The Demon Lover

October 31, 2019

What unites ghost stories and folksong? A Venn diagram of the two would surely put love and death in the centre. Robert Aickman wrote in the introduction to The 3rd Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories that the eerie tale fulfils our “need to escape, at least occasionally, from a mechanistic world, ever more definable, ever more predictable, and, therefore, ever more unsatisfying and frustrating.”

The traditional song, often set in a vague and archaic time, can be equally attractive to those who wish to escape the prosaic world. However, the folk song and the ghost story do not ignore the stuff of life. Instead, they transform it into art that captivates our attention while making us engage with the problems of our humanity.

A case in point is that of “The Demon Lover”. This ballad, which dates back to 1685 and has since become part of the corpus of traditional song in Britain, Ireland and North America, tells of a woman whose lover returns from sea only to find her married to another man. The old flame re-pledges his love, telling her that he turned down a king’s daughter for her sake. He promises her wealth and persuades her to leave her husband and young children, and they sail off in one of his seven ships. When at sea, however, he either reveals his true identity (supernatural) or their intended destination (Hell) and, with that, the ship sinks.

This ballad speaks of the dangers posed to lovers by the strength of romantic bonds, the way that love can be a gateway to danger and dissolution if not handled with care, and the return of spirits (emotional or literal) to make their claims upon, or take advantage of, our humanity. These themes have been constants in the horror and ghost story traditions for at least two centuries.

Love, especially its more physical expression, has tended to be the preserve of the vampire in popular culture and literature. However, while the vampire desires our life force, the ghost desires us in our entirety. The vampire lover, like Le Fanu’s Carmilla or Stoker’s Dracula, comes either out of nowhere or from somewhere “out there”. Ghosts, on the other hand, come out of our past, from intimate spaces, or even out of our thoughts. They come to take us back with them, or at least to ensure that no one else can have us.

Lewis Hurst
‘Well met, well met, my own true love’: Five Demon Lovers