From Graveyards to High Schools: The Evolution of the Literary Vampire

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1.2 Vampires in the Bible


Vampires, as creatures described above, originally only lived in folk tales that were spread through oral tradition or appeared in reports of demonologists and exorcists of the Church. Long before first novels about them were written however, there had been a character linked to vampires who is associated with the book that every Christian knew – the Bible. Moreover, it was not just an ordinary vampire, it is the Mother of Demons herself, Lilith.

Needless to say even though the legend of Lilith is widely spread, the Bible itself never mentions a character of that name per se. It is a tale of Jewish origin, stemming from the discrepancies between the description of the Creation of Man in the first and the second Book of Genesis. According to Ariela Pelaia, an expert on Judaism, “Lilith is mentioned four times in the Babylonian Talmud, but it is not until the Alphabet of Ben Sira (c. 9th to 10th century ce) that the character of Lilith is associated with the first version of Creation” (Pelaia).

Supposedly, Lilith was the first wife of Adam, his mate even before Eve. According to a Yahwistic account, at first God had created an androgyne, a being both male and female and then split them, therefore making them equal. But Adam was not of the same opinion and he demanded that Lilith “lie underneath him” he be her superior. Lilith was outraged and Adam proceeded to complain to God. The almighty ordered Lilith to be obedient to Adam, but she refused and in an act of rebellion she ran from the Paradise (Pelaia).

According to the legend, God sent several of his angels to bring her back, but she refused again. As a punishment, she was cursed. She was supposed to roam the face of Earth forever, breeding a considerable amount of demons every day and restricted from returning to Eden ever again. As a way of revenge, Lilith preyed on pregnant mortal women and, most importantly, she fed on the blood of newborns (Pelaia).

Her unusual taste in the infant blood links her to the vampiric legend and by some she is considered the primordial mother of vampires. Even though it is never clearly stated that she sustains on blood, which is a basic feature of a vampire, some scholars argue that the character of Lilith may be even older than the Jewish tradition. Sumerian myths mention a female blood-drinking – vampiric, for that matter – creature called “Lillu.” Hence, Lilith is oftentimes associated with vampires as their primordial mother (Pelaia; Jøn 97).

2. The Literary Ancestors: John Polidori


As far as literature, or, rather, fiction in the modern sense of the word, is concerned, the first vampire appearing in piece of writing as a distinct character with a mind of his own had appeared almost eighteen hundred years later, penned by the English author John Polidori (1795–1821). The character was “born” in 1819, in the same year and in the same place as the a legendary work of gothic fiction – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The tale has it that Polidori, Lord Byron, Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley were visiting the countryside together. The weather was, however, stormy and the three of them were forced to stay indoors. In the effort to find some activity, they decided to start a competition, who should write a better horror tale (O’Rourke 368).

This vampire was a main character of a serious story, and most importantly, it was definitely not a putrid creature lurking in the shadows of a graveyard, as his predecessors of the folk tales. His name was lord Ruthven and he was a man of manners and of aristocratic origin. By lord Ruthven, Polidori had brought a revolution into 19th century gothic fiction. Such a character had never been seen before.

First of all, Ruthven is not a mindless revenant, stuck to the patterns of its previous life. His purpose is not to deal with unfinished business or visit his loved ones at night, as it was for the vampires in the folk tales mentioned in the previous chapter. He does not reside in a graveyard and does not return to his grave in the morning. He is therefore not a reanimated corpse, but an actual immortal being that prolongs his life by the consumption of human blood. It is possible to assume that he was probably turned into a vampire by another vampiric creature, but the tale offers too little information that would enable to make a clear statement.

Presumably, Ruthven is a venerable member of society, as he is being referred to as “Lord Ruthven.” Throughout the story, he attends various social gatherings and parties; he even dances in the ballrooms of London. He is also mentioned to court women, which would be probably considerably difficult if he looked suspicious in any way.

As for his looks, Ruthven is described as a mysterious, somber person that entices the curiosity of people around him to the point that “his peculiarities caused him to be invited to every house; all wished to see him” (Polidori 1). The picture of Ruthven that Polidori provides the reader with is elusive and hypnotizing, which might suggest that he might actually possess some sort of supernatural hypnotic abilities. The author goes as far as making comments such as “Who could resist his power?” (Polidori 15)

Unlike his folklore-based counterpart, Ruthven is to be imagined as a rather attractive man, since Aubrey, the young protagonist of the story describes him with words such as: “the form and outline of his face were beautiful” (Polidori 1).

What is, however, most curious about Ruthven is him not being susceptible to sunlight, as the reader is able to encounter him during daylight hours, for example on his travels.


2.1 The Literary Ancestors: Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu


Another charming vampire specimen of the classical era appeared sixty years later. The eponymous antagonist of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s gothic novel Carmilla shares many traits with Polidori’s Ruthven, such as his presumed aristocratic background and bewitching appearance. What makes the character unique is her gender – the vampire that gave the novel its name is a young woman. That makes her the first female vampire appearing in literature ever, who became a prototype and inspiration for a myriad of other female vampires.

Le Fanu (1814–1873), though treading around it as carefully as expected for the man of his era, had also set a precedent for the sexuality of vampires. The dynamics between the characters of Laura and Carmilla are undoubtedly tinged with homosexual undertones, as can be seen in these two extracts:

She used to place her pretty arms about my neck, draw me to her, and laying her cheek to mine, murmur with her lips near my ear, “Dearest, your little heart is wounded; think me not cruel because I obey the irresistible law of my strength and weakness; if your dear heart is wounded, my wild heart bleeds with yours. In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die--die, sweetly die--into mine.” … And when she had spoken such a rhapsody, she would press me more closely in her trembling embrace, and her lips in soft kisses gently glow upon my cheek (Le Fanu 10).

[…]

Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardor of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet over-powering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips traveled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, “You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one forever.” Then she had thrown herself back in her chair, with her small hands over her eyes, leaving me trembling (Le Fanu 11).

Apart from the precedent of loosened vampiric sexuality, Le Fanu introduces two archetypes that has become a staple in many vampire-themed novels to come. Firstly it is doctor Spielsberg, who is evidently versed in occult, since he recognizes Laura’s illness to be caused by a vampire where other doctors tending to her were helpless. Secondly, it is general Spielsdorf, who is bent on hunting down the vampire that murdered his young daughter. These two figures are the predecessors of such legendary characters as Professor Abraham Van Helsing, the nemesis to Bram Stoker’s count Dracula.

Lord Ruthven is very scarcely active in the novel. As opposed to her predecessor, however, Carmilla is not a passive figure who is only observed by the narrator. Her character is much more complex and significantly contributes to the development of the story. Contrary to Ruthven, Carmilla has a clear purpose in the story that, even though it is revealed only at the end, she actively pursues.

Also contrary to Ruthven, Carmilla’s vampiric abilities, along with some typical vampiric features, are mentioned in the novel. Even in the opening paragraphs of the novel, Laura, the young protagonist of the story describes a supernatural event of her early childhood:

I can’t have been more than six years old, when one night I awoke, and looking round the room from my bed, failed to see the nursery maid. Neither was my nurse there; and I thought myself alone. … when to my surprise, I saw a solemn, but very pretty face looking at me from the side of the bed. It was that of a young lady who was kneeling, with her hands under the coverlet. I looked at her with a kind of pleased wonder, and ceased whimpering. She caressed me with her hands, and lay down beside me on the bed, and drew me towards her, smiling; I felt immediately delightfully soothed, and fell asleep again (Le Fanu 2).

This paragraph refers to the folkloric tradition of vampires entering the bedrooms of the living at night and their hypnotic powers. When Laura continues to mention that the lady vanished, she refers to the fact that vampires are oftentimes told to attack only in a form of a spirit. To support this argument, Laura furthermore experiences nightmares of being attacked by an apparition of a “sooty-black animal that resembled a monstrous cat” later on in the story (Le Fanu, 12). Those nightmares are in fact Carmilla feeding on her at night. When describing her dreams, Laura mentions a typical effect of a vampire on the living – she has trouble breathing, is unable to move or call for help. Also, right before the creature bites into Laura, she sees nothing more than its eyes, which is also mentioned in the folk tales of old.

Most importantly, however, in her narration of the supernatural event, she recollects that she “was wakened by a sensation as if two needles ran into my breast very deep at the same moment” (Le Fanu 3). This could very well be considered a first detailed account of a vampire feeding on a human being in the modern sophisticated literature.

Apart from her spirit form and the inherent blood-drinking, Carmilla possesses several other typical vampiric traits that were not mentioned in Polidori’s Vampyre. First, shortly after Carmilla’s arrival to castle Karnstein, young females of the area are one by one taken by a mysterious malady that later claims many of them. Multiple inexplicable deaths in one particular area were usually the most dominant reason people may start to worry that there is a rampant vampire.

Vampires, being dark and demonic creatures, are typically portrayed as repelled by anything holy, such as crosses or holy water. Throughout the story, Carmilla never joins the family in their prayers and Laura can be even witnessed pondering whether she even prays at all:

I often wondered whether our pretty guest ever said her prayers. I certainly had never seen her upon her knees. In the morning she never came down until long after our family prayers were over, and at night she never left the drawing room to attend our brief evening prayers in the hall (Le Fanu 14).

Apart from refusing to participate in prayers, Carmilla can be observed reacting profusely negatively to religious chants. When on a walk with Laura, they encounter a Christian funeral procession of one of the young women taken by the vampiress. Out of respect, Laura joins in the singing of the hymn, after which Carmilla is almost taken by a hysterical fit, claiming that it “tortures” her how discordant it sounds and that it made her very nervous (Le Fanu 11). She is even being rude to the point of insensitivity leaving disrespectful comments such as:

“Well, her funeral is over, I hope, and her hymn sung; and our ears shan’t be tortured with that discord and jargon. It has made me nervous. Sit down here, beside me; sit close; hold my hand; press it hard-hard-harder” (Le Fanu 11).

Laura then continues to describe her seizure:

Her face underwent a change that alarmed and even terrified me. … It darkened, and became horribly livid; her teeth and hands were clenched, and she frowned and compressed her lips, while she stared down upon the ground at her feet, and trembled all over (Le Fanu 12).

Carmilla also possessed several physical characteristics typical of a vampire that are found in folk tales. She is photo-phobic – even though not entirely allergic to sunlight – and is seen sleeping through most of the day, which is by the residents of castle Karnstein usually ascribed to her nightly “sleepwalking.” When her coffin is opened in the short story’s finale, she is found to be “still tinted with the warmth of life” (Le Fanu 32), her limbs flexible and her skin perfectly elastic, despite being over one-hundred and fifty years old.

In the final passages of the novel, the reader is presented with the traditional annihilation of a vampire – Carmilla’s body is exhumed, impaled with a stake through the heart, decapitated and subsequently cremated. Her ashes were then disposed into a stream of running water (Le Fanu 32).

All in all, the development of the first generation vampires had been a turbulent and distinctive. Literary vampires had become independent, self-aware beings capable of plotting and accomplishing complex schemes, instead of being bound by the patterns of their previous lives or potential business they left unfinished. The creatures of the night were almost magically transformed from noxious, grisly grave-dwellers into charming men and elusive women of status; lords and ladies even. They were transferred from the frightening cemeteries straight to chateaus and grand ballrooms of London.



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