The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature

The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature

by James B. Twitchell

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In his Preface to The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature, James Twitchell writes that he is not interested in the current generation of vampires, which he finds "rude, boring and hopelessly adolescent. However, they have not always been this way. In fact, a century ago they were often quite sophisticated, used by artists varied as Blake, Poe, Coleridge, the Brontes, Shelley, and Keats, to explain aspects of interpersonal relations. However vulgar the vampire has since become, it is important to remember that along with the Frankenstein monster, the vampire is one of the major mythic figures bequeathed to us by the English Romantics. Simply in terms of cultural influence and currency, the vampire is far more important than any other nineteenth-century archetypes; in fact, he is probably the most enduring and prolific mythic figure we have. This book traces the vampire out of folklore into serious art until he stabilizes early in this century into the character we all too easily recognize.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822398479
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 09/08/1987
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 232
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

James B. Twitchell is Alumni Professor of English at the University of Florida.

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The Living Dead

A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature

By James B. Twitchell

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1981 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-0789-1



"Rubbish, Watson, rubbish! What have we to do with walking corpses who can only be held in their grave by stakes driven through their hearts? It's pure lunacy."

"But surely" said I, "the vampire was not necessarily a dead man? A living person might have the habit. I have read, for example, of the old sucking the blood of the young in order to retain their youth."

"You are right, Watson. It mentions the legend in one of these references. But are we to give serious attention to such things? This agency stands flatfooted upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply." —Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire

Sherlock Holmes may have no time for vampires, but his friend Dr. Watson quite obviously does. As a matter of fact, Watson's mention of the "old sucking the blood of the young in order to retain their youth" hints that his knowledge may be extensive. For he knows that vampires are not always foamy-mouthed fiends with blood dripping from extended incisors, but rather can be participants in some ghastly process of energy transfer in which one partner gains vitality at the expense of another. Presumably the doctor knows this because he has done his reading, and it is that reading—not in the medical but in the fictional literature of the nineteenth century—that this book will examine.

While critical attention has been paid to other mythic figures in Romanticism such as Prometheus, Don Juan, and the Wandering Jew, the vampire has been overlooked. Partly this is because his current commercial popularity is almost invariably vulgar: vampire dolls, vampire teeth, vampire cartoons, vampire costumes, and "vitamin enriched" vampire cereal (Count Chocula), to say nothing of a spate of vampire television shows, movies, and comic books, have made him more a subject of parody than of serious study. However, the contemporary moon-faced, sunken-eyed, cadaverous vampire licking his chops at the sight of an unprotected virgin is as far removed from his Romantic lineaments as is the Frankenstein monster with bolts through his forehead and huge stitches down his cheeks from the creature Mary Shelley created.

Ironically, the vampire has also been overlooked because most of the early criticism, while often perceptive, was decidedly eccentric. Here is a case of iatrogenic criticism, for the doctor/critic has often done his subject more harm than good, causing more confusion than clarification. The three prominent early critics of the vampire, all writing in the 1920s, were D. H. Lawrence, Montague Summers, and Mario Praz, and each had a profound influence on the shape of criticism to come. Lawrence's comments on Poe in Studies in Classic American Literature were rhapsodic about the vampire myth's ability to explain neurotic love. In The Vampire: His Kith and Kin, Montague Summers, a controversial Jesuit, was critically hampered by his own literal belief in vampires, which caused many problems, not the least of which was his mistaking a popular "penny-dreadful" for a scholarly dissertation on vampires; while Praz, in The Romantic Agony, was overly concerned with making the vampire fit into a DeSadean interpretation of Romanticism. Although these works often sparkle with brilliant insight, they more often illuminate the critic than the vampire. The situation is now changing, as there have been in the last decade a number of book-length studies of the vampire myth, but there is still no extended appraisal of the vampire in literature.

What Summers neglected and what Lawrence and Praz overstated was the psychological use of this mythic figure as an analogy to explain human interactions. For the vampire in Romanticism had a more profound use than making the reader's skin crawl or showing how daring the artist could be. Admittedly, writing schauer-romans exploiting gothic sensibility was fashionable, and, admittedly, the vampire story was an aberration of Romantic eroticism, as Praz implies, but the myth was also often used in serious attempts to express various human relationships, relationships that the artist himself had with family, with friends, with lovers, and even with art itself. In the works of such artists as Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, Stoker, Wilde, Poe, and Lawrence the vampire was variously used to personify the forces of maternal attraction/repulsion (Coleridge's Christabel), incest (Bryon's Manfred), oppressive paternalism (Shelley's Cenci), adolescent love (Keats's Porphyro), avaricious love (Poe's Morella and Berenice), the struggle for power (E. Brontë's Heathcliff), sexual suppression (C. Brontë's Bertha Rochester), homosexual attraction (LeFanu's Carmilla), repressed sexuality (Stoker's Dracula), female domination (D. H. Lawrence's Brangwen women), and, most Romantic of all, the artist himself exchanging energy with aspects of his art (Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, Poe's artist in The Oval Portrait, Wordsworth's Leech Gatherer, Wilde's Dorian Gray, and the narrator of James's The Sacred Fount).

As befalls any critical work that attempts to discuss English Romanticism, a major problem is organization. Chronological organization will not work, for the vampire is a mythic figure who rather than developing new sophistication and sharpness, becomes instead tedious and dull. Chronological organization thus only reverses critical expectations, for what begins in order ends in diffusion. Comparisons are also difficult because outside of the current cinema, comics, and cheap novels, the vampire myth is rarely used twice for the same pupose. Definitions are also problematic, for the artists freely altered the myth to support artistic ends. So I have organized this work first around male and female vampires in the poetry, then chronologically as the vampire figures in the novel, and finally around the various attempts to use the vampiric analogy to describe the process of artistic creation. I then conclude with a brief summary of twentieth-century adaptations of the myth, detailing its use in D. H. Lawrences middle novels. I regret that this organization often resembles circus elephants on parade, but, alas, there is not much interconnection between the works. This in itself may tell us something important about the Romantic "movement."

I will start with the female vampire, or lamia, not out of any Victorian deference but rather because here are the least sophisticated adaptations: Coleridge's Geraldine, Keats's Lamia, and La Belle Dame sans Merci, Charlotte Brontë's Bertha Rochester, and Poe's Ligeia and Morella have all been recognized and accepted in criticism as actually or potentially destructive females who have vampiric tendencies. The adaptation is not so clear with the male vampire in poetry, however, for here Keats's Porphyro, Byron's Manfred, and Shelley's Cenci are all assertive, facinorous, and in varying degrees demonic, but are they really vampires? Their demonism is more complicated than that of their fictional sisters, and vampirism may be only one of a number of metaphors used to describe them. To make organizational matters still worse, after the first twenty years or so of the nineteenth century, the vampire rather abruptly ceased to be a subject of poetry and instead found a temporary home in the stage melodrama before finding a permanent place in the novel. By the 1840s poetry had returned to more decorous subjects, allowing the novel to absorb what was left of the gothic spirit. The first vampire stories, Byron's "Fragment" and John Polidori's The Vampyre (1819), introduced the demon to the worn-out Gothic novel, and in three decades the vampire had become a stock character to be exploited without mercy in Thomas Pecket Prest's Varney the Vampyre. Then Emily Brontë resuscitated the vampire in the poetic characterization of Heathcliff while her sister was doing the same with Bertha Rochester. For Heathcliff (at least according to Nelly Dean) acts as if he were a vampire, devouring both Earnshaws and Lintons for his own vivification, while Bertha has to be sequestered in the attic lest her libidinal desires destroy the men-folk. By using the vampire mythopoetically, the Brontës showed how powerful an analogy for aberrant energy transfer the vampire could be, and so set the temper for two later masterful prose treatments of the vampire: Sheridan LeFanu's Carmilla and Bram Stoker's Dracula. These two popular but critically neglected works attempted to explore the sexually explosive and ambivalent nature of the myth and are not only thrilling stories but sophisticated psychological studies as well. They also introduced what has become a dominant theme in twentieth-century vampire lore—the vampire as the "love-them-and-destroy-them" adolescent male fantasy.

This study then concludes with what I consider the most important use of the vampire legend—the adaptation of the myth to explain the process of artistic creation. Here there is no set use of the story, rather a welter of varying interpretations. In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner the myth is used to explain the relationship between the teller of the tale (the Ancient Mariner) and the listener (the Wedding Guest); in Wordsworth's The Leech Gatherer (revised and retitled Resolution and Independence in 1802) it explains the relationship between the "real" poet (the Leech Gatherer) and the poet manqué (the speaker); in Poe's The Oval Portrait it illustrates the energy transfer between the creator (the painter) and the object of art (the sitter); in Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray it is used to show the destructive nature of Realistic art; and in Henry James's The Sacred Fount it elucidates the interaction between artist (the narrator) and his illusionary "reality." It is in the final part of this study that we see what the other Romantic adaptations of the myth were moving toward—the coupling of human relationships, the artist himself now at the center, with the stuff of common folklore. Perhaps the best place to start, then, is with that folklore, for the Romantics did not create this beast ah ovo, but rather reshaped him from an already healthy body of lore.

The Vampire in Folklore

If ever there was in the world a warranted and proven history, it is that of vampires: nothing is lacking, official reports, testimonials of persons of standing, of surgeons, of clergymen, of judges; the judicial evidence is all embracing.

—Jean Jacques Rousseau, "Letter to The Archbishop of Paris"

Before the nineteenth century the vampire seems to have only folkloric existence—an existence as historically old as it was culturally varied. For the vampire is truly ancient. Long before Christianity his presence was imagined among the peoples of coastal Egypt, in the Himalayan recesses of north India, and on the steppes of Russia. The proliferation of names gives some indication of mythic currency: called "Vurdalak" in Russia, "Vampyr" or "Oupir" in East Europe, "Ch'ing Shih" in China, "Lamia" in ancient Greece, the vampire was part of almost every Eurasian culture. As Bram Stokers fictional professor Van Helsing says in broken English about Dracula:

He is known everywhere that men have been. In old Greece, in old Rome; he flourish in Germany all over, in France, in India, even in the Chernesese; and in China, so far from us in all ways, there even he is, and the peoples fear him at this day. He have follow the wake of the berserker Icelander, the devil-begotten Hun, the Slav, the Saxon, the Magyar.

And a nonfictional professor, Devendra P. Varma, has traced him into the Himalayas, where, Varma contends, the proto-vampire first proliferated through a host of different guises: the "Kali" or blood-drinking mother goddess; the "Yama" or the Tibetan lord of Death; the Mongolian God of Time afloat on an ocean of blood. From these highlands the vampire descended into the low countries, carried in the myths of the Huns and the Magyars into Eastern Europe, then into Greece, and finally into the Arabian and African cultures. All these strains contributed to the legend, with each new civilization and each new generation refashioning and recreating the vampire until he emerges as the Western monster we recognize today: a demonic spirit in a human body who nocturnally attacks the living, a destroyer of others, a preserver of himself.

From the few accounts we have it appears that blood-sucking monsters reached England relatively late, perhaps by the eighth century; the actual word "vampire" entered English writing much later, perhaps in the early eighteenth century. We know that there was a great wave of vampire mania in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1730s, and so it is probable that the word "vampire" then gained its currency. The vampire that the English inherited, a mixture of Slavic, Scandinavian, and Greek stock, soon had acquired quite precise characteristics. Although the first citation (1734) carried in the Oxford English Dictionary describes him as "a ghost who leaves his grave at night and sucks the blood from the living," he was already a good deal more complex.

Oddly enough, one can see this in a most unexpected source—the writings of Alexander Pope. In a letter written in February 1740 to Dr. William Oliver, Pope jokes about his own ill health, which he claims will surely lead to his "death" and "burial" in the Twickenham grotto:

Since his burial (at Twitnam) he [Pope] has been seen some times in Mines and Caverns & been very troublesome to those who dig Marbles & Minerals. If ever he has walk'd above ground, He has been (like the Vampires in Germany) such a terror to all sober & innocent people, that many wish a stake were drove thro' him to keep him quiet in his Grave.

Pope's wit shows more than passing knowledge of this nocturnal fiend, for not only does he know the proper methods of vampire disposal, but he also knows this creature is not to be taken seriously, at least in England. To the sophisticated Englishman, vampires were clearly a Continental concern. This was not the case for the unsophisticated Englishman, however. By the early eighteenth century the vampire had become a credible although not especially popular local fiend.

The English vampire by the end of the eighteenth century was not simply a ghost or a wraith but the devil's spirit which had possessed the body and trapped the soul of a dead sinner. In more precise terms, the vampire was an energumen—the devil's avatar, for although the human body was literally dead, the entrapped soul lived eternally under the devil's control. The vampire in English lore was therefore distinct from a ghoul, which was a living soulless body which ate corpses but did not drink blood. Also unlike the ghoul, which operated from external orders usually given by a sorcerer, the vampire obeyed internal commands. The vampire's body had not always been under the control of the devil; in fact, it had once belonged to a perfectly normal human who by some sin lost the protection of Christian guardianship, thereby allowing the devil admittance. This usually happened either because the sinner refused to obey religious law or was himself the victim of a vampire's attack. Since Dracula (1897), possession by attack has been understandably emphasized in the popular media, but previously the vampire population was thought to be primarily augmented by sinners, especially suicides.

It seems a terrible irony that the price paid for committing suicide was to make the self indestructible, for once the devil took control, the soul could never escape to an after-life until the demon was demolished. The best the bereaved family could do was to bury the corpse at a country crossroads, hoping that the sign of the cross would deter the devil. To make matters worse for the family, it was thought that the vampire's first victims would be his closest friends and relations. It is in this context that Victor Frankenstein compares his monster to "my own vampire ... forced to destroy all that was dear to me" (volume 1, chapter 6). Little wonder then that when Sophia Western in Tom Jones (1749) claims she would rather kill herself than marry Blifll she is easily dissuaded by Mrs. Honour's recounting the folklore:

Let me beseech your La'ship not to suffer such wicked Thoughts to come into your head. O lud, to be sure I tremble every Inch of me. Dear Ma'am, consider—that to be denied Christian burial, and to have your Corpse buried in the Highway, and a Stake drove through you, as Farmer Halfpenny was served at Ox-Cross, and, to be sure, his ghost hath walked there ever since; for several People have seen him. To be sure it can be nothing but the Devil which can put such wicked Thoughts into the Head of any body; for certainly it is less wicked to hurt all the World than one's own dear Self, and so I have heard said by more Parsons than one.(book 7, chapter 7)

A hundred years later Heathcliff, for his own vampiric reasons, wants Hinley Earnshaw's body "buried at the crossroads without ceremony of any kind" (chapter 17). The legal system reflected these concerns. In the early nineteenth century laws were passed in England which stated that the body of a suicide could only be interred between 9 p.m. and midnight, while a further law made it illegal to dig up the body of a suspected suicide in order to drive a stake through the heart. These laws were finally repealed in the 1880s, but they give some indication of the commonly believed link between the vampire and the suicide.


Excerpted from The Living Dead by James B. Twitchell. Copyright © 1981 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

1. Introduction 3

2. The Female Vampire 39

3. The Male Vampire in Poetry 74

4. The Vampire in Prose 103

5. The Artist as Vampire 142

Epilogue: D. H. Lawrence and the Modern Vampire 192

Appendix: Varney the Vampyre 207

Index 215

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