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Vampire Mythos

The Changing Face of Undeath

by David Carroll

Originally appeared in Burnt Toast#9, 1991. Revised 2002.

He was a Jack-in-the-box. Sunset up, sunrise down. And repeat, forever and forever. He was a thing in a box in a cold deep cellar. He was a container for red wines. There was no label on him, but there were little drops of red liquor upon his sleeping lips. He was the contents of a mahogany box, in a cellar of webs and upside-down things hooked to the ceilings. He lived in a land of dripping midnight waters and soft grey web. He was a white hand, a rouged mouth, a glass eye, a set of white teeth and a cold heart. He was a pedestrian who walked the nights. He was a sleeper with original ideas as to hours. He was a leaf, a pelt, a flame, a wing. He was Robert Warram, dead these hundred of years.
The Undead Die
E. Everett Evans

OK, so what the hell is a vampire, anyway?

Good question, and it really depends who you ask. Take The Claws of Axos, a Doctor Who adventure about an alien force coming to Earth to suck it dry of life. The original title for this story was Vampire from Space, and the analogy is fairly obvious. Similarly titled is Colin Wilson's The Space Vampires, also about alien invaders, this time 'sucking the body's energy with a kiss of death' and, incidentally, both female and naked (better known is Lifeforce, the movie based on the novel).

I could go on for ages about these 'pseudo-vampires', and indeed Ellen Datlow has collected an anthology on the very subject: The Blood is Not Enough. If you want a good in-depth look at the relationship between sentient parasite and prey I could recommend Jacqueline Lichtenberg's Sime/Gen series. And if that's still not enough Stephen King's wonderful novella Apt Pupil was once described by a friend of mine as 'a vampire story without vampires'.

But these don't really interest me, at least no more than based on individual merit. We're talking about vampires here, creatures of the night who prey on the blood of the living. Beings who can pass among us unnoticed, but hold our death, or worse, at their whim.

So, what is a vampire, and how has it changed through the centuries?

I'm glad you asked.

The myth has been round for quite a while, certainly in ancient Greek and Rome, and ranging from Assyria to India to Malaya. The legends are diverse, though all involve humans returning from the dead, needing fresh blood to survive. Unsurprisingly, the most important source for 'our' vampire is central Europe.

There are several possibilities which can account for such a widespread myth. Along with the related condition of lycanthropy, the cumulative effect of several diseases such as porphyria may be the answer. This genetic liver affliction affects the biosynthesis of blood and can affect its victim in such ways as severe reactions to sunlight, the receding of the gums and lips to create a fang-like effect, and possibly even extensive hair growth. Not only this, but the only possible way of relieving the problem back then was the ingestion of large amounts of blood, which can be absorbed into the bloodstream through the stomach wall and replace the victim's depleted heme supplies (just how the afflicted actually knows that this will work is a different matter, but there's at least one modern case documented). Another explanation is the possibly large number of premature burials that took place due to unreliable medical practices. If you find yourself awake in a coffin, and actually manage to get out, you're not going to stroll in and say 'Hi Honey, I'm home'. You're going to believe yourself to be a vampire and perpetrate the myth.

But even this isn't strictly a necessary cause. All that is really needed is a large and widespread dose of fear, superstition and bloodshed, and voilà, one creature of the night.

What is most interesting, though, is the large amount of detail that has sprung up around the basic grain of truth, and while you may believe that a vampire has a fairly standard set of characteristics, you may be surprised at the sheer volume of the traditional monster's idiosyncrasies.

The basic idea is that the vampire is the animated corpse of a human returned to prey on his former race, a body not constrained by the ravages of time as we are. Such a condition is 'passed on' from a vampire to his prey and thus becomes doubly feared. It is up to the individual source whether or not such contamination is automatic or requires a further step, usually the drinking of the vampire's own blood by the victim. But whatever the case, the 'parent' vampire must be killed before his 'child's' death to prevent the metamorphosis. Once the change is permanent there is only one cure -- a stake through the heart, perhaps followed by decapitation and the stuffing of garlic or the host into the vampire's mouth to make it permanent (it's always embarrassing to pick up a wooden stake 'just in case' and later realise you've freed the monster by this very act). At this point time catches up with the body, any cheated decay occurs incredibly fast, perhaps dissolving the remains into constituent dust. And the trapped and tormented soul is freed of its earthly constraints, now able to find heaven or hell as is its deserve.

You know all this, of course.

What else do we know? Vampires are affected, and finally killed, by sunlight, often trapping them in their coffins from sun-up till sun-down (though it is rarely the actual coffin that provides the protection, it seems any old box will do as long as it also contains a portion of the vampire's 'native soil'). Garlic affects them, as do crucifixes and other sacred items such as holy water. They cannot cross running water under their own power, though they may be carried across. They will not enter a home unless invited by the real owner. They cast no reflection or shadow, and indeed are repelled by mirrors. They can become a wolf, bat or mist at will.

Is that it? Nope. Depending once again on your source a vampire may also be affected by dog roses, may not pass through cross-roads, is affected by black dogs with white patches round the eyes, and can be detected by the bucking of a white horse being led over its grave. They can control the weather (perhaps only to the extent of summoning wind and rain), and the best material to stake them with is aspen, though wild hawthorn and whitethorn work almost as well. To prevent a vampire returning to its tomb a good solution is to sprinkle large amounts of mustard seeds outside. The vampire, constrained to count every last seed before he passes, is soon caught by the dawn and perishes.

There's more, but that will do for now.

All this gives writers a great deal of freedom as different aspects can be used, ignored or changed, depending on the need. A good example is from The Lost Boys, where the 'standard' fact that a vampire must be invited to enter a home was changed so as the vampire may enter freely, but you lose all power to affect him once invited. When setting up the rules for vampires in the Buffy TV show, it came down to budget (no flying, for a start), but they have also managed to do some interesting things with the whole invite-thing.

This standard is simply the way things are or, more precisely, the way things were. Because in 1954 it all changed. Not overnight, for the cinema especially has proved resilient against disturbing the status quo. This essay is mostly about that change, and the effects it has had, but let's look at some history first.

The first vampire to appear in English fiction seems to be from Johann Tieck's 1800 story Wake Not the Dead, but the genre only became popular with the publication of Dr John Polidori's The Vampyre in 1819. This novel centred round one Lord Rutven, the vampire of the title, and was incredibly popular in its day, perhaps because the monster was a thinly disguised caricature of Lord Byron. As you may be aware, this book is one of the results of that evening, by the lake in Switzerland from which Frankenstein also came.

Quite some time later, 1847 to be precise, the next most influential figure came along, Varney. Told in 108 episodes, totalling over eight hundred pages, Varney the Vampire, or the Feast of Blood satisfied perfectly the public's desire for the macabre and was a great success. Written anonymously, it was long thought that the tale was penned by one Thomas Pecket Prest, though in the 1970s new evidence was revealed to show the author was almost certainly James Malcolm Rymer. At the end of this epic Varney committed suicide by throwing himself into a volcano (for some more info on Varney's life and times see my article on Penny Bloods).

There were other serials of course, for example The Vampire Demon; Or, The Martyred Virgins in 1849, and a great many short stories written on the subject, many of which are certainly lost. The most influential is probably Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla (1872), and the writing of them was a tradition passed on to the budding American literary scene in the new century.

But preceding the century by some three years was, of course, Bram Stoker's Dracula.

As a novel Dracula was perhaps most successful in its timing, making it certain material for use in the fledgling film industry. But whatever the reason (and there are many people who consider it badly written) it is the most important book in the field. Nor have its adaptations been confined to the cinema. I have seen a stage production (the best bit was when Dracula smashed a mirror by throwing a bottle the width of the stage), heard the BBC radio play (the scene where they stake Lucy Westenra was brilliant) and even own the Ladybird version (this is not a joke).

Also, Dracula is, theoretically at least, the standard from which vampire mythos is taken. This isn't quite true, the most obvious discrepancy is that the Count could walk round in full sunlight without ill-effect, though it implied strongly his powers such as shape-shifting and the like only worked after dark. Another lesser known fact from the novel is that Dracula had white hair and a long moustache; though his hair blackened, and he become younger-looking, once he'd spent a few weeks in London (Apple comic's adaptation and Hilderbrant's illustrated version are two of the rare examples which portray Dracula as written).

Bram Stoker's influences in creating his novel have been much discussed, though naturally the legend of Vlad the Impaler is among the most significant. As an example, Michael Parry argues that Stoker wouldn't have had ready access to Varney, but is more likely to have read Carmilla and a rather more obscure work called The Mysterious Stranger, author unknown.

After Dracula things slowed down a little, and indeed I have record of only one novel written between 1897 and 1954 -- Bram Stoker's The Lady of the Shroud in 1908. It was his second foray into the field (though The Lair of the White Worm had many similar themes) and, like White Worm, was a truly bad book. (Well, I've read White Worm, but only managed to get two chapters into Lady of the Shroud before giving up.)

Short stories continued being written, of course, and Kyla's article details the genre's excursion into movieland but, really, as a genre to be taken seriously it had died somewhat (snobbish as that statement might seem). Now the original mythos is a very good one, and there is enough latent sexuality and genuinely macabre ideas to easily explain the genre's mass appeal, but most of what could be done with it had been done.

The standard characteristics are even internally consistent, and if you think about it we can come up with a fairly decent theory that links it all together. Consider that light passes through a vampire (the trick with the mirror and, interestingly, an actual scene in Dracula where Jonathan Harker sees a strong light unimpeded by the Count's body). It is able to change its physical appearance, if only to a limited number of forms, including mist. It can only be killed by injury to a specific part of the body.

Doesn't this suggest a non-corporal body? Something that only seems, to us, to be a physically walking corpse. Maybe, maybe not.

More importantly is the aspect of a vampire's will. He cannot pass where we don't want him to. If we believe ourselves Masters of our house he cannot enter unless invited. If we believe strongly in the power of a crucifix to ward, or holy water to harm, it will happen. We can beat a vampire, but only if we are physically, and mentally, strong. And if we are weak... well, it could easily be that the vampire is our weakness given external strength (with the surface appeal that has of allaying the blame somewhat).

This makes the vampire a more personal villain then just about any other kind and that is, perhaps even more than sex, the reason for its success.

So, you ask. Why can't vampires cross running water? Traditionally running water is pure, and cannot hold magic. But when we come to mustard seeds I'm immediately in trouble (I have heard one theory -- and I'll just say Freud has a lot to answer for).

Despite the fact that this discorporal theory is at odds with the strong idea of a walking corpse, it is fairly appealing to me, and I think if I was ever to write a vampire novel that would be the tack I'd take, because to the best of my knowledge no-one else has used it.

That is something that might have happened, based on the old ideas, but something else happened instead. In 1954 Richard Matheson released his novel I Am Legend, and that was the pivotal point of change.

From then on, vampires were treated as real, and the difference is astounding.

By real I don't necessarily mean non-fantastic, though Matheson was certainly the first to attempt a rigorous scientific explanation for vampirism. In his attempt to survive in a world where he is the only remaining human, Matheson's hero, Robert Neville, studies the vampire to determine why the stake, the crucifix, garlic, sun-light and the like are so effective. The answer is partly attributable to a germ he christens Vampiris, finally able to affect an overwhelming percentage of the population after a world-spanning series of dust-storms. The few symptoms not able to be pinned down physically, the crucifix and such, were a sort of mass psychosis -- to the extent certain of the vampires would climb lamp-posts and jump off, believing themselves capable of turning into bats.

Perhaps it isn't the most credible theory possible, but given Matheson's skill as a story-teller it reads as more than plausible (and vampire mythos aside, it's a fantastic book).

That was the first vampire novel in forty-eight years, and the last for twenty-one. The only oasis in a long-stretching desert. But Matheson's significance is perhaps greater in that he must have been read by many, if not all, of those coming later on, and at a youngish age at that. Stephen King is quoted as saying:

"Richard Matheson is the guy who taught me what I'm doing. When I read I Am Legend I realised that horror... could appear in the suburbs, on the street, or even in the house next door."
And this quote is particularly apt, because in 1975 King released his second novel, 'salem's Lot, the next in our list.

At the tender age of fifteen I read 'salem's Lot and was scared shitless. It has remained the only book ever to do that to me. This may explain a great deal.

Admittedly, it isn't that good a vampire novel, in fact its actual ideas about vampirism are, in hindsight, badly handled. The traditions are introduced without -- seemingly -- much thought to how they affect the creature's survival in the 'real world' that King evokes so well.

What 'salem's Lot did do is open the flood-gates, make the vampire fashionable again. It probably wasn't an influence on Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire which turned up only a year later, though may have made publication easier. Thereafter there was a whole slew of novels that, with various trends (vampire hunters are big at the moment), show no signs of abating. And not only is there quantity, but quality as well, even if you have to sift a lot more carefully.

I said the pivotal point was in 1954 when the vampire became real. This credibility could be scientific, but not necessarily. The other great leap is in vampires with personalities (or, perhaps more accurately, personalities that weren't simply a reflection of aristocratic traits). Buffy encompasses this transition, showing vampires as soulless monsters that can be staked without remorse, a stance somewhat contradicted by the sheer charisma of Spike and Dru.

So let's look at some individual novels where the authors are using a bit of real-world logic and characterisation to get their point across. Tanith Lee's Sabella is one of my favourites. It's a deliberate mix of style and genre, a horror story in a Science Fiction setting, but its strength is in its characters.

Closer to home, Brian Stableford is an interesting example. He decided that if vampires did exist, they wouldn't spend their time skulking round half ruined castles, but exert their power to rule the planet. The result is his alternate-history novel Empire of Fear. Another, more intricate alternate history starts in Kim Newman's Anno Dracula, in which Dracula comes to London and marries Queen Victoria. Under the Fang, an anthology edited by Robert R McCammon, shows a variety of stories with the same basic idea.

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's writing also embeds her vampires in the real world. The Chronicles of Saint Germain follow the extensive travels of le Comte de Saint Germain, who despite his need for blood is usually a great deal more civilised then the humans around him. Saint Germain is an actual figure, well known in France in the eighteenth century. This is a man who claimed to be three thousand years old, and able to grow his own diamonds. What we do know about him is that he always wore black or white, never ate or drank in public, could speak at least twelve languages, and several sources, including documents signed by his own hand, suggest that his apparent death in 1786 never happened. He evidently worked as a spy for several European governments, and Frederick the Great called him 'the man who does not die'.

Yarbro took the man and his setting and made them into a vampire novel, then in subsequent books placed the same character in various times and settings, ranging from Ancient Babylon to Nazi Germany.

And while we're quoting huge slabs out of Yarbro's notes from her own novel, it is interesting to see her own approach to vampire mythology. She concluded that blood provides physical sustenance only in a very limited manner, if at all, and is far more important for its intimacy with the life of the victim. 'Thus, it is not the blood itself, but the act of taking it that gives the vampire nourishment.'

But there are three main works that really continue Matheson's idea of combining the modern (scientific) world with myth: Whitley Strieber's The Hunger, Dan Simmon's Children of the Night and the BBC mini-series Ultraviolet.

The Hunger is about Miriam, a beautiful and deadly creature, thousands of years old. In that time she has had many human lovers -- people with whom she has shared the blood in her veins, granting perhaps a couple of centuries extra life. But, inevitably, each of her lovers decays, cheated time catches up, and their bodies, if not their minds, die.

This, then, is the story of John and Sarah, one Miriam's latest companion, the other a Doctor whose research may hold the key to human aging. And, of course, it is the story of Miriam, told both in the present and the past, and her quest to find someone to truly share eternity.

In a much noted move, Strieber refrained from using the word 'vampire' once in his novel, but it falls squarely within the genre. The science is also impressive, and a great deal of research has obviously gone into the work.

But not as much as Children of the Night. This uses the historical figure of Vlad Dracula, and combines it with state of the art work on retro-viruses, presenting the biological means for a dependence on blood. This time the doctor is Kate Newman (no relation to Kim, presumably), a haematologist searching for a cure for AIDS, coming up against powerful social and political forces that have had centuries to protect themselves. As Dracula himself says, the 20th century knows nothing about the destructive potential of war. I was less satisfied with the structure of this novel than some of the other examples I've used here, but the research into Dracula's life and the medical basis for vampirism are fascinating (my Vlad Dracula article contains more info on the novel, if you are interested).

Ultraviolet is a little different. It again has a (female) doctor studying the physical processes of the undead, although this time she is part of a government team set up to hunt and destroy the 'Code V' phenomena. (Strangely enough, the doctor is played by a Susannah Harker, a descendant of Joseph Harker who Stoker's hero was allegedly based upon.) There is less hard science, but instead we get a solid look at some of the aspects of the myth that science usually passes over, such as the dissolution to dust -- and ability to reassemble from such a state. Garlic and sunlight are analysed and concentrated into their essential ingredients, as the narrative gleeful treats fantasy conventions with the gravitas of modern Brit drama. There is perhaps little of great originality in its study of vampirism, but the combination of those elements in such a well-executed package is great.

Of course, there are plenty of people who take one or two elements of the myth and do something fun with it, perhaps taking things to their logical conclusion. The sheer weight of the genre is going to give you that, along with the dross. I'm going to make special mention of David J Schow's story 'Bagged', but you're going to have to read it to find out why...

But the final example I'm going to give started back in '76, as already mentioned -- Anne Rice's The Vampire Chronicles. More then anybody else, Rice is credited for giving her vampires a life of their own. Without as much of a scientific base, she has taken the old myths and created something new and wonderful -- the story of gentle Louis, the brat prince Lestat, and Akasha, the Original Vampire, Queen of the Damned.

There is a lot more to it that that, and I've stopped reading her various excursions into the stories of the minor characters. It is certainly interesting to see the direction she takes Lestat's adventures -- having apparently decided he is much more interesting than Louis. Instead of the usual historical and gothic tropes, subsequent books has used different genre ideas -- body swapping being the obvious one. And of the surprising number of people who have put Jesus and vampires together, she is perhaps the most adventurous. Certainly, without the grandeur of Interview and the energy of Lestat, the vampire sub-genre would be a sorrier thing.

And of course this is hardly a complete roster, even of the good stuff. Meredith Anne Pierce's The Darkangel series, Les Daniel's The Black Castle and subsequent Chronicles of Don Sebastian, George R. R. Martin's Fevre Dream, all come immediately to mind, all with different and dignified takes on your basic undead beastie.

The same changes I've been talking about for novels has also been evident on the movie screen -- but only fleetingly. Neil Jordan's adaptation of Interview with the Vampire was unexpectedly rather good, and John Landis' earlier Innocent Blood surely deserves an award for not feeling constrained to staking the vampire in the final act. George Romero's Martin (back in 1977) gives a fascinating psychological slant to the whole thing. There have also been a fair number of stylish vampire flicks, although perhaps not as many as might be expected. Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark is one of our favourites (part of a surprising trend towards vampires in the American desert).

Perhaps two TV shows have provided the most interesting 'live-action' look at vampires as evolving characters. Forever Knight and Angel share some similarities -- both centred about a vampire working for or with the law in search of personal redemption, complete with flashbacks. The former approached the subject somewhat more seriously, whereas Angel uses its strange combination of humour and drama to show more sides of the equation (but I can't help wishing for the show in its originally conceived -- much darker -- form). Both played around with its conventions -- simply because you have to when you're providing twenty-something hours of television a year.

Is the whole thing done with, or are there more permutations to explore? I suspect people haven't finished quite yet -- the whole congruence of sexuality and death is far too primal to die out, even if the foreign Count with his strange accent and dark cape has moved beyond even parody. After the exhaustive study of the mythos, all the reinterpretations of the 'true history of Dracula' (Judas of Iscariot, anyone?), all the bleeding-edge science applied to the task, it is hard to know what is left to actually talk about. But someone will find a way.


  • The Rivals of Dracula, edited by Michael Parry, Corgi, London, 1977.
  • It's time to pity the poor vampire, by Stephen Juan, Sydney Morning Herald, 11/2/1988.
  • The Vampire in Legend, Fact and Art, by Basil Copper, Corgi, London, 1973.
  • A Dictionary of Monsters and Mysterious Beasts, by Carey Miller, Piccolo, London, 1974.
  • Hôtel Transylvania, by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Signet, New York, 1979.

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