Carol Senf

from: The Vampire in 19th-Century English Literature

(Bowling Green Univ. Press, 1988)

Chapter Two (pp. 19-21)

The Origins of Modern Myth


In the last chapter we saw that the vampire is such a familiar character today that adolescent readers of comic books, devotees of serious literature, and watchers of late-night "Creature Features" can all recognize the family resemblances in vampires as diversified as Dracula (played as an urbane eighteenth-century gentleman by George Hamilton) in Love At First Bite, the hauntingly beautiful Miriam (Catherine Deneuve) in The Hunger, or the misunderstood punster Sterling O'Blivion of I, Vampire.


Returning to the nineteenth-century, readers discover that the ancestors of these familiar figures, though no less common to people, were somewhat different. Sir Frances Varney in the penny dreadful Varney the Vampire (originally printed in parts in the early 1840s), for example, is much less urbane than Hamilton's version. His face--not to mention his courtship--is dreadful:


It is perfectly white--perfectly bloodless. The eyes look like polished tin; the lips are drawn back, and the principal feature next to those dreadful eyes is the teeth-- the fearful looking teeth--projecting like those of some wild animal, hideously, glaringly white, and fang-like. It approaches the bed with a strange, gliding movement. It clashes together the long nails that literally appear to hang from the finger ends....He drags her head to the bed's edge. He forces it back by the long hair still entwined in his grasp. With a plunge he seizes her neck in his fang-like teeth-- a gush of blood, and a hideous sucking noise follows. The girl has swooned, and the vampyre is at his hideous repast! (Vol. 1, Ch. 1, Rymer's italics)


Here is none of the playful sensuality of Hamilton or Langella or even Lee's raw eroticism. Indeed, the reader's first glimpse of Varney reveals something more bestial than human, a creature with fangs and claws who comes in the night to drink the blood of his unwilling victim.


The following excerpt from "Carmilla" (first published in the magazine The Dark Blue in 1871) reveals a being slightly more recognizable to twentieth-century readers:


The grave of the Countess Mircalla was opened: and the General and my father recognized each his perfidious and beautiful guest.... Her eyes were open; no cadaverous smell exhaled from the coffin. The two medical men, one officially present, the other on the part of the promoter of the inquiry, attested the marveleous fact, that there was a faint but appreciable respiration, and a corresponding action of the heart. The limbs were perfectly flexible, the flesh elastic; and the leaden coffin floated with blood, in which to a depth of seven inches, the body lay immersed. Here then, were all the admitted signs and proofs of vampirism. (Ch. XV)


Earlier sections of LeFanu's "Carmilla" reveal a being who, like the beautiful Miriam, is cultivated--even genteel. However, when LeFanu reveals that Carmilla's natural habitat is the crypt, not the drawing room, he also gives her characteristics that distinguish her from most twentieth-cenlury vampires.


Ranging from the Count on Sesame Street to Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's St. Germain, the twentieth-century vampires that were introduced in Chapter One are often more human than their predecessors. No one describes this phenomenon better than Anne Rice whose vampire Lestat announces: "Try to see the evil that I am. I stalk the world in mortal dress--the worst of fiends, the monster who looks exactly like everyone else." Rice continues to take the vampire seriously although she does not really present it as an evil force. However, many of her contemporaries create vampires so benign that they are often camp figures--mere parodies of the vampire's horrifying former self.


What the reader sees in the vampire in nineteenth-century literature is the result of writers combining at least three broad strands: folkloric treatments of posthumous magic, earlier literary characters--such as the rake and the villains and temptresses of the Gothic novel, and (later in the century--as Chapters Three, Four, and Five will demonstrate) responses to genuine changes in social roles for men and women.


The beginnings are, of course, in folklore; and writers who have studied the phenomenon (two of the best-known are Montague Summers in The Vampire in Europe and The Vampire: His Kith and Kin and Anthony Masters in The Natural History of the Vampire) observe that almost no culture is free of the superstition of blood-sucking ghosts. Specifics, however, differ from culture to culture. The Rumanian Stigoi is a reanimated corpse, made live again by the return of the soul. Both Polish and Russian vampires emerge from their coffins only between midday and midnight; in addition, their coffins are filled with blood, and they have such enormous hunger that they eat their winding sheets as a matter of course. The Malaysian Langsuir is a flying female demon who sucks the blood of children while the Portuguese Bruxsa seduces travelers and drinks the blood of children. The Scottish baobham sith takes the form of groups of beautiful girls to drain victims of blood while the Danish Mara takes human form during the day and destroys those who fall in love with her. No single vampire is as horrifying as the following ghastly composite by Summers that combines traits from many European versions:


A Vampire is generally described as being exceedingly gaunt and lean with a hideous Countenance.... When, however, he has satiated his lust for warm human blood his body becomes horribly puffed and bloated, as though he were some great leech gorged and replete to bursting. . .the nails are always curved and crooked, often well-nigh the length of a great bird's claw, the quicks dirty and foul with clots and gouts of black blood. His breath is unbearably fetid and rank with corruption, the stench of the charnel.


Summers' portrait of the folkloric vampire makes even Varney appear charming, for the vampire from folklore is a prisoner of physical urges, a creature animated only by his thirst for blood. It is the vampire's gross corporality that most disturbs the writer in Colburn's New Monthly Magazine, for he points to the vampire's lack of human feeling and to his desire to "banquet a monstrous thirst acquired in the tomb, and which, though he walks in human lineaments, has swallowed up every human motive in its brutal ferocity" (p. 141).


While the belief in vampires is almost universal, England seems to have been singularly free from this superstition. Both Kittredge in Witchcraft in Old and New England and Summers in The Vampire in Europe refer to the twelfth-century accounts of William of Newburgh and William of Malmesbury as the only historical accounts of this belief in England; an article in an 1855 issue of Household Words refers to a third example, an Anglo-Saxon poem on the Vampyre of the Fens; and Nicholas K. Kiessling uses linguistic evidence to argue that Grendel's mother is an English lamia:


His mother, the merewif, sea woman (line 1519), is conceptually similar to the Old English meremenin, sea sprite, the gloss to Latin Sirena, and to the Old High German words for sea sprite, forest hag and witch (for example, mermine minie, waltminne, holzvrowe, and strigae). These Old High German words in turn are glosses to Latin lamia.


Even accepting these historical accounts, one can hardly make a case for a vampire tradition in England. Moreover, since there is a hiatus of almost seven centuries, such references are too remote'to influence nineteenth-century writers. (One should not ignore the fact--noted in the November 14, 1896 issue of Chamber's Journal --that "the burial of suicides at cross-roads with a stake thrust through them, usual in England till well into this century, closely resembles the precaution used in Slavonic lands for inducing vampires to cease from troubling" [pp. 730-31].) Although the English have a long tradition of ghostly visitors, no evidence suggests that these ghosts returned to suck the blood of the living or to destroy human beings through sexual exploitation. Generally--ike the ghost of Hamlet's father or the Bodach Glas that appears to Fergus in Waverley --they return because of human motives: revenge, unfinished business, jealousy.


England had no native tradition of vampires, but reports of vampire epidemics on the continent could have provided writers with the necessary information. During the eighteenth century, the subject of vampirism was an obsession in Europe. Pamphlets, newspapers and conversations centered on the vampire; and despite the ridicule of philosophers, sovereigns sent officials to report on the vampire epidemics, which centered "in Istria (1642), East Prussia (1710 and 1721), Hungary (1725-30), Austrian Serbia (1731-2), East Prussia (1750), Silesia (1755), Wallachia (1756), and Russia (1772)." Gabriel Ronay cites Dom Augustin Calmet, author of the first anthology of vampire material, who offered one possible cause of these epidemics: Fear of vampires began in Hungary, Moravia, and Silesia during the late seventeenth century, a period when the conflict between the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church had reached a crisis. Ronay explains that reports of vampires came from border areas where Catholic Hungarians and Orthodox Serbs and Walachs intermingled. That the names of the alleged vampires were Slavonic suggests that they were probably followers of the Greek faith who came from villages that had lost their Hungarian population during the Turkish occupation. After the Turks were ousted from this area, these newly colonized villages were subject to considerable pressures from the Hungarian government and the Catholic Hapsburg military regiments who administered the villages. Racial and cultural differences in this area led people to suspect and distrust their neighbors, and the proximity in which these different people lived intensified suspicions. These suspicions--combined with a well-established belief in vampires in this part of the world--may have led to the vampire epidemics in the eighteenth century.


Ronay adds that there were other reasons to distrust one's neighbors since this area was cursed with epidemic disease during this period: the Black Plague between 1692 and 1694, smallpox in 1708 and again in 1719. Before scientists discovered the causes of disease, people often attributed epidemics to supernatural intervention.


The Continental vampire epidemics apparently had a direct impact on both English literature and English law. According to folklorein many East European countries, one sure way to become a vampire was suicide; and Summers, Masters, and Twitchell all cite the laws regarding the treatment of suicides in England in the early nineteenth century. Such laws made it illegal to dig up the body of an alleged vampire to drive a stake through it.


The impact of the vampire epidemics on English literature were somewhat less direct. In fact, it took over a century for writers and thinkers to capitalize on the social aspects of the vampire motif, to translate disease into moral contagions and to study the characteristics that made the vampire an alien. (Just as primitive people often regard outsiders as potential vampires, many Victorian writers emphasize that the vampire is an outsider: Bertha Mason is a Creole; Heathcliff's origins are unknown although he is sometimes described as looking like a gypsy; and Dracula, who describes himself as a descendant of Attila, comes to England from exotic Transylvania.) The English interest in the vampire comes directly from Germany. During the eighteenth century, German universities were the center of debate about the vampire epidemics and the ensuing mass hysteria; and these debates led to the publication of monographs and philosophical treatises on vampires. Frayling suggests how the discussion of vampires moved from folklore to scientific speculation within a fairly short period:


If the fashionable journals made much of the Arnold Paole story [one of the best documented cases of vampirism] for a season or two, the interest aroused in intellectual circles by this prototypical example of 'peasant superstition' lasted much longer. The report of 1732 directly stimulated at least fourteen treatises and four dissertations; at one time or another the debate involved such leading figures of the Enlightenment as the Marquis d'Agens, Voltaire, Rousseau, Van Swieten (Empress Maria Theresa's personal physician and adviser) and the Chevalier De Jaucourt (a prolific contributor to the great Encyclopedia).


These philosophical works in turn inspired various literary treatments of the vampire, especially in Germany. Encouraged by Herder's romantic nationalism and by the romantic quest for mystery, many German writers turned to folklore and to classical Greek and Latin mythology for subject matter. The vampire was simply one more example of a mysterious subject that appealed to the German Romantics. Ossenfelder wrote Der Vampir in 1748; Burger wrote Lenore in 1773; and Goethe wrote The Bride of Corinth in 1797. These works were soon translated into English. In addition, because of the German influence, the English came to associate the vampire with Germany as when Jane Eyre tells Rochester about the strange woman who had appeared in her room and states that it reminded her of the "foul German spectre-- the Vampyre" (Ch. XXV).


Already enamoured with the ghastly figures from the Gothic novel--the Manfreds, Antonios, and Old English Barons--English writers and readers were prepared to experience that odd love-hate relationship with the vampire that lasted almost the entire nineteenth century. Oddly enough, there are no vampires in the novels of Ann Radcliffe, William Godwin, Clara Reeve or the other writers that can be accurately described as the first generation of Gothic writers. While their works are peopled with numerous vicious characters, none is literally a supernatural bloodsucker. Because the writers of these novels could not have been unaware of the vampire epidemics in Eastern Europe, one must assume that the vampire did not serve the needs of their imaginations . . . .