The Vampire in Literature

12 Nov

Vampires, the aristocracy of the Undead, have a long and distinguished literary legacy. The vampire first appeared in literature in the 18th century, then really came into its own in the 19th century with the publication of several masterpieces of the genre which are read to this day. There was then another spike in interest at the end of the 20th century until the present day when, both on the screen and on the page, franchises like Twilight, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries and Being Human show that the vampire has never been more popular. References to pale creatures that prey on the blood of the living first appeared in 18th century poetry, for example The Bride of Corinth (1797) by Goethe, a story about a young woman who returns from the grave to seek her betrothed. The first mention of vampires in English literature arguably appears in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Christabel (published in 1816), in which the eponymous heroine is seduced by a female supernatural being called Geraldine, who tricks her way into her residence and eventually tries to marry her after having assumed the appearance of an old beloved of hers. These subtle initial appearances of the creatures of the night were soon succeeded by much more overt, and terrifying, references to vampirism.

In the 19th century the vampire became one of the stock figures of gothic fiction with the publication of physician John Polidori’s The Vampyre in 1819, which was inspired by the life and legend of Lord Byron, who was a patient of Polidori’s at one time. An important later example of 19th century vampire fiction is James Rymer’s penny dreadful epic Varney the Vampire (1847), the tale of the vampiric aristocrat Sir Francis Varney, which features the first example of what was later to become a standard trope of the genre – that of a vampire coming through a window at night and attacking a maiden as she lies sleeping. Whilst Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) was the definitive depiction of the vampire in the 19th century, it had several important antecedents – for example J S Le Fanu’s classic novella Carmilla (1872), which features a female vampire with apparent lesbian inclinations, who seduces the heroine whilst draining her of her vital fluids. Carmilla was based on the very real, and very terrifying, historical figure of ‘The Bloody Countess’ Elizabeth Báthory, who allegedly bathed in the blood of virgins in order to retain her youth and was undeniably responsible for the torture and murder of hundreds of young women in Hungary, a crime for which she was imprisoned without food or water until her death.

Perhaps the next landmark contribution to vampire fiction was Anne Rice’s influential and popular Vampire Chronicles, which first appeared in 1976 and set the trend for seeing vampires as poetic tragic heroes rather than as the traditional embodiment of evil. Another of the respected ‘traditional’ vampire works of the twentieth century is Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (1975), which reimagines the archetypal Dracula-type story in a modern American small town setting. By the later part of the 20th century, however, the vampire became ripe for re-imagining and novels such as Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula series paved the way for Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s feminist, post-modern slant on the genre. Arguably, Buffy and White Wolf’s role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade (later superseded, needlessly, by Vampire: The Requiem) defined the world in which later vampire-themed novels, television series and films were set. The vampire has inspired countless film-makers from the very beginnings of cinema (of which the creepy German silent film Nosferatu is a memorable early example) and continues to do so to this day in constantly innovative forms (perhaps the best recent example being another non-English language movie, 2007’s Let the Right One In).

Returning to literature, a long list of some of the finest writers of all time have contributed excellent short stories to the genre of vampire fiction. There is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, The Sussex Vampire; E F Benson’s Mrs Amworth and The Room in the Tower; Algernon Blackwood’s  The Singular Death of Morton;  Marion Crawford’s For the Blood is the Life; H B Marriott Watson’s The Stone Chamber; E G Swain’s The Rockery; and M R James’ Count Magnus. If I could, I’d happily leave you with all of these stories to read but, since I only have space for one, I thought I’d return to the author (and the character) who has done more for the vampire in literature than any other. The first chapter of Bram Stoker’s Dracula was omitted when it was published in 1897, but it was released in 1914 as Dracula’s Guest (click to read!). There is a degree of mystery surrounding the genesis and construction of this short story but there is no doubt that it is a chilling excursion into the gothic, as well as a rattling good tale which was far too good to leave mouldering with Stoker’s papers!

3 Responses to “The Vampire in Literature”

  1. redplace November 12, 2011 at 10:09 am #

    This is very insightful. I’ve always been curious in the legend of vampires and their origins in literature. Thank you for sharing 🙂

  2. Just Coop It November 14, 2011 at 4:10 am #

    Interesting read. Thanks for sharing.

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