From the Introduction to Vampires, Classic Tales, ed., Mike Ashley, Dover Press, 2010
(TOC provided following the essay)
This book contains a selection of vampire stories both old and new. Generally I’ve reprinted lesser-known stories with an intent to show both the origins of the vampire in fiction and some of the diversity that has emerged over the years.
Vampire fiction has been with us for at least two hundred years and our fascination with it remains undiminished. If anything, it is at the height of its popularity. It is not difficult to see why, with the vampire so often portrayed as a tragic hero or, in the case of women, a voluptuous temptress or femme fatale.
The success of the topic in books in recent years can be traced to Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1976) and its sequels, and the theme was further popularized with the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003) and Stephenie Meyers’s series that began with Twilight (2005). Between them, Rice and Meyers’s books have sold over 200 million copies, which probably makes vampires the most widely read of all genre fiction.
And it owes all its success to Lord Byron.
Well, not quite—but he has a lot to answer for.
It barely needs repeating, but one of the most influential literary gatherings happened at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva in June 1816. Present were Byron and his personal physician, Dr. John Polidori, the young Mary Godwin and her future husband, the poet Percy Shelley, and Mary’s half-sister Claire Clairmont. During a storm they read from a collection of Gothic horror stories, Tales from the Dead, and Byron challenged each of them to write a ghost story. The most famous work to emerge from this was Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein. Byron and Percy Shelley soon gave up their efforts, but Byron’s unfinished “fragment” was used by Polidori as the basis for his own story, “The Vampyre,” which was published in the New Monthly Magazine in April 1819. The publisher of the magazine, Henry Colburn, attributed the story to Byron, which vexed the poet, who refuted it in a letter published in The Times of London on June 5, 1819. “I am not the author and never heard of the work in question until now,” he wrote, adding, “I have, besides, a personal dislike to ‘vampires’ and the little acquaintance I have with them would by no means induce me to divulge their secrets.”
By then Polidori had already proclaimed his authorship but for years the suspicion remained that it was by Byron. This was compounded by the fact that the name Polidori chose for the vampire, Lord Ruthven, had already been used by Lady Caroline Lamb in her novel Glenarvon (1816) and Ruthven was clearly based on Byron. Polidori likewise modeled his Ruthven on Byron, and it is from this story that the romantic yet tragic image of the vampire has grown.
Polidori’s story is frequently reprinted in anthologies, so I have not included it here, but Byron’s original is less readily available, so I have included that in an appendix because of its historical significance. Although Byron did not get as far as resurrecting his vampire, he was nevertheless seeking to write what is now regarded as the first modern fusion of the vampire myth and gothic tale in English fiction. And by completing the story, Polidori gave rise to the whole iconic vampire imagery of doomed nobility.
The idea of vampires, or at least demonic figures who devour flesh and blood, has been around for thousands of years. They appear in the legends and fables of ancient Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and Rome, where they are invariably female and called lamia. The Greek writer Phlegon, who lived at the time of the Emperor Hadrian in the second century, collected together a miscellany of stories and accounts of strange and inexplicable events known as On Marvels, and among them was the story of “The Bride of Corinth” about a young Athenian man who discovers his wife-to-be has risen from the dead. This story was the basis of the poem, “The Bride of Corinth” by Johann von Goethe, which appeared in 1797 at the height of the boom in Gothic literature.
But truth to tell, the idea of vampires was already so well entrenched in everyday parlance that it was possible to lampoon the idea as early as 1785. On October 18 that year the Universal Register (the forerunner of the London Times) ran an anonymous short story called “Opulence,” wherein the first person narrator assists an alchemist in creating the philosopher’s stone. The alchemist is killed, but the narrator takes the stone and with it becomes wealthy. However, his fortune attracts the interest of others who descend upon his estate and rob him of everything. He calls these thieves “vampires,” because they bled him dry of everything, a metaphor still used today. A footnote to the story explains:
In Poland and some other countries, a notion is entertained that some persons after they are dead and buried, have the power of sucking others till they die and to them they give the name vampire.
The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the word “vampire” had first appeared in print in England in 1734, so it was firmly in circulation by the time Polidori’s story was published.
Soon after Polidori’s story was published, another appeared in English, “Wake Not the Dead,” in the anthology Popular Tales and Romances of the Northern Nations, published in 1823. It appeared anonymously but for years was attributed to Johann Ludwig Tieck, despite there not being any original German text amongst Tieck’s accredited work. In fact, it is now firmly established that the story was by Ernst Raupach and it appears here correctly attributed, and correctly titled as “Let the Dead Rest” for the first time. This was the first story to develop what has become the traditional vampire imagery of a beautiful, seductive creature that shuns daylight, weakens its victims, and can only be despatched with a dagger through the heart.
Also of historical importance is “The Mysterious Stranger.” Though first published in English in 1854, it had appeared in Germany at least ten years earlier and, as such, was the first vampire story to be set in the Carpathian mountains, the location of Dracula’s castle in Bram Stoker’s famous novel, which was published in May 1897. Although there is no evidence that Bram Stoker had read the story, there are sufficient similarities between it and Dracula for the antiquarian and ghost-story writer M. R. James to suggest that it must have served as the basis for the novel. For years the authorship of this story was treated as anonymous, but recent research has revealed that it was by the little-known German writer Karl von Wachsmann.
One other early story completes the fabric of the legend: “The Pale Lady” by Alexandre Dumas which, though written in 1848, was not translated into English until 1910, and has rarely been reprinted since. Like “The Mysterious Stranger,” it is also set in the Carpathian mountains.
These early examples suffice to show how the vampire legend established itself in fiction, mostly in Germany and France, but drawing upon beliefs from central and eastern Europe. I have avoided the more familiar stories of this period such as Théophile Gautier’s “Le Morte Amoreuse” (1839) and Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” (1871) in order to concentrate on stories that exemplify some major themes in vampire fiction. In “The Fate of Madame Cabanel” (1872), for instance, by Eliza Lynn Linton, we see how the belief in and fear of vampires has become so entrenched in remote communities that prejudices can soon erupt with tragic consequences. In “A Kiss of Judas” (1893), Julian Osgood Field considers a totally different origin of the vampire, linking the dead-alive to the children of Christ’s betrayer, Judas. Donovan’s little-known “The Woman With the ‘Oily Eyes’” (1899) explores the idea of the femme fatale while Gilchrist’s “The Crimson Weaver” (1895) weaves the vampire temptress into the imagery of the fantastic. Finally, “With the Vampires” (1903), which has never previously been reprinted, looks at the peril of those who enter the realm of the vampire bats.
There are three stories of more recent vintage. In “Blood Gothic,” Nancy Holder shows the corrupting influence of the romantic vampire image. In “Blood Chess,” Tanith Lee returns to the traditional vampire story but from a wholly new perspective. In “Emptiness,” Brian Stableford considers the idea of vampire babies.
You will see from the dates that, aside from the more recent stories, only two of the older stories appeared after Dracula, and so none of the earlier stories could have been influenced by it. It’s entirely likely that Donovan’s “The Woman With the ‘Oily Eyes’” had an earlier magazine publication, so it, too, could have been written prior to Dracula’s appearance in May 1897. And there is no doubt that “With the Vampires” bears no relationship to Dracula at all. As a consequence all these stories draw their inspiration from older traditions and prevailing legends, and therefore develop their own treatment.
Between them, these stories demonstrate the versatility of the vampire story as well as the continuing strength of the legend.
Vampires, Classic Tales
Table of Contents
- Introduction by Mike Ashley
- Blood Gothic by Nancy Holder
- Let the Dead Rest by Ernst Raupach
- The Mysterious Stranger Karl von Wachsmann
- The Pale Lady by Alexandre Dumas
- Blood Chess by Tanith Lee
- The Fate of Madame Cabanel by Eliza Lynn Linton
- A Kiss of Judas by Julian Osgood Field
- The Crimson Weaver by R. Murray Gilchrist
- The Woman With the “Oily Eyes” by Dick Donovan
- Emptiness by Brian Stableford
- With the Vampires Sidney by Bertram
- Appendix: A Fragment by Lord Byron