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Staking out our vampire fetish

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Brian Matthews |  11 August 2010

Bram Stoker's DraculaIt would have been quite difficult to grab a few northern hemisphere headlines during the first half of 1897: the competition was stern. Among much else, in May there was a mining disaster on the Isle of Man, and an exhibition in Nashville illuminated by the marvel of hundreds of electric lights.

In June Mark Twain famously announced in the New York Journal that reports of his death had been exaggerated, Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee provoking across her vast empire festivities, isolated uprisings, and the murder in India of two British colonial officers. They were ambushed on their way back from a Government House party celebrating the Queen's milestone. The assassins were caught and hanged and the cause of Indian independence from Britain was launched with martyrdom.

Meanwhile, Archibald Constable and Company, Publishers, of 2 Whitehall Gardens, Westminster, brought out their latest book without fuss on 18 May. Oscar Wilde's release from prison the very next day probably stole their thunder but if Archibald and Constable were deterred — and history does not record their mood — they shouldn't have been. What they unveiled on that day was destined to reverberate all the way through the 20th century.

It would remain as vibrant as the legends and bons mots of Wilde and Twain, prove much more resilient in the cavalcade of history than Queen Victoria or the story of Indian independence, and, as the 21st century dawned, show no sign of fading from sight. The book was Dracula, by Bram Stoker.

From his unspectacular and unannounced first appearance Count Dracula, the vampire, flashed like black lightning across the world of horror and the occult, surpassing all its macabre and outlandish inventions.

There was plenty of competition in the Gothic novel genre to which Dracula belonged. In Matthew Lewis's The Monk (1796) the hero, Ambrosio, abandons 30 years of blameless chastity to become an insatiable satyr, murdering a woman whom he discovers is his mother in order to have his way with a 15-year-old girl who turns out to be his sister. This consummation takes place in a crypt beneath a Capuchin monastery 'by the side of three putrid half-corrupted bodies'.

In John Polidori's The Vampyre (1819) the hero, Lord Ruthven, has a 'dead, grey eye', which unerringly spots feminine prey and marks them out for blood transfusions and various other kinds of spoliation.

Thomas Presket Prest's Varney The Vampyre (1874) has no literary pretensions whatsoever and gets down and dirty without delay, gleefully exploiting the licence allowed by the rapidly growing and ever more feverish genre: 'With a strange howling cry ... the figure [Varney, no less] seized the long tresses of her hair and twining them around his boney hands he held her to the bed ...'

Though he included these lurid precursors in his reading, nothing in the character or personal life of the Dublin-born Stoker gave any hint that he would engender such a frightening avatar. His first published work — The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland — was scarcely riveting, nor were his mannered fictions that followed before Dracula trumped them all.

His biographer reports that Stoker was first moved to consider the Gothic genre after a horrific nightmare about 'a vampire king rising from the tomb to go about his ghastly business', but it was his discovery during his researches of the monstrous figure of Vlad Dracula or, as he was better known, Vlad the Impaler, that inspired Stoker to hit his Gothic straps.

Vlad died in 1476 and is remembered for his creative ways with a pointy stick. He began his reign by turning some 20,000 of the Wallachian nobility into a forest of human shish kebabs below his castle windows. For Stoker, Vlad crystallised his story, fusing an existing folklore of vampirism with an actual historical monster and a place — Transylvania, The Land Beyond the Forest.

The Gothic genre died of its own excesses then was resurrected in different forms. The luridness and perversions in the works of Lewis et al. became oddities of literary history, but Bram Stoker's Dracula — in the manner of your true vampire — lived on and took many forms.

In our time Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series, L. J. Smith's Vampire Diaries, television's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dan Curtis's Night Stalker, innumerable film appearances, and computer games such as Vampire: the Masquerade and Castlevania are only some of the imaginative ways in which the infamous Transylvanian Count has, over the centuries, coolly fended off extinction.

For all our modern sophistications, refinements and technological expertise, we — that is most peoples in most countries of the world — remain in imaginative thrall to one of the most venerable and really terrifying of folk figures — probably because the vampire combines two of humankind's profoundly obsessive preoccupations: mortality and sex.

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple Down the Road. He was awarded the 2010 National Biography Award for Manning Clark — A Life



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Submitted comments

For Stoker, possibly his readers, certainly his characters, the Vampire was terrifying because if it could turn a christian into a vampire: it killed the soul and removed the possibility of heaven.

In a predominantly secular world the vampire's continuing appeal in modern literature and film is perhaps more intriguing than the tenuous link between Stoker's book and the historical Vlad. Once you take away a belief in the soul, and/or eternal damnation, then apart from the hours and the diet, it's difficult to see what's so bad about being turned into one.

Varney, (like Carmilla) is a more complex character than Dracula. Although the book is bigger than War and Peace and starts with his attack, he does very little actual blood sucking in book one...he even lets his prisoner go. It could be argued that Stoker simplified the literary vampire and made his film career possible. It could also be argued that although the book has never been out of print readers who start it and get past the first five or six chapters are in the minority.

Liam Guilar 11 August 2010

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