CLOSE-UP: DEVENDRA VARMA

A connoisseur of horror

CHRIS WOOD April 14 1986
CLOSE-UP: DEVENDRA VARMA

A connoisseur of horror

CHRIS WOOD April 14 1986

A connoisseur of horror

CLOSE-UP: DEVENDRA VARMA

The theatre at Dalhousie University in Halifax was in darkness for the occasion. It was the second of two evening lectures, sponsored by the university’s student union, devoted to the supernatural. In the small pool of light cast by a lectern lamp, the dark, intense features of Devendra Varma, the university’s professor of English

and Gothic romance literature, floated in front of the blood-red stage backdrop like a disembodied spectre. The amplified voice was soft and seductive as Varma described the macabre legend of the vampire he traced to its best-known roots in the mist-shrouded mountains of Transylvania. “Dracula,” Varma told his audience, “is a voluptuous idea. The demon lover who is essentially human and pathetic.”

That description of Dracula reveals a subtlety of interpretation probably lost on the popcorn-chewing audiences of a generation that has grown up watching bad horror films. But it is one that Varma, 62, has refined throughout his 40 years of research into Victorian novelist Bram Stoker’s famous creation, as well as other characters of the Gothic imagination. A professor at Dalhousie since 1963, Varma’s passion in Gothic literature, which flourished in Europe from 1764 to 1820 and focused on horror and the supernatural, prompted him to haunt antiquarian bookstores and private libraries for forgotten novels. He has brought more than 200 such

tales of terror back from the literary grave to titillate new readers.

Indeed, Varma has become so familiar with the Gothic landscape of spectral mists and spiral staircases that movie producers on two continents have sought his advice. His movie credits include such horror-soaked epics as The House that Dripped Blood. So

widely is the stocky professor known among connoisseurs of the macabre that Canadian biographer Marian Bruce describes him as “the best PR man [vampires] ever had.”

Among academics, however, Varma is known mainly for rediscovering lost works from the height of the Gothic romance period. That era featured mass-produced stories of horror and hauntings, with titles like British author Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. The writers favored psychic phenomena, grim landscapes and menacing castles in which to set their tales. The Gothic imagination emerged from the social and political chaos of the late 1700s, when Europe was caught in the throes of revolution.

In one notable display of literary sleuthing, Varma traced the “seven horrid novels” which fictitious character Isabella Thorpe recommends to her friend in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Many critics had dimissed the novels that Austen mentioned as creations of her own imagination. Observed American author Radu Florescu, who

traced Mary Shelley’s fictional Castle Frankenstein to a real castle in the Magnet Mountains of Germany by following Varma’s research: “He is the pioneer of Gothic studies.”

According to Varma, most current horror movies descend directly from such obscure 19th-century hair-raisers as The Castle of Wolfenbach by Eliza Parsons through the romantic poetry of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley— both avid readers of the genre. Meanwhile, Hollywood’s Dracula Society, which is devoted to horror films and books, has recognized Varma’s authority on the macabre with a number of

awards, including two statuettes of the Transylvanian count. And writer Robert Bloch (Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho), director Roger Corman {The Fall of the House of Usher) and actor Vincent Price (Theatre of Blood) are among Varma’s personal friends.

Varma has a special fondness for vampires, among the most enduring symbols of terror. He has traced the vampire legend from wall paintings in India and Tibetan religious writings to the 15th-century Romanian Prince Vlad Tepes Dracula, known in legend as “The Impaler” for his habit of impaling enemies and subjects alike on spikes. His notoriety for murder mixed with legend and local superstition after his death to produce the modern Dracula myth. Varma visited the count’s crumbling castle on a remote Carpathian peak in 1973 and commented on the myth it spurned: “It is a great archetype, inflaming the imagination with dread and envy, fear of

death and the lure of the erotic.”

Now a Canadian citizen, Varma spent his life following the geographical trail of his favorite myth. As a young man, he left his home in northeastern India to establish an English department at a new university in Kathmandu, Nepal, in 1957. He taught in Syria and Cairo before emigrating to Canada in 1963, choosing Halifax for its central location between the libraries of Europe and the United States. He was also attracted by what he describes as a sense of the supernatural which hangs over Nova Scotia’s fog-shrouded shore.

Varma was immediately popular with students, who found the literature of terror an engaging way of earning the usual compulsory English credit. Said Dalhousie student Andrea Chemin, 21: “His courses always fill up right away.” His reputation also attracts other experts in Gothic and psychic research to events such as last month’s public symposium. Connecticut medium Lorraine Warren told an opening-night audience that researchers responding to Varma’s invitation included one who has avoided such affairs since dying in 1948. She claimed that Harry Price, a famed English researcher of psychic phenomena, had visited her the night before in her hotel room, leaving behind a stench of pipe smoke.

Varma says that ghosts, like vampires and the devil, are matters of fact. “To me, they are a reality,” he said. “I have got the incantations to raise the devil, just like Faust. But I would never do it. Once you get him and he has you in his clutches, there is no getting away.” Instead, Varma plans to turn to publishing and making his own films when he retires from teaching in two years. Then he will mine the hundreds of gothic novels that he has discovered for blood-curdling plots and scenes of horror. He says he is convinced that their appeal will never fade. Beyond titillation, Varma says he believes that the recurring themes of terror reflect deep currents of human psychology. “The spiral staircase and the haunted castle are symbols of the collapse of order,” he said. “The gothic novel is a projection of the romantic agony of the human soul.”

CHRIS WOOD in Halifax