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


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2.2 The Penny Dreadful

Before we move on to the legendary vampire count who brought the true renaissance into the vampire genre, let us very briefly mention stories of the so-called penny dreadful, which were cheap booklets, published from the 1830s until the end of the 19th century, of serial literature printed on wood pulp paper, costing exactly a penny each. Popular among the young Victorian English working males, it featured sensational tales of criminals, the supernatural and detective stories. Although it might seem that these were merely unmemorable, generic stories, there are several stories that were originally published in the booklets, but gained their renown nevertheless. These include for example The String of Pearls: A Romance (1846-47), that first introduced the devilish barber of Fleet Street, Sweeney Todd.

On the context of the topic of this thesis, however, the lengthy collection of penny dreadful stories under the name Varney the Vampire; or The Feast of Blood (1847), is of particular interest. It was penned by James Malcolm Rymer (1814–1884) and reprinted as a book just between the publishing of The Vampyre and Carmilla. The enormous collection, consisting of nearly nine hundred double-columned pages remains largely unknown with the contemporary readers. However, scholars such as E.S. Turner and A. Asbjørn Jøn agree that it was one of the sources of influence to many well-known vampire stories, including Le Fanu’s Carmilla mentioned above and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Turner 5; Jøn 97).

The protagonist of Rymer’s story, Sir Francis Varney, introduced several stereotypes to the vampiric genre that became inseparable from the image of a literary vampire. Most importantly it is the infamous pair of animal-like fangs that leave the archetypal set of puncture wounds at the neck of the victim: “teeth—the fearful looking teeth—projecting like those of some wild animal, hideously, glaringly white, and fang-like” (Rymer 5). Apart from the these, Varney also possesses supernatural strength and hypnotic abilities:

But her eyes are fascinated. The glance of a serpent could not have produced a greater effect upon her than did the fixed gaze of those awful, metallic-looking eyes that were bent on her face (Rymer 6).

All of Varney’s abilities are presumable in Polidori’s The Vampyre, as the modern audience naturally attributes them to vampires according to its own experience, but they are not specifically mentioned by Polidori. In case of Carmilla, on the other hand, which was published only after Varney the Vampire, the puncture wounds – interestingly not the fangs though – hypnotic abilities and supernatural strength are graphically depicted inside the novel. Citation of the first two have been already given, and for the record, the supernatural strength in Carmilla can be found in following passage, where the vampiress is able to wrestle a full-grown man:

Before I could utter a scream, he struck at her with all his force, but she dived under his blow, and unscathed, caught him in her tiny grasp by the wrist. He struggled for a moment to release his arm, but his hand opened, the axe fell to the ground, and the girl was gone (Le Fanu 29-30).

Apart from the above-mentioned characteristics, Rymer introduces a trait in a vampire that went unnoticed for many years only to resurface in the 20th century, mainly in the Vampire Chronicles series by Anne Rice – remorse and sympathy. Contrary to Carmilla, Ruthven or even Dracula himself (see the following chapter), Varney at length confesses of resentment towards his prolonged existence and the fact he is a slave to it no matter what he does. As E.S. Turner puts it – despite dying several times, Varney could not lie down and rest (Turner 10). His frustration reaches to the point, where the vampire voluntarily commits suicide by diving into the crater of Mount Vesuvius in the postscript to the story:

“You will say that you accompanied Varney the Vampire to the crater of Mount Vesuvius, and that, tired and disgusted with life of horror, he flung himself in to prevent possibility of a reanimation of his remains.” Before the guide could utter anything but a shriek, Varney took one tremendous leap and disappeared into the burning mouth of the mountain” (Turner 5 – 6).

Though Varney had committed many atrocities in his lifetime, he had to pay the ultimate price to prove the readers that he too, developed conscience and felt remorse.

Having just discussed the features of the first literary vampires, let us now move to the icon of the genre, that shaped the vampiric creatures into the popular image the general public recognizes nowadays.

3. Vampires of the Classical Era: Bram Stoker

As the previous chapters explained, the general opinion of Bram Stoker’s Dracula being the original literary vampire is not entirely correct. While vampire might not be Stoker’s initial invention, he deserves the merits of skillfully gathering the aspects of his predecessor’s characters. By combining them with traditional features and building on both of the groups, he created a balanced character that later on became a template for many a writer aspiring to contribute to the vampiric lore.

The first easily noticeable aspect of Dracula that distinguishes the book from the works of Stoker’s predecessors is that it is formatted as an assembly of letters and journal entries. And in the first entries of Jonathan Harker’s traveling journal the reader uniquely encounters the folkloric and superstitious roots of the vampire legends. As Harker travels through the Carpathian mountains to meet the elusive count Dracula, he receives a severe warning from a local elderly woman to tread carefully:

“It is the eve of St. George’s Day. Do you not know that to-night, when the clock strikes midnight, all the evil things in the world will have full sway? Do you know where you are going, and what you are going to?” She was in such evident distress that I tried to comfort her, but without effect. Finally she went down on her knees and implored me not to go; at least to wait a day or two before starting. … She then rose and dried her eyes, and taking a crucifix from her neck offered it to me. I did not know what to do. ... She saw, I suppose, the doubt in my face, for she put the rosary round my neck, and said, “For your mother’s sake,” and went out of the room (Stoker 3).

When Harker does not heed the woman’s warning, the rest of the local folk display an array of superstitious behavior and customs. They are heard discussing supernatural forces, directly addressing them by the local expression for a vampire:

I could hear a lot of words often repeated, queer words, for there were many nationalities in the crowd; ... amongst them were “Ordog”—Satan, “pokol”—hell, “stregoica”—witch, “vrolok” and “vlkoslak”—both of which mean the same thing, one being Slovak and the other Servian for something that is either were- wolf or vampire (Stoker 4).

While foreshadowing of the vampiric creature is not a new aspect, as it is also observable in Le Fanu’s Carmilla, it is a first instance of addressing the matter directly and also of revealing the true nature of the antagonist beforehand; making the vampire openly present throughout the whole story.

In Carmilla, for example, the reader can only assume that the supernatural occurrences are to be ascribed to the vampiress, in Dracula, the presence of a vampire is more than obvious. More so, when Harker begins to describe his horrifying experience in the Castle Dracula, beginning with watching the owner of the castle crawling face down the mansion’s walls (Stoker 18) and ending Harker being openly attacked by Dracula’s female vampire companions (Stoker 19).

As mentioned above, Bram Stoker skillfully gathered many a characteristic that the authors before him ascribed to their vampires and made them legendary. First of all, Dracula joins the ranks of nobility along with the lords and a lady described in the previous chapters. Just the same as Carmilla, Stoker’s vampires are vulnerable towards holy objects. Van Helsing, however, newly introduces the usage of a Host: “As to Van Helsing, he was employed in a definite way. First he took from his bag a mass of what looked like thin, wafer-like biscuit, which was carefully rolled up in a white napkin” (Stoker 98).

As for the supernatural abilities of the vampires, Stoker had endowed them with superhuman strength, hypnotic conduct and shape-shifting. In the novel, he is being mentioned to shape-shift at will into the form of a bat, dog or a wolf and into the form of a cloud of fog or mist, while Carmilla was only able to shift into the giant black cat, as was mentioned before.

Similarly to Le Fanu’s Carmilla, Stoker’s Dracula is also being associated with a certain degree of vampiric hypersexuality, even to the point of the erotic aspect of the book standing as a challenge to the traditionally puritan Victorian morality. Most notably is this fact observable in the following paragraphs, describing Dracula’s brides assaulting Harker:

I was not alone. … In the moonlight opposite me were three young women, ladies by their dress and manner. … There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips. It is not good to note this down, lest someday it should meet Mina’s eyes and cause her pain; but it is the truth. They whispered together, and then they all three laughed—such a silvery, musical laugh, but as hard as though the sound never could have come through the softness of human lips. It was like the intolerable, tingling sweetness of water-glasses when played on by a cunning hand. The fair girl shook her head coquettishly, and the other two urged her on (Stoker 19).

Harker’s agitated reaction to the mere presence of three beautiful women might represent the both vampire and human sexual urges and overall sexuality that were generally unsolicited and largely repressed in the Victorian society – other than that, it might simply be an exhibition of the hypnotic powers of the vampires, same as Carmilla’s or Ruthven’s.

While Le Fanu treads around the vampire sexuality very carefully and the erotic innuendos are quite subtle, Stoker is being significantly more explicit. For example, Dracula beckons his victims to invite him into their bedrooms (bringing forth another folkloric aspect of vampires, that they cannot enter a human settlement without being specifically and voluntarily invited inside1) and while thence feeding on them, he thrusts a hard object into their bodies in such a way it makes them bleed.

Women thus afflicted turn from virtuous and chaste women into wanton creatures. This transformation is observable in Lucy Westenra, who is turned into a vampire by presumably Dracula himself, since Mina Murray witnesses a tall figure with “white face and red, gleaming eyes” leaning over her. After that incident, two tiny red marks are found on Lucy’s throat and as far as the reader knows, there was no other vampiric creature present in the area, that would inflict those injuries (Stoker 44).

However, before Lucy succumbs to the vampire poison, she is attacked by a rogue wolf escaped from a local zoo and killed (Stoker 77). In a turn of events, she does not remain dead and returns from the dead as a vampire, which may very well be an instance of a literary vampire turning a human being into one of the undead.

As a vampire, Lucy starts projecting her wicked taste for blood, and most importantly giving a vent to her sexual desires. These were suppressed in women significantly more than in men. In fact, sexuality was something wholly undesirable in women during the Victorian era in England. During the encounter with the undead Lucy, she is being described as a cruel and wanton sexual predator by Harker:

The sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness. … Lucy’s eyes in form and color; but Lucy’s eyes unclean and full of hell-fire, instead of the pure, gentle orbs we knew. …  As she looked, her eyes blazed with unholy light, and the face became wreathed with a voluptuous smile. … There was a cold-bloodedness in the act which wrung a groan from Arthur; when she advanced to him with outstretched arms and a wanton smile he fell back and hid his face in his hands.

She still advanced, however, and with a languorous, voluptuous grace, said:—

“Come to me, Arthur. Leave these others and come to me. My arms are hungry for you. Come, and we can rest together. Come, my husband, come!”

There was something diabolically sweet in her tones—something of the tingling of glass when struck—which rang through the brains even of us who heard the words addressed to another (Stoker 102 – 103).

In the continuation of the situation, the vampiric ability of hypnotizing the living is observable yet again: “As for Arthur, he seemed under a spell; moving his hands from his face, he opened wide his arms” (Stoker 103).

This “wantonness” of female vampires is also observable in Dracula’s mates that Jonathan Harker encounters while staying at castle Dracula. While a vampire taking a human woman as a mate has appeared in Polidori’s Vampyre, the fact that Dracula is being openly polygamous – and living unwed at that – is a novelty. It, however, seeped into the modern literature, where vampires are sometimes described as polygamous or poly-amorous, as will be discussed later.

Both Le Fanu and Polidori’s vampires would be, apart from being a supernatural creature sustaining on human blood, considered well-mannered member of the society. Stoker, however, breaches the Victorian moral tradition on several other instances than being explicit with sexuality. I have previously discussed this topic in my essay The Rebuking of Victorian Values in Bram Stoker's Dracula, therefore I will offer a summary of my research.

Through Dracula, Stoker completely perverts the Victorian value of family. Most importantly, Dracula and his mates live unwedded, as was mentioned above.

Second such breach in the values is observable in the situation, where Dracula brings his mates a substitute nourishment when they are denied to feed on Jonathan Harker:

“Are we to have nothing to-night?” said one of them, with a low laugh, as she pointed to the bag which he had thrown upon the floor, and which moved as though there were some living thing within it. For answer he nodded his head. One of the women jumped forward and opened it. If my ears did not deceive me there was a gasp and a low wail, as of a half-smothered child (Stoker 20).

This suggests that Dracula indeed offered his mates to feed on an innocent child to which they willingly oblige. Considering the core interest of a nuclear family is to care and provide for their offspring most of their lives, the vampiresses mercilessly murdering the child2 for their own sustaining of immortality is a complete rebuke of the very principle of a family (Kalužová 4).

There are several folkloric aspects of a vampire that Stoker adopted that his predecessors did not and which contributed much to the modern perception of a vampiric creature. For instance, Dracula is the first vampire to be susceptible to sunlight. As was stated in the previous chapters, Polidori’s lord Ruthven was able to operate in the sunlight without any particular complications. While Le Fanu’s countess von Karnstein is avoiding full daylight most of the time, she is seen outside while the sun is still up.

Count Dracula on the other hand avoids sunlight altogether. Even though it is never stated that Dracula would disintegrate in sunlight, Van Helsing mentions that it makes him considerably weaker. He is therefore being active at night only and regularly hibernates in an enclosed coffin at night, as Harker himself discovers:

There, in one of the great boxes, of which there were fifty in all, on a pile of newly dug earth, lay the Count! He was either dead or asleep, I could not say which—for the eyes were open and stony, but without the glassiness of death— and the cheeks had the warmth of life through all their pallor; the lips were as red as ever. But there was no sign of movement, no pulse, no breath, no beating of the heart (Stoker 24).

The custom of sleeping in a coffin is a more glamorous twist on the folklore-based vampire revenant mentioned in the previous chapter, that raises from a grave to wreak havoc on the living.

As Konstantinos mentions, the common way to protect oneself from a vampire is to carry an amount of garlic on the person (Konstantinos 21). This folkloric superstition was also embraced by Stoker. After Dracula infects Lucy Westenra with the vampire poison and she falls ill, professor Van Helsing is summoned to attend to her sickbed. Being based on Le Fanu’s general Spielsdorf, Van Helsing is aware of the existence of vampires and has his fair share of knowledge about the creatures. After he realizes that a vampiric presence is what ails Lucy, he recommends her to garnish her room with garlic and also makes her wear a garlic wreath around her neck:

We went into the room, taking the flowers with us. The Professor’s actions were certainly odd and not to be found in any pharmacopoeia that I ever heard of. First he fastened up the windows and latched them securely; next, taking a handful of the flowers, he rubbed them all over the sashes, as though to ensure that every whiff of air that might get in would be laden with the garlic smell. Then with the wisp he rubbed all over the jamb of the door, above, below, and at each side, and round the fireplace in the same way. … We then waited whilst Lucy made her toilet for the night, and when she was in bed he came and himself fixed the wreath of garlic round her neck (Stoker 62).

After that is done, Van Helsing is certain that he can sleep in peace because Lucy is protected against the vampiric fiend or illness. That assumption, however, turns out to be completely wrong, as later the reader discovers, that Lucy’s mother had removed all of the garlic from her bedroom, leaving her vulnerable and causing her to relapse back into sickness.

Van Helsing also mentions that Dracula does not throw any shade and does not reflect in mirrors, but not before Harker himself discovers the fact during his stay in castle Dracula:

Having answered the Count’s salutation, I turned to the glass again to see how I had been mistaken. This time there could be no error, for the man was close to me, and I could see him over my shoulder. But there was no reflection of him in the mirror! The whole room behind me was displayed; but there was no sign of a man in it, except myself (Stoker 29 – 30).

Konstantinos suggests, that this might stem from the belief that vampire is but a solidified ghost and therefore there is nothing solid, that would reflect in the mirror (Konstantinos 117).

The most profoundly different aspect of Dracula that can be labeled as folklore-based, is Stoker’s inspiration for his character of the titular vampire villain. Vladimír Liška mentions several inspiration sources from Ireland’s – as it is Stoker’s native country – mythology in his book, for example the Irish or respectively Celtic legend of the evil wizard Abhartach.

Abhartach was infamous for his cruelty and despite being killed several times, he kept returning to terrorize his subjects and to feed on them. He was then banished by a Celtic druid and eliminated in the typical fashion discussed in the previous chapters.

Suchlike story is the story of the cruel earl, Cormac Tadgh McCarthy who gained his fame for drinking the blood of those who would oppose him. The apparition of this cannibal then started attacking wayfarers and feeding on them (Liška 25 – 26).

The most important inspiration source for Stoker was, however, the legend of the Wallachian prince, Vlad III of Romania. The legendary voivode was born in 1431 and during his reign over the Romanian parts of Wallachia, he was also known by the names of Tepes – which translates as the “Impaler” from Romanian – or more importantly, Dracula. (Pallardy).

Luckily, Vlad’s taste for blood remains only a matter of unsubstantiated rumors and metaphors. The Wallachian prince is infamous and widely known for his cruel conduct against those who would oppose them, most notoriously for impaling masses of his enemies on the stakes and allegedly also having the execution as an entertainment to go with his supper (Liška 28).

While The Impaler was never proven to consume blood in his daily life, Konstantinos quotes the Romanian author Radu R. Florescu on an account of Vlad dipping his bread in a goblet of blood during his dinner (Konstantinos 70).

Dr. Elizabeth Miller, a world renowned academic expert on Bram Stoker, is, however, of the opinion that Stoker himself knew very little about Vlad The Impaler, and she argues in her book Dracula: Sense & Nonsense (2000, rev. 2006) that Stoker’s inspiration was very loose. Even when taking her account on the matter into consideration, the resemblance between the two is observable. In the context of the evolution of the literary vampire, Stoker had been the first author to base his vampire on an actual historical figure.

There are, however, some attributes of Stoker’s vampires that were actually the author’s own invention, but many of them are still attributed to the literary undead, nevertheless.

Firstly, count Dracula possesses a certain degree of almost magical powers. For example, he is able to defy gravity – crawling walls head-down – and also vanish in one place to reappear again somewhere else. As Van Helsing notes, “he come on moonlight rays as elemental dust” and both Dracula and Lucy are able to shrink in size that they can “slip through a hairbreadth space” (Stoker 112).

Dracula is also able to control animals and bend them to his will, for example the wolves Harker encounters during his travels to castle Dracula in the first chapters, or the swarm of rats the count incites against Van Helsing, Harker, Seward and lord Godalming in the chapter nineteen (Stoker 116).

Even though there is plenty of misconceptions and rumors floating around Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it is absolutely without a doubt that his ingenious combination of folk tales and the best of his predecessor’s work had become a legend by itself, and also kick-started the vampire genre into a new dimension that would probably be impossible without him.

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