This is from the opening of “The Coffin Man” by Mike Mignola, art by Fabio Moon. The story is included in the Hellboy 20th Anniversary Sampler being given away for free at my local comic book store (It’s fun! Go find it!). The piece is set during Hellboy’s “Mexico period” some time in the 1950s; the anecdote that Hellboy is telling in these panels is just a tale he’s telling in a bar, and has nothing to do with the rest of the story.
But it smells like something out of 19th century weird fiction, don’t you think? Perhaps it’s a story that’s already been told somewhere in the last two decades of the Hellboy series, but if so, I don’t remember it. I got curious and tried to look for it, but some casual web searching hasn’t turned up anything yet. Do any of you know where this might be from?
Fortunately for this blog, the four panels above reminded me of another great example of 19th century weirdness: Prosper Merimee’s “The Venus of Ille” (1837).
Merimee’s story opens with the narrator, an eminent archeologist from Paris, arriving in the town of Ille, in the Catalan region of France. His guide tells him about the “idol” that has been discovered by the narrator’s host in town, an amateur antiquarian named Monsieur de Peyrehorade, buried in M. de Peyrehorade’s own garden.
“And what did you find in the end?”
“A huge black woman, more than half naked, saving your presence, sir, all in copper, and M. de Peyrehorade told us that it was an idol of pagan times… perhaps as old as Charlemagne!”
“I see what it is… some worthy Virgin in bronze which belonged to a convent that has been destroyed.”
“The Blessed Virgin! Well, I never!… I should very soon have known if it had been the Blessed Virgin. I tell you it is an idol; you can see that plainly from its appearance. It stares at you with its great white eyes…. You might have said it was trying to put you out of countenance. It was enough to make one ashamed to look at her.”
“White eyes were they? No doubt they were inlaid in the bronze; it might perhaps be a Roman statue.”
“Roman! That’s it. M. de Peyrehorade said that it was Roman. Ah! I can see you are as learned as he is.”
“Is it whole and in good preservation?”
“Oh, it is all there, sir. It is much more beautiful and better finished than the painted plaster bust of Louis Philippe, which is at the town hall. But for all that the idol’s face is not very nice to look at. She looks wicked… and she is so, too.”
A bronze statue with inlaid white eyes… sounds creepy, to me. The guide tells the narrator that the statue fell and broke the leg of one of the men who was pulling it up. Naturally everyone in the village (except M. de Peyrehorade) is a bit leery of it. When the narrator arrives, M. de Peyrehorade shows him the Venus. The narrator agrees that the statue is that of an incredibly beautiful woman, but incredibly cruel, too — her face displays “an utter absence of goodness.”
In the meantime, the Peyrehorade household is getting ready for a wedding: their son Alphonse is about to marry the beautiful daughter of one of the wealthier families in the neighboring town. Alphonse is a vain, somewhat pretentious clothes-horse; he’s also a terrific tennis player, the best in the village.
On the morning of the wedding, which the family insists that the narrator must attend as their guest, Alphonse sees some visiting Spaniards on the town tennis court (which is right next to the Peyrehorade property). The visitors are beating the paste out of some of the local boys in a game, so of course Alphonse has to defend the town’s honor (Catalans versus Castellanos…). He’s wearing the ring he plans to give his fiancee (a family heirloom, encrusted with diamonds) on his hand, but it’s interfering with his swing or something, so he takes it off and puts it on the finger of the Venus, which stands just by the tennis court. He beats the Spaniards just in time to wash up and ride over to his fiancee’s family estate, where the wedding is to be held, but he forgets the ring….
I’ve been re-reading a lot of M.R. James lately — I go through phases — and the antiquarian aspects of “The Venus of Ille” reminded me a bit of James’s ghost stories. The tone is different, but there is a similar sense of impersonal evil; Alphonse is a bit shallow, and possibly a gold-digger, but certainly nothing that deserved a terrible fate. Merimee also makes use of one of James’s favorite motifs: the ambiguous Latin epigraph. In this case: Cave Amantem. Does it mean “Beware of thy lovers” or “Beware if she loves thee”? It makes all the difference…
You can read “The Venus of Ille” online here at unz.com. The translation is from the September 1927 Golden Book magazine. I don’t see a credit for the translator. If you don’t like reading things in PDF viewers, there is another translation here, based on Myndart Verelst’s 1887 translation of Tales Before Supper. I like the Golden Book translation better, though.