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Foreword (old)

Greetings, seeker!

Enthusiasts of the spectral and bizarre have long been aware of The Satanic Bridegroom, the novella written in the early 1920s by Alexander Stirgil. A fine example of the so-called “weird fiction” of the last century, the story has been featured in numerous collections and anthologies over the years, including our own Tales of the Crepuscule, first published in 1961 and still in print today. Though perhaps not as well-known as such beloved classics of the genre as The Coachman in Black and Lord Vapor, Bridegroom retains a strong cult following, and curates of the outré continue to pass the story down to new initiates with no signs of slowing or cease.

At least part of the tale’s fascination can be attributed to the fact that its history is as strange as its contents. Bridegroom is the only known work by Stirgil, an Englishman residing in what was then known as the British Honduras, now Belize. His early life was interesting if somewhat unaccomplished; born in Belize City in 1883 and educated at Cambridge University, Stirgil was sporadically involved in both his family’s timber concern and the elite circles of British Honduras society, but otherwise had the reputation of an idler and libertine. He never married or was even engaged, though according to his elder brother, Charles, there were rumors of a prolonged affair with the wife of a family friend while in his twenties. The sole evidence of ambition in those early years seems to have consisted of an unsuccessful attempt to finance the staging of the Offenbach opera Les contes d’Hoffmann in Belize City in 1910, a daring production which was to feature an actual wood-and-metal automaton in the role of Olympia.

In the Spring of 1920 Stirgil suffered a catastrophic mental breakdown for reasons which were entirely mysterious; though famously an eccentric, there was no known precipitating cause or prior distress. It was said that Alexander quit his house and took up residence in the branches of a large mangrove tree at the outskirts of town, and that he refused to speak to or even acknowledge former friends and associates. Within a matter of weeks his brother Charles had had him institutionalized, and Alexander spent the better part of a year in a sanitarium. According to his caretakers he suffered from disassociation and delusional paranoia, and it was noted that he had a particular horror for cellars, wells, sewers, and every other kind of underground cavity. His attendants reportedly had to go to great lengths to avoid taking him past staircases leading to the basement level of the asylum, as he would panic and sometimes even attempt to leap out of windows in fear. It was said that on one occasion the patient even tried to hang himself because he had been transferred to a cell which had a noisy warren of rats living in the flooring beneath.

Upon his release in 1921 Alexander Stirgil departed Belize City and reportedly adopted the life of a banana farmer along the Monkey River. Very little information about this period of his life is known today, but Charles Stirgil wrote of a visit to Alexander’s plantation in the spring of 1924; he described his brother as stable but impoverished and strange, and he noted that he had taken in a local woman of mixed blood as a mistress. He also reported that Alexander slept armed and alone in a makeshift cupola erected on the roof of his house with nothing inside but a few blankets and boxes of ammunition. It would be the last he would ever see of his brother; in October of the same year Alexander Stirgil died from an embolism of the brain at the age of forty-one. He was buried alongside his parents in a cemetery on the outskirts of Belize City, his brother to follow him thirty-two years later.

The story does not end there, however. Though Alexander had broken off contact with his society connections following his mental collapse, discovered in his effects after his death was a package inscribed with the name of one Reggie Warwicker, a fellow Belize City socialite known for having vague literary aspirations. The package was delivered, and inside was discovered an untitled manuscript with no explanation or instructions of any kind. Impressed by its strange quality, Warwicker submitted it to the British literary magazine Satyr Spring as a kind of posthumous tribute to his late friend. The piece was accepted and was published serially between July 1926 and January 1927 under the fanciful title, “The Satanic Bridegroom,” the name chosen by the editor. The novella became an instant success, and it was said to have even gained the notice of occultist luminaries Aleister Crowley and Frederick Leigh Gardner. It was quickly translated into German and published in the pages of Prana, where it met with an even more enthusiastic reception than in England. There was even talk of a film version to be directed by the famed Paul Wegener.

It was generally acknowledged that part of the story’s odd charm was that it was written in the first person, with Stirgil himself featured as the narrator. However, at that time there was of course no thought that the novella was anything other than a work of fiction, and the more outlandish details of the story were assumed to be some kind of chronicle or consequence of the author’s mental breakdown. In particular, the character of “Helen Pulver” was generally supposed to be nothing more than an imaginative romanticist’s dream of elusive love. Reggie Warwicker insisted that he did in fact once meet Stirgil traveling out of the city with a young American woman fitting her description, but this was considered to be a tall tale designed to increase the novella’s already considerable mystique.

The span of a lifetime passed, and like any other lifetime the story’s fame saw its heyday, lulls, comebacks and decline. Fascination with the otherworldly and occult paled and was replaced by the horror film with its twitching zombies and dark bloody basements. Through it all, however, there yet remained keepers of the flame, loyal fans and enthusiasts of weird fiction who passed down dog-eared anthologies to newer, younger devotees to spread the word in turn.

Then, in 2010, a peculiar discovery was made. A young graduate student of literature named Michael Sexton unexpectedly inherited a stack of diaries written by his great-uncle, a successful if somewhat solitary businessman who had spent his early career as a sugar importer in the Caribbean. He found the stories and style of his relation’s life appealing, and so in between his own studies he set about working his way through the dusty journals to learn what he could of the earlier generations and days gone by. However, when he reached the account of his uncle’s time spent in Cuba in early 1920, he discovered something rather odd: some of the individuals being described had an eerily familiar ring to them; meanwhile, the story that was unfolding was so strange, so inexplicably mysterious, that it seemed as though it could have only come from the pages of some volume of weird fiction.

It was then that the realization hit him with full force: though the names differed, the people he was reading about were the characters from another story—or rather, the characters from another story were being described in his uncle’s diaries as though they were real people who had lived ninety years in the past.

Public records were quickly consulted, and it was soon confirmed that the names given in Peter M. Sexton’s journals were those of actual individuals—individuals who were not only alive in 1920, but who had traveled to the Caribbean in that year and there met some mysterious fate which altered their lives forever. Even more astonishing, the events related by Sexton would seem to have predated the action in Stirgil’s novella by only a few weeks, thus providing a kind of seamless introduction to the story.

Such incredible serendipity must surely be considered unique in the annals of literature, but there is something more: the fact that “Helen Pulver,” “Mordecai Seagrave,” “Irene Karas,” and “Percival Lamb” had walking, breathing counterparts who had trod the real earth that we live in confronts us with an unsettling and perhaps terrifying thought, namely that Alexander Stirgil’s The Satanic Bridegroom might not be a work of fiction, but rather one of reportage.

* * *

Presented here for the first time is the complete story—the “true” alongside the “invented.” No edits or changes of any kind have been made, except that we have replaced the names given in Peter Sexton’s diary with the more familiar pseudonyms provided by Stirgil. At the surviving families’ requests, we withhold the real identities of the individuals involved, who are in any case all long deceased. We gratefully thank Mr. Michael Sexton for providing us with his great-uncle’s manuscript, and we leave it to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

I dedicate this volume to the friends of the occult and the celebrants of the bizarre—those fearless travelers who know all too well that the middle ground between fact and fiction is a broad, twilit country, one full of phantoms and madness, where compasses fail to point and the maps are drawn by a hand that has never been seen. There is more above and beneath this world than is currently known, and it is held together by mystery, and love, and death.

Fiat lux!

Markus K. Owlglass

New Haven, 2013

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