• Sarah Coomer

100 Ghosts: Schalken the Painter by Sheridan le Fanu.






Or as it should be called ‘Toxic Masculinity Never Dies’. This ghastly tale by Le Fanu, first published in the Dublin University Magazine in 1839 is set in the the 17th century studio of Dutch painter Gerard Dou(w), who was the real master of the real Godfrey Schal(c)ken, who had in his turn been pupil to Rembrandt. In Le Fanu’s story, Schalken is in love with Douw’s niece and ward Rose but knows as an impoverished student he is unlikely to be seen as a suitable suitor. One evening, Schalken works into the night on a painting depicting St Anthony tormented by devils. It’s not going his way. He curses the painting and its holy subject whilst rubbing charcoal into his face like the tormented artist he is. We’ve all been there, though an iPencil doesn’t quite have the same effect. As if by this dark summoning, a stranger, Minheer Vanderhausen of Rotterdam appears with a proposition for his master Douw and commands the younger man to arrange for his master to meet with him the following evening. The upshot is he returns and offers Douw a load of cash in return for his niece’s hand in marriage, who he glimpsed in a church when Douw and Rose visited Rotterdam some weeks previously. Putting aside both his slight misgivings about the weirdness of the suitor, and that Rose might have an opinion on this, and her own ideas about who she might want to marry, Douw signs a contract, effectively selling her to the sinister Vanderhausen, who he has spoken to for a couple of minutes and who’s face he has not even seen. When we do eventually see Vanderhausen’s face for the first time, along with Douw, Schalken and the unfortunate Rose who is still unaware of what her uncle has arranged, it’s obvious he is not like other men. His skin is tinged blue, doesn’t appear to breath and moves like an animated statue. Yes, that’s right folks, he’s dead. Lucky old Rose.

That the story does not end well is not entirely surprising. I’m not sure what’s more horrifying, that Rose was married off to a revenant to set up home in his tomb or the very ease at which she was bartered in this way entirely against her will. And Godfrey Schalken did nothing, an apparently impassive witness of his supposed true love’s ruinous end. The 1979 Omnibus adaptation of the story is more censorious of Schalcken (the film, available on YouTube, restores the c to his name) and pretty much makes it clear that his ambition is stronger than his love for Rose, and his predilection for prostitutes reveals his own transactional view of sexuality and relationships, though to be fair this was pretty much de rigeur at the time. Not that that’s an excuse, especially not for selling your ward to a corpse or standing by while it happens to your sweetheart. This adaptation, stretched to a running time of 68 minutes if anything improves on the story by fleshing it out. It looks beautiful, it’s exquisitely lit and most of the scenes look like paintings themselves. It also features many of the real Schalcken’s paintings, largely of young women lit by candlelight which were the inspiration for the original story. The pace is slow and the atmosphere is unsettling, which is in no way diminished by Charles Gray’s chilling narration as Le Fanu. Did Charles Gray ever do anything except sinister and chilling? Can you imagine him playing Buckaroo? Or even eating a sandwich? No me neither.


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