With the "Merciful Women", a dark tale of gothic horror & striking mingling of erotica, absinthe and opium-induced hallucinations and literary history, Andahazi provides us with his own version of the birth of the Gothic novel, and imagines what "really" happened during the literary-infamous summer of 1816, when Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley, her sister Claire Clairmont and Byron's secretary, Polidori (the true protagonist of the story) gathered in a Swiss mansion and embarked on the ghost-story writing-contest that would give birth to "Frankenstein".
A devilish satire of the literary world, the story explores the themes of authorship and the mystery of literary paternity and plagiarism through the use of "ghostwriters". According to this story, "Vampyre" (the ancestor to Bram Stoker's Dracula as well as countless vampire stories), published by Byron's publisher in 1819 as Byron's work (the latter indignantly denying authorship), would be the work of his secretary, Polidori, written for him by an atrocious female freak. Also, according to the story's "final-plot-twist", Lord Byron and Mary Shelley themselves would owe, respectively, their "Manfred" and "Frankenstein" to the same monstrous ghostwriter.
The plot consists of Polidori, Byron's despised, jealous and fame-obsessed secretary, signing a Faustian contract with a horrible but intensely intelligent, literate and talented creature, who has been living like a rat, sneaking into his room at night and leaving letters to his attention. So for the most part, the story consists of a series of flashbacks, describing what Polidori reads in the letters of his enigmatic pariah correspondent, as she endeavors to share the nature of her predicament with him.
She introduces herself as the sister of the Legrand identical twins, the once beautiful Babette and Colette, who, in their days of glory, were known to seduce any man with blunt lasciviousness. Annette describes herself as an atrocious and amorphous freak of nature, formed from the membranous excrescence that linked her two sisters, in utero. Detached from them at birth, she found refuge in the basement of the family house. When it became clear that if one of the three sisters were to die, they all would, she was allowed to flee, and grew up underground, cultivating her remarkable literary skills by literally devouring books.
Annette offers her ghostwriting services to Polidori, in exchange for a crucial substance he possesses and which the three sisters depend on to survive: the "sweet elixir of life", which only men can provide. After depending, for years, on her gorgeous sisters' seductions to provide her with sustenance, she has now become desperate for the "nectar" that her aging siblings can no longer easily obtain. When they do manage to obtain semen , they see no choice but killing the victims of their "rape" , for fear that the degrading rumors about them would be truly and irrevocably confirmed. They have become nomads, arriving in a new city, choosing their victim, obtaining the booty, killing two or three times, and then leaving for a new destination.
Now, Annette suggests an arrangement to fame-craving Polidori: if he provides her with his seed, she will provide him with an unpublished manuscript which he can pass off as his own creation.
One night, with a letter from Annette, he finds a gift of opium. He inhales it, thereby entering a dream state during which he is seized by a vision of the villa's guests in the throes of an intense sexual orgy together. He then sees himself beheading Byron with a sword. Suddenly, a beautiful woman enters the room, and introduces herself as Annette. She hands Polidori a part of the manuscript, and gives him oral pleasure, thereby receiving her share of the deal.
When it is done, Polidori realizes with horror that the beautiful woman has transformed into an "anthropomorphic" reptile, covered in the fur of a rat. For three whole days, Polidori remains lochis room. Annette Legrand has provided him with three small flasks which she collects during the night while he sleeps, after he has filled them, in solitary fashion. In exchange, she leaves the agreed number of pages on his desk.
On the fourth day, Polidori leaves his room for the stipulated night, during which each member of the house party is to read out their promised tale, starting at the exact hour of midnight. Polidori reads his story, "The Vampyre". A deathly silence full of fear, astonishment and respect welcomes the end of his reading. Byron, Claire and Shelley subsequently throw their own pages into the fire. Mary, however, prepares herself to read her "Frankenstein" story, but Polidori disdainfully leaves the room.
During the following three days, Annette Legrand fails to show herself. In a farewell letter to Polidori, she announces her departure from Geneva. When he sees a faint light coming from her house, he grabs a rifle, jumps into a boat and crosses the lake. He reaches the house -actually an old castle- and a minuscule chamber which he understands to be Annette's quarters. Among the hundreds of papers and letters he discovers in a trunk is the correspondence from Byron, thanking his "dark muse" for the "Manfred" tale, as well as a letter from Mary Shelley...
In 1819, Polidori delivers the manuscript of "The Vampyre" to Byron's publisher. The tale is published, but under Byron's name, who, indignant and furious, writes a letter to the publisher vehemently denying authorship. In 1821, Polidori commits suicide.