The Electric Vampire
By F. H. Power
Illustrated by Philip Baynes
(This short story appeared in The London Magazine of October 1910 with the accompanying Editor's note: 'The following short story, though of course but a figment of the imagination, is yet founded on fact. Over seventy years ago (in 1836, to be precise), a Mr Crosse astonished the British Association by reading a paper on electro-crystalisation, in which he described how he obtained living electrical insects, called acari, by artificial means — namely, by a voltaic battery, certain acids, and red oxide of iron. His experiments were closely watched by the leading scientists of the day, but Crosse himself gave them up, owing to the excited attitude of a section of the public, who assailed him with much bitterness for carrying out experiments which they considered it a "crime" to make.')
I was at breakfast when the note reached me. 'My dear Charles,' it ran — 'I shall be glad if you can come round to my place tonight, as I have something to show you, which I think will interest you. I have also asked Vane.'
It did not take a moment for me to make up my mind to go. Dr Vane and I often spent an evening at George Vickers's house. We were bachelors, and as we were all fond of things scientific, the time passed very pleasantly — so pleasantly that very often it was two or three o'clock in the morning before he saw us off his premises.
During the day I found myself speculating as to what our friend intended to show us. I recalled some of the weird and fascinating electrical experiments he had performed in his laboratory. 'I bet it's another experiment with electricity,' I said to myself, but I was only partly correct.
I arrived at the house about six o'clock, and found Vane had already arrived, and, as usual, had taken the easiest armchair in which to rest his lean body. Our host, with his ruddy, smiling face, stood with his back to the fireplace.
'I'm glad you have come, Charlie,' he said. You will be able to relieve me from that living mark of interrogation.' And he nodded towards the doctor, who sat twirling an imaginary moustache.
'Well, why can't he indicate what he has dragged us round here for?' the doctor asked plaintively. 'And fancy having as an excuse that he doesn't want to spoil my appetite for dinner!'
'Eh, what?' I ejaculated.
'Oh, now you are going to start. For goodness' sake find something else to talk about until we have had something to eat,' said Vickers, and he suggested aeroplanes.
We let him have his own way, and very soon after sat down to dinner. Our conversation during the meal would have been dry to many, but it was after our own hearts, and never flagged for a moment. The doctor's speciality was biology. My hobby is chemistry, and it was through an explosion which nearly blinded me that I first made his acquaintance, and subsequently introduced him to George Vickers.
At last George leaned back in his chair, and, lighting a cigar, said:
'You fellows, of course, want to know what on earth I am keeping up my sleeve. Before I show you, I want you to listen to this short extract from a series of lectures given by a man named Noad, and published in 1844.'
He fetched the book, and read:
"It was in the course of his experiments in electro-crystalisation that that extraordinary insect about which so much public curiosity has been expended, was first noticed by Mr Crosse." '
Here Vickers looked up from the volume, and remarked:
'Mr Crosse I might say, was a gentleman who stood foremost as one of the individuals in this country who have distinguished themselves by their researches in atmospheric electricity.'
He turned to the book again:
"In justice to this talented individual, who was most shamefully and absurdly assailed by some ignorant people on account of this insect, and who underwent much calumny and misrepresentation in consequence of experiments 'which in this nineteenth century it seems a crime to have made,' I shall give a detailed account of that experiment in which the Acarus first made its appearance.
'Here follows,' said George, a minute description of the apparatus Crosse used. Briefly a basin containing practically a saturated solution of soluble silica is placed in a funnel, and a piece of flannel hangs over the side of the basin and acts as a syphon. The liquid falls in drops on a piece of porous red oxide of iron from Vesuvius, kept constantly electrified by a voltaic battery.'
Again he turned to the book and read:
' "On the fourteenth day from the commencement of the experiment, Mr Crosse observed through a lens a few small whitish excrescences or nipples projecting from about the middle of the electrified iron, and nearly under the dropping of the fluid above. On the eighteenth day these projections enlarged, and seven or eight filaments, each of them longer than the excrescence from which it grew, made their appearance on each of the nipples. On the twenty-second day, these appearances were more elevated and distinct; and on the twenty-sixth day each figure assumed the form of a perfect insect standing erect on a few bristles which formed its tail. Till this period Mr Crosse had no notion that these appearances were any other than an incipient mineral formation, but it was not until the twenty-eighth day, when he plainly perceived these little creatures move their legs, that he felt any surprise. In a few days they separated themselves from the stone, and moved about at pleasure. They appeared to feed by suction." … Mr Crosse adds: "I have never ventured an opinion as to the cause of their birth; and for a very good reason — I was unable to form one." '
Vickers shut the book up.
'There's a lot more about it, but I think I have read all that is necessary. If either of you would like some more information on those early experiments, you will find it in the "Transactions of the Electrical Society".'
There was silence whilst we puffed at our cigars. At length, Dr Vane said:
'I was under the impression that subsequent experimentalists were not so successful as Mr Crosse ?' Vickers smiled enigmatically.
'If you will just come this way, I fancy I shall be able to prove to you that at least one other experimentalist has been fairly successful.' And beckoned us to follow him.
I had often been in his laboratory, but to my surprise he led us to a room at the top of the house, and, as he inserted the key, drew our attention to the Yale lock.
'I rely on you chaps to keep to yourselves what I am going to show you, because I am preparing a paper on this experiment, and I want to surprise 'em,' he said, and pushed the door open.
Dr Vane, with an eager look on his face, entered boldly. I followed close behind, and I remembered wondering why George, usually so unemotional, appeared to be in a state of suppressed excitement.
And then I saw what it was. May I, a man, be forgiven if I trembled from head to foot!
On a low plain wood table was a sheet of some metal about four feet square. From a cistern fixed above, and pierced by many minute holes, some liquid dropped on the slab incessantly. But these things I barely noticed, for my attention was riveted to the centre of that slab, on which sprawled a creature which I can only liken to an immense spider, its length being about two feet.
Two legs appeared from behind each side of the head, and four longer ones — they must have been nearly as long as the body — at the back. Projecting from its head, where you would expect to find the mouth, was a trunk-like object which went in and out like the trunk of a fly. All over the body about an inch apart long filaments stood out. Its colour was drab, and it was apparently covered with slime. Its eyes were like the eyes of an owl, and never blinked.
We stared at the fearsome object in dead silence.
Vickers was the first to speak.
'Pretty, isn't it?' he said, with a laugh, but the laugh seemed strangely out of place.
I glanced at the doctor. His hands were clenched, and his eyes so wide open that the whites could be seen all round.
'My God, George, what is that thing?' he whispered.
'That, my dear doctor, is the result of years of experimenting. It first became visible to the naked eye five years ago today, but it does not appear to have grown during the last six months. It vindicates Crosse absolutely. Don't you think it is superb ?'
'Superb? Oh, yes, it's superb!' said the doctor. He kept muttering to himself as he walked round the table, glaring at the thing on it, but from the few words I caught he was not calling it superb or anything like it.
At last his love of biology overcame his repugnance.
'I should like to feel one of those filaments,' he said, and stretched out his hand.
Like a flash of lightning Vickers seized his wrist, and his face was the colour of chalk. Dr Vane looked astonished and hurt.
'I am sorry, doctor, but I forgot to tell you it can give a terrific electric shock,' he said apologetically.
Vane looked somewhat scared, but his interest was plainly increased.
'Then it is some sort of relation to the Gymnotus, or electric eel of Venezuela?' he asked.
'Or the Torpedo of the Mediterranean,' I suggested. Vickers shrugged his shoulders.
'I only know that poor old Tippoo' — a splendid collie and great favourite of us all — 'happened to accompany me to this room yesterday, and poked his nose a bit too near, when he suddenly toppled over dead as a doornail. He was horribly burnt down one side.'
Our friend spoke quietly, but it was easy to see he was deeply affected as he related the tragedy.
'That must have startled you,' I said.
'Well, no, I cannot say it was a surprise. I received a very nasty shock when it was quite small — perhaps I was not handling it as carefully as I might have. But' — here he turned to that monstrous creature, and actually passed his hand down one of its hairy legs — ' but you know who feeds you, don't you, my beauty ?'
The thing evidently did know, for that trunk-like object went in and out rapidly. And I might say here that was the only movement we noticed in it that evening.
The startled look on our faces seemed to amuse Vickers. 'It's all right; it knows me. I have watched it grow day by day, and — '
Here the doctor cut in with a question.
'What do you feed the brute on?' he asked.
Vickers hesitated a moment, and looked at us. Then he walked to the other side of the room, and opened a box which had airholes pierced in it.
'The trunk,' he explained, 'is fitted with two small pointed teeth at the end, and the blood of the victim is gradually sucked out.' He anticipated our next question. 'No. It does not kill it first,' he said, and shut the lid.
The box contained live mice.
It was exactly ten days later that I was sitting with Vane in his study over a game of chess. At least, we were supposed to be playing chess. As a matter of fact, the doctor was again telling me what he thought of our friend's experiment, and the game had languished.
'I tell you it's the greatest discovery ever made — the greatest!' And his fist thumped the table, making the pieces on the board dance again. His eyes shone with excitement, but this died away as his thoughts travelled in a different channel. 'But of all the ugly things God every created —'
He stopped abruptly.
'Do you know,' he continued presently, 'that Vickers's interesting pet belongs to the family of mites — ticks, as they are popularly called — notwithstanding its extraordinary size? All these creatures are furnished with suckers through which they can draw the juices of the animals on which they are parasitic, and in tropical countries — well, I will just say they are considerably more than annoying, and leave the rest to your imagination. They are small and flat when they first settle themselves on their victim, but they gradually swell and redden, until at last, when they are fully gorged, they are as large as broad-beans, and as easily crushed as ripe gooseberries.
'It seems to me from its mode of formation that George has discovered the link between the inorganic world and the world of life — the link which is indispensable to a complete scheme of evolution; but the great objection to this idea is the creature's obvious complexity —'
My further remarks were interrupted by a knock at the door, and the doctor's maid Emily entered.
'Mr Vickers's housekeeper would like to speak to you, sir.'
I heard Vane's 'Ah!' although it was said very softly. I remember my heart was beating at a ridiculous rate, and I tried hard to calm myself as I reflected that probably the old lady had come about her 'screws,' as she called her rheumatism, and which I knew had been troubling her more than usual.
But Dr Vane went down the two flights of stairs to his surgery two steps at a time. At the door he turned round and simply nodded to me, and we entered together.
Mrs Jones, Vickers's housekeeper, was waiting, with her veil pushed up until it looked like a black bandage across her forehead.
'Is it Mr Vickers?' Vane asked abruptly.
Mrs Jones never spoke quickly, and she did not intend to be hurried that day. Her reply came slowly, so deliberately that I thought my supply of patience would ebb away long before that simple question was answered.
' Well, sir, I don't know as there is anything the matter with Mr Vickers, but he ain't had a bite since one o'clock yesterday, and yet I feel certain as he is in the house. He went upstairs — '
I think Mrs Jones had reason to look astonished, for Dr Vane, noted for his precise ways and highly professional manner, dashed to the house-telephone and shouted into the mouthpiece : Tell John to bring the car round at once ! You understand? He is not to delay one moment!' Then he turned to the housekeeper, who stood with her mouth half open, and said rapidly: 'You will come with us, and give us further particulars on the road.'
What had happened? I dreaded to think of what that upstairs room would reveal to us. The doctor and I looked at each other. Then he placed his hand on my arm.
'Charlie,' he whispered, 'you can depend on it George has got foul of that monster. I have felt something would happen, ever since he showed it to us, and it looks very much as if that something has happened.'
'I pray God we shall not be too late!' I said fervently, but I thought of that Thing, with the never-winking eyes, and shuddered.
Have you a revolver?' I asked.
He nodded, and left the surgery.
A few moments later the motor arrived. We bundled Mrs Jones in; and as Vane gave the chauffeur the address, he added: ' Drive like hell!' I shall not forget that ride in a hurry, and I am quite sure Mrs Jones won't. We plied her with questions, but her replies were so incoherent we soon gave it up. She sat with bulging eyes, one hand clutching the side of the car, the other my coat, and every time it bumped over an obstacle she shrieked. More than once I bawled into her ear: 'It's all right!' but I might have saved my breath, for she made no sort of variation on her terror-stricken cry : 'Stop it! Stop it!'
A scared-looking maid let us in. We brushed past her, and went straight upstairs. Arriving at the door of that room, we stopped and listened, but could detect not the slightest sound. We tried the door — it was locked. So, after all that tearing hurry we were met by a well-built door, and Vickers had the key. We looked at each other in despair, but with Dr Vane it lasted but a moment, and was succeeded by a look of grim determination.
'He is in there, and we have got to get to him,' he said decisively.
'I'll fetch a locksmith: I think that will turn out to be the quickest way out of the difficulty,' I said, and was on the point of moving off when the doctor whispered excitedly: 'Wait! Listen! He is speaking!'
I tiptoed back to the door, and listened with loudly beating heart, but hardly breathing: there was silence, a long silence, then I heard a voice, but what it said I could not distinguish. It seemed to come from afar off, like a voice on a telephone that had been badly connected up. Vane shook his head.
'Speak up, old man! We can't hear you!' he shouted.
Again we listened, and this time we could just make out the words … key … false … bottom … desk,' then all was quiet again.
'Which drawer, and how do you open it ?' the doctor asked loudly. But not another sound came from the room, although he repeated the question twice.
Vane turned to me. 'That's a piece of luck. I wonder why he had two keys made? Well, we have got to find that duplicate, quick,' he said.
We rapidly made our way to Vickers's study, where we knew there was a roller-top desk. We thanked Heaven when we found the door open, and also the desk. It was a beautiful piece of furniture, and the top was rolled back, showing the row of pigeon-holes and small drawers. Tucked in one of the pigeon-holes was a bunch of keys.
'Now, where the dickens is the drawer with the false bottom?' said Vane, and he hurriedly tried to find the keys which fitted the drawers.
Now, investigations of this sort cannot be hurried, and, swearing softly, he demonstrated this fact completely. The swearing grew louder and louder, till, for a moment, I lost sight of the object of the search in amazement at the extent of his vocabulary.
I relieved him of the bunch when he had opened half the drawers. Eventually we unlocked the lot, but although we quickly took a large number of measurements, we could not find the slightest indication of a false bottom to any of them.
Our nerves were in a high state of tension before we entered the study; by this time, mine were in a deplorable condition. The doctor's face was lined with anxiety.
Silently he handed me a poker, and from the wall took down an old Malay kris, which did duty for an ornament.
'You take the right side of the desk; I'll take the other,' I said.
We found the precious key, but the desk —
Again we were at the door upstairs, and, although I turned the lock, I dreaded pushing it open. The whole business was so uncanny. Was that horrible creature prowling about the room ready to rush at us the moment we entered? How should we find Vickers?
I glanced at Vane. His jaw was set, and he had taken the revolver out of his pocket. The only sounds we could hear were some carts rumbling along the roadway, and the whistling from a train a long way off.
But the business in hand was very real and desperately urgent, and I do not think anyone would have noticed any hesitancy in pushing that door open; yet the next moment we were suddenly struck motionless as a low whisper reached us: 'For God's sake, move as quietly as you can!' We entered on tiptoe.
There are some scenes which are stamped on the memory in such a way that they are never forgotten. Years after they can be called to the eye of the mind with wonderful fidelity to detail. The scene which met us was such a one.
A broad beam from the setting sun came through the bottom of one of the windows, where the blind had not been completely drawn, and we saw. Very plainly, too, for the beam fell straight on it.
Vickers lay stretched on his back in the middle of the room, with that grisly Thing straddled across his chest, its sucker buried in his throat. His face and lips were quite bloodless. His eyes were closed, and I could detect no sort of movement.
I looked at Vane. His brows were contracted till they almost met, and his breath came and went through his teeth with a little hissing noise. I reminded him of the revolver ready cocked in his hand.
'Don't be a fool!' he said irritably. 'Get some brandy, and, for Heaven's sake, look slippy!'
When I returned he had his fingers on the poor fellow's wrist, and the frown was still on his face, but the revolver was on the box which was pierced with airholes.
I suppose I must have looked puzzled. Vane spoke impatiently, yet his voice was hardly above a whisper.
'Look here: what guarantee is there I should kill this vampire before it had time to discharge its deadly current through George's body ? You know as well as I do that creatures low down in the scale of creation take a lot of killing. We can't risk it, and I am sure we can't risk hauling it off.'
The brandy was doing its work, and Vickers must have heard some of our conversation, because his eyes opened, and he said, with a ghost of a smile: 'Have you ever seen a leech applied, Charlie ?'
I started violently.
'Good heavens! you don't mean to say Vane and I have to hang about with our hands in our pockets doing nothing except speculating whether — whether —'
' Whether I shall be able to stand the drain till it shifts ?' Vickers smiled again as he took the words out of my mouth.
The thought was intolerable; surely there must be some way!
For hours Vane sat waiting. I also was waiting, but on a couch in another room, getting over the effects of a little blood transfusion. 'It is very necessary,' Vane had said, as he skilfully made the arrangements, so skilfully that the creature was not disturbed. The improved appearance of poor George was my reward.
Wearied in mind and body I fell asleep, and dreamed dreams of men and women I knew, but I gazed at them with horror, for they all had drawn, blanched faces, with great staring eyes, and something with its body across their chests and with head buried at their throats, and they beseeched me by all I held sacred to take it from them, but I was bound by invisible bands. How shall I tell of my agony of mind? I woke with a start, and in a terrible perspiration, and found the doctor looking at me, hollow-eyed and unshaved.
'Nightmare?' he asked. 'Where did you want to go, and who wouldn't let you ? Steady, steady,' he added, as 1 jumped up and swayed, owing to the floor apparently moving about. As he pointed out, transfusion has no great tendency to make things appear as steady as rocks.
'Has the thing moved?' I asked.
'No,' he answered laconically.
We looked at each other in silence. I was hoping he would guess my next question, but I had to ask it.
'How is George ?'
'Alive.' And I knew from the way he said it that he had told me simply the bare truth and that was all. There was another long silence.
'Oh! can't we do something?' I cried despairingly.
'Yes,' replied Vane. 'I am going to do something if that vampire does not move in ten minutes. The point has been reached when the risk is negligible, inasmuch as if it does not move now there will be no necessity of doing anything. I am going to shoot it.'
We returned to that chamber of horrors. Poor Vickers looked ghastly, and it did not require a trained eye to see that the end was not far off.
I took my watch out. 'Give it five minutes,' muttered Vane; and I sat on the box with the airholes, glancing first at the deathlike face of Vickers, then at Vane's set features as he stood stroking his unshaven chin, gazing at our friend.
'Time's up,' I said.
The doctor walked gently till he was opposite the creature's head, and dropped on one knee, then lowered the revolver till it was within six inches of its head. His finger was on the trigger when a strange thing occurred: the bloated monster suddenly withdrew its sucker and glared at him as if it knew that its hour of death had arrived. I thought Vane was fascinated by those baleful eyes, for he did not stir as the creature commenced to move towards him.
'Look out!' I shouted, and he sprang back. None too soon, for the thing rushed at him with incredible swiftness.
Then I had an opportunity of witnessing Vane's beautiful nerve, for not until the last trailing filament had left Vickers did he fire. I saw his finger press the trigger. The next instant a terrific report shook the building, and my hands flew up to my eyes to shut out that terrible blinding flash. Women's screams, mingled with noises as if giant hands were tearing the house to pieces, floated up from below.
The sound of someone groaning made me rouse myself.
Vane lay face downwards in an immense pool of blood, his head hanging over a ragged hole in the floor. I thanked Heaven fervently when I found that he had only been stunned by the vast charge of static electricity the creature had suddenly let loose. Like a flash of lightning the charge had struck the floor, bursting it open, then torn its way through the house.
We turned to Vickers. Vane felt his pulse.
'I will save him,' he said. And he did.
The Man who was Frankenstein by Peter Haining, 1979. A book about Andrew Crosse and his electrical experiments around 1830's.
See the timeline on Cyborgs and Bionics here.