June 24, 2011


Classic Vampire Stories

Edited by David Stuart Davies
256 pages, Wordsworth Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural

Review by Pat Black

One! Vampire short stories. Two! Vampire short stories. Three! Vampire stories... Ack ack ack! Etc.

Yes, apart from the Count in Sesame Street, high-profile vampires have been a fairly toothless lot in recent years. Although Anne Rice got the ball rolling for the fey, foppish undead – she should have been staked through the typewriter for her appalling rock concert scenes alone in The Vampire Lestat – one writer seems to get it in the neck more than any others.

Not to join in with the bullies (her books do get people reading, after all), but Stephenie Meyer’s bloodsuckers seem a little bit anaemic to me. They can walk in the daylight, they’re not really that evil and they hang around high schools for young virgins. And to think they put poor old Uncle Jeroboam away for less!

There doesn’t seem to be any terror about these beings, no actual horror. They’ve been turned into a fantasy trope rather than creatures of darkness; things to be adored, not feared. In not following the rules, it seems they’ve lost a little something. Maybe they have other non-canon problems, such as a chronic aversion to the letter A, like the registrar at Stephenie Meyer’s birth.

Anyway, this cracking collection takes us back to the heart of the vampire myth. There are some familiar pale faces lurking within its pages in Count Dracula and Carmilla, but there are also undiscovered vaults of horror waiting to be opened. Cobwebby ones, you know, with bats flying around and maybe some flickering torchlight, that kind of thing.

We start with Augustus Hare’s “The Vampire of Croglin Hall”, an English myth wherein a creature of the night feasts upon the blood of a young girl at a country house. So right away, we have the corruption of the innocent, and hints of the vampire as sexual predator. The house is real, they say – somewhere in Cumbria. One to look out for, if you’re ever in the Lake District, provided you happen to be wearing a massive crucifix.

The theme of the vampire as a plunderer of the innocent is continued through John Polidori’s “The Vampyre; a Tale”. This story’s narrator suffers the torment of seeing his family and lovers being taken away and snuffed out by the gentleman in the title, Lord Ruthven. He’s a wicked, seductive beast who worms his way into our hero’s confidence and wreaks havoc; a sociopath first, and a vampire second. I found the story very disturbing in its depiction of an impotent hero who can do nothing to stop this lustful creature from corrupting and then destroying everything he loves.

This tale is the first proper vampire story written in English, but it’s probably even more famous owing to its background. John Polidori was one of Lord Byron’s famous house guests in the Villa Diodati by the shores of Lake Geneva – Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley were the others – and it’s clear that “The Vampyre” of the story is a thinly-disguised sketch of Byron himself.

Polidori was apparently a prickly personality who had feelings of inferiority and jealousy over his more artistic companions, and he soon fell out with Byron. But if “The Vampyre” was intended as an act of literary revenge against the poet, then it failed. If anything, the personification as Lord Ruthven has helped to strengthen the cult of Byron. I ran into a Lord Ruthven reference recently in The Count of Monte Cristo, where Dumas’ titular hero is compared to the vampire - and by default Byron – thanks to his strange, nocturnal habits and mysterious motives.

A more cartoonish Ruthven type is to be found in an excerpt from Varney The Vampyre; Or, The Feast of Blood, by James Malcolm Rymer. Here, we get a slice of Victorian villainy, although only a thin one out of that mammoth penny dreadful serial. Again, we encounter a shadowy figure breaking into a house and ravishing a nightie-clad young girl. The sexual element of vampirism is unavoidable in this gaudy piece of pulp horror. One warning, though; this excerpt prints the conclusion to Varney’s story, so if you are intending to read the 1,000-pages-plus doorstep Wordsworth has published of the entire Varney saga, you might want to avoid this story.

Alexis Tolstoy – Leo’s brother – pops up next with “The Curse of the Vourdalak”. I had never heard of this one before, but I was chilled to the bone by its depiction of a luckless family based in a forest being picked off one by one by their dead grandfather – with his victims also returning as creatures of the night. This one veers away from the sexual side of the vampire myth, and instead focuses on the far more disturbing notion of those we trust seeking to cause us harm.

A stone-cold classic next – “Carmilla” by J. Sheridan Fanu. It concerns a pretty young guest who causes trouble at an Austrian castle by fastening herself to the daughter of the house. Soon, the daughter becomes sick, and dreams of being visited in the night by a creature which punctures her sometimes in the neck, and sometimes in the breast.

This story has its moments of supernatural horror and dread, but these are less striking than its overtly Sapphic scenes. There’s nothing too racy, but Carmilla is certainly enraptured by her young friend, and expresses a longing that they should be lovers as they cuddle up together in bed. The erotic nature of the story was captured again and again by Hammer Studios for some of their naughtier horror features, such as The Vampire Lovers.

That aside, there are many elements of this story which would greatly influence Bram Stoker’s Dracula, including the animalistic nature of the monster (she turns into a large black cat rather than a bat or wolf), the sense of deathlessness and sexual obsession with the young and beautiful, and even a crumbly old vampire hunter in a decidedly Van Helsing-esque mould who explains, hunts down, and stakes.

And, speak of the devil, it’s the main event next – an excerpt from the Muhammad Ali of vampire novels, Dracula. This fragment, entitled “Dracula and the Three Brides”, takes us through young solicitor Jonathan Harker’s first meeting with the count, and his eventual understanding that the master of Castle Dracula isn’t human. But, in the plus column, he also has a kinky encounter with the lord of the undead’s three babelicious ladies of the night.

It’s an extraordinary piece of work, containing some of the most iconic bits of Dracula: the classic line about “the children of the night”; the crackling erotic charge of the three undead women; no reflection in mirrors; fear of crosses; the uncanny powers of the vampire – and all in the perfect setting, Transylvania.

I’ll stick my neck out here and say that I don’t think you need to read much more of Dracula, a novel that becomes dull as a garden party in December once the Count arrives in England. But there’s one interesting issue that I didn’t notice before in reading this; the idea of vampirism as being the opposite of Roman Catholicism, rather than post-Reformation Christianity as a whole. Stoker, an Irishman, makes the distinction clear when a gypsy fixes a crucifix round Harker’s throat. The young English solicitor reveals his reluctance to wear the Christian symbol, and speaks of his distaste of the object as being something of “wicked idolatory”. And yet, it literally saves his neck later when he cuts himself shaving in front of Dracula.

Another very familiar creeper follows, F. Marion Crawford’s “For The Blood Is The Life”. I recently named this tale as one of the highest-ranked short stories of all time in our Horror World Cup. It’s a sublimely scary one about a mournful vampire pining for her lost love in rural Italy. There is an unsettling sense of the necrophiliac nature of the vampire myth, as a haunted young man visits the hidden grave of his betrothed to submit to her deadly embrace every night. And there’s even sympathy for the creature, consigned to her ghastly fate through simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time; cursed by the bloodlust of men, not monsters.

A change of pace next for Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s “Good Lady Ducayne”. It’s about a young English girl who agrees to be the companion of a strange old lady on the Italian Riviera. With nothing to do all day but laze in the sun, read novels and make friends with other ex-pats, it seems like young Bella has a dream job. But then she begins to fall ill, and learns that her predecessors in the role both died very young. This one was unusual in that it balances a predatory, cynical view of the world against the idealism and romance of youth, and there is a surprisingly tender love story at its heart.

MR James weighs in next with “An Episode of Cathedral History”, a story – recounted to a young man sent to examine church records by the local verger - of an ancient tomb disturbed in the grounds of a cathedral during its restoration. This is classic James, with its creepy churchyard, a young clerk getting mixed up with dark forces as well as a sense of the diabolical lurking in places supposedly divine. It also touches on a seldom-acknowledged fact: that although MR James is known as the master of the ghost story, the unpleasant things that creep around his tales could more accurately be described as demons, monsters or – in this story in particular – vampires. There’s no sexuality in the beast disinterred here, it’s simply a monster with malicious intent, something to be frightened of, and that’s all. MR James was the prototypical campfire story author, and you can tell that this story in particular was composed to give youngsters something to worry about after lights out.

Guy de Maupassant adds a bit of Gallic flair to proceedings with “The Horla”, the story of a bloke going slowly mad at the idea of an invisible entity stealing his soul while he sleeps. There’re a lot of things in the mix, here – it’s partly a doppelganger story, partly a psychological drama, and only a little bit of a folk-style vampire tale. There’s an ugly whiff of the old “is there a monster... or am I mad?” nonsense, which really cheeses me off, but the French locations add a little bit of extra colour to the collection as a whole. I was curious to note that this story was written when de Maupassant was nearing the end of his life, and suffering from syphilis – an infection of the blood, no less. Now there’s some irony.

Next, Edith Wharton pitches in with “Bewitched”, a confused tale set in New England in the 1800s. It’s got lots of atmosphere, and I loved the unpleasant prospects of the three men called to a snowbound house by a woman to help out her husband. He has been “bewitched” by the daughter of one of the trio; only problem being, she’s long dead. Curiously, this one took on the tones of a Southern Gothic towards the end, rather than a New England ghost story. Witches and vampires are also seen as one in the same, but Wharton’s tale is well worth a read for the unsettling atmosphere – and the uncanny bewitching, which we must take to mean necrophilia.

Rounding off the collection is “The Welcome Visitor”, a brief comedy from the editor in which two nice old ladies are delighted to receive a knock on the door from a young pizza delivery boy who will more than earn his commission during the night.

This is a fun collection, very in keeping with another Wordsworth anthology which we reviewed a while back, The Werewolf Pack. The publisher is putting out lots of rare and forgotten works under its Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural imprint; be sure to check them out.

(Insert creepy vampire jump-scare gag here.)

1 comment:

  1. Great review, even if you do bad-mouth my beloved "Dracula"! Will have to check this one out...