Vampire Literature

by Eleanor M. Farrell

To begin, I'd like to recommend two books for anyone who wants to get a general overview of the genre. The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories, edited by Alan Ryan and published in 1987, is a pretty definitive anthology. Beginning with the fragment that Lord Byron wrote in 1816 (stemming from that famous evening entertainment at the Villa Diodati) and the completed story based on Byron's tale by John Polidori, the collection also includes classics by Sheridan Le Fanu, C. L. Moore, Fritz Leiber, Suzy McKee Charnas and Tanith Lee. Two appendices contain descriptive lists of novels and films. The Vampire Book: The Encyclopedia of the Undead by J. Gordon Melton (1994), is over 800 pages of entries on such subjects as "Anemia", "Vampire Humor", "Pittsburgh Dark Shadows Fan Club", and "Barbara Steele", plus a detailed index and appendices on films, drama and novels.

Having been completely fascinated by Tim Powers' association of vampirism and creativity amongst the Romantic poets in his novel The Stress of Her Regard, I was intrigued to see Tom Holland's Lord of the Dead on bookstore shelves this spring. Holland is, according to the jacket blurb, a Byron scholar, but this is his first book (as far as I could determine through a publication search) as well as his first novel. The premise of the story is that Lord Byron became a vampire during a trip to Greece with his friend J. C. Hobhouse in 1810, after meeting the mysterious and evil Turkish lord Vakhel Pasha. Byron's story is related by the poet himself, framed within the modern-day search of one of his descendants, Rebecca Ruthven, for his lost memoirs. It incorporates the events of Byron's scandalous life in London following the fame engendered by his poem "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage", his failed marriage, the escape to the Continent where he met Shelley, and the poet's death in the battle for Greek independence. Of course, in this version, the death which occurs is not Byron's.

One aspect of vampirism that Holland proposes is a new one in my experience: here the blood of a relative is needed to maintain the vampire's youth, and Byron struggles with his desire for his sister, Augusta, the children he fathers with his wife and mistresses, and, finally, the line of descendants up until the appearance of Rebecca. The author demonstrates a thorough knowledge of the life and work of his subject, using documented facts and quotes from the writings of Byron and his associates to give weight to the story's theme. However, I think the frame and the first-person narration weaken the story. Rebecca, although she initiates the investigation of Byron's continued existence, is not a fully-realized character, and once the poet begins his tale, her role is that of a mere listener. The reader gets little sense of her attraction to the vampire or her fear of the danger she is in, and the climactic confrontation is neither exciting nor satisfying. In fact, I think I enjoyed this book as much as I did purely in juxtaposition with Powers' more creative, if considerably more bizarre, novel.

After Stoker's classic, my favorite vampire novel is probably Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin (Poseidon Press, New York, 1982). The setting -- New Orleans and a Mississippi riverboat during the 1850's -- evokes an overgrown, decadent and steamy milieu that is perfect for the appearance of such haughty and amoral creatures. The main character of Martin's novel, however, is Abner Marsh, an ugly giant of a man with a fierce love of the river and its steamboats. His partnership with the pale, rich, and intellectual Joshua York offers Abner the chance to fulfill his dream of owning the fastest riverboat on the Mississippi, until Abner discovers that his partner is a vampire. Joshua's goal is to free his race from their violent heritage, but he must confront a more powerful master vampire, Damon Julian, whose reign brings terror to the river and the Bayou. Fevre Dream is a wonderfully colorful and atmospheric novel with an underlying depth which touches on the importance of loyalty and the unexpected fulfillment of dreams.

I'm not sure when the fascination with vampires first led to the presentation of the vampire as something other than a creature of evil. In modern fiction (and film), however, this approach is as common as the original depiction by Bram Stoker, and even "evil" vampires frequently have some attractive or romantic aspects. One author who has done much to encourage the romantic image of the vampire is Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, with her stories of the accomplished and very long-lived Saint-Germain. Yarbro based her character on a real person, le Comte de Saint-Germain, who first appeared in Paris in 1743, was terrifically conspicuous and accomplished, had a passion for diamonds and music, was never seen to eat or drink in public, and claimed to be three or four thousand years old. Who could ask for better? As a character of fiction, Yarbro's count was introduced in 1978 in Hotel Transylvania, a novel set in eighteenth-century France, in which the alchemist/vampire battles a coven of devil worshippers to save his beloved Madelaine de Montalia. Unlike most fictional vampires, Saint-Germain can walk freely in daylight and on consecrated ground, is not affected by sacred objects, and only needs small amounts of blood to survive. Hotel Transylvania is a good example of the transformation of the vampire into a quintessential romantic hero, who doesn't even need to kill as part of his vampiric nature. It's also an entertaining historical novel, with excellent period detail.

Finally, a discussion of vampire literature is not complete without a mention of the delightful Bunnicula by Deborah and James Howe (Avon Books, 1979). Since the Monroes found the little bunny in the theater during a showing of a Dracula movie, they decided to call him "Bunnicula". But it was up to Chester, the cat (who read incessantly after the Monroes went to bed each night) to discover the bunny's vampiric nature, from his sneaking into the kitchen each night to suck the juice from tomatoes and other vegetables. Bunnicula's adventures are chronicled by Harold the dog, in this and such sequels as The Celery Stalks at Midnight.

Film at eleven...

I guess I've seen more than my share of vampire movies, and of course I have my favorites. I did like Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 effort, mostly from a cinematography and style viewpoint (the story was most certainly not Bram Stoker's!). As a costumer myself, I particularly enjoyed designer Eiko Ishioka's use of color and motif to create garments and accessories that more than complemented the screenplay. Recently, a dozen or so costumes from the Oscar-winning film were on display at San Francisco's airport (don't laugh! SFO is not just a maze of markets hawking sourdough bread and cable car key chains; there are several art galleries and they have some killer exhibits!), and I got a chance to look at the incredible detailing and imaginative use of fabrics and techniques that went into these pieces. Very impressive! (There is also a wonderful book, Coppola and Eiko on Bram Stoker's Dracula, featuring the design of the film.)

Rivaling Coppola for cinematography is the recent adaptation of Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire, although Antonio Banderas beat out both Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt for charisma. And far above either of these two efforts is the atmospheric 1930 German film, Vampyr. No blood or gore here, only shadows.

My list of favorite bloodsucking movies, however, has to include The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, a 1973 collaboration between Hammer Films and the Hong Kong Studio of Run Run Shaw. In this gloriously tacky movie, Dracula is awakened to lead a group of Chinese vampires, while Van Helsing, lecturing on vampires in China and mostly being scoffed at, is recruited by a group of siblings (all of them experts of a different martial art form) from a village beleaguered by Drac and his Asian pals. David Chiang, one of Hong Kong's biggest stars of '70s sword kung fu flicks, stars along with Peter Cushing in his oft-repeated role as Van Helsing. I am also fond of Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers, featuring gratuitous bathing and raw garlic consumption, and a wonderful period ballroom scene.

A version of this article originally appeared in Butterbur's Woodshed #29.

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