Call of Chicago: Our Ladies of Sorrow

“In the moonlight opposite me were three young women, ladies by their dress and manner. I thought at the time that I must be dreaming when I saw them, for, though the moonlight was behind them, they threw no shadow on the floor. … There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear.”

—Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897)

Stoker never calls them the Brides of Dracula, which may or may not inform the story unfolding in Nitrate Gothic Transylvania, and in a different borderland of myth and glamor around it. He calls them “sisters,” and indeed two of them resemble sisters, with dark hair and brown eyes, and Dracula’s familial aquiline nose. The third (the “first of all”) was fair, with blonde hair and blue eyes, and Harker “seemed somehow to know her face … in connection with some dreamy fear.” Later treatments of the Brides unaccountably omit their terrifying, inhuman laughter: “a silvery, musical laugh, but as hard as though the sound never could have come through the softness of human lips. It was like the intolerable, tingling sweetness of water-glasses when played on by a cunning hand.” 

It’s not possible to know at this remove just how much mythical payload Bram Stoker intended the Brides to carry. No educated person in Britain could miss the parallels between the three “sisters” in Dracula’s castle and the Three Fates (and Three Graces, and Three Gorgons, and Three Grey Sisters) of Greek and Roman myth. Given his theatrical vocation and his fondness for Scottish vacations, when Stoker calls them “weird sisters,” he both clearly and intentionally parallels Macbeth’s three witches, while their ethereal inhumanity and cruel laughter recall Gaelic fairy lore. As Stoker (and Shakespeare) knew, witches and fairies serve “triple Hecate,” cast by her later Roman cultists as the unity of Diana, Luna, and Proserpine. Those later Roman cultists (and Lovecraft) also named her Mormo.

“Like God, whose servants they are, they utter their pleasure, not by sounds that perish, or by words that go astray, but by signs in heaven, by changes on earth, by pulses in secret rivers, heraldries painted on darkness, and hieroglyphics written on the tablets of the brain.”

—Thomas de Quincey, “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow” (1845)

Speaking of dreams, and sisters, and Scotland, the infamous opium-eater and aesthetic criminologist Thomas de Quincey created (or revealed) his own triplicity of goddesses. He first saw them in his earliest opium visions at Oxford in 1804, when he was not yet twenty. Forty years later, he described them in a powerful prose poem, “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow,” naming them Mater Lachrymarum (Our Lady of Tears), Mater Suspiriorum (Our Lady of Sighs), and Mater Tenebrarum (Our Lady of Darkness).

Mater Lachrymarum, the eldest, incarnates the voice of lamentation “heard in Rama,” raving and moaning with upturned tearful eyes “sweet and subtle, wild and sleepy.” Her remit is mourning and grief, especially at the loss of a child. Crowned with a diadem, she goes “abroad upon the winds,” carrying keys to all doors. The second sister, Mater Suspiriorum, sighs with the outcast, the hopeless, and the vagrant. She “creeps timidly and stealthily” through a tattered realm “amongst the tents of Shem.” Her unreadable eyes “filled with perishing dreams, and with wrecks of forgotten delirium” forever gaze downward at the dust of the earth.

Madness, morbidity, and murder follow the youngest sister, “mother of lunacies and suggestress of suicides,” Mater Tenebrarum. She “moves with incalculable motions, bounding, and with tiger’s leaps,” storming “all doors at which she is permitted to enter at all.” Reinforcing her vampiric tone, she wears a treble veil of crepe that cannot conceal the “blazing misery” of her eyes, which gaze into yours implacably. She wears the turreted headdress of Cybele, and towers almost out of sight when she appears in dreams.

As De Quincey wrote in 1845: “already, in my fervent youth, I saw (dimly relieved upon the dark background of my dreams) the imperfect lineaments of the awful sisters.” It’s impossible to resist the conflation of De Quincey’s Three Sorrows with those other witchy triplicities, to avoid believing that he less invented than channeled this threefold entity, so fully did he capture the archetypal identity, and the symbolic confusion, of actual goddesses in his vision. Fritz Leiber’s superb urban fantasy horror novel Our Lady of Darkness plays with just that idea, as does Kevin Ross’ superb and idiosyncratic Call of Cthulhu campaign Our Ladies of Sorrow, and as I do when I explicitly conflate Mormo with the Sorrows in the Trail of Cthulhu corebook.

De Quincey’s Three Sorrows resonate with (but don’t quite match in any pre-fabricated fashion) the traditional Irish Three Sorrows of Storytelling, three tales of jealousy, war, and revenge. (Those three themes, however, strongly (and probably intentionally) mirror the Three Furies: Megaera (“jealous rage”), Alecto (“eternal anger”), and Tisiphone (“vengeful murder”).) As well as the Leiber novel and game treatments mentioned above, the Three Sorrows inspire horror cinema, notably Dario Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy: Suspiria (1977), Inferno (1980), and Mother of Tears (2007).

Fall of DELTA GREEN: Operation PERSEUS

“LARGE CLOSEUP DOOR. Around the edge of it there come the faces of three women, watching Renfield. Women who have once been beautiful. Their skins are dead white—their lips full and scarlet. Their eyes are wild and blazing with blood-lust. Yet withal, there is something still beautiful, still arresting about them—they are faces that, once seen, should leave an indelible impression of weird decadence.”

—Garrett Ford, screenplay to Dracula (1930)

This Fall of DELTA GREEN operation begins with the 1968 theatrical re-release of Tod Browning’s Dracula, supercharging the energies of Mormo—goddess of the moon, vampires, and the “children of the night” generally. In the decade following Dracula’s syndication on television in 1957, all its archetypal forms bubble through America’s dream realm, not least the Three Brides. Mormo’s avatars the Sorrows take advantage of a weak moment or of long-simmering despair to possess two of the actresses who played the Brides in that film, annealing their divine forms to their signifiers.

The two actresses most vulnerable to the Sorrows’ approach are Dorothy Tree (b. 1906) and Geraldine Dvorak (b. 1904). Born Dorothy Triebitz to wealthy parents, Tree saw a modestly successful Hollywood career shattered in 1952 when she and her husband Michael Uris fell afoul of the HUAC blacklist. She reinvented herself as a voice coach and singer; in 1968 she still teaches voice in New York City, to Robert F. Kennedy among other powerful clients. Mater Lachrymarum hones in on her anger, her voice (recalling the Brides’ “musical laugh”), and perhaps on other personal tragedies (invented by the Handler) caused or exacerbated by the Sorrow. Her pseudonym (Tree) invites Mormo’s Diana-persona as well.

Dvorak found her post-Dracula career hijacked by her strong resemblance to Greta Garbo, who she doubled in several films. After being fired by Garbo for spoofing her in Nothing Ever Happens (1933), she doubled for the dying Jean Harlow in Saratoga (1937). During one of her lengthy stints as a Follies girl in Europe, Walter Winchell reported that she had died. In 1968, she in fact lives in quiet retirement in Capistrano, her brief career resurgence in the 1950s having flickered out. Her connection to mirror images invites Medusa, her reputed (and repeated) death echoes Proserpine, and eventually invites Mater Tenebrarum in.

The third Bride, Cornelia Thaw (b. 1908 as Mildred Peirce) had a more successful Hollywood sister, Evelyn Peirce. Dracula was Cornelia’s only significant film role, and she married Fred Clark and retired to Santa Cruz to be a mother and housewife. While this fits Mormo’s Luna, her life (and her Christian Science faith) remains stubbornly free of the despair needed to invite Mater Suspiriorum in. Which is why the Sorrows have decided to destroy it. DELTA GREEN notices the sudden surge of suicides and vampirism in Santa Cruz, and sends in the Agents. They must stop the two Sorrows from incarnating their sister, ideally without killing their hosts, all as the mists of Mormo—and Dracula—thicken around them.

This could also work as a Trail of Cthulhu scenario, timed with the theatrical re-release of Dracula in 1936 or 1938, but the parallels between the actresses and the Sorrows become a bit strained without Tree’s blacklisting or Dvorak’s reported death. In any case, the GM may want to track down Adam Newell’s elusive monograph Dracula’s Forgotten Brides, which inspired this piece.

The Fall of DELTA GREEN adapts DELTA GREEN: THE ROLE-PLAYING GAME to the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, opening the files on a lost decade of anti-Mythos operations: the 1960s. Players take on the role of DELTA GREEN operatives, assets, and friendlies. Hunt Deep Ones beneath the Atlantic, shut down dangerous artists in San Francisco, and delve into the heart of Vietnam’s darkness. Purchase The Fall of DELTA GREEN in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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