REVIEWING THE VAMPIRE: WHAT SEEMS TO BE AT STAKE

This is an anecdote I have often told in class and to my tutorees. I was in a tutorial with my PhD supervisor in Scotland, Prof. David Punter. My topic was monstrosity in 1980s and 1990s fiction. I had reached that low point which all doctoral students hit when you realize that nobody cares about your mighty efforts
 I was working on my chapter on the vampire, and, sick and tired, I blurted out, “but who cares?, vampires don’t even exist!” Prof. Punter went gnomic–as if he was onto something I could never guess–and replied in a style that Oscar Wilde would have loved, “Oh, but they do exist! At least, they take a great deal of our imagination”. Or similar words. That taught me a most valuable lesson (also about vampires): just as we spend much of our life dreaming, we spend many hours daydreaming, and both our dreams and our imagination are as important as our waking hours. A truth that readers who limits themselves to realist fiction can never suffer. Poor things.

We have included again Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) in our syllabus for Victorian Literature–or rather, like the repressed, the uncanny Count has returned to haunt us. I have not re-read Stoker’s novel yet, a text which I admire very much because of its singular mixture of fake documents and its sense of modernity scandalized by the intrusion of the atavistic. I have, however, spent a great deal of the past week thinking hard about vampires for a seminar I am to teach soon. You might think that a specialist in Gothic Studies like myself already knows everything about vampires but a) even specialists forget details as juicy as the fact that Stoker wrote theatrical reviews for a Dublin newspaper that Le Fanu, author of Carmilla, owned, and b) there is nothing like having to teach a subject to learn a few new lessons.

For instance, I believed that the famous image of Count Dracula in modern evening dress complete with a red-lined black satin cape comes from the 1931 film with Bela Lugosi. It actually comes, though, from the 1924 play by Irish actor and playwright Hamilton Deane (he played Van Helsing; Dracula was first played by Edmund Blake). I can’t tell, however, whose idea the cape was. This may seem trivial but then other people employ their energies in recording how many goals Leo Messi has scored this past season (54
). Forgetting myself for a second on the track of the vampire, yesterday I even considered whether I should finally read Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight saga; yet, seeing how fast and how far Kirsten Stewart has distanced herself from her on-screen Bella, I thought perhaps not. I’ll read instead a similarly long book which promises to be far more thrilling, and sexy, and which will fill in a more glaring gap in my (Victorian) reading list: the serial Varney, the Vampire (1845-7). Good company for Dracula.

Generally speaking, I find vampires very boring creatures, though I must grant that the 19th century variety is far more exciting than the 20th and 21st century breed. The Romantic and Victorian vampires are in-your-face predators pretty much comfortable with their animal nature. In the late hippie times of 1976, Anne Rice had the very questionable idea of letting the vampiric creatures in her novel Interview with the Vampire, particularly silly Louis de Pointe du Lac, brood and mope about their sad fate. Fancy lions bemoaning being carnivores
 Even worse, Rice revealed through reporter Daniel Molloy that secretly we all want to be vampires because they are immortal, a hidden truth that should have stayed hidden because it has led to endless horrors–implants of artificial long fangs and also the idiotic consumption of actual human blood by those who ignore the meaning of the word ‘metaphor’. Insert a shudder here.

I should leave all discussion of the vampire to more learned scholars, like my dear friend Antonio Ballesteros (read his volume Vampire Chronicle: Una historia natural del vampiro en la literatura anglosajona, 2000). But, still, I have re-discovered a few issues about the 19th century vampire that I’d like to share here. Actually, this re-discovery begins with the 18th century for this is the real turning point in the history of the vampire.

We fail to understand how it felt to live before the first serious, rational attempts to dispel the fog of superstition. The vampire emerges, precisely, from this fog with the strange cases of two Serbian peasants, Petar Blagojevich (1725) and Arnold Paole (1726), ‘executed’ for crimes committed once dead. The real novelty here is that the cases were documented by officers of the Austrian Empire using a pioneering rational perspective, later also employed by Dom Augustine Calmet. This abbot penned an indispensable essay with a wonderfully mixed title, TraitĂ© sur les apparitions des anges, des dĂ©mons & des esprits et sur les revenans et vampires de Hongrie, de Boheme, de Moravie & de Silesie (1746, vol. II 1751), from which my own dissertation on the monster descends. The difference is that Calmet was not sure whether angels and ‘revenants’ (i.e. vampires) could exist whereas I, a belated child of the Enlightenment, know that they don’t (pace Prof. Punter). A pity, in the case of the angels. Extraterrestrials I still swear by, though.

The second point of re-discovery has to do with the fact that before the vampire reached prose fiction with John Polidori’s Gothic tale “The Vampyre” (1819), it had already colonized 18th century German poetry and, a bit later, the English Romantic variety. Of course, I knew about Coleridge’s transgender “Christabel” (1816), a tantalizingly unfinished text which leads to Carmilla (1871-2) but I had forgotten that sex and vampirism had come together much earlier in “Der vampir” (1748) by Heinrich August Ossenfelder–a poet who had possibly read Calmet and who actually anticipates Gothic fiction tropes, rather than copy from them.

Another crucial element that we fail to grasp is seduction, which is integral to the vampire. In the 18th and 19th centuries, as countless stories narrate, seduction was not at all sexy foreplay but a form of psychological violence which today we consider plain rape. From Richardson’s Lovelace to Lord Byron’s Don Juan, the seducer is a man who subdues the will of his female victims, and, so, it took only a tiny step for Polidori to turn him into a vampire, as Ossenfelder had already suggested. That “The Vampyre” is also a personal comment on how doctor Polidori saw his patient Lord Byron (possibly more sinned against than a sinner
) is incidental. And though “Christabel” is an early announcement of the misogynistic transformation later in the 19th century of the seducer’s victim into a victimizer (in Carmilla), it is worth remembering that during the last quarter of the 19th century and in the early 20th until Bela Lugosi, women were the vampire. Tellingly, the first film ‘vamp’, Theda Bara, was also the first great female film star.

Another surprising re-discovery is that once it colonizes poetry and prose fiction, the vampire tends to spread to other media and keep a good hold onto them: the stage (plays, melodrama, opera) and, we tend to forget this, painting and illustration. In our time when novels lack any ornaments, we have serious problems to understand how interconnected literature and painting were in the 19th century (the whole Pre-Raphaelite movement seems to be about that); particularly, how the iconography of even the cheapest penny dreadful conditioned the later iconography of stage and film adaptations. I’m thinking of the crude woodcuts that accompany Varney, the Vampire and of the higher quality images for Carmilla. Also of FĂŒssli’s pseudo-vampiric painting ‘The Nightmare’ (1781) and misogynist Edvard Munch’s endless variations on the theme of the female vampire (1895-1902). As for Polidori’s “The Vampyre”, this tale inspired an astonishingly long chain of texts for the stage in French and German, and then back to English, which is certainly mindboggling.

And, then, there’s a mystery which I cannot solve satisfactorily, mainly because I’d rather it remains a mystery. It is clear as daylight that Bram Stoker took his inspiration for Dracula from Carmilla; plainly, he read Le Fanu’s novella and he thought that he would like to write an equally brilliant vampire tale. But when? The question is that there is a long lapse of 28 years between Carmilla (1871-2) and Dracula (1897) in which Stoker passed from Irish civil servant who wrote theatrical reviews in his free time to experienced manager of Henry Irving’s Lyceum theatre. A long, long lapse. Perhaps suffering what Harold Bloom famously called the ‘anxiety of influence’, Stoker felt that he could never do better, which is why he poured so much energy and spent so many hours at the British Museum library doing research.

Beautifully, the Lyceum, formerly the English Opera House, had welcomed the vampire onto the English stage with James Robinson Planché’s The Vampire; or, the Bride of the Isles (1820), a translation of the eponymous pioneering melodrama by Charles Nodier, who had taken his inspiration from Polidori. Was, then, Planché’s vampire waiting in the wings of Irving’s Lyceum to bite Stoker? Just a thought
 As happens with the other two masterpieces of 19th Gothic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and R.L. Stevenson The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Bram Stoker’s Dracula seems to arise from something beyond the author which transmits itself to the public through his imagination, as if he were only a medium. Also, as happens with Shelley and Stevenson, the creature that sprang from Stoker’s pen is not at all the caricature we got from the 20th century stage and film adaptations but the real thing–a scary monster. Not the ridiculously handsome Edward Cullen of Twilight, but an inhuman, undead, abject thing that you don’t want to touch (much less be touched by). Today we have zombies playing that role but unlike Dracula they are mindless creatures–perhaps what we deserve (and how we all feel) in our mindless times.

Thank you, Prof. Punter, for that nugget of deep, wide wisdom. I have never forgotten that vampires do exist and do matter, though I may have forgotten some details. Never again, and I promise to read Varney


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2 comentarios en “REVIEWING THE VAMPIRE: WHAT SEEMS TO BE AT STAKE

  1. The living dead, the actual ones, in all their versions, are more scary even than the fictional ones. And we seem to be getting more and more varieties of them as technology of artificial life-in-death progresses. Who knows, maybe we’ll end up being one of them, one of those abject things between life and death that nobody will want to touch.

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