A Fascination With Vampires

So we were strolling through the Museum Of London. We had gone through it with a fine toothcomb, top to bottom, and we were nearly at its conclusion, and I saw a reconstructed parade of old shops and shot towards it.

And realised my husband was not there.

He hung back, next to a set of old theatre posters.

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“What do you notice about these?” he asked, with the air of a magician undertaking the great reveal.

I stared blankly at it: a poster for an opera at The Theatre Royal for a lurid dramatic concoction called “Skeleton Lover. “No, I can’t see anything unusual,” I said slowly. Scanning, I caught the subtitle: “The condign punishment of a Transylvanian Necromancer.”

“Look at the date.”

And then my eyes widened. The date was July 21st, 1830.

And there was I, thinking that the preoccupation with vampires started in 1897 with Bram Stoker’s Count.

Silly me. Of course not: lift the veil and you will see it began with one of the great poet-Lotharios, Lord Byron.

A well-travelled man, Byron’s Grand Tour of 1809 and 1810 took in Athens. There he learnt of the Turkish custom of throwing adulteresses to their death in water, and wove a fantastical tale which introduced us to another of his finds: the vampire. His hero,  lover of a wronged woman thrown to her death as an adulteress, stood to be condemned to become a vampire because he had killed her accuser. He would be compelled to kill those he loved by drinking their blood.

The Giaour sold fast and furiously. People loved vampires and the gothic.

That was in 1813.

In 1816, Byron spent a summer on the shores of Lake Geneva. He had chosen his companion well:  a brilliant physician, John William Polidori. And who should come to stay but Percy Bysshe Shelley and his fiancé, Mary Godwin.

It rained, incessantly. And they all set to reading fantastical novels, like Phantasmagoriana, the lurid tales of the dead written by Sarah Elizabeth Utterson. And before long, surrounded by each other and stranded by rain on the edge of that vast place, two of them spawned stories. Mary Godwin – later Shelley – wrote Frankenstein.

And Polidori wrote The Vampyre: a novel which feaured a most Byron-like Lord, Ruthven, who is partial to killing others by drinking their blood. It did not end happily: a dear relative of the hero is killed on her wedding night after agreeing to marry Ruthven.

It was published in 1819.

And  the world went vampire potty. Charles Nodier read Polidori, penned a  play about the blood-sucking undead and all Europe could talk about was vampires. Nikolai Gogol, Alexandre Dumas, Leo Tolstoy, Sheridan Le Fanu; they were all at it.

So our 1830 poster was well into a craze; an apetite for the undead.

How extraordinary Mr Stoker’s adaptation of the tale must be, then, to have created such a stir in view of all those predecessors! It was not an overnight success like its predecessors, though the critics loved it.

I can well see why. It shows us clearly how a most original mind can take the oldest, stalest of material and rework it into brilliance.

Clever Mr Stoker.

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28 thoughts on “A Fascination With Vampires

  1. Stoker was brilliant in the way he pulled his novel together. He used a lot of existing legends and brought them together in a nice package.

    Also, you probably had my 50,000th page view earlier today. You left a comment at about the time it would have come.

    Thanks 🙂

    1. I loved Stoker’s approach. It has the ring of high technology about it. And the way he creates random documents to lay the trail of the story. Just brilliant. And though it was published in 1897, so modern for its time.

    1. During my research I came across the fact that some of Byron’s poems of this gothic genre were called the Twilight poems, and somewhere in there I seem to remember a heroine called Bella. Must chase that one up…

  2. Hmmm… also the year of the first regularly schedule passenger railroad service in the US! December 25, 1830 to be specific. Here in Charleston.

    Wonder if there is a connection between trains and vampires?

    1. Now you’ve got me thinking, Michael. Of course, Dracula raced his enemies towards the sunset – he in a boat, they in a steam train. There’s the Richmond Vampire, the ghost of someone crushed in a train tunnel, but he doesn’t count as undead I think. Once again you send me off in a direction I never expected to take!

      1. And don’t forget that Charles Dickens received the injuries that would eventually lead to his death from a massive train wreck. Not sure how he figures in with vampires, but he certainly works with ghosts!

  3. Lord Byron issued a creative challenge that weekend. His friends wrote of Frankenstein, vampires, and the like. John William Polidori’s inspiration might have come from Lord Byron’s travels to Turkey where Byron could have learned of the legend of Vlad (Dracula) and his reign of terror.

    Fascinating discovery, Kate. Kudos to Phil for spotting it and sharing.

    1. No; its a little two dimensional, but it has captured hearts and minds with stories, and I am always grateful for people who do that, especially with teenagers. And as I said to Nancy, I have this hunch her plot is a reworking of some of the early vampire stuff in the 19th century. I need to look at that a bit more.

  4. Who would have thought it?
    Now perhaps I should direct my mighty genius to reworking the theme yet again to show the modern version of the vampire – the bloodsucking politician …

  5. If I were teaching literature now, I would rush this blog to class with me and read it to my students. Or maybe have them find it themselves. It would make a wonderful tie-in with the current craze. And if your husband came across anything about zombies…

  6. It was because of you that I started working through Stoker’s works, Kate. I’d not previously paid all that much attention, for some reason, although when I recently read Dracula I found some parts very familiar. So perhaps a long, long time ago I’d read portions. Thanks to Project Gutenberg I have all his works on my Kindle, and I intend to read more. I did have a time in my life when Vampires were very interesting to me. I’m from the original Dark Shadows teen era! Not exactly high literature, but fun. 🙂

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