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An Alternate History of Horror II: The Vampire Empire

By Ryan Fleming

The Vampire, by Philip Burne-Jones, 1897

Stop a random person on the street and ask them to name a horror stock character, just the first one that comes to mind. Chances are, if they can get over the initial shock of a complete stranger abruptly stepping in their way and demanding they answer these esoteric questions, that the first thing to come to their minds is a vampire. That the vampire has such a prominence in horror fiction is not surprising when one considers that their inclusion dates back to the birth of horror as a literary genre.

The roots stretch back further than that too, with creatures similar to vampires appearing in folklore and mythology from the ancient world to the modern era. Across all continents and across cultures with no contact there exists legends of the undead that would consume the lifeforce of living beings. Said lifeforce usually being in the form of blood or flesh of humans.

Despite such universal roots, what we think of as the stereotypical vampire in horror has come filtered down through seminal works of the 19th century, which used the legends of Eastern and Southeastern Europe as their basis. Suitably embellished and romanticised for the Gothic novel loving readers of the Victorian United Kingdom, of course.

The first of these seminal works takes us back to a familiar ghost story contest during a familiar year without a summer.

Mary Shelley might have been the only participant in the ghost story contest at Villa Diodati in 1816 to turn their entry into a novel, but hers was not the only entry to eventually see publication. Lord Byron’s entry into the contest went unfinished and is known simply as “A Fragment”, but this fragment was enough to kindle the interest of Byron’s physician, John William Polidori, who adapted the work into an 1819 short story published under as “The Vampyre”.

Vampires were not a new element to literature; Byron had even referred to them in his poems such as The Giaour in 1813. What Byron/Polidori did was to combine the folkloric beliefs of vampires from multiple areas and wrap them in the guise of an ageless aristocrat preying on high society.

There are major differences between Byron’s “Fragment” and Polidori’s “Vampyre”, despite the latter being an adaptation of the former. So much so that Polidori might have become a Hollywood producer had he lived a century and a half later. “Fragment” sees its unnamed narrator on a “Grand Tour”, the traditional trip through Europe undertaken by upper-class young men from the 17th to 19th centuries, something familiar to Byron. As was customary for such trips, the narrator is accompanied by an older guide or tutor, known as a cicerone. Darvell, the narrator’s cicerone, grows weaker and weaker as they travel further east until they reach Greece, where Darvell dies and rapidly decomposes.

Here “A Fragment” ends. According to Polidori, Byron intended to have the narrator return to England and find Darvell alive and romancing the narrator’s sister. It would be up to Polidori to finish the tale, but not without a few changes.

The narrator was given a name, Aubrey, and Darvell was gone from the narrative. Instead, the cicerone for his trip to Europe is one Lord Ruthven. The name was deliberately chosen in reference to Caroline Lamb’s novel Glenarvon, where the character of the Earl of Glenarvon, Clarence de Ruthven, is a thinly veiled insert of Lord Byron himself.

This is where Polidori might have hit upon something that would become the norm for the literary vampire. Ruthven is far more predatory than the wizened Darvell, preying on several young women during the trip to Europe before dying in Greece like his predecessor, albeit under far more violent circumstances. His affairs are explicit, but his murderous acts are more implicit, at least until Aubrey returns to London and finds Ruthven under another name seducing his sister.

“The Vampyre” was very influential in its home country, though this would be superseded by one of its successors. It also had influence overseas, including in the United States where the same year saw publication of The Black Vampyre: A Legend of St. Domingo. Published under the pseudonym Uriah Derick D’Arcy, opinion as divided as to the true author, it is all at once a tract on the Knickerbocker Group, an early American anti-slavery story, set in part against pre-Revolution Haiti, and partly comedic.

It is interesting to speculate on development of vampire literature in the United States had this remained prominent, perhaps experiencing a resurgence amongst abolitionist literature in the 1850s and formed a distinct version of the genre separate from what was being written in the United Kingdom. Back in the homeland of Byron and Polidori, the vampire was already a cornerstone of the popular press by the 1840s.

The development of the novel in UK literature was in step with an increase in literacy that accompanied societal changes in the early part of the 19th century. Against this backdrop of industrialisation, including improvements in printing and the rise of the railways, came the penny dreadfuls. Much like the later dime novels and pulp magazines of the US these cheap, mass-produced works were aimed at working class readers and often dealt with sensational subject matters such as crime and the supernatural, often at the same time. From the target audience, cost and subject matter came the pejorative name given to them. It was in the wood pulp pages of such publications that the wider population got their first taste of a vampire – Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood.

The cover page from a reprint of the British penny dreadful series Varney the Vampire (1845)

The adventures of Sir Francis Varney ran from 1845 to 1847 and by the end comprised of some 232 chapters and almost 700,000 words. Sadly, due to the policy of publisher Edward Lloyd to not allow writing credits on his publications, the author of the work is unknown but mostly accepted to be co-written by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Preskett Prest. Such practices would not end with the Victorian era and the creation of far more recent popular characters is often fraught with controversy too.

Different authorship, a need to churn out chapters, the length for which it ran, and a general lack of care meant that Varney went through several revisions and differing motivations. The comparison to long-running American comics is even more obvious. At first the stories were set in the early 18th century then at some points they become contemporary to when they were published. Sometimes Varney’s vampirism is a curse for his actions during the English Civil War, other times it was a side effect from his resurrection by a medical student inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

What was perhaps more intentional was how Varney became an increasingly sympathetic victim of circumstance as the serial wore on loathing his vampirism. To the point where, unable to escape his fate, he destroys himself by throwing himself into a volcano. Even this early into vampire literature we see the emergence of the sympathetic vampire as a character 130 years before Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire.

Despite this sympathetic, at times even heroic treatment of Varney, he is also the source of many of the tropes we associate with vampires today. He has sharpened fangs, attacks young women by coming in through their windows, leaving two puncture wounds on the neck, as well as having the powers of hypnosis and superhuman strength. On the other hand, he can also go about in daylight and has no fear of crosses or garlic (no more than the average Englishman at any rate). That some of these tropes disappeared with later, more famous, Victorian vampires yet have remained easily identifiable almost two centuries later feels a testament to the influence of the penny dreadful on later literature.

That there was little done in the way of archiving these penny dreadfuls speaks to the disposability with which they were conceived and distributed. Another lesson not learned as the BBC (and other television companies) would later view recordings of their transmissions as erasable well into the 1970s leaving programmes like Doctor Who with vast gaps in their archives. Perhaps had some effort been made at archiving these popular serials Varney would be part of a well-known stable of British literary characters alongside other penny dreadful luminaries such as the historical Dick Turpin, the urban legend Spring-heeled Jack, and the only penny dreadful original character still well-known today, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

The exploits of Sir Francis Varney do feel detached from the other archetypical Victorian vampires. One might find it easier to draw a direct line from Lord Ruthven to the later characters skipping the penny dreadfuls entirely. Hardly surprising when one factors in the lack of preservation of the cheap literature as well as their target audience not being afforded the opportunity to tell their own stories. Indeed, the later works owe far more to Polidori than they do Rymer/Prest. From the 1870s to the end of the century literary vampires were about to become a lot more sexual.

Sheridan Le Fanu had already been writing for more than a quarter century when he began to dabble in horror fiction, and indeed much of his work from this period could be considered akin to contemporary sensational fiction as much as it is to our modern idea of horror. Yet it is the horror works of Le Fanu that are the most well remembered. Including the novel Uncle Silas, and the short story collection In a Glass Darkly. Particularly well remembered among the short stories is the vampire tale “Carmilla”.

“Carmilla” like the other tales gather In a Glass Darkly is presented in a framework from one Dr. Hesselius, who, separate from its vampire literary influence, is one of the earliest examples of an occult detective in fiction. Itself a recognised stock character with examples from William Hop Hodgson’s Carnacki to Hanna-Barbera’s Scooby-Doo. What “Carmilla” is most remembered for, however, is the homosexual current in the relationship between its title character and its protagonist.

As can be expected from the era of its publication, this is never made explicit and is circumspect in its portrayal. At the same time, the attraction between the two women is not played in itself as something inherently wrong. Unlike many adaptations, there is no dashing male hero ready to sweep the protagonist off her feet after Carmilla is dispatched. What this says about 1970s cinema versus 1870s literature is up to the individual reader.

Indeed, the female characters of the story are portrayed as the equal of the male characters. If anything, the male characters are a bit useless. Carmilla is only destroyed by a coalition of male relatives of her victims or their descendants. It is also made clear by our protagonist in her closing narration that the memory of Carmilla returns to her often, either as her friend (described as a “playful, languid, beautiful girl”) or as the monstrous vampire dispatched in the ruined church.

“Carmilla” has been a popular tale for adaptation, as has the title character herself. Amongst vampires second only to another Victorian literary vampire to be discussed imminently. It has inspired films such as Vampyr (1932), Dracula’s Daughter (1936), The Vampire Lovers (1970), and Lesbian Vampire Killers (2009). The last referring to killers of lesbian vampires, not vampire killers who are themselves lesbians, though that might have made for a better film.

It would have influence far sooner on another work of Victorian vampire literature, from an Irish author like Le Fanu himself. It too would be told in the first person, have vampires masquerading as descendants of old nobility when they are in fact those same people, have similar symptoms for those becoming the prey of vampires, feature amongst their cast of characters an older vampire hunter. In a deleted chapter from the later novel the protagonist would find himself in Styria, Austria, the same location where Carmilla takes place. That deleted chapter would see its own publication a few decades later in a short story collection, its title highlighted the connection to its famous novel: “Dracula’s Guest”.

Has there ever been a recognisable stock character so associated with a single fictional character in the way the fictional vampire is with Count Dracula? Perhaps Sherlock Holmes and the private detective, but even then, the Baker Street resident had 4 novels and 56 short stories to his credit. Whereas the fictionalised Transylvanian nobleman has but a single novel, the eponymous Dracula. As such, discussing the influence, text, themes, and influence of Dracula would be worth a whole series of essays in itself. Yet, Dracula is part of the continuum of literary vampires described thus far and there are several points specific to that narrative.

Much as “The Vampyre” and Frankenstein found an audience in the early 19th century readers of gothic fiction, much like Varney the Vampire found an audience amongst the working-class readers of penny dreadfuls, Dracula found an audience for its tale of a foreign invader arriving on British shores in a public already obsessed with invasion literature. This genre was popular in the UK between the Franco-Prussian War 1871 and the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.

Often, the invading force in these novels and stories were the Germans. Not Germany, but Germans. At least, that’s how it is in The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer by George Tomkyns Chesney, where the invaders are never named but happen to speak German. Pesky invasion force from Austria-Hungary no doubt. The swift German invasion of France in 1870 providing ample inspiration. Other times, as in The Great War in England in 1897 by William Le Queux, the invaders were the French and Russians, and England was only saved by the timely intervention of her staunch ally those helpful, friendly Germans.

There’s a lot of jingoism to these tales. In Le Queux’s work, for instance, amongst the spoils of victory for Britannia are French Algeria and Russian Central Asia. We can only assume of course our heroes checked that the Algerians, Kazakhs, and other peoples indigenous to those parts of the world were cool with it and had their best interests at heart.

At the same time, the genre offered opportunity for satire and even an anti-imperialist bent. For the former, in 1909 P. G. Wodehouse contributed The Swoop! Where England is invaded by a multinational coalition including the Swiss Navy. Since this happens in the middle of the cricket season the invasion doesn’t make the headlines. For a more serious satire, we have The War of the Worlds from H. G. Wells. Specific inspiration was drawn from the genocide of Aboriginal Tasmanians by European colonisers. More subtly, in the wake of the Martian invasion an invasive plant species starts growing on Earth. It’s from this plant that Mars gets its red colour per the novel, the same red that was used to mark British territory on the maps of the day.

Into this came Dracula. Again, a foreign invader had turned up on English shores, albeit forgoing a landing on the south English coast by landing in Yorkshire, where an invading army could gain a foothold for several weeks before the London newspapers took notice. Bram Stoker took as much influence from the prior literary vampires as he did from contemporary invasion literature.

Like Lord Ruthven, Count Dracula is a nobleman actively pursuing young women. Count was also the noble rank of Carmilla in Le Fanu’s work, in life being Countess Karnstein. This was actually a demotion in rank for the historical Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, who was a Voivode (the equal of a Marquess) of Wallachia during his life. Dracula has also been compared to an Anglo-Irish landlord in some dissections of the novel.

Dracula rooted the vampire in Transylvania in a way that no other part of the world has been connected to horror fiction. It is one of those character tropes like transformation into a bat, which also originated in Dracula though vampires and bats had long been linked but never had a vampire been able to shapeshift into one. Carmilla could turn into a giant cat-like creature, and Count Dracula could also turn into a large wolf. In the same way the Count has been compared to an Anglo-Irish landlord, so too have comparisons been drawn with the portrayal of Transylvania and southeastern Europe with the Celtic fringe in northwestern Europe.

The 1820 stage adaptation of “The Vampyre” at the Lyceum Theatre transplanted the action to the Scottish islands as The Vampire, or The Bride of the Isles. Bram Stoker was later business manager of the Lyceum for 27 years. Perhaps had Stoker not been put on to Vlad the Impaler and the Hungarian Elizabeth Bathory in his research for the novel instead of Transylvania and Hungary we might have Ireland and Scotland as the traditional home of vampires in literature. The deleted chapter that later became “Dracula’s Guest” is set in the same region of Austria as “Carmilla”; which too might have become the land of the vampires.

Another element of “Carmilla” that Dracula carried forward was the sexuality. Dracula’s brides in Transylvania are sexually aggressive to Jonathan Harker who assumes a passive role, flipping the usual gender role in sex as understood by Victorian society. Stoker even deleted a line from the Count to his brides, saying that Harker was his for the night and only theirs from the morning. Deleted from the English publication, where Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for homosexuality a month before Stoker, a personal friend, began drafting the novel.

All of these currents came together to create Dracula, whose title character stands alongside Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein monster, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and another character who will feature in our next article as one of the most adapted literary characters in history. As copyright terms get longer and longer in the modern day, perhaps a hundred years hence the great characters of the 20th century will still be locked in Intellectual Property disputes, but anyone can do something with Count Dracula if the urge takes them.

Without the four characters highlighted here the vampire would still have found their way into the horror genre but they might be a vastly different sort to what we have become used to over the past two centuries. Without Lord Byron to act as an inspiration for John William Polidori’s Lord Ruthven in “The Vampyre” the romantic or sexually aggressive vampire might never be a thing. Without the penny dreadfuls giving us Sir Francis Varney, the sympathetic or heroic vampire would be unknown. Without Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla”, vampire literature might not tackle LGBT+ themes for decades or even longer after they did historically. Most importantly, without these predecessors Bram Stoker might never write Dracula from which we derive much vampire lore including their connection to Transylvania.

Even with the prior three works, Dracula might never be written were it not for the invasion literature craze in the UK between the Franco-Prussian War. Neither would H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, just as impactful in science fiction as Dracula is in horror. Though both are far down on the list of interesting topics stemming from a divergence, it is amusing to consider that Transylvanian vampires and invading Martians might not be a thing had France not declared war on Prussia in 1870.

As surprisingly as it may seem, the Franco-Prussian War will also play a part in our next article on the third trifecta of the classic horror monsters.


Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP


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