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Ten years ago, I wrote my novel Buried (2008) about a curious case of "forbidden love" that took place many, many decades ago, in Key West Florida. The story, that of German immigrant "Count" Carl von Cosel, in reality one Otto Carl Tanzler, captured my creative imagination in a way few stories ever have: what he termed his "undying love" for his chosen bride, the tragic Elena Milagro de Hoyos, the young Cuban immigrant girl who succumbed to a tuberculoid lung at the tender age of twenty-two. Carl, the putative "Count" (he swore he was descended from a German countess whose poltergeist-like phantasm frequently haunted him) commenced, upon the death of his beloved, to exhume the body and steal away with it to his squalid home. He did this after perpetrating medical quackery upon the luckless Elena, trying, through dint of his bizarre "treatments," to cure her of her disease. Predictably, this did NOT work; but, of course, if it actually had, we wouldn't know this story.
The Count, born in Dresden Germany in 1877, describes, in his "Confessions" (or "Secret Diary" if you like) his childhood as one wherein he exhibited brilliance at an early age, was determined to build gliders, do scientific experiments, and generally behave like a little mad genius. He furthermore paints a portrait of his encounter with the ghost of the castle wherein his family, said to be descended from nobility, resided. He describes levitating tables, items thrown to the floor, and curtains going up in flames, unaccountably.
Perhaps because of this, he began to study metaphysics and spiritualism, a study that would absorb him for the rest of his life; marking his mind with a preoccupation with death, and how to cross the chasm from one side of the grave to the other.
Perhaps a bit more realistically, after finding himself immigrating to Australia, he was interred, for a short period during World War 1, in a camp for undesirable aliens. It is here he undoubtedly began to experience the cold brush with the tragic, the inner darkness that would mark his being until the end of his days. He describes building a musical organ out of driftwood; not, however, the least believable of his many claims (some of which included the dubious claim of taking multiple degrees and doctorates; Tanzler was eager to demonstrate his genius to the world.)
After being released, his globe-trotting took him to Italy, where, in a cemetery, a vision of a "White Lady" emerging from a monument and disappearing led him to believe the spirit of his ancient relative, the Countess, was attempting to contact him.
As if to confirm this, she later, he claims, appeared by his bedside, slightly obscuring the vision of another phantom, a striking young woman whose image is then burned into his mind permanently. The Countess promises him that this is his "one true love," for which he will later write he has nothing but "undying love."
He then departed to Cuba. There, he had this mysterious phantasm as a dinner guest for a short period. A literal ghost, one supposes; or maybe a psychic precognition of what was to come.
His final destination is Key West, Florida. There, with a young family, a wife and daughter in tow (he lives apart from them, estranged, for reasons that are never fully made clear), he becomes a radiologist at a military hospital facility, making his living reading X-rays. It is here, on the tubercular ward, he met the one supreme fixation of his life: Elena Milagro de Hoyos, his "Elena." He's in his early fifties; she's not yet twenty-one.
This, then, is the image of his "Phantom," the ghost revealed to him by the Countess.
He's smitten; infatuated obsessively. He lavished gifts on the young tuberculoid, although, where he gets money for expensive perfumes and jewels, clothing and furnishings, he never makes quite clear in his writings. Elena, who was previously married to a profligate husband that ran off, was both charmed and distressed by the undeniably erudite but bizarre older gentleman. His assurances that he can "cure" Elena of her consumption through his quack remedies (which include electrical batteries, bizarre diets, and other highly-dubious practices) placated her disapproving family, somewhat; also, of course, von Cosel's largesse.
Von Cosel describes Elena's family uncharitably as loud and, obviously, oblivious to her fragile health. Be that as it may, his own ministrations proved, ultimately, futile, and Elena succumbed in 1931 to her disease. She was twenty-two.
Disconsolate, Carl built for her a mausoleum (one wonders again: Where did he get his money?), a "special crypt" wherein he placed her casket, which was sealed with locks (to keep her from escaping?), and where he could sit and sing to her old Spanish ballads, such as "La Boda Negra" ("The Black Wedding," about a man that steals the corpse of a woman he loved, who has died) to her. He became a lean, near-spectral wraith in the graveyard himself, and, locally, tongues began to wag.
"Promises to the dead are sacred, and must be kept!"
This is the way von Cosel put it in his diary. He had, after all, promised her they would always be together, that he would care for her unto the end of the world. And, to that end, it was not long (a mere two years) before, hearing her voice come through the cracks in the surface of her crypt, in the fragments of his mind itself, he, under cover of darkness one evening, stole Elena from her earthly resting place. Loading her atop a little wagon, he stealthily left the cemetery, departing to a rooming house, wherein he managed to get the thing in through a window; although he became covered in putrescence and local dogs were "becoming disturbed" at the reek. He bathed in whiskey, as there was "no running water" in his place. The mind boggles.
So began the patient, piece-by-piece reconstruction, over a period of SEVEN YEARS, of the slowly deteriorating physical form of Elena Milagro de Hoyos. Creating a wooden "lip" around his bed, to collect fluids; patiently waxing strips of white silk to the rapidly skeletonizing face; providing glass eyes; a wig; makeup; a dress.
It was A Rose for Emily, reversed. It was Sir John Pryce and Joan of Castile, Victor Ardisson, and Sergeant Bertrand again. It was, in Carl Tanzler von Cosel's mind "love."
To finally transport his beloved to a place secluded enough to provide for her continued care, he utilized the "Cosmic Space Plane" he was constructing on the grounds of the hospital wherein he worked. The plane, which had no wings, was christened "The Comtessa", and was used to transport the body, secretly, to a ramshackle place on the beach. Mario, the husband of Elena's sister Nana, made quite a show of riding atop it, to the gaze of curious onlookers (we must assume he had no idea his long-dead sister-in-law was being smuggled inside).
The "Laboratory" on the Beach
Like something out of a gothic potboiler, von Cosel built his shrine for Elena in this final home, frequently playing the organ for her, imagining their conversations in the heated confines of his rather exceptional brain scape. And, but for a little gossip, and the prying curiosity of Elena's sister Nana, all would have remained thus. But, of course, in life, and AS life, all things must come to an end, in the fullness of time.
Nana confronted Carl, demanding to see if Elena was still in her tomb. Of course, she wasn't. Threatening to fetch the law, Nana was finally able to pressure von Cosel into consent. Maybe he was so mad at this point, he really thought nothing much would be done about him possessing his morbid madam.
"Oh, that's not Elena!" protested Nana. Mario, a bit more level-headed, said, "What's the matter, Nana? You can see that Elena is not in her tomb!"
Or, something to that effect.
It was not long after that that von Cosel was arrested.
"Nothing left. Nothing human."
An ensuing trial yielded little. Von Cosel reaped sympathetic letters and gifts from women who were touched by the undying (if incredibly macabre) devotion of the old gent; the charges of grave robbing were null and void, the statute of limitations having run out five years previously.
Von Cosel was released, free and infamous. Elena, who had been exhibited at a local mortuary to a massive throng of curiosity seekers, all of whom filed most eagerly past the unearthly, putrid princess, the "giant porcelain doll" as one tough copper described it. "There was nothing left..." he later said. "Nothing human."
Indeed, she looked a fat, white slug, this long-dead Cuban beauty, this poor, doomed "Angel of the Tomb." A thing that, for von Cosel, was a gateway of communication; an Ouija of flesh and bone, wire, rags, and wax he had painstakingly constructed; to reanimate the body, as in an H.P. Lovecraft pulp horror yarn.
Moving, changing identities of infamy, he died in 1951. He was found clutching a plaster death mask of "His Elena," devoted paramour to the bitter end.
His diary ends, oddly, invoking (if I remember correctly) Beethoven's Ninth. Perhaps the Fourth Movement: "Ode to Joy." But that isn't quite right, is it? There is no joy in this story. There is the lingering ghost of a young Cuban beauty, one doomed to die before she had ever really lived. And there is the mad, covetous love of a tottering eccentric, one whose tenuous grasp on the real was so precarious that a repellent puppet made from the rotting bones of a moldering stiff could fuel his fantasies.
But fantasy is the world, is it not?
Instead, we suggest the musical theme here should be Beethoven. But, not the Ninth. Instead, we suggest a more fitting musical outro would be "Moonlight Sonata."
A yearning, romantic piece, fit for two souls, enraptured in the eternal embrace of a love that knows no death.