arms, the bosom and even the ends of the radiant hair, melted imperceptibly into the vague yet deep shadow which formed the back ground of the whole. The frame was oval, richly gilded and filagreed in Moresque. As a thing of art nothing could be more admirable than the painting itself. But it could have been neither the execution of the work, nor the immortal beauty of the countenance, which had so suddenly and so vehemently moved me. Least of all, could it have been that my fancy, shaken from its half slumber, had mistaken the head for that of a living person. I saw at once that the peculiarities of the design, of the vignetting, and of the frame, must have instantly dispelled such idea—must have prevented even its momentary entertainment. Thinking earnestly upon these points, I remained, for an hour perhaps, half sitting, half reclining, with my vision riveted upon the portrait. At length, satisfied with the true secret of its effect, I fell back within the bed. I had found the spell of the picture in an absolute life-likeliness of expression, which, at first startling, finally confounded, subdued and appalled me. With deep and reverent awe I replaced the candelabrum in its former position. The cause of my deep agitation being thus shut from view, I sought eagerly the volume which discussed the paintings and their histories. Turning to the number which designated the oval portrait, I there read the vague and quaint words which follow:
“She was a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee. And evil was the hour when she saw, and loved, and wedded the painter. He, passionate, studious, austere, and having already a bride in his Art; she a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee: all light and smiles, and frolicksome as the young fawn: loving and cherishing all things: hating only the Art which was her rival: dreading only the pallet and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover. It was thus a terrible thing for this lady to hear the painter speak of his desire to portray even his young bride. But she was humble and obedient, and sat meekly for many weeks in the dark high turret-chamber where the light dripped upon the pale canvass only from overhead. But he, the painter, took glory in his work, which went on from hour to hour, and from day to day. And he was a passionate, and wild, and moody man, who became lost in reveries; so that he would not see that the light which fell so ghastlily in that lone turret withered the health and the spirits of his bride, who pined visibly to all but him. Yet she smiled on and still on, uncomplainingly, because she saw that the painter, (who had high renown,) took a fervid and burning pleasure in his task, and wrought day and night to depict her who so loved him, yet who grew daily more dispirited and weak. And in sooth some who beheld the portrait spoke of its resemblance in low words, as of a mighty marvel, and a proof not less of the power of the painter than of his deep love for her whom he depicted so surpassingly well. But at length, as the labor drew nearer to its conclusion, there were admitted none into the turret; for the painter had grown wild with the ardor of his work, and turned his eyes from the canvass rarely, even to regard the countenance of his wife. And he would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvass were drawn from the cheeks of her who sat beside him. And when many weeks had passed, and but little remained to do, save one brush upon the mouth and one tint upon the eye, the spirit of the lady again flickered up as the flame within the socket of the lamp. And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, ‘This is indeed Life itself!’ turned suddenly to regard his beloved:—She was dead!”
Not More Lovely than Full of Glee
By Leanna Renee Hieber
It was said that the artist had abandoned the fine house in the mountains; that richly appointed chateau with the turret where countless rooms stood silent, adorned with art and colored glass. Rumor had it that the cellar was an open pit and the upstairs floorboards creaked and thumped.
It was said that he’d left the village haunted after the untimely death of his young bride. But then again, the peasants below were full of superstition. It wasn’t that anyone had seen her, but the disappearance of her lovely glee was a haunt in reverse. The absence of a once beautiful treasure was the living’s own ghost to bear.
She was talked about. Her memory had life and in it, she was again not more lovely than full of glee as the very mention of her made the elders smile. Then they’d cluck their tongues and ask the rhetorical question of what happened to her. They knew in their hearts; out, out, brief candle. She’d been snuffed.
It was Christmastime—Christmas Eve to be specific—when the artist made his way back to the sorrowful site, in hopes that the season of peace and forgiveness could create an alchemical change in his heart and his fortunes. What better time to reckon with the past and turn a new page, a heart made pure as the mountainside under a fresh blanket of undriven snow?
When the artist’s driver reached the end of the lane, the old man hesitated.
“Go on, sir,” the artist assured. “I’ll walk from here. Turn around, get that shivering mare into a warm stable. I’ll be all right.” He unleashed his leather case from the back of the carriage. “I’m home again. And I have to make my peace with that.”
The hunched driver crossed himself and turned his hack sharply, murmuring a benediction for the artist’s soul and something about “her” that became lost in a gust of wind.
The chateau loomed ahead at the end of the tree-lined lane, its form like a skull on the edge of a cliff. The last of the day’s light glinted off eye-like windows, and the land below was ushered swiftly away in a sheer drop.
With a crunching tread through deepening drifts, the artist made his way forward. He glanced up at a noisy blackbird grumbling in a treetop, noting that the branches arching above him had begun to gnarl and knot; claws in a tangle.
A warning from the morning halted him at the property’s wrought-iron gate which yawned open at the latch. He recalled the woman in the train bench in front of him; when he handed his ticket over to the conductor and said what town he’d be stopping in, she turned around, mourning veil nearly obscuring her wrinkled face.
“Take care, there, my son. Yuletide or no. It is a place of curious endings.”
These words had chilled him enough to make him reconsider his return. He had opted not to go through the town and up the rugged pass, but instead continue on the rail north and take the higher road, privately, back. He was sure if he’d paraded through the central pass there would be whispers and cruelties spoken not enough out of earshot. His sorrow was heavy enough without gossip weighing it further.
Stepping up the overgrown flagstones to the hefty, carved oak front door, the artist noted the glass on either side was broken, the lock forced. He shouldn’t have been surprised that brigands took evident shelter here, assuming the place was abandoned. They hadn’t been wrong. After the funeral, the once romantic nest had become as silent as the lily-marked grave down below. The artist didn’t dare look down the side of the mountain at that valley churchyard. The only comfort he could muster was what he hoped still lay ahead, hung on the walls inside: his art.
Once inside the foyer, he struck a match to light the front braziers and then struggled with the resistant wick of an oil lantern. Lamp finally lit, by jaundiced light, he began his tour of plaster walls lined with paintings and dark wooden roof-beams decked with spiderwebs. The colored glass lining the windows was as dark as the night sky. But his art remained safe within. He sighed in relief.
In the main hall were his vast landscapes. Ruins. Abbeys. Castles.
Up the curving stairs were the faces. Patrons. Scholars. Nobles.
They were works of great renown; each a captured flash of fervor and obsession. Now, here, they were his witnesses.
He hadn’t stopped painting during his time away; he did have to eat, to survive, and there were no other skills to which he was suited. But looking at these pieces here, remembering them again, feeling them in his fingers as if he were still sculpting the paint into just the right texture, nothing he’d painted of late had the life of these earlier works.
And nothing, of course, had the life of her.
Perhaps that’s why all the art had been left alone. Deemed haunted.
There were footprints tracked in the dust ahead of him as he climbed the curving stone stair, the lamplight illuminating a limited arc ahead of him, two pairs of feet then just one as the furthest chamber was reached. He paused at the open door. The prints of the boots were hardly fresh so it had been some time since the trespass, and as the steps were few, the place must have been denounced as eerie enough to ward off subsequent intruders.
At the end of the hallway stood the turret room that had held his most precious treasures. His best work. The place where he captured her adoring look. Forever. To the last.
The night was a dark one and very little light came through the lancet windows ahead.
If the artist wasn’t mistaken, even the lamplight hesitated at the threshold, as if it didn’t dare disrupt the deep shadows within.
Trembling, he took a deep breath and stepped into the chamber. The bedcurtains across the room were open and the bound book that had chronicled all the artistic works within the house lay open to a final page atop the rumpled bedclothes.
His mind swam. Had a friend, the week she died, offered to add in one final entry? The artist didn’t remember and he was too unnerved to look. Instead he bent to set the lantern upon the floor, cast the book aside and lay down upon the dusty bed, folding in upon himself to weep.
It wasn’t that he hadn’t mourned then, it was that he’d gone into a detached state and felt like he was only now waking up, jarred to the truth of the empty place. Her vacancy. He had been so obsessed with the look of her and how to translate it he hadn’t considered the reality of her.
“It is a place of curious endings.”
She had ended. Here. And yet. What was art but a chance at eternal life?
He tried to bring the image of her to mind, of her beautiful face, even as she was laid out in her winding sheets. But all he could see was the flurry of brushstrokes in his mind’s eye. All he could seem to recall was the drag of horsehair on the palette and the angle of the dim light. He had tried so desperately to capture what was always said of her: glee above loveliness. The final result was, of course, stunning, unearthly, but it had been cast aside when the health of his model- his wife– vanished.
“Forgive me…” he whispered to the empty room.
Bare trees scraped against the narrow windows like the scratch of fingernails.
The portrait was there on the wall, behind a curtain. After the funeral the artist had placed it in the deepest of shadows. All he had to do was lift the lamp, draw the shade, and confront his fated masterpiece. Face down on his coat sleeve, he steeled himself and wiped his streaming eyes on his cuff. That’s when he heard a footstep.
A light footstep. From the corner of the room. A slow, pervasive paralysis crept over him.
Another step. The creak of a floorboard. He did not dare lift his head now. Another step at the head of the bed. Shifting his face, unable to help himself, he peered between his fingers. The curtain over his wife’s oval portrait was drawn aside.
The frame was empty!
A sound left his throat, something strangled and shocked. The shadows to the side of him, mere feet from him, moved. In a scramble, he reached for his lantern, lifting it up with a choking “Who’s there?”
There she stood.
Shaking, the artist lowered the lantern, but its arc was wide enough to capture her whole form at the head of the bed, dressed in the dark gown she’d been painted in. “My God…”
There was a glow about her like a phantasm, and yet her small, slippered feet were planted upon the ground—as much solid as shade. Her face looked just as he’d painted her. But the curve of her smile was terrifying.
Then the figure spoke. Her voice was soft. Musical. Glancing off the artist’s ear as if from across the hall, not right before him.
“Hello, husband.” She smiled an obedient, sharp-toothed smile. “How do I look?”
He gaped at her. She took another light step forward, coming around the bed towards his cowering form. Her feet sounded on the boards and yet no dust was disturbed in her wake.
“Am I not more lovely than full of glee?” she asked. “Is that not what always was said? It is important to remember what has been said.”
He fell to his knees, crossing himself. “A… miracle… Though… how can it be that you are here now? I buried you, my sweetheart.”
She drew close. Cold hands that abrased like dry canvas shot out to cup his cheeks. “You did, my husband…” She murmured hungrily. Her dark eyes flickered to the wall. “But my life was here all along. You saw to that. Down to the last spark of my body’s vitality that you gave to the glint in my painted eye. Did you not think there may be more than one way to take and give a life?”
Still in her unsettling hold, he tilted his head to the side, not understanding her question. She did the same in an eerie mirror.
“The storytelling,” she explained. “The tales told of me. I suppose you wouldn’t have thought of it. Your art was in paint, your mind in lines and strokes. I understand. But you’re here now to see the power of the word. It giveth and taketh away.”
His wild fervor was held by her sharp fingernails. Her smile broadened, gleeful indeed, as she bent to kiss him. He shuddered in her grasp. His color leapt from his cheek to hers.
A spark leapt up; that ineffable, glittering light, that unfathomable mystery. She caught the luminous wisp in a deep breath, rolled it on her parched tongue and swallowed it whole.
The artist slid to the floor, motionless.
The book that chronicled the entire gallery of the chateau, indeed works of great renown, stood open to the very page that told of her demise. Her sacrifice. That the book was open proved it had been read. Someone had come to bear witness to her tale. But it was as yet unfinished. She plucked a pen from the prone artist’s pocket and added to the narrative which had ended, abruptly, with her death. She continued the tale:
“Yes, dead she may have been, but what has the finest wit of our age said? ‘Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.’ Perhaps, but it must then also be said: Death imitates Art far more than Art imitates Death. If art captures life then I was never wholly dead and words have resurrected me. I have stepped out of the frame to begin anew.”
Church bells tolled the midnight mass to proclaim a special child was born to a peasant, urging the world to tell tales of sacrifice and eternal life.
She stepped out of the turret, strong footfalls treading the sonorous floorboards. She kept walking until she reached the town below where tales of her reached further still; not more cautionary than full of fear.
PseudoPod, Episode 844 for December 23, 2022. It’s a surprise two-fer THE OVAL PORTRAIT by Edgar Allan Poe and NOT MORE LOVELY THAN FULL OF GLEE by Leanna Renee Hieber, with audio production by Chelsea Davis.
Hello, I’m Shawn Garrett, your rarely heard from Co-Editor of Pseudopod, here to host this Gothic Duo this holiday week.
We have two authors this week – Edgar Allan Poe you may have already heard of (and if not, what are you doing liustening to this podcast?). This story, “The Oval Portrait,” was originally published in a slightly longer form in Graham’s Magazine in 1842, as “Life in Death.” Poe then removed the longer introduction and republished it as “The Oval Portrait” in the April 26, 1845 edition of the Broadway Journal.
“Not More Lovely Than Full Of Glee” originally appeared in A Winter’s Tale: Horror Stories for the Yuletide in 2020.
Your first narrators is Wayne Johnson (who was born and raised in New Jersey and who has worked as a clinical scientist in the pharmaceutical industry for 40+ years. He currently lives in south central Kentucky, the land of Bourbon, Corvettes, and corrupt politicians, and was last heard on this podcast reading Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm” for Pseudopod epiosde 699. Your second story is read by Steve Anderson who, when he’s not behind the microphone, produces animated explainer videos at SGAcreative.com, and performs original live storytelling programs at GreatTalesLive.com.
Now, we have two stories for you, and we promise you, they’re true.
“The Oval Portrait” is interesting for a number of reasons -it’s Poe writing at what we would now call “flash length”, which was not common for him. To me, the story also has an early touch of modernity in it, as it transitions from a description of the portrait into a text that explains the background of that same portrait. I thought I might also mention Poe’s relation to the Decadent fiction movement, which came about nearly 40-50 years after his death, but the proponents of which held Poe in high regard. It wasn’t just his morbidity but, much like their embracing of Baudelaire, there was more to it than that. This piece – with its connection between creativity and art and death, is a good indication of why they revered Poe. Life leaves us old, changed, as the body betrays us, or circumstances destabilize us. Art, meanwhile, preserves us from death – static and unchanging (at least in the visual arts) certainly, but the stroke of a paintbrush defeats time forever – and does something similar for the artist themselves, whose name and story may, MAY, be remembered as well. But there is something unnatural in the exchange – the deeper truths of the idea of the vampire encompassed in the painter’s art. Life and Death, imitating art…
The author of the second story, Leanna Renee Hieber is an actress, playwright, ghost tour guide and the award-winning, bestselling author of Gothic, historical paranormal novels such as the Strangely Beautiful, Magic Most Foul, Eterna Files and The Spectral City series, which will be continuing with new novellas via Scrib’d, with Leanna narrating the audiobooks. Leanna’s Dead Ringer, a historical paranormal mystery podcast, is forthcoming from Realm. A Haunted History of Invisible Women will be Leanna’s first foray into non-fiction (Fall 2022, Kensington Books). A 4-time Prism award winner and Daphne du Maurier award finalist, Leanna’s books have been selected for national book club editions as well as translated into many languages. Her short stories have been included in numerous notable anthologies. A licensed NYC ghost tour guide, Hieber has been featured in film and television on shows like Mysteries at the Museum and Beyond the Unknown, discussing Victorian Spiritualism and ghostly fascination. For writers’ resources, free reads and more visit http://leannareneehieber.com.
Leanna Hieber’s sequel to the Poe original, “Not More Lovely Than Full Of Glee”, provides a way out of that sterile stasis of art that I described earlier – a supernatural one, of course, but it is worth considering – in our age of selfies and endless postings, whether we DO want to be preserved forever, especially if it is a version of us at our most frivolous. Andy Warhol may have famously quipped about all of getting our 15 minutes but New Jersey radio racontuer Jean Shepherd, whose voice and storytelling lives forever in seasonal repeats of A CHRISTMAS STORY, once said – “Can you imagine 4,000 years passing, and you’re not even a memory? Think about it, friends. It’s not just a possibility. It’s a certainty.”
We, as always, would like to point out that time continues to flow and so we ask that you may consider feeding the pod and subscribing, as a way of staving off the ravages of time.
Pseudopod is part of Escape Artists incorporated and is distributed under a creative commons attribution non-commercial no derivatives 4.0 international license. Theme music is by permission of Anders Manga.
And Pseudopod knows, as Poe said in “Ligeia” – “There is no exquisite beauty, without some strangeness in the proportion.”
Happy holidays, everyone…
About the Authors
Leanna Renee Hieber
Leanna Renee Hieber is an actress, playwright, ghost tour guide and the award-winning, bestselling author of Gothic, historical paranormal novels such as the Strangely Beautiful, Magic Most Foul, Eterna Files and The Spectral City series, which will be continuing with new novellas via Scrib’d, with Leanna narrating the audiobooks. Leanna’s Dead Ringer, a historical paranormal mystery podcast, is forthcoming from Realm. A Haunted History of Invisible Women will be Leanna’s first foray into non-fiction (Fall 2022, Kensington Books). A 4-time Prism award winner and Daphne du Maurier award finalist, Leanna’s books have been selected for national book club editions as well as translated into many languages. Her short stories have been included in numerous notable anthologies. A licensed NYC ghost tour guide, Hieber has been featured in film and television on shows like Mysteries at the Museum and Beyond the Unknown, discussing Victorian Spiritualism and ghostly fascination.
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe (January 19, 1809 – October 7, 1849) was an American writer, editor, and literary critic. Poe is best known for his poetry and short stories, particularly his tales of mystery and the macabre. He is widely regarded as a central figure of Romanticism in the United States and American literature as a whole, and he was one of the country’s earliest practitioners of the short story. Poe is generally considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre and is further credited with contributing to the emerging genre of science fiction. He was the first well-known American writer to try to earn a living through writing alone, resulting in a financially difficult life and career.
About the Narrators
Wayne was born and raised in New Jersey (USA). He worked as a clinical scientist in the pharmaceutical industry for 40+ years. He currently lives in south central Kentucky, the land of Bourbon, Corvettes, and corrupt politicians.
Steve Anderson has lost track of just how many stories he’s narrated for Escape Pod, PodCastle, and PseudoPod (which includes a Parsec Award-winning story for PseudoPod). When he’s not behind the microphone, he produces animated explainer videos at SGAcreative.com, and he performs original live storytelling programs at GreatTalesLive.com.