As 2012 marks the centenary of Bram Stoker's death, Grimm Up North are treating fans of the blood-suckers to a Vampire Sunday film marathon. MM's Steve Balshaw explores just why 'the blood is the life...'
This year is the centenary of the death of Bram Stoker, creator of one of horror’s most enduring characters, that bloodthirsty Transylvanian nobleman, Count Dracula. Respect is due.
Stoker was neither the first to introduce vampire lore into English literature, however, nor the first to create an enduring vampire archetype. Dr John Polidori’s The Vampyre had unleashed the Byronic Lord Ruthven on Georgian England as early as 1816.
Between 1845 and 1847, James Malcolm Rymer had thrilled mid-Victorian audiences with the lurid serialised adventures of the amoral Sir Francis Varney in the epic Varney The Vampyre or The Feast of Blood, and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu had created literature’s second most notable vampire, Mircalla, Countess Karnstein, in Carmilla in 1872, a full 25 years before the Count first donned his opera cape.
Prior to his authorship of Dracula, Stoker was best known for his literate, perceptive theatre criticism, and for his roles as business manager at the Lyceum theatre and personal assistant to its owner, the actor / manager Sir Henry Irving. He had published four previous novels, all of them fairly mainstream romances, and none of them particularly notable or successful.
Nothing in his literary output would have led anyone to expect that he had any flair for the supernatural. And yet Stoker was somehow able to create the quintessential vampire tale; the one that all others reference and defer to.
Dracula very quickly overshadowed its predecessors and continues to do so to this day. First published in 1897, the novel was an immediate best-seller, and in the 115 years since then, has been adapted and reinterpreted literally hundreds of times, for theatre, film, radio, television, comic books, and animation.
There have been numerous spin-offs and sequels, ranging from Robert Lory’s sequence of pulp paperbacks back in the 1970s, to a recent, “official” sequel, Dracula The Undead, penned by Stoker’s own great grand-nephew, Dacre, in partnership with screenwriter Ian Holt.
There have been various alternative re-tellings and re-imaginings of the story, such as Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, Tim Lucas’ The Book of Renfield, or Roderick Anscombe’s The Secret Life of Lazlo, Count Dracula, while Kim Newman, in Anno Dracula and its various follow-ups, opts for droll, post-modern mischief, repositioning Dracula as a figure at the very heart of 20th Century life and culture.
This position is undeniable. Dracula has become the definitive vampire archetype; an iconic, instantly recognisable figure, referenced, parodied, pastiched and paid homage to in a myriad different ways, from Grandpa Munster to The Count in Sesame Street, to adverts for toothpaste. He has done battle, over the years, with Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Blade, various costumed superheroes and even the garishness of 70s fashions. He has become a brand name.
It seems cruelly ironic, then, that this anniversary, when we should be celebrating Stoker’s achievement, should fall at a time when the popular image of the vampire has become so… well… toothless. The effect of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight sage, Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books, and all of those other so-called “Dark Romances” cluttering up the shelves at Waterstones has been to reduce the vampire to a kind of pallid bad boy outsider emo-goth dreamboat for spotty teenaged girls to moon over.
Vampires have gone from being dangerous bloodsucking sexual predators to wimps and whiners; pouty, pretty, pasty-faced, and awash with arrested-adolescent angst. It would be a brave writer indeed who tried to write a seriously scary vampire novel in the current climate.
Diehard vampire fans may gnash their teeth in frustration and fury, but it may well be that they are themselves partly to blame for this shifting paradigm. After all, it’s a shift that has been coming for quite a while. It is as evident in the novels of Anne Rice and Poppy Z. Brite as it is in the various emotional entanglements of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the brain-numbingly repetitive vamp-porn of Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake books.
The simple fact is that as soon as the vampire became a focus for erotic-romantic fantasies - no matter how dark and disturbing those fantasies might initially have been - it was only a matter of time before those same fantasies went mainstream, became a part of popular culture. And in the process they got dumbed down, sanitised and robbed of any sense of danger. It is the same process that saw the dark, disturbing gothic romances of Ann Radcliffe and the Brontes flayed and filleted to provide the tropes and templates for a multitude of moribund Mills and Boon and Harlequin paperbacks.
The irony is that, due to Stephanie Meyer’s disturbed and disturbing attitude to sex, the Twilight books, despite all that they have done to debase the vampire archetype, are actually more in keeping with the traditions of vampire mythology and literature than many far more respected modern horror novels.
Vampires have always been used to represent the dangerous sexual “other”, and thus to explore fears and anxieties about sex and sexuality. Seductive, decadent and ambiguous, the vampire is the personification of Bad Sex and Unhealthy Attitudes. Of something dark, and dangerous and socially unacceptable.
It is therefore entirely appropriate that the first vampire to appear in English Literature, Lord Ruthven, in Dr John Polidori’s novella, The Vampyre (1816), should have been inspired by the author’s friend and sometime employer, the poet, rake, and professional controversialist, George Gordon, Lord Byron. Byron was a man who enjoyed, indeed revelled in his own notoriety, courting public condemnation and outrage by word and deed, scorning received opinion, stirring things up wherever he went. He had already been depicted, unflatteringly, under the name Lord Ruthven, in the novel Glenarvon (1816), by his former lover, Lady Caroline Lamb, who famously described him as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”, and so, when The Vampyre was first published, featuring a character of the same name, it was widely attributed to Byron himself.
Spawned from the same Lake Geneva ghost story “contest” that also produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the novella’s depiction of an alluring, utterly amoral, vampire nobleman clearly chimed with public perception of “The Bad Lord Byron” to such an extent that it was perceived as a typically outrageous, controversy-courting piece of self-dramatisation. The novel’s lasting importance, however, is in establishing the archetype of the vampiric aristocrat. It also, by the simple fact of its real-life associations, makes the figure of the predatory vampire and the Romantic, (in this case literally) Byronic antihero virtually synonymous in the public imagination.
This popular image of the vampire was consolidated, and extensively built upon, by James Malcolm Rymer. Rymer is a highly influential, yet largely unsung figure in the history of horror fiction. Though his name remains obscure, his characters, and many of his ideas, imagery and narrative tricks have entered into popular culture. Sweeney Todd, the “Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, first appeared in Rymer’s novel The String of Pearls, and while the bloodsucking Sir Francis Varney lacks the iconic status of the author’s best known creation, his contribution to the shaping of modern vampire mythology cannot be underestimated. Varney The Vampyre, or The Feast of Blood, was first published between 1845 and 1847 as a series of cheap “Penny Dreadful” pamphlets, and runs to an epic 1166 close-printed pages in the modern paperback collected edition.
Lurid, sensational, often crudely and clumsily written, its rambling and digressive narrative more focused on presenting a series of thrilling, chilling, and gruesome incidents than a consistent, carefully-structured story, the novel nevertheless is the root source for many now-standard vampire tropes and traditions.
Here we first encounter the familiar figure of the vampire’s cringing human henchman or familiar, the torch-and-pitchfork-bearing villagers, the midnight visit to the family vault to lay one of the undead to rest. Sir Francis Varney has fangs, and leaves twin puncture wounds on the necks of his victims.
He is revived repeatedly from apparent death , but is weary of his eternal existence. He is also the first truly sympathetic vampire, who sees his condition as a curse to be raged against, and wishes to end it. He is, in short, more Byronic even than Lord Ruthven. He is also, like Stoker’s Dracula (and unlike the later film versions) able to go out in daylight, eat and drink normally, and generally masquerade as an ordinary, mortal, human being.
Stoker’s other main literary influence was, strangely enough, his former employer; Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, co-owner of the Dublin Evening Mail, where Stoker had launched his career, as the paper’s Theatre Critic.
Le Fanu was a master of eerie, elegantly-written, atmospheric, gothic horror fiction and ghost stories, highly influential in the evolution of the genre. And, in his novella Carmilla, he created the most iconic vampire character after Dracula. Carmilla is the story of a young English girl, Laura, who lives with her retired father in Styria, and longs for a female companion her own age. A carriage accident outside the castle where she lives delivers the secretive and mysterious Carmilla into her life.
The two become close friends, but Carmilla sleepwalks and before long Laura is troubled by dreams of a great black cat-like creature feeding on her blood at night. Then she discovers a portrait of one of her ancestors, Mircalla, Countess Karnstein, who has an unnervingly close resemblance to her new friend…
Le Fanu adds several elements to the vampire narrative that clearly influenced Stoker. His vampire, like Dracula, is a shape-shifter. She seduces her victims, playing on their emotional and sexual needs, as Dracula does Lucy Westenra. Le Fanu is also the first writer to make a direct analogy between vampirism and what he perceives as “sexual abnormality” - Mircalla is the archetype of the predatory lesbian vampire.
Le Fanu also influenced Stoker in his use of a real-life historical figure to add weight, colour and credibility to his creation. Just as Le Fanu drew on the gory legends surrounding the real-life figure of Elizabeth Bathory, the “Blood Countess”, who was accused of torturing and killing dozens of young women, and bathing in their blood in a bid to remain young, so Stoker drew on those of Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, variously known as Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler) or Vlad Draculea (Vlad the Dragon) for the name and some of the background of his bloodsucking Carpathian Count.
However, while it is easy enough to identify the influence of earlier authors on the development of Dracula, one should not underestimate Stoker’s own achievements. He may lack the exotic Byronic connections of Polidori, the gory sensationalism of Rymer or the elegant, evocative prose of LeFanu, but he does have a remarkable talent for synthesis. His theatrical and newspaperman’s background clearly instilled him with strong instincts for what was most dramatic.
In Dracula, Stoker skilfully draws on, and cherry-picks from, the various earlier vampire narratives to create something, if not entirely original, then certainly far more potent and affecting than what had gone before. He deftly blends his variously-appropriated elements, expanding upon certain already-established tropes and traditions, throwing in a few new ones of his own, and bolts them all into a fast-moving, gripping narrative.
Just as the Penny Dreadfuls of James Rymer found their way into the heady mix, so, too, did the popular and rather more literary “Sensation Novels” of the 1860s and 1870s. Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859), with its charismatic, charming, and, yes, aristocratic villain, Count Fosco, and, more importantly, its multiple perspective first person narration, compiled from the journals, diary entries and letters of the various characters, must surely have provided a structural model, though Stoker takes it still further, even incorporating at one point the supposed transcript of a “Phonograph diary”.
The featuring of a phonograph recording at a key juncture is highly significant. Stoker makes very conscious use of throughout the novel of the latest scientific developments, from new modes of transport to the blood transfusions given to Lucy Westenra in an attempt to save her life.
The novel offers a very clear conflict between the clear (gas) light of the modern, scientific, Western world and the superstitious darkness of the supernatural world. Dracula may draw on ancient myths and legends and on the traditions of Gothic and Sensation fiction, but Stoker is keen to emphasise that this is a modern novel, set in the modern world. As such, it can be read as a comment on that world. And on the people inhabiting it...
Part Two of Steve's commentary on Dracula continues tomorrow.
Grimm Up North will be celebrating the Centenary of Stoker’s death with a marathon screening of Vampire films on Sunday July 22 at the Danchehouse Theatre.
They will be featuring classic Hammer adaptations of both Dracula and Carmilla, alongside Guillermo del Toro’s striking re-imagining of vampire mythology, Cronos, and an exclusive cast and crew screening of gritty new British independent vampire vigilante movie Harsh Light As Day, which is being billed as “Death Wish with fangs”.
There’s a chance to catch cliff-hanging chapter-play for the 21st Century Blood and Bone China, and a reading from Vampire Gene author Sam Stone. Something for everyone to get their teeth into. Fancy dress is encouraged. Kick off at 2pm.
For more information on Grimm Up North's Vampire Sunday, click here.