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Hot and dead: Literary vampires before 'Twilight'

July 8, 2010 |  8:10 am

Draculas-guest

(For the record: This post first appeared with an illustration of an earlier version of the book cover.)

Vampire stories didn’t begin with Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series, Anne Rice’s bayou bloodsuckers or even Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” in 1897. What one finds, in reading "Dracula's Guest: And Other Victorian Vampire Stories" (Walker & Co. 480 pages, $17), is that these creatures emerged from 18th century accounts of Eastern European peasant superstitions, then got a boost from the Romantic movement, which, as editor Michael Sims notes in his introduction to this 22-story anthology, “objected to evidence-based thinking as arid and godless, and worried that science was fumigating all the fun out of the world.”

Lord Byron wrote a sketch for a vampire story -- it’s included here -- but the first major contribution to the genre in English was “The Vampyre” (1819) by Byron’s crony John Polidori, who made his villain a seductive, aristocratic figure: Stoker did the same with the count, and his posthumous fragment “Dracula’s Guest” (1914) comes last. Almost from the beginning, the vampire story wasn’t just a creepy encounter with the Other Side; it was thinly veiled erotica. The undead were hot long before Hollywood and the fan obsession surrounding "Eclipse," the latest installment in the "Twilight" series.

Other selections by Sims, who has contributed reviews to The Times, range from corny but influential Victorian hackwork such as James Malcolm Rymer’s “Varney the Vampire” (1845) to “Count Magnus” (1904) by M.R. James, a master of the genre.

Stories by well-known authors (Johann Ludwig Tieck, Aleksei Tolstoy) alternate with stories by the undeservedly forgotten. Two of the best are by American women: the witty, elegant “A Mystery of the Campagna” (1886) by Anne Crawford, and the homespun, realistic “Luella Miller” (1902) by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. It turns out that Freeman's protagonist is a vampire only in the metaphorical sense. Frail, lovely, seemingly helpless, she drains the life out of everyone around her without laying a tooth on their necks.

-- Michael Harris

Harris is a Times contributor and the author of "The Chieu Hoi Saloon: A Novel."

Photo credit: Walker & Co.


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