“The Leather Funnel” is a very uneasy tale, presaging the queasy fiction of Algernon Blackwood (“The Insanity of Jones”), M. R. James (“The Rose Garden”), and Oliver Onions (“Io”). The stories I’ve associated with these Edwardian masters of the macabre all bear a somber similarity to “The Leather Funnel,” in that they concern visions of the past forced on a hapless victim – either by their proximity to the supernatural, the loss of their senses, or in the worst cases both. The tale is particularly Jamesian, with its repulsive descriptions of the eponymous medieval torture device – the grisly bridge by which the violent woes of the past can cross to invade the bourgeois doldrums of the present – and in one other important respect: authorial control.
Doyle demonstrates extreme control in what he broods on and in what he avoids, choosing to create atmospheric mood in spite of physical gore. But rest assured, there is something particularly icky about this tale, which successfully conveys the uneasiness that can be generated when the illusion of our dignified civilization is shattered by a visitor from the barbaric past – a simple museum piece that requires no supernatural intervention to imbue its observers with bad dreams and terrors in the night.
The Watson-like narrator of our story begins by introducing his “singular” friend, Lionel Dacre, an eccentric French scholar and collector who had slowly transformed his Paris apartment into a stunning library of mystical literature and a museum of ghoulish occult artifacts:
“A wealthy man of refined and eccentric tastes, he had spent much of his life and fortune in gathering together what was said to be a unique private collection of Talmudic, cabalistic, and magical works, many of them of great rarity and value. His tastes leaned toward the marvellous and the monstrous, and I have heard that his experiments in the direction of the unknown have passed all the bounds of civilization and of decorum…”
The narrator states that Dacre was a strange, complex, and mysterious man – “was,” for the narrator stops himself short of tumbling into a biography with the curt intelligence that Dacre is now dead, and that he died just as he believed himself to be on the cusp of discovering the Elixir of Life. But, as he remarks (more to himself than his audience), this story is not about Dacre the man, but about a bizarre event that took place at his flat one night in 1882.
The two had met in the Assyrian Room of the British Museum, and struck up a friendship based on their shared affinity for antiquities. Dacre invited the Englishman to stay with him at his flat the next time they were both next in town, but remarked that there was only one bed, so he would have to sleep on the couch in Dacre’s library. This was no trouble for his guest, and the men soon met, in the spring of that year.
Dacre was happy to show off his opulent museum: its walls were packed, floor to ceiling, with bookcases loaded with musty, brown volumes, as well as tapestries, paintings, and curios – all of very advanced age. He boasts to have spent over £250,000 on the collection (a mind-blasting $40,000,000 in 2020), and his guest is staggered with awe and fascination. They spend the evening sitting by the fire, discussing historical and metaphysical matters, and as the evening draws to a close, the narrator notices a strange artifact sitting on a display table – what looks to be a wooden funnel with a discolored, brass rim and mouth.
He imagines that it must have been used to fill wine casks and asks about its provenance. Dacre feigns ignorance and asks his friend to examine the piece. It turns out to be extremely old leather, not wood, and looks as though it would hold about a quart of fluid. He hypothesizes that it must have been used by a vintner in the Middle Ages to fill casks. Dacre slyly agrees that it was “used for filling a vessel with fluid,” but hints that if his guess is correct, it was a bizarre kind of vintner who used it to fill a “very singular cask.” Looking closer, the narrator notices that the brass mouth has been deeply scored or cut.
“Would you call it cut?” Dacre wryly challenges him; but his friend cannot get what he is driving at: it has unquestionably been jaggedly crushed by a heavy instrument. Dacre then changes the subject to the psychology and metaphysics of dreams – a topic on which his guest is highly skeptical – and directs him to entire shelves of ancient books on the subject, before connecting the two ideas.
Apparently, the funnel was discovered by his antiquities agent in a cupboard in a house which once belonged to a high official in the court of Louis XIV (who reigned from 1643 to 1715). This official was charged with overseeing the execution of the brutal laws of those days, and was quite a dark character without a doubt.
When Dacre acquired the funnel he was puzzled: it had somes initials, “MMdAdB” and a crown etched onto the rim, but this was not the official’s initial. Now he spliced this with his talk of dreams: he has made it his habit – after years of having mysteries solved for him by dreams – to lay any curious or confusing object beside his bed while he sleeps, and the solution will often be made clear to him.
“According to my theory,” he says, “any object which has been intimately associated with any supreme paroxysm of human emotion, whether it be joy or pain, will retain a certain atmosphere or association which it is capable of communicating to a sensitive mind. By a sensitive mind I do not mean an abnormal one, but such a trained and educated mind as you or I possess."
He recommends the same course for his guest, who – after a long conversation about the history of this practice throughout time and cultures – agrees to try it. They wish each other good night, and the Englishman stays up smoking and gazing into the fire, thinking strange and dark thoughts. Dacre had already rested the leather funnel on a stool beside his pillow, so the narrator settles into the couch, and after a great deal of restless tossing and turning, drifts into a heavy sleep…
He is quickly pulled into a surreal nightmare: he sees a sinister, stone room with a high vaulted ceiling and a blood-red carpet, where three men in black sit at a table opposite a small blonde woman with child-like eyes – despite being in her forties – and an almost feline suggestion of cruelty about her otherwise harmless features. She was serene and confident, but it was clear that something very serious – a kind of trial – was taking place. She was wearing a plain, white robe and was being whispered to by a very nervous and serious priest.
However, she appeared to spurn both the priest and the judges, who left the room only to be followed by a pair of rough-looking men who cleared the room of the table and carpet and brought in a few strange articles of furniture: a crude wooden bed, the length of which could be broadened by winches, something that looked like a gymnast’s vaulting horse, and a series of ropes which were now lowered by pulleys in the vaulted ceiling.
Now a new man enters the room: dressed in black and covered in strange, greasy stains, his face is gaunt, white, and frightening, and while the woman is still defiant, her priest breaks into a frantic sweat at his appearance. The man in black exudes command and control, and the two minions follow his instructions without hesitation, like nurses aiding a surgeon: she is bound hand and foot and hoisted with her back bending across the spine of the wood horse, while her feet are lashed to iron rings on the floor and her arms are pulled tight by the rope and pulley. Then the torturers bring in three buckets of water and set them beside the horse, and one of them produces the leather funnel – shiny, black, and new – the use for which the dreamer suddenly realizes. Suddenly, “with horrible energy” the minion thrusts the funnel between her teeth and Dacre’s guest’s horror is enough to break him from his nightmare, like a drowning man clearing the surface of the black ocean.
He recognizes Dacre’s library, awash in moonlight, is wildly relieved to be “back in the nineteenth century and out of that medieval vault, into a world where men had human hearts,” and is stupefied by the thought that this kind of torture was thought acceptable. How could men be so heartless and beastly? Suddenly, he is horrified by the sight of something black looming in the darkness and moving towards him.
Of course, it is Dacre, who, of course, had the same dream when he slept with the funnel beside him. Dacre is also a little frightened, because his guest had woken up him and the servants with hellish screams and shrieks, but he offers to shed some light on the event. What they both saw was called “the Extraordinary Question” – a form of torture where a prisoner is interrogated by forcing them to drink sixteen pints (7 liters) of water. The torture of this particular prisoner was successful: she confessed to poisoning her father and two brothers with the help of her lover, an army captain who died (supposedly of natural causes) before he could enjoy the inheritance that she had paved a way for herself.
The woman’s name was Marie Madeline d’Aubray, the Marquise de Brinvilliers, and she was an aristocrat – so the MMdAdB with the crown over it was her monogram cipher (engraved to commemorate what was a massive true crime sensation in 1675 – akin to the OJ Simpson or Baby Lindbergh murders). While there is certainly a good chance that she was guilty of the murders, historians are still uncertain of her responsibility, and the confession gathered by the torturer – the official in whose house the funnel was discovered – is still considered a shameful episode.
The narrator has only two questions left: who had the engraving done, and what were the savage scorings around the tip. Dacre’s explanation is simple: the chief torturer surely had them engraved to commemorate the time that he put the Extraordinary Question to a beautiful aristocratic woman – something which did not happen every day, even in the dungeons of medieval France – and as to the gouges in the brass:
"She was a cruel tigress," said Dacre, as he turned away. "I think it is evident that like other tigresses her teeth were both strong and sharp."
In his groundbreaking Danse Macabre – a philosophical treatise on fictional horror, and a successful response to H. P. Lovecraft’s 1927 Supernatural Horror in Literature – Stephen King dissected the emotional and psychological effects of horror fiction into three distinct appeals: where rhetoric has been drawn into logos, ethos, and pathos, speculative fiction, he claims, can be divided into terror, horror, and revulsion. Terror, like logos, is the finest element – it is the creeping dread of doom, of confrontation.
It is a primarily psychological feature that is atmospheric. Horror follows soon behind. It is the source of the terror – the big reveal, the “shock value of the dread” manifested in a monster or mutilation. Lastly, there is revulsion, or – as King calls it both disparagingly and affectionately – the gross-out. Blood, gore, nauseating and primal. Today the gross-out tends to be king in the theatres, with horror and terror revolving around a steady stream of gouged eyes, chewed glass, and sexually-infused body torture.
In “The Leather Funnel,” Doyle stands head and shoulders above many lesser writers who would have relished describing the water swelling her belly, the vomit splashing on the cobblestones, the cries and moans as her nubile body became drenched in water and her white shift clung to her flesh and turned pink. People love that stuff. But that’s the thing of BDSM erotica, not horror fiction that plagues the psyche rather than the libido. Doyle was not a prude, and he does not pull back out of shame or modesty. This was the Edwardian Era. Oscar Wilde was dead, but his Salome had captured imaginations; the decadence movement was still churning out erotic literature and art; and while obscenity laws were still in existence, the shock factor of depicting a woman’s torture was not what it had been during the days of Walter Scott.
Doyle focuses on the revulsion of psychological trials, not physical ones. His disgust is in the fact that through simple preservation a tool of such savagery should reunite modern man with his primal past – and his cruel potential in the future. It is worth noting that Madame de Brinvilliers is an entirely historical person, and that Doyle’s account is thoroughly accurate. This lends a certain potency to his story: that the torture of such a vile woman – a serial killer and patricide – could evoke a deep and sincere disgust. It remains one of Doyle’s most humane and disturbing tales, haunting its readers long after the set it down – not unlike a weathered leather funnel on a bed stand.