[written by writer, editor and publisher, Tom English]
Part One: A Bevy of Bloodsuckers
Close to my side the goblin lies,
And drinks away my vital blood!
“The Vampire” by John Stagg, 1810
Our current interest in vampires, in both film and books, probably owes more to all those Bela Lugosi movies produced by Universal Studios in the 1930s than to anything else. The financial success of the Universal movies paved the way for those gorgeous Hammer flicks that depicted way cooler, way sexier vampires; and over the next several decades Hammer’s celluloid bloodsuckers inspired new generations of storytellers who continue to keep the Undead alive – uh, undead.
We can thank Hammer Films, for the good and the bad vampire movies being produced today. And again, Hammer owes a good deal to Universal Studios. But Universal in turn owes a good deal to Bram Stoker. After all, it was the 1931 film version of his novel Dracula that started the whole vampire movie feeding frenzy. Dracula (the book) was not an immediate success when first published in 1897. Stoker was not the most capable novelist of his day, and the book is uneven, with a few tedious passages that can be rough going. On the other hand, Dracula the movie was a huge success at the box office and inspired a whole slew of sequels and imitations. These films have kept the novel alive and helped secure its place as a classic; a fitting way for Universal to repay its debt to the man who gave us the quintessential vampire count and inadvertently launched a durable film genre.
While we’re settling matters, we should acknowledge that Bram Stoker also owes an incredible debt to scores of writers and oral storytellers who laid the literary foundation upon which Dracula was built. Indeed, the lore of the vampire is as old as history and the first charismatic neck-biters invaded popular fiction close to 200 years ago! Let’s take a look at the literary ancestors of Stoker’s Transylvanian count. (Warning: I’ve edited over two dozen chapbooks on the subject for Dead Letter Press, and lest we be here all night I need to go straight for the jugular. So I’ll try and note only the high points.)
Sir Christopher Lee once stated that a vampire is anyone who controls another person. By this definition most of us have at least one vampire lurking in our lives, perhaps more. Historically, the word vampire was used to aptly label self-serving politicians, tax collectors, Church officials, and anyone else bleeding the people at large of their money and freedoms. The vampire in literature, however, is far more difficult to nail down. (Forgive me. I promise it won’t be the last time.) In his book The Living Dead, James Twitchell describes the theme of vampirism in literature as any example of what Samuel Taylor Coleridge described as “desire and loathing strangely mixed.” Never was a description more apt. This theme runs throughout vampire literature, reaching a zenith in Dracula that has long since been surpassed by 20th-century fiction and films, and continues to the present.
But before we go any further, WHAT is this thing we call literature? According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, it’s those magazines they hand out. I told the two old ladies who showed up on the front stoop that I was too busy to talk to them. They responded that they would leave me with some literature. (I’d like to say it ended up on my to-be-read pile, but it didn’t.) According to my high school English professor, literature is stuff of enduring value, like Shakespeare or Mark Twain. Okay, I can get behind that; but who decides what has value and what will endure? I doubt anyone thought at the time of its publication that “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” would still be read nearly 150 years later. And Shakespeare certainly wasn’t trying to create great art. He wrote to pay the rent and in the process managed to entertain the unwashed masses, the so-called “penny stinkards.” (No, it’s true, my teacher told me so.)
Does classic vampire fiction have enduring value? Well, we’re still reading it, aren’t we? Some of us are even studying it. And it’s very entertaining! But if we need a stronger defense on behalf of the literary vampire, we can simply point to a long list of great writers who scribbled about vampirism in one form or another; writers such as Byron, Keats, Goethe, Poe, and Baudelaire ensure the vampire its place in literature.
The “vampire” in literature has many different forms. There is, of course, the insatiable bloodsucking fiend most associated with the term; but there’s also the femme fatale, the pretty gal who manages to destroy the lives of all who find themselves entangled in her web of cunning manipulation. In The Romantic Agony (1930), Mario Praz describes “the beautiful woman without mercy” as a sexual cannibal “who stands in the same relationship to (her victim) as does the female spider to her male.” According to Praz, “The fascination of beautiful women already dead, especially if they had been great courtesans, wanton queens or famous sinners, suggested to the Romantics, probably under the influence of the vampire legend, the figure of the Fatal Woman who was successively incarnate in all ages and all lands, an archetype which united in itself all forms of seduction, all vices and all delights.” The defining example of “la belle dame sans merci” is the character Clarimonde in Théophile Gautier’s 1836 tale “La Morte Amoureuse” (“The Dead Lover”).
There’s the energy vampire, which grows steadily stronger while its victim, usually not knowing why, falls increasingly ill. Edgar Allan Poe subtly but effectively depicted this type of vampire in his 1835 story “Berenice.” And wherever you discover an exchange of energy between two or more characters, an exchange of health or potency, you’ve found another example of vampirism in literature. (Algernon Blackwood’s 1912 story “The Transfer” is a good example.) Even the often-fatiguing “artistic process” has been viewed as being vampiric, due to the energy and creativity the artist must pour into his or her art, as exemplified in Anne Crawford’s 1887 story “A Mystery of the Campagna.”
There’s the psychic vampire, too, of which a great example is the effete Reginald Clarke, in George Sylvester Viereck’s 1907 novel, The House of the Vampire. Clarke invites artistically gifted young men to stay at his home in New York where he visits them during the dead of night, his fingers piercing their brains and sucking away their intellects, appropriating for himself all their creativity, all their talents. Spend a night at Clarke’s house and you’ll wake up with more than just a headache. Depending on your avocation, you’ll have writer’s block or some other form of creative constipation. So, you think you’re a pretty good singer? Clarke can guarantee that after you spend a night with him you won’t be able to carry a tune in a bucket! On the other hand, Clarke will soon be launching a new career at the Metropolitan Opera!
There’s the shape-shifter. If you have the stamina you can check out John Keats’ long (very long) 1820 poem “Lamia.” The lamia was a favorite bogey of ancient Greek myth, a hideous gorgon-faced creature with fangs and a snake-like tongue. Lamias had the power to take the form of beautiful young women, who then waited on the outskirts of town where they would seduce unwary men travelling to Greece from other lands. The seductions were merely the prelude to sucking out their blood, however — sort of an early form of immigration control. The eroticism of these oral legends was extremely appealing to the predominately male writers and readers of Victorian fiction, and paved the way for stronger stuff in such works as J. S. Le Fanu’s Carmilla and Stoker’s Dracula.
There are also bloodsucking plants in fiction. Long before Roger Corman’s “Little Shop of Horrors” there was Phil Robinson’s 1881 tale “The Man-Eating Tree.” Other, better-known examples include H. G. Wells “Flowering of the Strange Orchid” (1894) and E. Nesbit’s “The Pavilion” (1915). There are bloodthirsty parasites, like the one in “The Feather Pillow,” a 1907 story by Horacio Quiroga, Poe’s South American counterpart. And Phil Robinson gave us a vampiric “man-lizard” in his 1893 tale “The Last of the Vampires.” More, you cry? The thing in E.F. Benson’s 1922 chiller “Negotium Perambulans” is a loathsome caterpillar-like creature. Read it, and you’ll come face to face with “the pestilence that walketh in darkness”!
Sometimes these vampiric fiends take the form of malevolent ghosts (as in H. B. Marriott Watson’s 1899 story “The Stone Chamber” or M.R. James’s 1904 tale “Count Magnus”); and may manifest themselves only in nightmares (as in Hume Nisbet’s 1900 story “The Old Portrait”). Sometimes they only come out at night. Sometimes they raise hell in broad daylight. There are other variations, as well — too many to cover in a few paragraphs. And sometimes the theme of vampirism is simply used as metaphor to highlight some sinister aspect of human nature — checkout F. Marion Crawford 1899 story “The Dead Smile.”
Last but not least, there’s the nosferatu, an animalistic creature of Eastern-European folklore, usually depicted as a scruffy peasant with bad breath and a taste for the blood of his own kinfolk. If deprived of this blood he’ll settle for a swig from the family livestock (bringing new meaning to the phrase “drink a cow.”) The legend of Arnold Paole is one of the earliest recorded examples from folklore, but we don’t encounter the nosferatu so much in fiction. I think E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “Aurelia” (a segment of his longer work The Serapion Brethren, 1820) comes closest to capturing this type of vampire. Writers in the 19th century evidently preferred more tasteful characterizations for their bloodsuckers. They essentially traded in the dirty face of the peasant for the refined features and cultivated manners of the noble class. The first writer to do this was not Bram Stoker, either. 80 years or so before Stoker created Count Dracula, Dr. John Polidori gave the world Lord Ruthven, the first modern vampire.
[Tomorrow you can read all about the ‘Birth of the Modern Vampire’]