If Virgil had been susceptible to human weakness, he would have shuddered.
Instead, he merely sniffed, sensing the wintry coldness that laced the air. He knew that something bad had happened- he could feel it in his bones. A dark scent twisted itself like iron chains around the gaudily-painted whirligig horses- the unmistakable scent of a vampire. He sniffed again, and sensed mint, and ice. Edgar. Virgil could tell it was him as easily as if he had left a trail of breadcrumbs.
-Extract from The Breathing Ghosts, copyright Eleanor Keane 2013.
Vampires Don’t Suck, They Smell
What do vampires have to do with scent, I hear you ask? The answer is, rather a lot. Scent is analysed in Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s Guest, and even in the Final Fantasy videogame- let alone the original novel- the Dracula character can stalk his victims using scent.
Remember Edward gagging (hilariously) at Bella’s scent in the first Twilight movie? (If not, it looks like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bE1ydlsaF2g) Apparently, according to the books she smells like freesia, but not if that scene is anything to go by. Not only that, but vampires are often portrayed as having a keener sense of smell than most humans, or as being intoxicated or beguiled by the scent of human blood.
Vampires and other assorted mystical personae also often carry unusual or even mystical scents, for instance, vampire Matthew Clairmont in A Discovery of Witches smells like cloves, yet it is he who rhapsodizes, almost ad nauseaum, about the way his witch lover smells instead. A rather pretty passage reads:”You smell of willow sap. And chamomile that’s been crushed underfoot.” He sniffed again and smiled a small, sad smile. “There’s honeysuckle and fallen oak leaves, too,” he said softly, breathing out, “along with witch hazel blooming and the first narcissus of spring. And ancient things—horehound, frankincense, lady’s mantle. Scents I thought I’d forgotten.” (pp. 145-6) Truth be told, I admire the whimsical, poetic nature of the above quote. Yet it is not altogether memorable for me when considering the dark, decadent implications of scent, perfume and blood-drinkers. Instead, the most notable example of ‘vampire vs. scent’ in my mind is Zillah from Poppy Z. Brite’s Lost Souls.
In this sexual-horror classic, it’s mentioned so many times that ‘Zillah’s sperm smells like altars,’ the image almost becomes a motif, neatly doing away with the old taboo of sex vs. religion. (And I really am NOT making that phrase up.) In one little phrase, Brite takes on Matthew Clairmont’s musing, nostalgic lover, and trades up- or perhaps down- for a wild, wicked, and dangerously virile vampire. But that’s not all. The book is rich in interlacing descriptions of taste and scent- from the mysterious Miz Catlin’s store, stocked full of herbs and curios: ‘There was a scent of dry antiseptic dust, of strange oily spirits. Of herbs,’ (p. 148) to Ann, the free-thinking artist and mortal, who sprays perfume on her underarm hair.When combined, it’s a heady mix. No wonder Lost Souls’ troubled visionary, Ghost, finds it so hard to ignore the myriad of scents in Miz Catlin’s shop:
‘Ghost…was still in the middle of [Miz Catlin’s] room, swaying. “Aloes,” he said softly. “Bear’s-foot root, elm bark, gentian, Jamaican ginger root…”…Ghost shook himself and opened his eyes. “Sorry. I was smelling.” (p.150)
The darker side of scent has fascinated poets, artists, writers and philosophers for centuries. Saint Philip Nevi was said to be able to ‘smell souls that were destined for hell.’ (See here for more info: http://www.nicks.com.au/index.aspx?link_id=76.1389) As early as 1752, the naturalist Carolus Linnaeus devised a scientific classification scheme for scents that included ‘aromatic’ and ‘fragrant’ alongside ‘musky, repulsive, nauseous’ and even ‘goaty.’
Symbolist poetry and art also played on the alternating imagery of good scent and bad scent, e.g. scent associated with death, and gave it decadent, arguably erotic connotations. For example, in the art of Lawrence Alma-Tadema and John Collier. John Collier depicted, in 1898, The Death of Albine, the Albine of the title being a pure, broken-hearted character in Zola’s La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret.
‘The Death of Albine’ by John Collier, 1898
The painting shows Albine stretched out on her deathbed, surrounding by garlands of flowers, literally waiting to die, cloaked in their scent.Ten years earlier, Alma-Tadema also tackled the idea of death, scent and sensuality.
One of his most infamous paintings, The Roses of Heliogabalus, (1888) depicts the moment when the high priest Heliogabalus smothers his guests/victims underneath a mountain of fresh roses. It is visceral, shocking, and yet disturbingly sensual- we as voyeurs are watching people suffocate, but what really transfixes us is the unnerving beauty of the full swell of pink roses, the flexing of dying, distressed limbs, and the fresh blue sky behind. The-literally choking- sense of scent from the mound of roses grabs us by the collar and threatens to strangle us. Its disturbing quality did not go unnoticed. When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1888, the Archdeacon of Westminster Abbey was ‘sickened’, whilst the Magazine of Art praised its ‘liquid quality.’ Liquid quality indeed- the swirl of ‘liquid’ pink roses is connotative of a swirl of blood. For more on these paintings, see The Victorian Librarian’s post here: http://victorianlibrarian.wordpress.com/2013/05/12/a-dangerous-yet-sweetly-scented-lunch-death-by-perfume-at-the-paul-mellon-centre/
It is inspired by a talk given by Christina Bradstreet (‘Death by Perfume’) at the Paul Mellon Centre, which I really wish I’d gone to as it looks fascinating.
Christina Bradstreet also has her own blog- ‘Art and Perfume’ (http://artandperfume.blogspot.co.uk/) which you can click on for more info.
‘The Roses of Heliogabalus’ by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1888
The pull of death and scent can also be seen in the modern classic Perfume, by Patrick Suskind. In Perfume, the sublime scents of the perfumeries of Paris are interlaced with the rank smells of the fish markets, sewers and streets. One of its inhabitants is Grenouille, a scarred, pockmarked and completely scentless outsider, who finds his calling making exquisite perfumes with rare and wonderful ingredients. This is a concoction with a sour aftertaste, however, for Grenouille becomes obsessed with capturing the scent of a young virgin, and is determined to do so at any cost- even the most gruesome of murders. It was made into a 2006 film starring Ben Whishaw as the sadistic Grenouille, and grossed over $135 million worldwide.Scent, death and darkness make their presence felt in more literary works that just Suskind’s novel, however. Who could forget the flower-drenched death of Ophelia in Hamlet, where suicide and scent converge in a sickly suffocating mass? Scent clings in heavy, saturated bouquets within works by the uber-decadent Oscar Wilde and Charles Baudelaire too. In Correspondances Baudelaire notes:
There are perfumes as cool as the flesh of children,
Sweet as oboes, green as meadows
— And others are corrupt, and rich, triumphant,
With power to expand into infinity,
Like amber and incense, musk, benzoin,
That sing the ecstasy of the soul and senses.
The Breathing Ghosts, Breathing In Scent
In The Breathing Ghosts, the idea of scent is addressed in various ways. For example, many of the main characters have particular scents associated with them.
Red-haired Rowan Oakwood smells ‘faintly like cinnamon and rosemary.’ Cinnamon, according to the Victorian language of flowers, was connotative of fortune, and was once considered an aphrodisiac. (Google it if you don’t believe me.) Its rich colour was, for me, also connotative of the coppery colour of her hair, whilst pungent rosemary stands for remembrance, pointing to a trauma in her past which she has suppressed. Her vampire lover Violet smells- somewhat unimaginatively, I’ll admit-of violets, which are said to mean steadfastness and faithfulness. As violets were also popular in Victorian times- the era of sexual conservatism, the ‘hysteric’ woman and the rise of psychoanalysis- for me they also bring with them suggestions of (sexual) repression and anxiety- all of which Violet is, on some level, affected by.
It’s not only vampires who are affected by scent, though. Thora the werewolf sees people’s personalities as distinct scents. For example, when she first meets Rowan’s uncle, she tells him that another character-Camille- smells like ‘peppermint and milky coffee’ whilst he smells like ‘Oak leaves, old paper and wood smoke.’ For Thora, scents are also a way to track people down, and they act as markers to reveal certain identities. She even uses this peculiar skill to trace Rowan. As she herself explains:
“[I knew] that Rowan would be at your friend’s house, because of her scent. To a werewolf, it’s very distinctive, and not like other human scents. It has a special signature to it, one that marks her out as a hunter… Whether I’m in my wolf form or not, I can smell this scent, and it calls to me. When I first came across Rowan’s scent it was as if she had written the word ‘hunter’ with a sparkler in the air. The word glowed gold in my mind, and I knew exactly who she was.”
In The Breathing Ghosts, scent can be used to reveal a person’s strengths, but also their weaknesses, their vulnerabilities and their secrets.
As a final example, the unapologetically sociopathic vampire Nerissa Naughton can also be seen in terms of scent. She gives no mercy, takes no prisoners and coolly dispatches mortal lives on a whim. She’s horrifying bloodthirsty, and yet we learn later on that her ‘large, dark and quiet’ bedroom smells ‘vaguely of patchouli.’ The symbolism of this may not hit the reader at first, and yet I believe it points to a softer, perhaps even mystical side to Nerissa that she largely ignores in her prowess as a hunter [of mortals].
The scent of patchouli, an earth element, is said to be good for prosperity and sexual power. Sexuality is something that keenly affects Nerissa, and her path is littered with broken hearts and the shattered dreams of lovers unable to handle her mood swings, violent outbursts or uncompromising beliefs. Patchouli can also be used to ward off evil spirits, and its oil is used sometimes within voodoo- bringing a vaguely occult feeling to Nerissa and her Gothic, almost macabre clothes.
Vampirism In A Perfume Bottle
The dark side of scent has often been used and exploited within the perfume industry. There are now a slew of perfumes on the market designed to call to the untamed beast or seductress within women: perfumes such as Alien, Notorious, Guilty, Irresistible, Uninhibited, Ange ou Demon, and on, and on, and on…
In 2000, the posters for Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium were banned because it was deemed too sexually suggestive and degrading towards women. It showed a completely nude Sophie Dahl (the model granddaughter of children’s author Roald Dahl) lying on a fur rug in gold-heeled stilettos. Yet thirteen years on, the perfume is still going strong, with a new ad campaign and a new sister perfume: Belle d’Opium. (Because, obviously, opium is suddenly sexy and cool- did I miss the memo or something? Who wants to buy a perfume connotative of a drug- especially one that made even the best poets and writers of our time completely addle-brained?) Yes, the not-so-subtle nuances of the perfume industry sometimes astound me. Perfume adverts want to be ‘mysterious’ ‘aloof’ and ‘sensual,’ yet most of the time they just appear to be gobble-de-gook.
One thing is clear though: no-one wants to be a flowery-scented hausfrau anymore. As our taste extends to more exotic ingredients (such as amber, musk and jasmine) perfumes are being advertised in more and more outlandish ways. And what could be more rebellious, more forbidden, more alluring than a vampire seductress? The very archetype of the notorious, unpredictable, spontaneous woman?
It seems this is what the perfume industry may be thinking, especially with the monumental success of The Vampire Diaries, True Blood, and a new UK Dracula drama about to be aired in the autumn. In fact, the Twilight series has spawned a whole beauty range (yes, seriously,) including a ‘Breaking Dawn’ perfume. Apparently it is meant to emulate ‘the way Bella smells to Edward.’ (As an aside: WHY DOES EVERYTHING IN THIS NOVEL HAVE TO BE ABOUT EDWARD AND HIS NARROW POINT OF VIEW? Where is Bella’s voice, and her opinion? Oh yes, silly me, I forgot- she doesn’t even get to have one.)
It seems as if the new cult craze for vampire-themed perfume does not end with Breaking Yawn, though. (And no, that wasn’t a typo.)
Vampire perfume is available on Amazon, with notes of lavender and chocolate, whilst online retailer Damask Moon have a whole ‘Fang Fragrance’ line of ‘enchanted oils’, with wonderful titles such as Dark Bouquet, Bloodline, Nightshade Apple, and even the slightly bizarre Fresh Grave with ‘disquieting notes of upturned top soil.’
Upturned, unnerving, unashamed and unapologetic, these are definitely not the perfumes your grandmother used to wear. And perhaps- just perhaps– that’s not such a bad thing after all.
Note: ‘The Roses of Heliogabalus’ and ‘The Death of Albine’ from WikiCommons and are Creative-Commons licensed for commercial reproduction. The image of the vintage (violet) perfume bottle is from Knit Steel on Flickr, and the purple postcard image of the woman and the rose is from moonstarsandpaper.blogspot.com. Both are Creative Commons licensed for commercial reproduction. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, Perfume by Patrick Suskind, Lost Souls by Poppy Z. Brite and the works of Charles Baudelaire are all available on Amazon.co.uk, (or from your local independent bookstore!) The ‘enchanted oils’ from Damask Moon are available to buy from http://www.damaskmoon.com/. They have a great website and also do artwork and jewellery.
Further Reading (in case you’re feeling intrigued…)
–Empire of the Senses: The Sensory Culture Reader by David Howes
–The Goddess Experience by Gisele Scanlon (in which the author goes on a fragrance-buying spree in Paris to track down the perfect perfume. Feminine and evocative, with lovely hand-drawn illustrations throughout- and that’s me describing the book, not a perfume!)
–The Perfume Lover: A Personal History Of Scent by Denyse Beaulieu
–Perfumes: The A-Z Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez