One Bite Too Many

The Vampire in Literature and Cinema

Part 1

Vampires have long been popular in books and film. So have elves, wizards, witches, werewolves, zombies and Doppelgänger, not to mention gods, demi-gods, devils and angels. They are the elements of which fantasies are made. Long before a fantasy genre existed (or indeed the movie industry), they were to be found in the epic poetry, mediaeval romance and fairy tale that were popular forms of entertainment in bygone centuries. Yet perhaps never before have these various creations of the minds of homo sapiens been so widespread in imaginative art. And surely they are no more popular than in young adult fiction.

Magic and the supernatural are embedded in the human psyche. Both natural – the calling up of occult powers within nature – and demonic magic – conjuring evil spirits from the underworld – are woven into our history and culture. Belief in the supernatural finds expression in religious worship and ritual.

Adherents of the world’s major religions would certainly wish to separate the two concepts, to denigrate the first as superstition and elevate the second as faith. However, setting aside the views of modern atheists and agnostics – who do not make this distinction – there was a time not so long ago when the line dividing magic and religion was more than a little blurred. Europeans were still executing alleged witches in the late eighteenth century. Belief in witchcraft was still alive and well in rural parts of Europe as late as the 1970s and 1980s; in some parts of Africa, belief in and fear of witches is endemic even today.

All over the world, dark corners of the popular imagination are filled with thoughts of fearsome beings that could not exist anywhere else, but whose grip on the personality can be strong and unrelenting. The more harmless will come to the surface in nightmare, a blending of the real and the fantastic; at worst, they give rise to harmful and dangerous psychoses.

None of these creatures of darkness, or monsters from the id, to quote from Forbidden Planet, a popular science fiction film of the nineteen-fifties, is more ubiquitous in modern culture than the vampire. It crosses terror with desire and at the same time confuses fear of death with the hopeless and helpless search for immortality.

The idea of a creature which drinks blood, human or otherwise, is not entirely fantasy. Three species of bat, indigenous to Central and South America, feed on the blood of other large animals, including cattle. The bite may not as a rule be fatal but the vampire bat can transmit infections which can be serious if not treated. The common flea and a few species of bird have diets that consist at least partly of blood. Yet the ancient origins of the vampire as a supernatural being do not lie in zoology. Rather, the term vampire, applied to the creature of folklore, attached itself to bloodsucking species in more modern times.

The literary vampire, the one which haunts our horror stories and gothic novels today, and has cast its spell over Hollywood for four or five generations, has its origins in central Europe. Its best-known embodiment is a character in a nineteenth century novel by an Irish theatre manager and sometime writer called Abraham Stoker.

Bram Stoker, as he is known, did not invent the literary vampire, but its continuing popularity undoubtedly stems from his work. In the century or so since his Dracula novel was published it has probably spawned more copycats, spin-offs, parodies and sequels than any other novel of its genre. That is without a mention of the countless film adaptations of the work. Told partly in epistolary form, Dracula is set in Transylvania, London and Whitby, in the northeast of England.

Dracula is not a great novel. Even by the standards of 1900 it is ponderous and not especially strong in the drawing of character. Long passages of prose without dialogue make it slow reading. The story’s lasting popularity is more due to translations for the screen than to literary quality.

The plot is a familiar one (though the movie industry has taken more liberties with it than it need, or ought). A young English lawyer, Jonathan Harker, travels to Transylvania to conclude a property deal with Count Dracula. Dracula imprisons him and travels to England to take possession of the properties, and to work his evil on Harker’s fianceé, Mina, and her acquaintances. In Whitby, having turned Mina’s best friend, Lucy Westerna, into a vampire, he tries to convert Mina herself. While increasingly influenced by Dracula, Mina and three male admirers, with Harker and a certain Professor Van Helsing, pursue the undead count to his lair and eventually destroy him.

Stoker was not the first Irishman to write a vampire story. About 25 years before the publication of Dracula, his countryman Joseph Sheridan le Fanu wrote a short novel entitled Carmilla about an undead countess who preys on young girls among the castles and forests of central Europe.

There is little characterisation in Carmilla. It is told by a single narrator, Laura, a girl who lives with her father in a castle in the middle of a forest in Styria, on the border between Austria and Slovenia. Following a coach accident near her home, Laura meets and befriends Carmilla, unaware that she has a hidden agenda. To anyone brought up on Hammer films, the action is predictable. Carmilla proves to be a vampire who takes advantage of her host’s hospitality. Le Fanu plays games with anagrams of the title, demonstrating either a lack of imagination or great originality depending on the reader’s mood. Whichever it is, the vampire’s alter personae are suitably ghoulish and she gets through her victims in typical Hammer fashion.

Carmilla is very much a novel of its time, and the style, like that of Dracula, is heavy by today’s standard. However, because it is short, it is less laborious to read and is indeed is very enjoyable as an early exaample of the genre.

[next time  … Romancing the Undead]

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