Historian, Verity Holloway’s first novella Beauty Secrets of The Martyrs is about magic, makeup, crypts, and clownfish. But mostly, it’s about our obsession with keeping the dead around. Here Verity shares how this book began as a few notes and takes us back to her first encounter with the incorrupt body of Saint Spyridon in Corfu. Verity explains by arranging our holy dead gorgeously, draping them with costly decorations, or simply bringing them out and enjoying a feast in their presence, we are create a feedback loop of hope and joy. If we love the dead, they may love us in return.
– Verity Holloway –
Verity is an author and historian living in East Anglia. Her stories and poems are inspired by all things medical, historical, and religious, with a magical realist bent. In 2012, she published her first chapbook of poems, Contraindications, and her novella, Beauty Secrets of The Martyrs, was released in 2015. The Mighty Healer, Verity’s biography of her Victorian quack doctor ancestor, will be published by Pen & Sword in the winter of 2016.
You can follow Verity on twitter: @Verity_Holloway
Buy Beauty Secrets of The Martyrs here
I was fifteen when I stood over the incorrupt body of Saint Spyridon. It was my first visit to Corfu, a summer holiday with my parents. Peeking out onto a narrow street of lace-makers, icon sellers, and jewellers’ shops, the modest exterior of Spyridon’s shrine made its entrance easy to miss. There was certainly no fanfare for the miracle within as I stepped down into the perfumed candlelight. The Greek Orthodox Jesus possessed a strange allure; stern and penetrating, totally removed from the acoustic-guitar-and-custard-creams Sundays I spent in church at home. It’s heretical to say it, but the shrine had magic.
So – terribly earnest, despite wearing a pentagram – I joined the queue to kiss the casket of Saint Spyridon: an eighteen-hundred-year-old bishop whose body, I was told, was preserved by a miracle of God. In the Church of England, you don’t get many opportunities to kiss a dead man, and because Spyridon was said to walk the streets at night, spreading his healing blessings, I knew my esoteric Nan, with her Catholic icons and her Spiritualist newsletters, would approve. Yet as I joined the line disappearing into the dark chamber with its frescos of bearded, unsmiling patriarchs, I did my best to politely ignore my fellow pilgrims wiping their noses and clearing phlegm as they genuflected to whisper their secret prayers against the cold silver. Would Saint Spyridon forgive me, I wondered, if I called it a day and slipped out to find a frappé? But there’s no polite way to snub a saint, particularly when you’re a Protestant, and the line grew rapidly shorter until I ended up inside a cave-like nook before a casket disappointingly hiding the miraculous body within. The metal was polished with kisses. I could hear behind me the clack-clack–cough of a woman thumbing olivewood prayer beads.
“Hello,” I whispered, and left.
I was already a grim little so-and-so. As you might imagine, this experience wasn’t exactly the antidote.
I’ve since been to crypts and catacombs all over the world. There’s an unconscious compulsion, visiting somewhere new, to give a cordial nod to the place’s dead. As a historian, my empathy is naturally with those who came before. This preoccupation culminated in my first novella, Beauty Secrets of The Martyrs. It’s about magic, makeup, crypts, and clownfish, but mostly about our obsession with keeping the dead around – and imprinting on them our own narrative.
Beauty Secrets of The Martyrs follows Silvan, an incorrupt saint, as he wanders the underground world of Cryptspace, selling cosmetics to his fellow dead. You can look up Silvan and admire him for yourself. Long-haired, slender, and girlishly pretty despite the open wound in his throat, I kept coming across this beautiful boy in online Fortean circles (“Top 10 Incorrupt Corpses!”) but could never pin down any biographical details beyond ‘Roman, martyred, and very dead’. Depending who you ask, Silvan’s bones are either stowed beneath the altar where he lies on display in Dubrovnik, encased inside a lovely wax model, or perfectly intact within his miraculous flesh.
Beauty Secrets began as idle notes on what it might be like to be a body on display, like Spyridon in Corfu. The afterlife of a saint must be exhausting, lying in sacred silence all day while the faithful come to you with their problems, their love, their need to know the secrets of the next world. Then there would be the tourists like myself, grudgingly covering their shoulders in the midday heat. All the skeptics, and all the artists looking to borrow your face. The novella is set in the near future, when the world of the living is succumbing to the floods of climate change. What might it be like to be something unchangeable, existing in a world where the rainforests are pulped, the bees dying, and the waters rising?
Of course, you only need to look at the plaster skulls of Jericho to see that humans have been preserving and displaying their dead for thousands of years. It’s an inherently human act, but one that raises more questions than it answers.
Beauty Secrets doesn’t just dwell on the holy dead. Vladimir Lenin invites Silvan for awkward tête-à-têtes in his Moscow mausoleum. This necessitated watching a video of Russians in white coats undressing Lenin’s green corpse and gently lowering it into a chemical bath, as they periodically must to delay decay. Like the Pharaohs, Lenin’s insides have been removed, leaving him looking more like a glove puppet than the Communist demigod his mausoleum would have him appear. This disconnect between mortal remains and immortal symbolism offers a glimpse into the needs and hopes of a culture. Soviet Russia was ostensibly secular, but Lenin’s body, lit up in its bulletproof sarcophagus, hints at something less material.
As Lenin says to Silvan: “I am no miracle, or perhaps only a miracle of modern chemistry. No, I will one day wither, as we all do. Though I am not so naïve as to believe there is not an intricate dummy in a storeroom somewhere, awaiting my retirement. ‘Doesn’t he look lifelike?’ the public will say, when I am long since dust.”
How far are we willing to go? This question of turning the deceased into venerated objects was something that kept cropping up in my research. Silvan’s friends, Saints Valerius and Deodatus, are better known as two of the magnificent jeweled skeletons photographed by Paul Koudounaris in his book Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. After the rise of Protestantism in the 1500s, the Catholic Church went about restoring influence by removing anonymous skeletons from early Christian catacombs and canonising them as martyrs before shipping them off with new names to towns all over Europe. There, the bones would be dressed in glittering jewels, their faces reconstructed with pearls and golden filigree. The affect is stunning, and a little scary, considering these individuals all have names we will never know. I’d love to know what they think of it all.
But identity isn’t really what matters. It’s the spectacle. To rudely contradict Keats, beauty is preferable to truth. Beauty is controllable, an antidote to the confrontational ugliness of death. Lenin gets a new silk suit once every three years. His clenched-fisted pose is dynamic, as if – providing he is kept handsome – he might rise at any second to punch capitalism in the throat. Silvan’s beauty, on the other hand, is sensual, even feminine. His fatal wound could almost be a kiss. Here, death is painted in seductive colours. Whether you believe Silvan truly is an incorrupt miracle or merely a pretty waxwork, the message is clear: loss of life, for your cause, is worth it. Silvan is a religious Sleeping Beauty, while Lenin is a defiant secular symbol, yet both call to us. By the presentation of their bodies, both men have been given a voice long after death has taken theirs from them.
Definitions of beauty vary wildly, of course, but there’s an obvious human need for the presence of the dead, and for the dead to communicate with us, symbolically or literally. By arranging them gorgeously, draping them with costly decorations, or simply bringing them out and enjoying a feast in their presence, we are creating a feedback loop of hope and joy. You haven’t left us, we are saying. Not really. We’re willing communication into being; a sort of sympathetic magic. If we love the dead, they may love us in return.
I’m still not sure what I wanted, all those years ago in Saint Spyridon’s shrine. Having lain there for eighteen hundred years (give or take a few nights off for a pleasant constitutional) perhaps the old Cypriot had secrets to tell me.
That’s the thing about the venerated dead. We ask them to haunt us.
Images of Saint Spyridon that appear in this post have been sourced from here