The concept of vampire is a very old one, finding room in Greek myth and the Old Testament Apocrypha. Most ancient cultures had some sort of demon or monster that, in order to live, was forced to drink the blood of living beings. While many assume that the concept comes from the vampire bat, the fact is that the vampire as a societal concept predated by several centuries the discovery of the three known species of vampire bat which inhabit Central and South America. Thus it was the demon who gave its name to the bat rather than vice versa.
In fiction, the vampire made his first modern appearance in a novella, originally mistakenly published under Lord Byron’s name. The true author was Byron’s doctor, John Polidori, and the story was written as one of those created by a group of expatriates headed by Lord Byron in a Swiss castle during a rainy spell of weather in 1816. A little interlude that also presented the world with Frankenstein . The Vampyre was a loosely drawn, almost parody of Byron, Lord Ruthven, a profligate nobleman. Originally published as a serial in Colburn’s New Monthly Magazine in 1819, as by Byron, and as a separate volume under Byron’s name shortly thereafter, it was extremely popular. A second edition was corrected to show Polidori as the author, and the revelation effectively killed the book’s popularity in England. The same condition, however, did not affect the book in France and Germany, where it continued to be published under Byron’s name and established the vampire as a literary archetype.
The English took off from The Vampyre in a series of Railway Penny Dreadfuls; the continent, however, took the genre more seriously. Goethe, unaware of Polidori’s authorship, stated publicly that he considered The Vampyre the best work done by Byron. In France, Theophile Gautier took the vampire theme to its next step with La Morte Amoureuse (1836), wrapping the concept in Gautier’s decadent philosophy. Translated, the title means “The Dead in Love,” and the story revolves around the double life of the young priest Romuald. Romuald is a parish priest by day, lover of the undead courtesan Clarimonde by night. Clarimonde is, perhaps, a reflection of the eroticism that vampires have come to represent. In Polidori’s case the erotic nature of the vampire is understated, taking a good deal from the reputation of Byron as well as passages in the book itself. Gautier takes this to a higher level in Clarimonde — love, physical and spiritual in the kind of erotic passages that mark so much of Gautier’s work. It was circulated in English-speaking countries in French until translated by Lafadio Hearn as Clarimonde (Brentano’s 1899) and ran the gauntlet of censorship for many years due to Gautier’s erotic aestheticism which overshadowed the horror element in it. A new translation, published by A. M. Philpot (1926) in England and Robert McBride in the United States (1927) as The Beautiful Vampire , became somewhat popular, taking its key more from the motion picture personas of such actresses as Theda Bara. In 1851, Dumas’ play The Vampire revived Ruthven on the Paris stage. Both Gautier and Dumas — as well as numerous German adaptaions of the vampire theme, were to be extremely influential in shaping the vampire genre.
The penny dreadful adaptations of the theme, popular in England throughout the period 1820 – 1850, hit a high point with the serial Varney the Vampire and the Feast of Blood (1845-1847). Variously attributed to penny dreadful master Thomas Prest, author of Sweeney Todd’s initial appearance, A String of Pearls , and James Malcolm Rhymer, editor of Lloyd’s Penny Weekly Miscellany , Sir Francis Varney was a return to the Lord Ruthven model of a vampire with a vengeance. The latest scholarship seems to point most strongly to Rhymer as the author — though some hold out for Prest and numerous reprints ascribe the serial to Prest. Varney is a nobleman with all of the characteristics we have come to expect from the cinematic vampires we are so used to. The popularity of Varney paved the way for future vampires and seemed to set the profligate nobleman image strongly in the public consciousness as the model of the fictional vampire. Before the advent of the greatest vampire, Dracula, who was cast in the Ruthven/Varney mold, however, another attempt at the erotic female vampire caused a stir.
Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu debuted in The Dark Blue (Dec 1871 to March 1872) and was immediately rushed into book form in Le Fanu’s collection of stories In A Glass Darkly (1872). Set in Austria, Carmilla pushed a good many buttons, among them the xenophobia that would add to the later fascination with Bela Lugosi’s stage and screen persona as Dracula. An element that drew a good deal of attention and actually saw the novella banned in many places was the overt lesbianism of Carmilla as portrayed in her relationship with the heroine, Laura. It is far too blatant to be sub-text, and in many ways mirrors the Victorian predilection toward women walking hand in hand, kissing etc. With La Morte Amoureuse available only in French at the time, Carmilla’s blatant sexuality — for example her biting the breast rather than the neck — was a bit of a scandal.
All of which brings us down to the cornerstone of the genre, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). While admittedly flawed, and massively reshaped in the public conception by the numerous stage and screen adaptations of it, Dracula remains the strongest image of the vampire in the genre, or sub-genre, of vampire fiction. One cannot discount, however, the influence of the motion pictures in shaping the modern genre.
Dracula was first filmed in a pirated version by German director F. W. Murneau in 1922. His stylish adaptation presented the vampire as a definite monster. The watershed came with Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi, whose dark brooding good looks on the London and New York stage, and eventually in Todd Browning’s adaptation of Stoker’s novel in 1931, brought the vampire concept full circle. Lugosi played the monster/rapist Dracula as a species of anti-hero heavily infused with erotic subtext. Much more the Lord Ruthven seducer, patterned after Byron, than the monster written by Stoker and filmed by Murneau. As cinematic versions persisted, Dracula became more and more the leading man, the focus and thus, more Ruthven than Stoker’s monster, despite the name.
On the distaff side, the supernatural aspects of the female vampire were dispensed with in cinematic treatments and the erotic content of the characters transformed into female aggression and seduction. The female “vamp” was no longer the supernatural creature typified by Clarimonde and Carmilla, but a flesh and blood seductress. Hammer Films revived the female supernatural vampire starting in the late nineteen sixties, casting a number of talented and beautiful actresses as seductive, even lesbian and bisexual female vampires. Ingrid Pitt gave screen personas to both Carmilla and the real-life blood drinking noblewoman Elizabeth Bathory.
While literature has yet to catch up with cinema, Stephen King returned to the vampire as monster in Salem’s Lot ( 1975) without a great impact on the genre as a whole. Perhaps the most interesting of the “twists” in the genre came from Richard Matheson with I Am Legend in 1954, filmed as The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price, and The Omega Man with Charleton Heston. Finally there is Anne Rice, who has made a career of turning the vampire/anti-hero into a soap opera figure.
The sub-genre of the fictional vampire between the English language cornerstones but taking into account translations from French and German is a fascinating theme for a collection of books. The erotically charged Ruthven or seductive Clarimonde can lead one down many darkly intriguing alleyways, and many of the lesser contributions to the genre can be very lucrative as they are hidden gems amongst mountains of sleaze and overprinted bestsellers. A collection for perusal in the early hours of the day.