Robert Louis Stevenson’s Olalla: A Two-Minute Summary and Analysis of the Classic Vampire Story
One of Stevenson’s most shamefully underrated short stories, “Olalla” (pronounced oh-LAH-yuh), is a masterpiece of erotic horror, one of the most teasingly ambiguous vampire stories in English, and a prefiguration of Jung’s analytical theories of the Self. The novelette also represents one of the most successful pastiches of Edgar Allan Poe’s metaphysical fiction. Combining elements of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Berenice,” “Morella,” “Ligeia,” and the poems “Ulalume,” “Annabel Lee,” “Lenore,” and “The Haunted Palace,” Olalla is the only story I’ve ever read which I would confidently say out-Poes Poe. It broods with rich Gothicism: a crumbling castle, wild wastelands, violent storms, a decadent family thinned out by inbreeding and corruption, an unnamed curse, a haunting portrait which demonstrates the similarity between ancestors and descendants, hints of sexual sadism, a sensitive and spiritually precocious young woman with irresistible beauty and large, luminous eyes, paranoid villagers, the struggle between piety and pleasure, the conflict between death and lust, and strong suggestions of vampirism.
It is a rich, succulent feast for the Gothically inclined, and for reasons unknown – possibly its weak ending, probably its lush sexuality including homoeroticism and female androgyny – it has remained unappreciated, taking a back seat to Dracula, which it outpaces in literary value, and Carmilla, which it outdoes in its shocking sexuality. Moreover – like Jekyll and Hyde – “Olalla” is a masterwork in psychoanalysis that presages Jung’s theories of human identity – specifically the concepts of the Anima and Animus. The story is set either in the Napoleonic Peninsular Wars or in the Carlist Civil Wars of the 1830s and ‘40s (neither war is especially likelier than the other since arguments could be made to support either), and features an unnamed narrator who – like many of Poe’s – becomes enamored with the only daughter of a degenerate family wasted to sedated stupidity by centuries of wickedness, inbreeding, and seclusion (not unlike the Ushers). But like so many of Poe’s heroines, Olalla is different: her eyes shine with spiritual intelligence, her heart and mind are strong with philosophy and religion, and her body – to borrow one of the narrator’s many lustful expressions, is “perfect.” But her brother is a sadistic savant (who appears to have some form of autism) who tortures squirrels and sings in inhuman tones, and her mother is a creature of uncontrolled pleasures – slumbering gluttonously, undisturbed by human intelligence, and drunk on stupefying satisfaction – and what’s more, she and her degenerating offspring may be vampires.
Recuperating from a wound suffered in Spain, a British officer is urged to spend his furlough in the dry, clean air of the mountains to ensure a safer recovery. He is quartered in a Gothic mansion home to a once glorious, now declining Spanish family. Hardly the stereotype of a rain-lashed moor, this manor is surrounded by sun baked highlands, stretching endlessly, ominously into the horizon. The remnants of the family – broken down by centuries of inbreeding and incest – consist of a slothful mother (fat and lazy, she sleeps and eats all day without a thought or word), a mentally challenged brother (violent and servile, he quickly attaches himself to the officer with a doglike, homoerotic passion), and the elusive Olalla, a beautiful, studious girl who avoids the stranger zealously. At first the officer is told to avoid the inhabitants, but this becomes impossible, and he gets to know them better. The mother is implied to be slightly mad, and to have given birth to her son Felipe after a premarital affair with a peasant. She spends her days wallowing in the sun while Felipe runs about killing small animals. Olalla, however, remains unseen. One night he is awoken by violent screams which go unexplained; on another occasion he finds himself bewitched by the portrait of a family ancestor: a beautiful girl with dark eyes whose uncanny similarity to Felipe and his mother imply centuries of undiluted incest.
The officer finally meets Olalla as she is leaving the library. She is tremendously beautiful, and she seems to return his immediate attraction. He learns, after asking about her reading habits, that she is very well-read and a casual scholar of theology. She seems to carry the burden of her family’s degeneracy, and is weary from her contrition. This depravity is later illustrated when Felipe kills a small animal and brings it to the officer like a cat; when the Englishman scolds him for mercilessly killing an innocent creature, Felipe seems to be aroused by the abuse, and grovels pathetically at the older man’s feet, delighted at being scolded. Disgusted by the apparent centuries of sloth, lust, and vi0lence that have dominated the family’s history, the soldier begs Olalla to leave with him: he is drawn to her intellect and compassion, and feels that she could thrive in a different setting. She, however, is certain that she is infected with her family curse, and that she will eventually go insane. Unwilling to saddle her lover with a mad bride, she refuses to leave. Frustrated, he accidentally forces his hand through a window, slicing his wrist. As he bleeds freely onto the ground, the mother – sleeping lazily before a roaring fire – suddenly perks up, strangely energized, nostrils flaring, as if smelling something delicious, and eyes sparkling. He tries to explain his wound, but is stunned when the sluggish woman suddenly overpowers him, grabs his injured arm, and bites into the gash – into the bone. Wrestled off by her children, she repeats the violent screams he had earlier heard, and must be restrained.
Felipe takes him to a nearby inn to recuperate in safety, where he learns that the mother had been sane in her youth, only degenerating after giving birth (the priest who tells him this fears that Olalla will likewise go mad if he takes her with him). Further, he is alarmed to learn that the locals are intent on burning the hacienda down because of centuries’ old legends that the family are inhuman. The soldier recovers from this second injury, and quickly returns to Olalla to warn her of the locals’ murderous plans, finding her praying at a lonely crucifix by the road. She already knows of their plans, and is content to let them destroy what she views as the last of a sinful family of vice and selfishness. All human beings have a “sparkle of the divine,” she tells him, but some are prevented from experiencing it due to corruption and ignorance. Perhaps, she supposes, by submitting to destruction, the family curse can be lifted and her family redeemed. She reminds him that like Christ, who allowed himself to be tortured and lynched, “we must endure for a little while, until morning returns bringing peace.” Dismayed, he leaves her praying at the roadside cross.
“Olalla” demonstrates a level of theatrical control that Stevenson deserves far more credit for than he has. The scene – told in third-person – where the Senora seduces the muleteer from her doorway, luring him to an undescribed death would have been shown in full color by Bram Stoker. But Stevenson restrains himself. He also prevents us from fully understanding either the nature of the family’s sins (which certainly include witchcraft or Satanism and some form of supernatural or ritualistic vampirism) or the character of their curse. They are called basilisks – a form of Satanic dragon – and are suggested to consume human blood if not flesh. Possibly vampires, possibly werewolves (many sources cite it as such, especially considering Felipe’s doglike characterization and the Senora’s sleepy-old-bitch-like behavior), possibly witches, possibly (and Stevenson so artfully offers this natural solution) nothing more than a band of mentally-degenerated inbreds with passionate psychosis and violent tendencies; but whatever their nature, the danger is never explicated, and justly so. The story has several elements that merit individual attention: its sexuality, its psychology, its vampirism, and its philosophy.
To begin with the sexuality, “Olalla” is perhaps the most erotic piece of mainstream prose that I have read from the Victorian era. Other than banned erotica and blackmarket smut, nothing comes closer to describing orgasms, masturbation, homoerotic lust, or sadomasochism than the preceding story. It is lush with descriptions of physical desire and the emotions that surround it, in particular the way that two people can – without touching or even speaking – make love with their eyes. There is, of course, also the very notable element of homoeroticism and queering that occurs here as in other previous examples of the vampire genre (Coleridge’s unfinished “Christabel” and Le Fanu’s masterful Carmilla being exemplars). The relationship between the narrator and Felipe is very difficult to explain away as the “writing of a different age.” The way that he enjoys watching the “beautiful” boy (which “delighted [his] eye”), the powerful emotions that surround his domination of the lad, the undescribed private encounter between the two where the narrator tries to pleasure his friend into letting him court Olalla, and the way that Felipe at first objectifies the narrator by petting him sensually, filling him with “an embarrassment for which I was ashamed,” are just a few of the most notable homoerotic elements in their relationship, which ultimately ends in a BDSM power dynamic.
Felipe, though male, is coded as very feminine: natural, limber, sensuous, unrestrained, impulsive, lusty, flirtatious, reveling in submissive, obsessed with approval, and devoted to his master’s pleasure. Olalla, too, and her mother as well have gender-bending characterizations. Both lean towards androgyny, but Olalla especially, with her deep voice, sturdy hands, manly body strength, and (for the time) masculine syllabus of education (philosophy, metaphysics, and religion). Her mother, too, is sexually aggressive – rapacious even – violent, and powerful when she is not drunk on contentment. The encounters between the two main characters are virtually orgasmic, with eloquent descriptions of physical and emotional lust and language which unquestionably describes symbolic intercourse. The reason for the dynamic sexual magnetism between the two segues neatly into the next major theme: psychoanalytical symbolism.
Like Jekyll and Hyde, which is founded in the proto-Freudian interplay between the Id, Ego, and Super-Ego, the powerful affinity between the androgynous Olalla and her bisexual suitor suggests Jung’s theory of the anima (female social identity) and the animus (male social identity). According to Jung, neither is wholly male or female, in fact they are more like the yin and yang – leaning in one direction, but asexual and genderless. A man whose anima is dissociated from his Ego (viz., a macho who represses his inborn femininity) will have tendencies towards violence, machismo, and sexual overcompensation. The narrator – a shell-shocked atheist who finds the need to dominate and oppress the carefree, sexually ambiguous Felipe (armchair psychology session: he is doing to Felipe what other have done to him because he is afraid of the feelings that Felipe rises in him, either directly or vicariously) – allows little femininity into his life before Olalla enters in. She represents his lost anima – the female side of his Ego which has been beaten down by society, war, and religion – and he is so magnetized by her because reconciliation with her has seismic implications for his psycho-spiritual health.
This leads nicely into our third major theme, vampirism, because as many compentators have agreed, the vampires in this story are not just members of Olalla’s family. The narrator himself – with all of his blood-heavy language – is a psycho-spiritual vampire who feeds off of Olalla (a representation of the feminine energy that he has been starved of) and desires her more as an object to possess and feed from than as an equal partner (Olalla notes this keenly in her eloquent rebuff of his attention: “is it me that you love, friend, or the race that made me?”). Vampires symbolically feed off of that which they have removed themselves from – life, love, goodness, socialization – and the bellicose, domineering, atheistic narrator hopes to gorge himself on the peaceful, nurturing, pious Olalla, just as her mother – equally starved – feeds (literally and metaphorically) on the vigorous, powerful, and passionate.
And now we transition from this thought into our final framing concept: the philosophical meaning of “Olalla.” Like so many of Stevenson’s tales, it has a religious center: Olalla chooses to suffer in isolation in order to redeem her family’s sins by forgoing the option of living a normal human life and denying her human desires. In this way she is a Christ-figure, underscored rather heavily by the final scene of her clinging to the crucifix just as she clings to the identity of The Man of Sorrows. Like Christ, she denies herself a normal life, isolates herself from society, and thereby hopes to end the curse (cf. the Fall of Man) that plagues her family (by not procreating and thus renewing the cycle of degeneration). Her mother and Felipe languish in self-pleasure. Their sin is both spiritual and intellectual: they do not challenge their stupefying contentment, but rather bathe in it: their minds, souls, and bodies meet no conflicting forces, and are thus allowed to remain the same, generation after generation, melting with each birth into a less evolved race: the fleshy vehicle is passed down from generation to generation, untouched, but the spirit is devolved and rotten, growing sicker with each epoch, so that ultimately the shell is clean and pretty but the soul is black and volatile.
Stevenson asserts that it is only through challenges, hard work, self-improvement, and desire that mankind prevents itself from descending back to our pre-evolved state – that our progress is not like building a tower that perpetually rises, but like maintaining a house which must have rotten materials removed and replaced to prevent decay. Ultimately, Olalla acts as a crucifix herself to the narrator, teaching him by her example to broaden himself, deny his lusts, sacrifice his comforts, and open his heart to broader horizons. Emotionally and sexually root-bound, it is questionable whether he learns to release himself from the invisible residencia of his heart (where his own psychosexual identity has grown degenerate, stagnant, and feeble), or if Olalla – like the crucifix on which she casts her identity as suffering savior – is “vainly preaching to [a passer-by], an emblem of sad and noble truths.”
And you can find our annotated and illustrated collection of Stevenson’s best horror HERE!