The iron maiden has a checkered history. Almost every source will promptly confess that it is essentially a 19th century invention before plunging into its supposed medieval past (rather in the manner of a ghost story told like so: “Now, there is no record of a woman dying in the room; in fact, no woman has ever lived in the house at all. But they say that on cold, October nights you can see her roam the halls…”). The truth of the matter is that yes, the iron maiden, or iron virgin (the German word “Jungfrau” is translatable as either word) was never used as a torture device. It was cobbled together to excite the imaginations of Gothic-obsessed English tourists sometime in the 1800s (not long after the Gothic novel – with its torture chambers, sadistic counts, and abducted virgins – became popularized by Radcliffe and Lewis). Such are the pair of honeymooners who feature in this tale – one of Stoker’s best. While it is not as well known as “The Judge’s House,” “The Squaw” remains a frequently anthologized horror story – one which was probably influenced by Poe (“The Black Cat,” “The Pit and the Pendulum”) and which in turn probably influenced Lovecraft’s revenge story “The Cats of Ulthar.”
At its heart is an unmistakable sexual subtext – the thrill of masochism – which gives the story an unusual jolt of energy, and a vein of anthropocentric hubris which is punished in the most gruesome of manners. The setting is the German city of Nuremburg (called “Nurnberg” here) – a medieval town in northern Bavaria (located in the middle of Germany’s southern half), which was renowned for its history and culture. Later it would be viciously firebombed during World War II, and the original iron maiden – the one ostensibly described in this story, though of slightly different construction – was destroyed with much of the architecture and records. Today the city is probably best known for the Nazi trials that occurred there after the war. Stoker could not have realized the pertinence of this setting to his modern readers, for this is the story of a crime, judgment, and an execution. One of Stoker’s goriest, it never fails to stun me.
The story follows two English honeymooners who have chosen the city of Nuremburg as an unconventionally Gothic destination (eschewing the more romantic locales of France, Spain, Italy, or even Germany’s scenic Rhine country for a medieval city in the Bavarian hills). They seem to be ironing out the first signs of domestic strife, and are content to share their honeymoon with a pompous American tycoon who cluelessly attaches himself to the two lovers. Hutcheson, the stereotypical “ugly American,” comes from the Wild West, and loves to describe his daring escapes from murderers, predators, and Indians. His stories seem to express a barely concealed arousal at the idea of being restrained or confined in a cramped space. It is no wonder, then, that the trio are drawn to Nuremburg Castle, where the famous Iron Maiden is housed.
Standing outside and waiting to enter, they look down at a black cat and her kitten lazing in the sun. Hutcheson stupidly tosses a stone at the kitten (supposedly to tease it), but inadvertently kills the animal, attracting the rage of the mother who fixes her green eyes on the killer. She furiously tries to scale the wall, and prowls its base with her eyes gleaming at Hutcheson above. The narrator and his wife are dismayed, but the rustic Hutcheson shrugs it off, although he is bothered by one thought. The cat’s eyes have reminded him of an Indian woman, or squaw, who was driven mad by the murder of her child. For years she tracked the killer, and when he was captured by her tribe, she tortured him to death. Hutcheson put her out of her misery, but was too late to do the same for her victim. However, he is amused by the cat’s attempts to climb the wall, and notes that compared to the bears and wolves he has fought, a cat is no threat. They continue into the castle. The cat silently follows.
In the dungeon museum, they find many gruesome objects of torture and death which frighten the narrator’s wife but inspire Hutcheson with awe and admiration. He tells them more stories of escaping death and being locked in tight quarters (e.g., hiding in the carcass of a horse, being stuck in a diving bell, etc.), and reveals and unmistakably erotic delight in restraint. He volunteers to be trussed up in the Iron Maiden despite the curator’s objections. This Maiden is different than the conventional depiction: instead of opening horizontally like a door, it opens vertically like an upside down oven door. The hinge is at the top, with a rope at the bottom. To open it, the rope – attached to the ceiling – is pulled, hoisting the front half up, where the victim would then be secured inside, and the spiked front half would be released to impale them. Hutcheson can hardly control his delight at the thought of having a new white-knuckled experience under his belt, and bribes the curator to hoist the Maiden open and to bind him securely inside, while the honeymooners watch on. Disgusted and frightened, the narrator’s wife leaves them for some fresh air while he watches the strange procedure. Hutcheson steps into the Maiden’s mouth and demands to be tied up tightly. Then he wriggles in the iron cabinet, imagining himself to be a condemned prisoner.
As he does this, the narrator suddenly notices that the insane cat has followed them and is perched above the curator, who is still holding the front half aloft with the rope. Before he can say anything, the cat attacks the curator, slashing his eyes to ribbons with her claws, and causing him to release the rope. The iron door falls forward, and the narrator has a glimpse of Hutcheson’s terrified face before it is swallowed up in iron. Two spikes in the door are aimed at the prisoner’s eyes, and these shoot through Hutcheson’s eye sockets. In vain, the narrator hoists the door again (causing a nauseating sucking noise as the spikes are pulled from Hutcheson’s ruined head), and his companion falls dead to the floor. Immediately, the ravenous cat leaps upon his corpse and begin lapping his blood up greedily, purring with erotic delight. Dismayed and disgusted by the sight and sound of her gruesome arousal, the narrator retrieves an old executioner’s sword and cleaves the cat in two.
Poe would have been extremely proud of this homage to his body of work. It reads like Poe, it has characters like Poe’s, and it has a devotion to irony and body horror that have their roots in Poe. It has obvious relations to “The Black Cat” (a man abuses then kills a pet cat, which appears to return from the grave to punish its torturer), as well as “The Pit and the Pendulum” (a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition is punished with several grotesque and campy torture instruments), but also reminds one of “The Oval Box” (the narrator describes the destruction of a fellow traveler), and “Hop Frog” (an arrogant bully is brutally murdered by his favorite victim for harming the woman he loves). Indeed, the story reads like one of Vincent Price’s liberal 1960s adaptions of Poe’s stories: dramatic, erotic, campy, and gruesome. The conclusion – in true decadent form – also takes a hint from Oscar Wilde’s enormously controversial 1891 play, “Salome” (which had to be published in France because British publishers would not touch it).
The story revolves around the Biblical characters of John the Baptist, King Herod (whose incestuous marriage is challenged by the Baptist), and his adoptive daughter, Salome. In Wilde’s version, Salome longs to seduce the saintly Baptist, and when he refuses her, she conspires with her mother against him. After seducing her step-father with a strip tease, he agrees to behead the imprisoned saint, but when the head is brought to Salome, she lavishes it with affection, making out with the bloody lips. Horrified, Herod cries out to his soldiers “kill that woman!” who crush her with their shields. Both the cat and Salome are killed for their apparent sexual joy over the corpse of a man – they must be destroyed (and “no one will call [the narrator] cruel” for destroying the cat) because of the abominable mingling of female sexuality and homicide (but mostly the former).
This brings up the subject of eroticism that ripples through this story. Written four years before Dracula, it contains a prototype of the Bowie-knife wielding Texan Quincey Morris in the character of Hutcheson: both are big-chested, big-mouthed, folksy Americans, and both seem to have a taste for adventure and thrills. But Hutcheson’s thrills are a tad less PG: he relishes the sensation of being bound and manhandled, being loaded into the torture device, seeing the spikes loom towards his face, and few readers will fail to detect the unmistakable arousal that he receives from it. Hutcheson has a history of being confined in dire scenarios – inside the corpse of a buffalo, in a caved-in mine, in a caisson trapped under water. All of these “experiences” involve confinement in a horrifying, claustrophobia-inducing space that could have caused his death – what’s more, they reveal a bizarre, almost sexual thrill that he gets from being confined and restricted in a dangerous situation – a sort of masochistic adrenaline rush.
In a manner, both the sadistic cat (who purs loudly while wallowing in his gore) and the masochistic cowboy (whose eyes shine as he wriggles helplessly in the torture device) seem made for one another – not as boon companions, but as the iceberg was “made” for the “Titanic.” The one’s careless nonchalance seems fated to have encountered the other’s brutal justice. Ultimately the tale is one of Stoker’s best – and one of my personal favorites – for the way in which it so powerfully uses irony, tension, hubris, and fate to bring the sadistic horrors of Europe’s medieval past to the present, carefree life of a masochistic American tourist.