This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing was Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Parasite”. It’s a somewhat unsatisfactory tale – Doyle omitted it from later editions of his collected works, but it sounded interesting after reading Paul M. Chapman’s “The Dark and Decadent Dreams of Doctor Doyle” in issue 31 of Wormwood magazine. So I nominated it for discussion.
Review: “The Parasite”, Arthur Conan Doyle, 1894.
This is a story told through the journal entries of Austin Gilroy, a self-described “materialist”, even a “rank one” according to his fiancé Agatha Marsden. He lectures on blood and circulation at a medical university.
Chapman speculates that one reason Doyle came to dislike this story was because he regarded it as too erotic and decadent. It’s pretty tame by modern standards, but there is an element of sexual desire in the opening entry from March 24 where springtime and its “work of reproduction” is implicitly linked to Gilroy’s eagerness to marry Agatha and have sex with her.
Gilroy’s friend Wilson is another professor of medicine, but his real passion is to lay the foundation of a new science, not only psychology but a study of psychic abilities. Wilson is always investigating mediums and thoroughly documenting his results. While Gilroy respects his enthusiasm, he really wishes Wilson would apply himself to real medicine more. Departures from “pure reason” affect Gilroy like “an evil smell or a musical discord”. And this despite Gilroy considering himself a “highly psychic man” who was a “nervous, sensitive boy, a dreamer, a somnambulist, full of impressions and intuitions”.
Still, Gilroy agrees to go to one of Wilson’s investigations of a mediums especially since Agatha and her mother will be there.
At that meeting we meet the woman who Gilroy will eventually call a “monstrous parasite”: Miss Penclosa.
His first impression of her isn’t impressive:
Any one less like my idea of a West Indian could not be imagined. She was a small, frail creature, well over forty, I should say, with a pale, peaky face, and hair of a very light shade of chestnut. Her presence was insignificant and her manner retiring. In any group of ten women she would have been the last whom one would have picked out. Her eyes were perhaps her most remarkable, and also, I am compelled to say, her least pleasant, feature. They were gray in color,—gray with a shade of green,— and their expression struck me as being decidedly furtive. I wonder if furtive is the word, or should I have said fierce? On second thoughts, feline would have expressed it better. A crutch leaning against the wall told me what was painfully evident when she rose: that one of her legs was crippled.
Penclosa hypnotizes Agatha. Gilroy isn’t impressed, but Penclosa gives him a note to open at ten o’clock the next morning that will establish Penclosa’s bona fides.
And so she does.
Agatha arrives at Gilroy’s house the next morning and breaks off their engagement and leaves hurriedly.
Gilroy opens the note from Penclosa as instructed. It predicted that Agatha would break off her engagement – but just for half an hour. When Gilroy calls on Agatha, her ardor for Gilroy is back. In fact, Agatha doesn’t even remember visiting Gilroy though she seems to recall a vague dream with him in it.
And here we have first intimations of what, in modern parlance, would sort of be considered a stalker story.
Thorough going materialist Gilroy is intrigued by Penclosa. He will investigate her.
Penclosa seems to take a “singular interest” in Gilroy. He also notes, again, she is a remarkably drab creature except when exercising her powers or talking about them. She notes that she was quite capable of commanding Agatha to break off the engagement at any point in the future, a point that could be set like a clock.
‘And if the suggestion had been to assassinate me?’
‘She would most inevitably have done so.’
‘But this is a terrible power!’ I cried.
‘It is, as you say, a terrible power,’ she answered gravely, ‘and the more you know of it the more terrible will it seem to you.’
‘May I ask,’ said I, ‘what you meant when you said that this matter of suggestion is only at the fringe of it? What do you consider the essential?’
‘I had rather not tell you.’
I was surprised at the decision of her answer.
‘You understand,’ said I, ‘that it is not out of curiosity I ask, but in the hope that I may find some scientific explanation for the facts with which you furnish me.’
‘Frankly, Professor Gilroy,’ said she, ‘I am not at all interested in science, nor do I care whether it can or cannot classify these powers.’
‘But I was hoping—’
‘Ah, that is quite another thing. If you make it a personal matter,” said she, with the pleasantest of smiles, “I shall be only too happy to tell you any thing you wish to know.’
Penclosa explains she can send her “soul into another’s body” to command it. The only limitations are that sickness can curtail this ability and she must maintain a psychic connection with her body to avoid “some difficulty” in finding her way back.
Penclosa decides to have Penclosa hypnotize him several times. He even starts reading journal articles on “animal magnetism”
Gilroy’s neighbor, Sadler, a lecturer in anatomy, finds out about this and warns Gilroy to stay away from Penclosa. He has had some dealings with her. He was the subject of Penclosa experiments, and they left a “most unpleasant impression” on his mind.
Of course, as usual in these sorts of stories, Gilroy ignores the warning.
But things take another turn. In his April 4th entry, Gilroy notes that “The unhappy woman appears to have formed an attachment for me.” Her manner and her looks when he’s around, his clasping of her hand when he came out of a trance point to him being “foolishly blind to the human relations between Miss Penclosa and myself”.
The 34-year old Gilroy almost “professed his love” for Penclosa, a woman far older than him and a cripple. Here another element of eroticism enters the tale:
It is monstrous, odious; and yet the impulse was so strong that, had I stayed another minute in her presence, I should have committed myself. What was it? I have to teach others the workings of our organism, and what do I know of it myself? Was it the sudden upcropping of some lower stratum in my nature—a brutal primitive instinct suddenly asserting itself? I could almost believe the tales of obsession by evil spirits, so overmastering was the feeling.
Has frustrated sexual desire combined with scientific enthusiasm created this feeling or has Penclosa been meddling with Gilroy’s mind? The rest of the story supports the first view.
Still, there is no way that Gilroy is going to throw over the beautiful and young Agatha for Penclosa. He decides his relationship with Penclosa must end.
But the next day he’s back with another session with Penclosa. He wakes up from another trance to find his hand in hers, an odious creature who
possesses no single charm upon earth. But when I am near her, I do not feel this. She rouses something in me, something evil, something I had rather not think of. She paralyzes my better nature, too, at the moment when she stimulates my worse.
The next day, though, he doesn’t meet Penclosa.
The day after that, though, he feels an unconquerable compulsion to meet with Wilson and Penclosa. He realizes that Penclosa does dominate his will. He must use his intellect to fight her.
He wonders if he should flee the country. But how far does Penclosa’s influence extend?
He eventually takes to locking himself into his room at night and tossing the key out the window where, several times, puzzled servants have to retrieve it from the garden the next morning.
Things seem to be going Gilroy’s way. He pays a visit to Agatha who tells him he’s looking haggard from all his investigations with Penclosa. For that matter, Penclosa is ill too, he hears.
At midnight on April 10th, he suddenly feels an irresistible compulsion to see Penclosa. He remembers it as if it’s a dream.
She smiled at me, and pointed to a stool beside her. It was with her left hand that she pointed, and I, running eagerly forward, seized it,—I loathe myself as I think of it, —and pressed it passionately to my lips. Then, seating myself upon the stool, and still retaining her hand, I gave her the photograph which I had brought with me, and talked and talked and talked—of my love for her, of my grief over her illness, of my joy at her recovery, of the misery it was to me to be absent a single evening from her side. She lay quietly looking down at me with imperious eyes and her provocative smile. Once I remember that she passed her hand over my hair as one caresses a dog; and it gave me pleasure—the caress. I thrilled under it. I was her slave, body and soul, and for the moment I rejoiced in my slavery.
But Penclosa’s powers weaken because she is still sick. And Gilroy reveals he knows of her relationship with Sadler, and he tells her his real feelings for her before he leaves:
‘The very sight of you and the sound of your voice fill me with horror and disgust. The thought of you is repulsive. That is how I feel toward you, and if it pleases you by your tricks to draw me again to your side as you have done to-night, you will at least, I should think, have little satisfaction in trying to make a lover out of a man who has told you his real opinion of you. You may put what words you will into my mouth, but you cannot help remembering—’
The next day there is an amusing scene with Wilson. Gilroy confesses the torment Penclosa is causing him. Wilson isn’t any help. He’s just enthused to have a case study of obsession, “the rarest of cases”.
On April 14th, Penclosa shows up unannounced at Gilroy’s place. Did he really mean what he said to her? Has Sadler turned him against her?
‘Let us understand each other, Professor Gilroy,’ said she slowly. ‘I am not a very safe person to trifle with, as you should realize by now. It was you who asked me to enter into a series of experiments with you, it was you who won my affections, it was you who professed your love for me, it was you who brought me your own photograph with words of affection upon it, and, finally, it was you who on the very same evening thought fit to insult me most outrageously, addressing me as no man has ever dared to speak to me yet. Tell me that those words came from you in a moment of passion and I am prepared to forget and to forgive them. You did not mean what you said, Austin? You do not really hate me?’
I might have pitied this deformed woman—such a longing for love broke suddenly through the menace of her eyes. But then I thought of what I had gone through, and my heart set like flint.
‘If ever you heard me speak of love,’ said I, ‘you know very well that it was your voice which spoke, and not mine. The only words of truth which I have ever been able to say to you are those which you heard when last we met.’
‘I know. Some one has set you against me. It was he!’ She tapped with her crutch upon the floor. ‘Well, you know very well that I could bring you this instant crouching like a spaniel to my feet. You will not find me again in my hour of weakness, when you can insult me with impunity. Have a care what you are doing, Professor Gilroy. You stand in a terrible position. You have not yet realized the hold which I have upon you.’
I shrugged my shoulders and turned away.
‘Well,’ said she, after a pause, ‘if you despise my love, I must see what can be done with fear. You smile, but the day will come when you will come screaming to me for pardon. Yes, you will grovel on the ground before me, proud as you are, and you will curse the day that ever you turned me from your best friend into your most bitter enemy.’
You’ll note Doyle still maintains the ambiguity about the source of Gilroy’s love for Penclosa.
And Penclosa proceeds to make Gilroy’s life a hell. She possesses him during his lectures. His erratic behavior causes the university to put him on leave. He finds that, when he thought he was asleep, he has been committing burglaries. After a party where he sees Penclosa and Sadler, Gilroy beats the latter severely under Penclosa’s influence.
There is no option, he decides, but to kill Penclosa even if it means his own death. Better that than living with the shame of her dominance and the ruin she can make of his life.
During some of this time, Agatha has been out of town with her family. He meets her at the train to escort her home and then returns to his place.
The next thing he knows he’s in a small room. He knows it. It’s Agatha’s boudoir. And in his pocket is a bottle of sulphuric acid. He hears Agatha dressing, and she calls out to him. Gilroy wonders what would have happened if she would have come out of her bedroom.
Gilroy is furious and leaves for Penclosa place. This has to end for his sake and Agatha’s.
And here Doyle gives us a very abrupt and unsatisfactory ending. At Penclosa’s house, he learns she died – at exactly the time he came out of a trance outside of Agatha’s bedroom.
I suppose Doyle wasn’t willing to go for the ultimate horror of harming Agatha. Likewise, he may have thought the murder of Penclosa was too far to go or couldn’t logically be carried out. After all, even the story as written seems to have been an embarrassment to Doyle.