Dracula lives: true stories behind vampire tales
Non-Fiction: Vampyres, Christopher Frayling, Thames & Hudson, hdbk, 464 pages, €31.55
Published 09/10/2016 | 02:30
Robert Eustace revels in vampirism anthology that spans novels, essays, and notes of 18th-century doctors.
A fact often overlooked about Das Kapital by Karl Marx is that it was the first book in English literature to feature Vlad Dracula, more commonly known as Vlad the Impaler, in anything other than a purely historical guise. The blood-thirsty prince makes a brief appearance in a narrative about the horrors of autocracy. It would be another 10 years before Bram Stoker immortalised Vlad in his famous novel.
One of Christopher Frayling's intentions in first compiling Vampyres in 1978, now reissued in a handsome expanded edition, was to give vampirism the academic credit it deserves as a literary phenomenon. Marx, by no means the earliest or grandest figure in the story of Dracula's creation, is taken rather more seriously in Vampyres than poor Stoker himself. As Frayling points out, even in the introduction to his own Penguin Classics edition, AN Wilson stated frankly that, "Dracula is patently… not a great work of literature…"
But although it often veers closer to the laughable than the terrible ("the skin of my throat began to tingle as one's flesh does when the hand that is to tickle it approaches nearer, nearer"), Dracula is an indisputably influential thriller, with a surprisingly noble heritage. It is that pedigree that Frayling's anthology seeks to illustrate.
Part of this story is familiar. The modern idea of the aristocratic vampire was born on the shores of Lake Geneva, during a holiday in 1816 in which Mary Shelley, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and Byron's physician, Dr John William Polidori, spent a night telling each other ghost stories. They all retired to write and Shelley's Frankenstein was one of the results. The other, by Polidori, was The Vampyre, a story of a nobleman who reappears after dying at the hands of bandits in Greece.
Polidori was a rather tragic figure. Not only did Mary Shelley dismiss his contribution to the ghost story session as "terrible", but the publisher went on to claim it had been written by Byron. (Goethe later declared it the greatest thing Byron wrote.)
From Polidori's model, Frayling neatly draws the lines, through diverse works like James Rymer's Varney the Vampyre, many of increasing Victorian melodrama, to the apotheosis of Dracula and beyond to Angela Carter's The Lady in the House of Love.
However, it is when dealing with the more obscure and ancient stirrings of the vampire myth that he is at his most engaging. The earliest appearances of vampires come not from literary sources but the remaining traces of genuine concern about "epidemics" in Eastern Europe at the turn of the 17th Century. These early vampiric apparitions were far removed from the brylcreemed, genteel creatures of contemporary drama. Generally overfed farmers, more inclined to prey on cattle and their own rustic relatives than well-spoken ladies in lacy nightwear, they were nonetheless responsible for genuine alarm in the most elevated political spheres.
Frayling relates Voltaire's astonishment that such superstition could have outlived the glare of the Enlightenment, "What!" his Dictionnaire declared, "vampires in our 18th century? Yes… in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia, Austria and Lorraine…"
But Frayling's anthology contains extraordinary notes from public enquiries in 1731 and 1732, led by regimental field surgeons, which intended not to discover whether or not vampires existed (they concluded, quite unequivocally, that they did), but to ensure that the outbreaks were contained. Some of the details are astonishing, others absurd. The body of one Arnold Paole was exhumed and found, "not decomposed… eyes filled with fresh blood, which also flowed from his nose mouth and ears, soiling his shirt and funeral shroud… a stake was driven through his heart. But, as this was being performed… he gave a great shriek, and an enormous quantity of blood spurted from his body…" Louis XV and, according to Horace Walpole, George II were also quite convinced of the existence of vampires and "their banquets on the dead…" Vampirism as a myth fed as effectively off credulity as off blood and the exhortations to believe are an enduring feature of modern vampire tales.
Early scholarly works on vampirism, such as Dom Augustin Calmet's Treatise on the… Vampires of Hungary, were written in the hope that the danger of the "contagion" might be better appreciated. Frayling, of course, is faced with a very different audience. Modern cynicism provides a far less fertile ground for the germination of these myths and fancies. Van Helsing himself, the vampire hunter in Stoker's 1897 novel, makes a very astute point about fear feeding on innocence when he talks of Dracula: "This evil thing is rooted deep in all good… in soil barren of holy memories it cannot rest…" Frayling cannot really demand the same degree of terror from his modern readers, but his desire to see vampirism taken seriously gives his book an old-fashioned feel.
The anthology contains a number of unfamiliar extracts, some of which still have a remarkable potency. Eliza Linton's 1872 The Fate of Madame Cabanal deserves particular mention. Conspicuous for containing nothing more than the suggestion of a vampire, it is a genuinely unsettling tale of popular delusion in the manner of Jean Tuele's Eat Him if You Like. It is unfortunate, though, that Frayling focuses so much of his attention on Dracula. Viewed alongside the rest of the work, the weakness of Stoker's writing does tell.
Frayling has declared himself ardently opposed to cultural snobbery and hierarchy of any kind, and this noble attitude has led to the reinvigoration of much of the excellent material in this book, but it is folly to pretend that Dracula does not carry with it traces of Stoker's lonely summer holiday research in the "Whitby Museum, Subscription Library and Warm Bathing Establishment". It is telling that his early notes had as protagonist the rather unsubtle 'Count Wampyr'. Similarly, early titles included 'The Undead' and, rather wonderfully, 'The Dead-Undead'.
Moreover, perhaps sadly, Dracula is now too familiar to be truly frightening. Frayling's introduction points to Edmund Burke's assertion that, "to make anything very terrible, obscurity in general seems to be necessary…". Now, the better known vampires are entertainers - the absurdly glossy Edward Cullen of the popular Twilight series has hidden his fangs and, in the movies at least, drives a Volvo. The great joy of this book is discovering the darker past of his antecedents, real monsters who can still induce that tingle in the flesh with, in Jonathan Harker's words, "powers of their own which mere 'modernity' cannot kill".