Romancing the Undead

The Vampire in Literature and Cinema

Part 2

Like Stoker’s Dracula, Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla was seized upon by the public as new and bold. It helped boost le Fanu’s image as a master of the gothic and of the Victorian ghost story. For all that, le Fanu’s work, and Carmilla in particular, has not endured in popular imagination like that of Stoker. Yet he had a greater literary pedigree as hinted by his ‘middle’ name. His grandmother was a writer and, perhaps more notably, her brother was the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Carmilla may have influenced Stoker to write his best-known work. Indeed, it is possible the paths of the two writers crossed at least once in the eighteen-seventies when Stoker was writing theatre reviews for a Dublin newspaper, part owned by Le Fanu.

Yet, for all their popularity with nineteenth century readers, neither Le Fanu nor Stoker was the first author to delve into the world of the undead. That honour undoubtedly belongs to Dr John Polidori, private physician to the English romantic poet Lord Byron. Although vampires had appeared in poetry before Polidori’s time, it was surely Polidori’s The Vampyre, published in 1819, that exploited the undead in English and in prose form. Before Dracula, it was Dr Polidori’s Lord Ruthven that passed into the language and literature as the archetypical villain of the vampire genre. He was conceived at a defining moment in the history of English fiction, a memorable literary summer which inspired the creation of another enduring fictional antihero – Frankenstein.

In 1816, Byron and Polidori were staying at a rented villa on Lake Geneva, where they entertained among others Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin (later Shelley). The group would spend wet evenings reading ghost stories to one another. According to one version of events, Byron  suggested each try to write one. Frankenstein was born. Mary Shelley later edited and refined her tale, and the character – even if not the book – has been popular since. For his story, Polidori used an idea of Byron himself and wrote his novella The Vampyre.

Nineteenth century readers had mixed reactions to these supernatural tales. The Vampyre was quickly popular, helped by its initial attribution to Byron, but is almost forgotten now. Carmilla, written some fifty years later has suffered the same fate. Widely read in their day, Frankenstein and Dracula might have followed but for their resurrection in stage and film adaptations in the twentieth century.

Although they owe a debt to the romantic themes and figures of mythology and epic poetry, none of these works can really be called romances. They are gothic horror stories, adult in theme and plot, and when translated for the screen they were intended to terrify and shock their audiences. For all their familiarity with horror tales of witches who eat children and granny-guzzling wolves – (some of the earliest folk tales were sanitised so that the pre-teens could enjoy them) – the youngsters were excluded. From the first vampire silent film nearly a hundred years ago, through to the proliferation of the genre in the middle decades of the twentieth century, the British and American film industries invariably classified these movies as ‘X’ Certificate. Adults only! In later years they became, in Britain, classification ‘18’; Americans renamed them NC-17.

Meantime, in America, Hollywood was busy developing the careers of iconic masters of the macabre such as Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney – both father and son, and Boris Karloff. Lugosi starred in the first screen version of Dracula in 1931. However, this film followed the popularity of a stage version of Stoker’s novel that had six years earlier taken London by storm and subsequently played on Broadway. Although the first official film of the book, Lugosi’s portrayal came nearly ten years behind another thinly disguised version of the story, produced in Germany and entitled Nosferatu.

The cinema had already begun to overtake the novel as a portrayer of bloodlust and the macabre.

[next … The Vampire Revolution]

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