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Staking a claim by Nigel Roth

There’s an imaginary school, in a faraway land, by a lake, that teaches magic.

The extraordinary students are handpicked to attend, and study for seven years. They’re taught how to speak with animals, guided on how to connect with the natural world on a more ethereal level, shown how to control the elements around them, like the weather, and taught how to ride dragons. And most importantly of all, they become experts in the casting of magic spells.

At the end of their time at the academy, the students graduate with a celebratory dinner, and are given various awards for individual student achievement.

The name of the school, of course, is Scholomance.

And, rather than be tutored by a Defense Against The Dark Arts teacher, like Severus Snape or Gilderoy Lockhart, they are tutored by a Dark Arts teacher, called, simply, the Devil.

This is traditional folklore from central Romania, and, in particular, a place called Hermannstadt, where the school is said to thrive. And, if you live in that region you’ll be well aware of this preternatural legend.

If you lived in London during the late nineteenth century, though, you would have no doubt learnt about it from a book, The Land Beyond the Forest, and from an essay Transylvania Superstitions, which is exactly where Abraham ‘Bram’ Stoker got it from to use in Dracula, along with the vampiric stereotype that the essay introduced.

So, while Bram Stoker gets accolades for establishing the ‘conventions of vampire fantasy’, and JK Rowling gets $1billion for penning a series of books about a school of magic, we may want to reflect on Jane Emily Gerard, who appears to have brought these devilish ideas out of the shadows in the first place.

Gerard was born in Jedburgh, Scotland, in 1849, just north of the one-hundred and fifty-four kilometer border with England. No historic plaque celebrates the birthplace of a writer who inspired a literary genre, though there is one, strangely, that commemorates the fact that William Wordsworth went past in a coach once.

The daughter of a colonel, granddaughter of the inventor Sir John Robison, and a direct descendant of the great philosopher Alexander Gerard, Gerard was sensibly and brilliantly home-educated, before finishing her studies at the Sacre Coeur at Riedenburg, in Austria.

Her career began with short stories written for the Blackwood's Magazine, which was later renamed, rather scarily, Maga. Being multilingual, she also reviewed literary works of French and German authors for The Times. Then, in 1879, she began her first novel.

Around forty years after Gerard wrote the first lines of Reata; or What's in a Name with her sister, Dorothea, a silent vampire film called Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror was released, and promptly destroyed, the heirs of Bram Stoker’s estate taking umbrage at the similarities between Dracula and Nosferatu, and winning their lawsuit.

The movie, a few copies of which did manage to survive the fires of Stoker’s hell, is now seen as an incredibly ‘influential masterpiece of cinema’. It’s director, Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe, also known as FW Murnau, and it’s lead actor, Friedrich Gustav Maximilian Schreck, better remembered as Max Schreck, are both hailed as pioneers of early German Expressionist horror.

Yet it seems to have taken its name from Transylvania Superstitions, in which Gerard wrote, “More decidedly evil is the nosferatu, or vampire, in which every Roumanian peasant believes as firmly as he does in heaven or hell.”

Gerard and her sister collaborated on several other novels, including Beggar My Neighbour in 1882, The Waters of Hercules in 1885, and A Sensitive Plant in 1891, but Gerard seemed happiest delving into the darkness of Transylvanian folklore, continuing to instruct on vampiric life, much of which has since appeared in books and shows that feature vampires.

Like vampire genetics, for example:

Every person killed by a nosferatu becomes likewise a vampire after death, and will continue to suck the blood of other innocent persons ‘till the spirit has been exorcised.”

Or, vampire expiration techniques:

“ .. by opening the grave of the suspected person, and either driving a stake through the corpse, or else firing a pistol-shot into the coffin .. or [you can] cut off the head, and replace it in the coffin with the mouth filled with garlic, or to extract the heart and burn it.”

And, the everpresent wizened, but helpful, crone:

“There is .. no Roumanian village which does not count among its inhabitants some old woman .. versed in the precautions to be taken in order to counteract vampires.”

Gerard died in 1905 in Vienna, at the age of 55.

She was mourned by many, including her friend Samuel Langhorne Clemens, or Mark Twain, whom she thought of as ‘quite fascinating’. However, much of the commentary on her passing, if there was any at all, was less than complimentary, like The Times obituary, that wrote that Gerard ".. had not won equal popularity with that of her sister,” and The Atheneum, which grudgingly deemed her to be ".. a capable novelist.”

It’s not the first or last time that a female author has been so inspirational and yet almost completely lost to history, despite her contribution, not just to a book or two, but to an entire genre.

Maybe Jedburgh should consider replacing the Wordsworth plaque with one for Jane Emily Gerard, who we realize, now that we’ve lifted her Cloak of Invisibility, wasn’t just passing through.

Picture Joshua Ghostine

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