Blood Sisters_ Vampire Stories by Women - Paula Guran
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There are many great reference books and essays about vampire literature. This is not one of them. It’s only an extremely brief, overly simplistic, and far from complete history of vampire fiction that is (meaning no disrespect to the innumerable fine and hugely important male authors of such fiction) intentionally shaped to highlight women’s authorial role in such. It is based, in part, on the introduction to Vampires: The Recent Undead (Prime Books, 2011), an anthology I edited that focused on short vampire fiction published 2000–2010. (You can read the entire essay from which I am recycling some bits here at paulaguran.com/vampires-the-recent-undead-intro.)
The idea of the vampire has probably been around since humanity first began to ponder death. In Western culture the vampire has been a pervasive icon for more than two centuries now, but the image of the vampire as something other than a disgusting reanimated corpse was profoundly reshaped in the early nineteenth century by a group of British aristocrats.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Percy Shelley, Matthew Lewis, Lord Byron, and Byron’s physician, Dr. John Polidori, decided to amuse themselves one damp summer 1816 evening in a villa on Lake Geneva by writing ghost stories. Mary Godwin (who later married Shelley) created a modern myth (and science fiction) with Frankenstein, or Prometheus Unbound. Polidori picked up a fragment of vampire fiction written by Byron on that fateful night and eventually produced a novelette based on it: “The Vampyre.” It featured the charismatic Lord Ruthven: a seductive refined noble as well as a blood-sucking monster who preyed on others. Ruthven was obviously based on the already notorious “bad boy” Byron.
“The Vampyre” became wildly popular, particularly in Germany and France. The theatres of Paris were filled by the early 1820s with vampire-themed plays. Some of these returned to England in translated form. As for fiction: “The Vampyre,” Brian Stableford has written, was the “most widely read vampire story of its era … To say that it was influential is something of an understatement; there was probably no one in England or France who attempted to write a vampire story in the nineteenth century who was not familiar with it, one way or another.”
Polidori’s story was certainly the inspiration for the serialized “penny dreadful” Varney the Vampire or, The Feast of Blood (1845-47) by (most likely) James Malcolm Rhymer. Varney appealed to the masses, but was of even less literary merit than the short story to which it owed so much.
It took Sheridan le Fanu to craft a true literary gem with his novella “Carmilla,” published in 1872. The tale of a lonely girl and a beautiful aristocratic female vampire in an isolated castle also brought steamy sub-textual lesbian sexuality into the vampire mythos.
But it was Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897) that became the basis of modern vampire lore: Dracula was a vampire “king” of indefinite lifespan who could not be seen in mirrors, had an affinity to bats and aversions to crucifixes and garlic. He had superhuman strength, could shapeshift and control human minds. Stoker’s vampires needed their native soil and the best way to kill one was with a stake through the heart followed by decapitation. There were humans who, like Abraham Van Helsing, hunted vampires … etc.
Of course, Dracula did not leap solely from Stoker’s imagination to the page, nor did le Fanu’s “Carmilla” or Polidori’s earlier vampire. Their influences were many, but all were also products of the Gothic genre—the first truly popular literature … and the first genre to be written mostly by women.
The Gothic mode originated with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764). Walpole, at first, published the novel as the translation of a medieval manuscript. This deception made the work critically acceptable. Once Walpole admitted authorship, however, the literati generally spurned it as superstitious romantic trash.
Clara Reeve made the Gothic somewhat more tolerable to the pundits by introducing eighteenth-century “realism” and downplaying the more fantastic elements used by Walpole in her novel The Old English Barron (1798).
Ann Radcliffe, used the technique of the “explained supernatural”—all sorts of scary uncanny things might occur, but most were ultimately revealed to have natural causes (rather like Scooby-Doo plots)—to write Gothic novels. With her fourth work, Radcliffe produced the first bestselling novel: The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794).
As with popular novels today, a flood of imitative novels followed and most of them were written by women. These may not have been vampiric, or even very good, but they still bit