Fear of Supernatural Phenomena: Vernon Lee’s “A Wicked Voice”
Vernon Lee’s “A Wicked Voice” encapsulates an interesting interpretation of demonic fears and paranormal hauntings in the Victorian era. Lee’s text suggests that when one rejects the supernatural, evil forces will seek unrelenting revenge. Count Alvise provides the story of Zaffirino, the enchanting “hero” who sung so beautifully that “no woman had ever been able to resist” him; however, Magnus is not interested in this story, and disrespectfully mocks the “old duffer of a patrician” Count Alvise, while “crunching” Zaffirino’s portrait in his fingers. After Magnus physically alters the portrait, he begins experiencing supernatural phenomena; however, this does not prevent Magnus from altering the portrait once again when he tears “the portrait of Zaffirino… into half a dozen shreds.” We learn from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray that portraits reflect a demand for admiration and recognition, so for Magnus to completely disrespect Zaffirino’s portrait in such a blatant manner while learning about Zaffirino’s supernaturally powerful voice we can only assume that this action will lead to a more serious haunting. The ghostly figure of Zaffirino is unrelenting as it drives Magnus into madness, especially after Magnus disrespects the physical memory of the dead singer.
When summoning supernatural figures, whether intentionally or not, it leads to a dependence on that evil force. Magnus experiences this dependence after summoning the evil spirit of Zaffirino. Although the mysterious voice elicits feelings of “repugnance…[and] inexplicable agitation” and although it renders him physically ill, after ridding himself of the wicked voice Magnus feels “sudden disappointment.” Magnus finds himself comforted by the haunting voice, and eventually he “pursue[s]” the calming voice, but when the haunting ends, Magnus is unable to “parch [his] soul.” By the end of Lee’s text, Magnus has become completely dependant upon the wicked voice, and this scene reminds me of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” in which Laura is tempted to go to the goblin market in the forest at night. She answers the goblin calls, tastes the fruit of the goblin men, and becomes dependant upon the fruit. However, after she answers the wicked voices of the goblin men, Laura “could not hear” the goblins. Like Laura, Magnus becomes a victim of the wicked and supernatural voices. Although he is aware of the superstitions surrounding Zaffirino’s name, he, like Laura, cannot avoid the supernatural consequences of his choices. The wicked voices of supernatural forces elicit dependency, and once the victims accept or welcome the forces, the forces leave.
Zaffirino, on the other hand, reminds me of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. Although this text precedes the Victorian era (written in 1588) it comments on the morality of those who are approached by supernatural forces. Although Lee does not explain in “The Wicked Voice” how Zaffirino possesses this haunting voice and ability to cause dependence upon him, it is clearly a haunting and demonic force. Likewise, Dr. Faustus elicits demonic aid from the devil Mephistopheles and Lucifer for 24 years so that he can have a demonic servant “to bring [Faustus] whatsoever,” and to allow Faustus to cause mischief while invisible (153). Faustus can “not be saved” (151) from hell after he chooses to sell his soul to the devil. Dr. Faustus’ desire to cause mischief parallels with Zaffarino. Although Magnus cannot physically see Zaffarino, the disembodied voice continues to haunt Magnus in search of revenge. Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” and Marlow’s Dr. Faustus all suggest that when characters possess the ability to haunt the living while causing mischief it is a result of supernatural and demonic aid.
It is unclear exactly what Zaffarino must do in order to possess the ability to haunt and cause distress; however, Magnus explains that it is “wicked” and “made by the Evil One’s hand.” Magnus is a victim of haunting for disrespecting a wicked supernatural force, and despite effort, will maintain a “hell-thirst” for Zaffarino’s voice. Once the supernatural figure completes his revenge, the unsuspecting victim must rely on that figure eternally as a consequence. Various other texts, as previously mentioned, support Lee’s theories about supernatural forces as relentless and wicked beings.
Lee’s text emphasizes the superstition surrounding the portrait as a haunting and life-preserving force as Zaffirino’s portrait and voice cause Magnus to spiral into uncontrollable madness. The otherworldly objects (ie. the goblin men, Dorian’s portrait, Dr. Faustus’ spirit, and Zaffirino’s voice) act as life-sustaining forces for their unsuspecting victims. The forces are unavoidable, and seductive, but clearly will bring undesired consequences. The ways in which the characters respond to supernatural paraphernalia and beings suggest a long-lasting anxiety.
Lee, Vernon. “A Wicked Voice.” Berfrois, 24 Oct. 2014, www.berfois.com/2014/10/wicked-voice-vernon-lee.
Marlowe, Christopher. “Doctor Faustus.” Oxford English Drama: Doctor Faustus and Other Plays, edited by David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen, Oxford University Press, 2008, 137-184.
Rossetti, Christina. “Goblin Market.” Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44996/goblin-market.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Edited by Robert Mighall, Penguin Books, 1995.