A Short Literary History of Vampires

Philip Burne-Jones' Le Vampire, 1897, sourced from WikiCommons

You’ve heard of Twilight. You may have read Twilight. Try as you might, you can’t escape Twilight (or True Blood, or Anne Rice, or wonderful B-horror vampire movies that are on ITV at three in the morning). These days, vampires are everywhere. So where did they come from?

In England, the vampire craze began in 1819, the Year Without a Summer. Lord Byron, John Polidori, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonescraft Shelley (check out the Bodleian Library’s exhibition on the Shelleys  here), and Claire Clairmont were staying at Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva. Trapped indoors due to bad weather for three days, they took turns telling, then writing, ghost stories. Mary Shelley’s would become Frankenstein. John Polidori, physician to Byron (inspired by his pale, languid, over-sexed patient) wrote The Vampyre: A Tale.

A craze (or bloodlust?) was born. Lord Ruthven was a vampire modelled after the Byronic hero, sophisticated, tortured, and highly seductive. Partly because of a misattribution to Byron, the story was published in New Monthly Magazine, and became an instant hit. The Vampyre was made into a play and an opera.

Emily Brontë would reference the new fad for vampires in her 1847 novel Wuthering Heights, when the housekeeper suspects Heathcliff of being a vampire. In 1872, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu wrote Carmilla, a novella which introduced the concept of lesbian vampires, which Hollywood would later adore.  And in 1897, English literary vampires reached thrilling new heights with the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which introduced such conventions as garlic, stakes, vampire brides, Vlad the Impaler, and the vampire hunter Dr.  Abraham Van Helsing (not to mention providing some pretty intriguing commentary on the role of women and sexual repression in Victorian society).  Today, the character of Count Dracula appears in over 272 films.

Why did the vampire capture the English (and now, global) imagination in the way that it did? We are of course assuming an explanation other than vampires using their dark powers to seduce us all.

Literary vampires grapple with basic fears: fears of what’s foreign, fear of the dark, and the fear of the enemy that can pass among us, unrecognised. They also capitalise on the sort of sensationalised, tantalising danger that was popularised by news reports about the Jack the Ripper murders.  Vampires are sexual, mysterious, and have a long history and extensive lore. Most of all, they make a great bad guy.


About Kate O'Connor

Kate O'Connor works as Publicity & Outreach Director for Post5 Theatre, Literary Assistant and Office Manager for the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival, and Dramaturgy Intern for the Profile Theatre. She earned her M.St. in English Literature 1550-1700 at Lincoln College, University of Oxford and a BA in English from Stanford University. As an undergraduate she worked as the research assistant to Prof. David Riggs and as Literary Intern for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
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4 Responses to A Short Literary History of Vampires

  1. Oh, Byron... says:

    Brilliant! No one really discusses the literary history of the vampire anymore–thanks for posting!

    I’m curious about the role of gender in vampire tales. Certainly, women are fascinated by the mystery and danger embodied by a male vampire. But does the same thing hold true for men? Is a female vampire equally alluring? Or perhaps that kind of female power was threatening in the 19th century…

    Also, this blew my mind: the housekeeper suspects Heathcliff of being a vampire??? Would you mind pointing me to where that occurs in the text?

    • Kate O'Connor says:

      Sure thing. It’s in chapter 34:
      “‘Is he a ghoul or a vampire?’ I mused. I had read of such hideous incarnate demons.”

      As to the allure of female vampires, Carmilla (and the brides of Dracula) would suggest there’s certainly some allure there, though it may be because those sorts of characters could be depicted in titillating ways since they were outside of the morality of Victorian society.

  2. Kate Lindsay says:

    What I find fascinating is the depiction of women vampires as the absolute opposite of what women were expected to be in (mostly) Victorian times. They are overtly sexual, they eat children, they are violent. Titillating perhaps, but they always get driven back into their place via a nice hefty stake in the heart (aka the staking of Lucy in Bram Stokers ‘Dracula’ is portrayed almost as a rape). And lets not forget the homosexual references in the vampire tales, men drinking each others blood…the exchange of bodily fluid, or may be vampires transgress gender – heamosexuality.

    As many of the monsters in Gothic literature, Vampires represent the current fears and threats of the time; the aristocrat; the foreigner; the strong women; and later in 20C literature like ‘Interview with a Vampire’ disease (catching the disease of immortality through blood, a play on AIDS).

    Great post, thanks for bringing back memories of my undergrad dissertation!

  3. Kate O'Connor says:

    And of course, the child-eating brings us back to the first female vampire/succubus in a fun way: who doesn’t love Lilith, Adam’s first wife?

    I’d say the fear of disease is there in earlier works too, though dealing with syphilis rather than AIDS.

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