These wonderfully exaggerated images were originally printed in the Victorian periodical known as The Illustrated Police News. In the pages of that magazine readers would often gasp and thrill at the graphic reproductions of the most horrific or decadent crimes: perhaps like Hello magazine today, but with a decided bent for the lurid and sensational, rather than glossy celebrity.
More lately they have been reproduced in the pages of Fortean Times, with an editorial that describes the nineteenth century fascination with the activity of somnambulists -
'...the Victorians in general, and the readers of the IPN in particular, had a fascination for the conscious but immobile (usually female) body, at risk of being buried alive while in some strange trance-like state, but unable to move or cry out. This...also extended to the mobile but unconscious female body: sleepwalkers, or somnambulists as the Victorians called them, were among the favourite subjects for the IPN's bawdy-minded draughtsmen. Male somnambulists may have been news, but they were never Illustrated Police News, even if they performed a tap dance on the roof of the House of Lords; the IPN's somnambulists were all young, female, and scantily clad. Whether they were saved at the last minute by some gallant male...or fell to their deaths screaming with terror, they helped to sell a lot of newspapers.'
The following is an extract from my own Victorian Gothic novel, The Somnambulist, in which the narrator, Phoebe Turner, wakes one night from laudanum dreams to hear strange sounds outside her door -
My pulse began racing. My skin was cold but running with sweat. I held my breath, burying my head down under the covers, trying to block out the whimpering sounds from whatever was there, outside in the hall. Only when it was quiet again, after fumbling to light the stub, did I get up and make my way to the door where my fingers curled round the cold metal ...
The corridor was empty – or so I thought, until a slight movement caught my eye. Much further down, near the top of the stairs, I saw Mrs Samuels was there. Her shift floated behind as she walked, the muslin billowing out like wings. I think she must have heard my gasp, stopping and then turning, and as she came slowly processing towards me her face was quite blank, blue eyes staring, not seeing. Her hair was a wisping halo of gold and, how strange it was that when she drew close, so close that our breaths might mingle, the hairs prickled up on the back of my neck as those small clouds of vapour froze on the air, strung thick with glistening pearls of ice. And, although Mrs Samuels was facing me, I clearly saw the back of her head in a mirror that hung on the opposite wall. And there I also saw myself, the girl who looked out from an open door, her face starkly lit in the candle’s flame – a face that was made of shadow and light – a girl with black hair, white skin, black eyes.
Only she wasn’t me.
Where my mouth was open, the source of a pitiful moaning sound, hers was closed with the faintest trace of a smile. I knew that I’d seen that expression before, in a painting that hung in Dinwood Court, and I already knew the reply when I asked, “Who are you?”
“Esther,” said the girl in the mirror.
“Mama,” said the woman who stood in the hall, who looked at my feet and called plaintively, “Oh...my love, you’re still hurt. You’re still bleeding.”
She took a step forward. I took a step back, glancing down to see a slight stain on my shift; surely a leaking of blood from my courses. But, it must have been an illusion, that other thing I saw, when a shadow cast over the crimson walls to draw my eyes back to the looking glass and there, in that reflection, a glistening wetness continued to spread, to show the white hems of Esther’s gown now soaked the darkest, dripping red – a colour that mingled through flowers in the carpet, the weave blooming and blurring before my eyes.
Another step back. Esther did not move, and through my fast and trembling breaths I heard Mrs Samuels speaking again, her words slow and rhythmic, mechanical. “Don’t run away, Esther. Please, let me hold you. Let me keep you warm.”
For more information about The Somnambulist, please see this link, or go to www.essiefox.com for more information about my three Victorian gothic novels.