B. Lloyd's Reviews > The Poison of a Smile

The Poison of a Smile by Steven Jensen
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May 15, 2011

it was amazing

1881, and a young man makes his way up to his beloved’s room, only to find her dead. Littered about are the last pages she has written in life, describing the thing she has become.

So begins the tale of Alatiel, a creature not quite of flesh and blood, who hungers constantly to live – but who seemingly can only do so through others.
This is about possession, in the tradition of classic storytellers in the gothic genre : Walpole, Le Fanu, Poe, Wilde and Stoker to mention but a few.

The Gothic novel, at once relished and ridiculed, proved immensely popular throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries, and with the occasional decline, remains as much-read as ever if the current rate of vampire novels on the market is anything to go by. Amongst the morass of average tales of horror, however, an occasional gem is struck upon; a tale which combines chilling narrative with convincing period voice, written in fluent Decadent style: such is The Poison of a Smile.

Many cultural threads are drawn together in this recreation of the Decadent and the Aesthetic, from Sheridan Le Fanu’s Camilla, through Bram Stoker’s Vlad-inspired Dracula to Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray – all depicting some form of feeding or nourishment, taken from those surrounding the main character, whether physically, emotionally or spiritually.
The Decadents embraced the idea of the night people, opiate laden, heavy lidded, often consumptive, their faces preserved on canvas – Rossetti’s women in their trance-like state, Burne Jones with his models gazing into the distance in his dreamlike evocations of an age gone past, the dark-ringed eyes of Klimt’s women, hinting at unhealthy, hidden existences, crawling out after dark in their search for energy and life-force, an escape from ennui; they are to be found also in the more disturbing of Beardsley’s drawings, or the highly dramatic finesse of Harry C. Clarke or John Austen.
Outwardly, Alatiel might be one of the Pre-Raphaelite’s models, between Maria Zambaco and Lizzie Siddal – and similarly she is taken up as a model by a group of young artists. Inwardly however, there is a void, a bottomless pit, constantly seeking out fresh sources of life, new psyches to consume.

From subtle to shocking back to subtle, this is the imagery evoked by Poison of A Smile: of brooding menace, of a night-existence, of a being who eats up the energy of others, vampire-like, in order to survive – yet still this is a different creation from the gothic monsters that have gone before. Poe might have created this.


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