Welcome, as always, dear readers—although we were tempted to say: “Welcome to my house! Enter freely and of your own will!” This is what Dracula says to Jonathan Harker, soon to become the Count’s horrified prisoner in Bram Stoker’s (1847-1912)
1897 novel, Dracula,
which we taught this last term.
Although the novel is the most famous of vampire stories, and the most popular, never being out of print since that original publication, it is not the original vampire story in English. That honor appears to go to John Polidori (1795-1821),
who published The Vampyre in 1819.
The story behind this is well-known: Polidori was Lord Byron’s physician and was at the occasion when Shelley and Byron and their circle challenged each other to come up with a horror story. Mary Shelley (1797-1851),
with a little help from her husband, produced the first version of Frankenstein
in 1818. The Polidori, published the following year is a novella (a short novel) about a character called “Lord Ruthven”, who somehow returns from the dead and seems to appear and disappear in rather an odd fashion, as well as be involved in a mysterious murder (after which he disappears again). Although the novella includes a certain amount of travel in what was at that time an exotic locale, Asia Minor and Greece, both in the hands of the Ottoman Empire,
it is set in a contemporary world (c.1818) and London, amidst upper class society, which is depicted in conventional terms of social calls and gossip.
This turned out to be a popular story (in part because there was a rumor that “Lord Ruthven” was actually Lord Byron—and a second rumor that the novella itself was actually written by him) and, from that moment, “vampyre”—respelled as “vampire”– became a useful figure in English literature. (Here is a LINK if you’d like to read the story for yourself: https://gutenberg.org/files/6087/6087-h/6087-h.htm)
At least useful when it came to what were called “penny dreadfuls”, which were stories with sensational violence in them, produced cheaply for the mass market which increasing literacy in Victorian England, as well, as improvements in everything from paper production (from rag to wood pulp) to illustration, encouraged. In 1845-47, one of these, published in installments, was this–
The story of Sir Francis Varney, who was inflicted with vampirism as a kind of curse, it is set in the 18th century—sort of–but also in the 19th and scholars who have written about the text, which is, ultimately 876 double column pages long, have suggested that more than one author was involved in the long period of its initial serial publication, the two names associated with it being James Malcolm Rymer (1814-1884) and Thomas Peckett Prest (1810?-1859), both known for other popular thrillers. As you may guess, that confusion about time period is only one of a number of confusions in the plot, probably stemming from multiple authorship but perhaps more so from haste in writing—hack writers were commonly paid for volume, after all–as well as the disposable nature of the genre. (If you would like to struggle through this text, here’s a LINK: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14833/14833-h/14833-h.htm This is an edited version. You can see all three volumes of the ultimate publication at: https://web.archive.org/web/20080913024450/http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/PreVarn.html)
Of a higher quality was the next contender for prominence in vampire-lit: Sheridan le Fanu’s (1814-1873)
Carmilla, first published in serial form in 1871-72 in the magazine The Dark Blue, appearing the next year in a collection of short stories and novellas, In a Glass Darkly.
(This is the 1884 edition as, so far, we’ve been unable to locate an image of the 1872 original.)
Like the Polidori novella, Carmilla is set in the present (1871), in Styria, part of southeast Austria. The protagonist, Laura, is of English descent, but has lived her whole life abroad, in an ancient castle, perhaps like this one.
Without going into a plot summary (here’s the Wiki LINK if you’d like one: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carmilla), we would only add that:
- Carmilla is actually the Countess Mircalla, a 17th-century vampire, who preys on young women
- many elements, including: an ancient castle, Mircalla’s age, her ability to shift shapes, her feeding off young women, her death (stake through the heart, head cut off) foreshadow our last book, and the one with which we began, Dracula.
(Here’s a LINK to Carmilla: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/10007/10007-h/10007-h.htm, but, we would actually recommend that you try the whole collection: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks07/0700861h.html)
We entitled this posting “Real Fantasy” and what we meant by that was exactly what, as we’ve taught Stoker’s novel, we’ve seen to be a major feature of this novel. Our earlier stories here—at least the better ones—Polidori and Le Fanu, have taken place in their own present time, either the early 1800s or the 1870s, but, beyond a few details, their settings, barely sketched in, are like the proscenium arch of a theatre, a kind of frame for the story.
Dracula, set in the 1890s, does more with its own time, making the physical world of 1897 a major part of the book. One element of this is in the settings. In his research, Stoker had consulted Emily Gerard’s “Transylvanian Superstitions” (an article in The Nineteenth Century, Vol. 18, July-December, 1885) and The Land Beyond the Forest, published in 1888.
Gerard’s (1849-1905) husband had been an Austro-Hungarian officer stationed in Transylvania, where the opening chapters of the novel take place, and Stoker, while not plagiarizing, certainly leans heavily on her texts to help to provide vivid depictions of places where he had never been.
The next major location is the Victorian seaside resort of Whitby, on the northeast English coast.
Unlike his literary-based Transylvania, Stoker had actually spent part of the summer in his first English location in 1890, working in the local library and clearly making careful notes about the town, down to borrowing a name for a minor character from a tombstone in a local cemetery.
For his third major location, London, Stoker had lived and worked there for years and, just as in Whitby, he had kept his eyes open not only to the city, but to its outskirts, where he may have found the house upon which Dracula’s first habitation was based, in Purfleet, down the Thames from the city.
Beyond locations, we see so much of Victorian to late-Victorian technology:
- complex railroad networks—Jonathan Harker actually sees Dracula consulting one of the two major railway guides, Bradshaw
- the telegraph
3. the telephone
4. several items from the modern world of the office, including shorthand stenography
5. the dictaphone,
6. and the typewriter.
7. Beyond the office (we hope), the breech-loading, repeating rifle appears
8. and, though gas lighting is common in towns and cities still (although electric lighting was coming in)
9. there are battery-powered flashlights (called “electric torches” in England).
All of this, combined, gives a remarkable vividness to the text, placing the 15th-century Vlad Tepes
in an up-to-date context, where modern men of science must combine that modernity with ancient folk beliefs
to defeat an enemy far more imposing than Lord Ruthven, or Varney, or Countess Mircalla.
Thanks, as ever, for reading and, as ever,
If you don’t own a copy of Dracula, here’s the LINK to the 1897 American edition: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/345/345-h/345-h.htm
As this will be posted on 25 December, we want to wish all of our readers a happy holiday season and a prosperous new year, whatever faith you may follow!