Lucinda Elliot describes her novel as a “cod gothic,” a seriocomic parody of a venerable genre that often satirizes itself. The book is a delightful read, with an intriguing story, lively sometimes-outrageous characters, and well-placed touches of humour. An outstanding feature of this amusing vampire tale is the delicious contrast between the staid nobility of settled aristocrats intent upon keeping up appearances and the scandalous behaviour of an arch scoundrel (himself of noble blood) named Emile Dubois.
Complicating matters is a regal country house full of bloodthirsty half-vampires, one of whom, Goronwy Kenrick, schemes to harness “thought forms” so he can travel through time. Throughout the tale, serious trouble with vampires alternates with episodes of good-natured fun or even all out farce. Especially droll are the scenes where the vampire elite angrily holler down corridors and stairwells at reluctant servants (who often distantly shout back).
It is 1797 and the well-paced story is largely set in three great houses nestled in the mountains of Wales. Soon winter comes and the wind drives snow at rattling windows and moans round the chimney tops. Dark trees writhe in the cold unsettled nights. Snow blankets the quiet countryside and fills its narrow winding lanes. Adding to the winter chill are rumoured sightings of huge eerie bats.
Sophie de Courcy, the novel’s lovely blonde heroine, enjoys wriggling her toes before the fire. She is a poor relation who hopes to assure herself a comfortable place in life by marrying well. Lucky in the generosity of her more illustrious relatives, she has her own maid, a practical young Welsh woman named Agnes who manages to combine good sense with complete faith in the prophetic power of her tarot cards. Excitingly, Agnes foresees handsome dashing young men for Sophie and herself.
Sophie finds her chance with her cousin, Emile Dubois, although the rakish fellow’s bizarre insistence that they have already met in Paris, a city Sophie has never visited, muddles the courtship. Emile went by the name of Gilles Long Legs then, and associated with the likes of Marcel Sly Boots, Southern Georges (now his valet), and other assorted questionable characters, all of them intent on hiding their real identities behind suggestive nicknames. In England, Emile is rumoured to have been a masked highwayman. He is a man desperately distracting himself from horrendous personal tragedies suffered during the French Revolution. Sophie is beguiled.
One of the novel’s most amusing scenes is Sophie’s wedding night. Having worked herself into a fine case of cold feet, she must lie in the marriage bed with her decidedly lusty, not to mention well-endowed, husband. Also enjoyable are the scenes with the odd assortment of criminals and ruffians who loyally staff Emile and Sophie’s new home.
The local vampires (in the person of the hypnotically seductive Mrs. Kenrick) have already bitten Emile. Georges is soon infected as well and much of the story deals with Sophie and Agnes’ determined struggle to save the men from becoming living vampires. Luckily, Emile has rescued a 12-year-old waif from the clutches of Kenrick. Little Katarina is from Transylvania and knows all about battling the vampire curse. The women brew foul potions, deploy garlic, “charge” wine by exposing it to the insides of a church, and hide talismans in strategic places. Everyone wears a protective “papist” crucifix. Unhappily, nothing seems to work.
Sophie has married Emile knowing he is infected. As he succumbs, Sophie must wrestle with his desire to bite her so she can join him in the long life of the half-vampire. Elliot invokes the old 17th century idea that Sophie may refuse her husband his coveted bite because being infected would violate her right to follow her Christian pursuit of salvation. The long unequal power struggle between obedient wife and dominant husband is intriguing. As Emile’s condition steadily worsens, and his courtly ways erode, Sophie’s precarious situation of sleeping with a half-vampire generates a frisson of suspense.
Elliot’s characters are vividly presented and memorable. The loving interplay between the respectable Sophie and the scoundrel / gentleman Emile is one of the most gratifying aspects of the tale. Sophie and Agnes shine as the former demonstrates her increasing independence and the latter her admirable ability to cope sensibly with just about anything. Georges is a cigar-smoking thug, but made lovable nonetheless. The half-vampire Kenricks are exquisitely wicked and depraved.
That Scoundrel, Emile Dubois is a sophisticated and sensual example of the humorous gothic novel.