In all our writings on that which scares – from folklore to short stories to novels – there is one figure that is much more prominent than most others. By virtue of being spread over many different cultures, all across human history, it goes by many names – strigoi, vrykolakas, oupire… This is a fiendish creature who returns to a morbid state of existence after death, rising in the dead of night and visiting the living people it once considered neighbours, in order to prey upon their life essence as they sleep. And the most popular name it goes by today, is the vampire.
In this year’s Halloween Special, I’m going to be talking about this ever-present monster of dark and frightening storytelling, how it evolved from very real fears in our history, to the prominent figure of the literary horror pantheon it has become.
Join me as we discuss several of the most crucial entries in this widespread subgenre of dark fiction, and let’s talk about the infamous, bloodsucking undead that is vampires!
Part One: Grave Origins
Vampires and vampiric-adjacent monsters have existed in the public conscience long before they appeared in our literature. As previously stated, myths and folklore concerning creatures like these has existed in most cultures, from many different periods of time, and they all mostly follow the same rules – a person dies, often under unpleasant circumstances, then returns from the grave at night to drink the blood of the living. Either drinking all of it at once, draining the victim to death like a vicious predator, or doing so over the course of many nights, like an insidious parasite. While these undead fiends vary somewhat from instance to instance, therefore having different reasons for reanimation, different strengths and weaknesses, and different manners by which they might be dispatched, the vampire as it is most well understood in literature today is primarily influenced by myths from Romania and the long-lasting consumption epidemic that affected most of Europe throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
Consumption was a large part of the reason why vampires, in our past, were not considered a monster of myth, but a very real danger. With people becoming weak, pale, and sickly, and their bodies literally wasting away as if they were being drained of their life energy. This couldn’t possibly be the result of a natural phenomenon. It had to be more. Divine intervention, demonic influence, or… the dead?
See, the fear became even more widespread when corpses in their graves were discovered with unusual changes having taken place upon them. Their bodies had not decayed as it had been thought. Instead, their teeth and fingernails had continued to grow, and their bellies had swollen. This must have been because they were rising from their graves, biting and scratching the poor innocent victims of the towns and villages, and draining their blood. In these much more religious times, people rising from the dead was more believable – after all, Jesus had done it, so why not our poor, innocent, virtuous children?
In reality, the teeth and nails had not grown – it was actually the gums and flesh around the nails that had receded due to decay which had given the teeth and nails the appearance of having grown. And the reason for the swelling abdomen was due to the building up of gases and fluids inside the corpse. In other words, decay had taken place on these bodies, it simply hadn’t taken place in the way people in the past expected.
But, with the lack of scientific and medical knowledge people had two and three centuries ago, as well as the much more prominent religious beliefs within communities at the time, and on top of that a serious degenerative virus causing widespread suffering and death… the existence of a supernatural monster who had caused all of this terror was almost guaranteed. Especially when some of the building fluid began to leak from the corpse’s nose and mouth, giving the impression of having recently fed, and destructive and preventative measures intended to stop the creature’s nocturnal rampages once and for all led to the gases being expelled and producing a moan-like sound.
As a result the creature known as the strigoi – the vampire – despite already being familiar to people of the time, flooded public consciousness with new intensity.
With that in mind, how could it not eventually enter into the literary pantheon? Taking the place of the previously much more common ghosts and spirits, we invited a new kind of undead monster into our macabre tales thanks to the pervasive threat of consumption, and the ominous discovery of these bloated, long-toothed, long-nailed abominations under our soil.
Part Two: Literary Invitation
Written in the same year as Mary Shelley’s excellent ‘Frankenstein,’ John Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ also served as a monumental shakeup in macabre fiction, and massively influential on dark and horrific storytelling moving forward. This is in large part due to the way that, just like Shelley’s tale, Polidori took the concept of the ghost story and changed his undead antagonist into something else – a much more tangible, much more predatory antagonist. In this way, Polidori’s short horror story introduced to the literary world so much of what we now consider staples of the literary vampire. You might think that this tale being a short story would limit how many of these elements it was capable of introducing, but you’d be surprised.
‘The Vampyre’ begins with an introduction to its titular vampyre – although that word would not be used until later on in the story. Lord Ruthven is a nobleman, a rich and high class figure, this simple, easily understandable motif being used as a major part of his description to present right from the onset his power and influence over others. This aspect of his character is simultaneously juxtaposed with his uncanny appearance – a dead, corpse-like appearance thanks to his grey eyes, the cold hue of his skin, and his lack of facial expression.
Yet, by focusing on the duality of these diametrically opposed elements through the dark-romantic expression of all the best Gothic tales, ‘The Vampyre’ draws attention to the repulsive attraction inherent to Lord Ruthven both as a character, and as a monster – drawing the reader’s attention to Lord Ruthven’s ability to cause awe in all those who meet him, the way he is invited into every house as all wished to see him, his manipulative nature and sway over the lives of others. Despite his dead appearance, Lord Ruthven is seen as beautiful, an attractive figure that many people find it all too easy to become obsessed with.
This speaks to that influence and power given to him by his class and status, but this is also alluded to in the story in a more literal way. Lord Ruthven possesses superhuman strength, is unable to perceive pain, and has an oppressing, near hypnotic influence over both his prey and those who get in the way of that prey.
Of course, it is not mere appearance and superficial aspects that make this vampyre (or any vampire) such an iconic figure in literature. Equally important is their behaviour – their penchant for feeding on those beneath them. These elements are also introduced in Polidori’s tale. First of all comes the nocturnal aspect of the vampyre’s hunting, since it is never during the day that someone is hunted or bled, only ever at night. But the most crucial aspect is that motif of blood – an element that will become inseparable from the vampire myth from here on out, and one that this story makes sure to leave a lasting impression of with strong, emotionally visceral imagery. First of all describing how Lord Ruthven needs to feed on blood to continue existing, before later describing the “mark of the fiend’s appetite” – a woman being found dead with tooth marks on the throat, the vein having been opened, and with blood dripping down the neck and breast. This is an incredibly vivid and iconic image for this monster, and it is this element of the vampire, the imagery of the victim post-drink, that is most synonymous with the vampire legend, and also, most reminiscent of the consumption victims who clearly influenced the telling of this story – especially potent because consumption was still very much a danger to the story’s readers of the time. And it’s easy to see how this could become such a pervasive and iconic image. It is a powerful, simple, yet compelling way of representing the threat posed by this new literary monster. And this is the first time it had ever been immortalised in a work of literature.
There’s a second powerful aspect to this element though, and that is the idea of the decadent monster preying on the virtuous – either killing innocents outright, or turning them to vice just as he has turned to vice. In either case, this is a parasite not merely of life and blood, but of society and morality as well – draining people of their blood, their physical and mental wellbeing, their virtue, and their social standing. And I have to believe Lord Ruthven’s being both an aristocrat, and a parasite, is not merely a coincidence, just like the influence of consumption has not been a coincidence for this element. However, it is also important that our protagonist and our victims are high class, but not lords – and it is their moral virtue that sets them at odds with the vampyre.
Of course, it is not one person who stands in Lord Ruthven’s way, it is a community of people. It is older, wiser figures who inform both the readers and the protagonist of the vampyre’s reality, and his supernatural evil, and many of these are Romanian, thus incorporating the fear and the knowledge that more experienced communities have with vampyre lore. This is something else that will become prominent of the genre in future.
All told, it’s clear how this excellent and groundbreaking short story set the stage for every new bloodsucker that would follow in Lord Ruthven’s footsteps – most notably as a species of high class walking corpses, as attractive as they are repulsive, and with a penchant for skulking around in the dark and feeding on the blood of the living.
However, there is a hole in the vampire myth, even now. Polidori’s story only ever hints at the spread of vampirism, deciding not to detail how this happens, and it also never delves into how a vampyre might be killed and defeated once and for all. Instead the story focuses on the darkness of the myth, both the horror and the tragedy of something this powerful and influential preying on those closest to us. But there is time yet for more elements of this monster to be brought into the literary zeitgeist.
Part Three: Drinking It In
If ‘The Vampyre’ is responsible for introducing this undead monster to the literary pantheon, it’s Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ that perfects the image and thematic storytelling of what the classic vampire is all about.
Releasing over half a century after that groundbreaking short story, ‘Carmilla’ brings the romantic aspect of both Gothic fiction and the vampire story more specifically into the spotlight, using its eponymous vampire to deliver what is, ultimately, a lesbian romance story.
Here then, it is the attraction, romanticism and obsession of the vampire character that plays the biggest role. When our eponymous vampire, Carmilla, first arrives in the care of the protagonist family, she is instantly attached to by our main protagonist Laura, and her father, as this most beautiful of young women who both of them would do anything for. Carmilla instantly becomes a prominent member of their household, every event of every day revolving around this new arrival. Of course, once again, we have a vampire who is high class, coming from the fabled – and extinct – Karnstein family. But since she is for much of the story an unknown member of this family, her power and influence has to come from elsewhere. And in this instance, it is primarily from the story’s romantic element.
See, as attractive as Carmilla is to Laura, she still maintains that repulsive element of the vampire, through her behaviour. Part of this repulsion is the pensive, languid way she often behaves (which I inferred to be a result of the need for blood), or her frustratingly secretive nature. But also, the lack of blood can cause Carmilla’s personality to change, becoming more hurtful and hostile in the way that she speaks, becoming darker and more morbid, and becoming more frightening as well – these elements are what repel Laura from Carmilla. At least, until that vampiric attraction works its supernatural effect into the victim once again. It makes a compelling analogy for an abusive relationship, for addiction – there’s even a theme of depression to the story in my mind. And it is this emotionally confused and conflicting attraction that primarily gives Carmilla power and influence over her victims, even more so than the out of place strength held by this small, fragile looking person.
Carmilla is a much more dangerous monster than Lord Ruthven ever was, since she is even more irresistible than her predecessor, which means her victims are at much more risk, for much longer – because here, she does not kill her victim instantly, but instead latches onto one prey animal for a long time, draining them and taking advantage of them over many nights. It is this element that mostly makes this story so reminiscent of consumption, an illness that became intrinsically tied to vampires in folklore primarily because both entities would gradually waste away the victim night after night, the victim seeming to get better, only to then get worse the next night as either the disease, or vampire, returned to feed on their life essence. But this story offers complex interpretations missing from ‘The Vampyre’ because it could also represent so many other things. Abuse, depression, many different kinds of sickness and disability. It could be that not only Carmilla causes these things, but is an embodiment of them as well – returning to the idea of vampires draining life essence rather than blood specifically, and the idea that vampires cause not only ill health, but ill mental health too. And this isn’t an element that is merely introduced, but one that is fundamentally vampiric, since Carmilla invades Laura’s bedroom night after night in nocturnal feeding scenes that Laura believes to be nightmares, gradually draining Laura’s life essence both literally, with her blood, and figuratively, with their parasocial relationship. Ultimately, this story’s vampire-victim relationship is a much more parasitic one, and in my opinion, that is much more compelling than those vampires who kill outright, such as Lord Ruthven, since while he was a parasite socially, he was more of a brutal predator in regards to the bloodsucking – Carmilla on the other hand feels like a true parasite. Carmilla’s parasitic latching onto Laura is also much more thematically relevant, being so reminiscent of consumption, and leads to a better narrative since the protagonist-antagonist relationship is brought unquestionably to the forefront of the story, and in this way, her duality between repulsion and attraction is much deeper, much scarier, and much more compelling.
Interestingly, Carmilla as a character develops and strengthens the undead aspect of the vampire by exploring its deeper meaning and emotional impact. There are still elements of the dead appearance here, although they are more subtle – her languid movements and pale skin being the biggest signifiers. However, the most striking aspect is an old Karnstein painting discovered early on in the story that looks remarkably similar to Carmilla. This is not merely a cool detail, nor is it only a hint at the truth of the vampire for our protagonists. Most interestingly, it gives us a deeper look at the vampire as a character – this is not merely an undead monster back from the grave, it is an ancient, immortal being that has hunted for many lifetimes, and might hunt for many more if it is not stopped. This also leads to unique and interesting ideas found only in this story, such as Carmilla going to masquerade balls, and changing her name, to preserve the façade of humanity, and innocence, and virtue, over the course of her long existence. Tragically, in renaming herself she is limited to anagrams, and having also been immortalised in paintings, the façade is eventually broken, and the vampire, and its depravity, are unmasked. This is much deeper and more complex than Lord Ruthven and the folklore vampires that came before, and makes for a fascinating backstory.
Speaking of masks and façades, one of the biggest new additions to the vampire myth in this story is that Carmilla is also granted the ability to change into the form of a black cat as she partakes in her nocturnal blood drinking. If you’re familiar with vampires at all, this might seem familiar, but different. One of the more fantastical abilities of vampires is their ability to shape change, primarily into animals, and most commonly the bat. Carmilla’s cat form plays much the same role – that of granting the parasitic feeding of the vampire a much more striking, powerful, and inhuman image, divorcing in that one moment the vampire from her façade of humanity. This ability is not entirely from the author’s head either, since the classic European vampire that informs much of Western vampire literature – the strigoi – also had the ability to change into animal forms.
Arguably the most significant addition to this story though, is that it offers both the protagonists and the readers something ‘The Vampyre’ never did – some hope. This is because, after learning who and what Carmilla really is, they also learn the way to destroy a vampire once and for all. Seek out her coffin, then put a stake through her heart, chop off her head, and burn the lot to ashes. This, also, stems from European folklore, and is a major aspect of execution in all vampire fiction to follow. The question, though, is why? The stake is obvious enough, bringing us back to that blood motif – the heart being the organ of blood, its destruction therefore being a vital part of slaying a blood parasite. Stakes were also used traditionally because, before coffins, corpses might sometimes rise to the surface in heavy rain. I suppose you would want to stop that happening just on the off chance it rises thirsty! As for decapitation, that seems to be a way of giving you enough time to burn the body, which is done to stop the vampire regenerating. But for me, the removal of the head is more thematic than that. I consider it a way of depriving Carmilla of her humanity and her attraction, so that her mesmeric abilities hold no sway, and depriving her of the ability to bite as you finalise her destruction.
In any case, this three-step method of vampire execution is how people genuinely dispatched of their vampiric dangers during the consumption epidemic, which makes ‘Carmilla’ a historically accurate piece of literature, and thus, following on from its predecessor ‘The Vampyre.’ On top of this, the book offers so much depth and complexity, both original and folklore-inspired, as to become the best example of the classic vampire.
Of course, this is still a relatively short story. There are much lengthier, denser vampire stories to follow even this excellent entry into the vampire myth. Which means there is much more room for expanding said myth within literature.
Part Four: Extending Fangs
While I wouldn’t argue that Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ is a better story than ‘Carmilla,’ one thing it absolutely does offer moreso than any prior piece of vampire fiction is a much grander tale. Coming twenty-five years later, ‘Dracula’ provides a level of depth, breadth and density that lends itself to creating a fuller, more complete mythology for the vampire, perhaps for the first time since its folkloric roots.
‘Dracula’ does not begin in a void from which it reintroduces many of the prior established elements. By beginning with a journey through Romania on the protagonist’s way to Dracula’s Castle, the book can establish many of the important elements of the vampire myth we have already seen, in an organic way that is actually even more intrinsically tied to the folklore they originate from. The book not only draws from history and folklore but involves these elements directly in the story, by having Jonathan Harker travel through the Carpathian Mountains of Europe, being confronted with the Romanians’ fear of Count Dracula, and the monster he is set up to be. It is this dynamic that introduces the superstition around this character, as well as some of his vampiric qualities. Living up there above the rest of the country in his castle, Dracula’s high class status is established more strikingly than ever before, eventually followed by his physical appearance which introduces elements animalistic rather than, or on top of, the more usual corpse-like features. However, this is only the beginning of the intelligent, grander scaled manner in which this book re-establishes much of vampire myth.
The book does not set out to introduce its own interesting elements in isolated, but unique, scenes, as ‘Carmilla’ did. Instead, it expands on the vampire myth by re-establishing those prior elements, and then expanding on each of those elements to create more breadth that way. For instance, as the repulsive aspect of vampires is often juxtaposed with an attractive aspect, this story establishes the fear of mirrors, and the idea that a vampire cannot be seen within them, an ironic way of subverting their attractive-repulsive qualities by making the vampire himself equally prone to both of them. However, this attractive element still affects the protagonist through not a romantic attraction, as in this book’s predecessors, but through a mesmeric, hypnotic way the Count has of speaking and behaving, not to mention the way that, later on, Dracula seems to acquire a psychic link with some of his victims, and is able to brainwash an asylum inmate. Dracula’s attractive qualities are also expanded on through the presence of his three vampiric brides, but more than this, it is through these characters that the nocturnal bloodsucking elements are brought into the story. And just like with ‘Carmilla,’ these scenes are established in a way that the main character at first believes them to be weird nightmares. In this way, elements are introduced, expanded on, and formed for the first time through the use of this ‘expanding out’ method of creation. And this is only the most prominent aspects of the vampire – there’s also the way Carmilla’s cat form is expanded here into a more general transformative ability involving a wolf or big dog, a giant bat, and even a fog, and it is from this element that the animalistic ways of the vampire introduce themselves, emphasising that aspect of its strigoi origins. These kinds of scenes set up the eponymous vampire in creepy ways that re-establish a lot of prior elements of the vampire myth, but then expand on them to craft a more well-rounded vampire myth that would become the basis from which all other vampire stories would draw from this point onward, whether embracing them or subverting them.
However, this was not the sole way this book expanded on the vampire myth. Arguably a much more prominent introduction was the power of religion, the religious, and religious imagery, mostly those of Christianity. This seems to be the primary way that this book brings in the idea of virtue vs vice, with Christianity and the faithful being set against the decadent, violent and manipulative Count Dracula and his followers. Importantly, it is through this lens that many other new elements were introduced. For instance, while ‘Carmilla’ introduced ways of killing the vampire, ‘Dracula’ offers ways of warding the vampire off before this time comes, such as the Count’s aversion to religious symbols such as crucifixes and communion wafers, but this is really a more literal incarnation of that virtuous protagonist element of the vampire myth. More interesting is the way Dracula seems to gain power from what appears to be a demonic, anti-Christian influence. For example, his transformative abilities focusing on feared forms that are considered tied to darkness, evil, the supernatural and the demonic by many Christian readers of the time. There’s also the way that Dracula’s power is dampened in the sun, expanding on those nocturnal elements of the hunt, but more strikingly, emphasising how much of a powerful, frightening threat the vampire is whenever night falls and these weaknesses are cast off.
Ultimately, ‘Dracula’ gives us a more fantastical monster residing in a grander-scaled world, by taking the important aspects of the vampire myth before this point, and expanding on them with elements all its own. It is to this end that the book’s dense wordcount primarily works, not turning the vampire into a more compelling tale per se, but rather, compiling a denser, more complete vampire mythology. In fact, expanding the vampire myth seems to have turned Dracula into a more powerful, more dangerous and more threatening vampire than readers had ever seen before. But through the implementation of the religious influence, he also has more ways of being defeated than ever before, not to mention being turned into a more demonic, more transgressive and decadent monster. This offers a versatility and balance to the vampire myth aside from simply a parasite that can be killed if discovered in its coffin. It’s not my personal preference. I think the religious angle raises more questions than it answers, and in a lot of ways I prefer the simple depth of ‘Carmilla’ to the broader complexity on offer here. But it’s impossible to deny the way ‘Dracula’ expanded on this myth, this monster, and influenced everything that followed. I suppose that means Count Dracula was the most powerful vampire outside of his own story, as well as within it.
But it’s not merely the folkloric elements this book expanded on, it was also the historic, which brings me back to consumption. For instance, seemingly drawing from Carmilla’s naming complexity, Count Dracula is forced to return to coffins filled with his own native soil. Within the context of the book this gives a greater amount of tension and conflict to Dracula’s journey to England, while also emphasising his status as an invader, but I wonder if this was also linked to the native graves feared to be infected with vampirism in Europe. The fact that Dracula’s Castle hides fifty coffins that need to be ‘cured’ of vampirism via religious concoctions seems reminiscent of the way people in the consumption epidemic would investigate the graves of their own neighbours and stake or decapitate the corpses within, just in case they were vampires. On top of that, Dracula is a parasite in the same way as his predecessor, preying on his victims over many nights, this time with several different characters being gradually drained of life energy over time, not only turned sickly and weak and wasting away, but becoming more vice obsessed, or becoming more vampiric and closer to the side of Dracula. And no matter how many windows they close or garlic cloves they hang in the bedroom, it always seems that some skeptic leads to the victims suffering for one more night at the hands of this parasite aristocrat.
The book also introduces in a more explicit way something that has acted subtly in the background of its vampiric parentage – that being the importance of a sense of scale to the vampire story. While ‘The Vampyre’ implemented this aspect through the history of vampyres told by the Romanians, and ‘Carmilla’ brought it in through the implication of a long period of time through which its vampire has acted, ‘Dracula’ is the first book that incorporates a more explicit sense of scale, thanks to its longer page count leading to a greater number of characters scattered around the world who are all affected by Dracula’s invasion and predation in some way. It speaks to the historic influence of vampires, through the sense of scale inherent to any widespread piece of folklore, whether it’s spread through geographical scale, like in ‘Dracula,’ or temporal scale, as in a later piece of vampire fiction.
Part Five: New Wave of Romantic Vampires
One of the more interesting facets of the vampire is one that has seen debate among horror fans for decades, perhaps even centuries. You can’t really debate the bloodsucking, or the immortality – without those, it isn’t a vampire, plain and simple. But what about that other main element of the vampire myth – that’s something that can be debated, it’s something that different writers can play around with to create new, subversive and interesting pieces of vampire fiction. The question is this – what is more important in a vampire, its repulsive, corpselike nature, or its attractive, mesmeric qualities?
Coming nearly eighty years after ‘Dracula,’ Anne Rice would throw this question into the spotlight in her massively influential novel, ‘Interview with the Vampire.’
This is a book that incorporates a sense of scale just as ‘Dracula’ did before it, but in this case, it was a sense of scale through time, as the titular vampire being interviewed, Louis, narrates his history as a vampire. From this core narrative lens, we are granted something new for the vampire story, the idea of the vampire being our narrator, of telling his own story. As a result, the vampire is inherently more sympathetic because we are being offered his own inner monologues, his own unstructured thoughts and contemplations. We’re granted access to the vampire’s own introspection on what he is, what he has become, the things it has made him do, the things it has made him see, and the ways these things have influenced his beliefs. About the world, yes, but more pressingly, about himself. By the very nature of a first person perspective we readers are thrust right inside of this introspection and so it becomes much easier to relate to the vampire.
This, then, is the book’s way of incorporating the attractive half of the vampire character, by putting said vampire more intensely in the focus of the story than ever before, and this one choice forms a much more tragic, darkly romantic tale. Of course this is also handled through much the same way it had been before. The vampire being on some level an attractive figure leads a story like this to a romantic angle as the vampire forms relationships – relationships that are ultimately doomed (in this case, doomed for both vampire and victim alike) since the same process that forms romantic attractions also forms the lust for blood. These two are more intimately tied together in this narrative than any previous vampire story since in this book, it is the blood and the romance that form the backbone of the vampire myth.
However, what I find more interesting than the story’s approach to attraction of the vampire, is the way it uses that same narrative device – the interview recordings – to deliver on the repulsion of the vampire. See, just like the interview brings us closer to the vampire and thus enhances the attractiveness, it also brings us closer to that repulsion because this is a vampire who is repulsed by his own actions and by his own state of being. It is through these doomed relationships and dual-emotive bloodlettings that this vampire both learns and expresses his own brooding and self-loathing inside of the interview format. Louis does not want to be a vampire, he does not want to live forever, he does not want to drink blood, and he does not want to exist as a creature that ruins the lives of the living.
In a clever twist then, it is not some virtuous protagonist who is revulsed by the vampire and thus wanting to kill it, rather, it’s the tortured antagonist who is revulsed by itself, and wishes for its own end. It’s a modern, subversive take on the Gothic romanticism of the vampire subgenre that tackles many of the same ideas and elements in almost unrecognisable ways. By exploring the perspective of a vampire and its own state of being rather than the living’s perspective on vampires, and enhancing that dark romantic aspect of the genre, this unique story takes more inspiration from ‘Carmilla’ and its romance than ‘Dracula’ and its horror. This is also the case thanks to its greater simplicity than previous vampire books – gone are most of the new additions brought into the mythology by the Count, and even many of those introduced by Countess Karnstein, with this book’s opening scenes drawing attention to common elements of vampire myth and, essentially, having Louis debunk them.
Some of these elements are still present, of course. This is still a vampire book. We still have a high class, rich aristocrat with a pale, corpse-like appearance. He is still a monster who stalks the streets of the living in the nighttime in order to feed on their blood. And as discussed, we still have the attractive-repulsive duality, arguably made much deeper thanks to the book’s choice in perspective character. However, this decision to open with a bout of debunking sets the book up right from the onset as a subversive work of fiction – these are the vampires we know, but the story makes perfectly clear right away that it is doing something very different with them.
The changes that have been introduced to this new wave of vampires, the increased romanticisation and relatability, not to mention the simpler, more focused nature of these vampires, is one that would ripple through vampire mythology from this point onward, and never let up again. ‘Interview with the Vampire’ would for all intents and purposes become the new most important vampire book, taking the mantle from ‘Dracula.’ The truly monstrous, hateful, depraved villain we have known thus far is on the way out, being replaced with a romantic, attractive figure that perhaps virtuous living people might want to emulate, might want even to become, rather than one that is simply feared and despised. And this, the story decided once and for all, is what is more important to the vampire myth.
However, if a story is going to make these grand statements that change the game moving forward, it’s important that the story doesn’t totally reinvent the vampire – we’ve already gone into detail about how the important pillars are mostly still around. But the biggest thing holding this story inside the vampire myth that has been developing over all this time, is that it does not forget the horror.
Louis is a tragic relatable figure, but we are still very aware of the horror of his state of being, primarily because he is very aware of it – and detests it within himself. The story almost foregoes the usual protagonists and victims in favour of exploring the vampire as its own worst enemy, despising its own bloodsucking habits and refusing to engage in horrific behaviours that, ultimately, it will need to do in order to continue existing, as we learned from Lord Ruthven. On top of that though, Louis meets other vampires, and they do not agree with his perspective, which leads to a vampire despising vampires because of the horrific atrocities he witnesses them committing all the time.
In the end, the ‘new wave’ of vampire mythology is one that keeps the romanticism and attractive qualities of the vampire in the spotlight – but with a darklight background of the horror, depravity, and supernatural evil that these creatures of the night cannot possibly be divorced from. Nor should they be.
However, there is something they are divorced from – and that is the history that first spawned the creatures we know as vampires. The consumption is gone, with the parasitic gradual feeding of ‘Carmilla’ and ‘Dracula’ being replaced with brutal one off kills similar to that of ‘The Vampyre,’ and this would become the new norm from here on out. Plus, by simplifying everything that developed throughout the classic vampire stories, the folklore those stories drew from is no longer cause for concern either.
I can’t and won’t decide if this is a good thing, a bad thing, or neither, but it is fascinating to me. It's as if this new wave of vampire fiction has taken vampires away from their historic and cultural roots. They don’t belong to that real world mythology anymore. Rather, they are their own thing now, a literary staple with its own identity belonging to a new group of people – not the centuries ago folk who genuinely feared the existence of these creatures, and intended to narrate ways of identifying, warding off and eventually destroying the monsters, but the writers and readers who have adopted the vampire myth, evolved it over many years and many, many stories, and turned it into something new, something all their own – a dark yet beautiful figure of transgressive outsider existence, used to explore the darker aspects of human existence kept in the night, to be feared yes, but perhaps also to be worshipped on some level. This is the new wave of vampire mythology. It was started by ‘Interview with the Vampire.’ But it’s something else that took it onto a whole new level, and perfected this romantic vampire in the way that ‘Carmilla’ previously perfected the classic vampire.
Part Six: Vampires, Perfected
If ‘Interview with the Vampire’ is most renowned for how it subverted the vampire myth, then John Ajvide Lindqvist’s ‘Let the Right One In,’ coming less than thirty years later, takes that subversion to an entirely new level, and in doing so, both reinvents the vampire and brings it closer to its classic counterpart than ever before – perfecting the vampire as a character, and as a legend.
The biggest and most immediate way this story subverts the vampire is by divorcing it from the rich, high class status it has typically had before this point, instead giving us a vampire existing in a working class community in a rundown apartment complex. This offers a very different playground for a vampire story, but importantly, the other major aspects remain. It actually enhances the attraction of the vampire by putting a more believable, more likeable, and more relatable character in place of the aloof aristocrat we have had before this point, but it still has power and influence because of the prominent role violence and suffering hold within this community – a violence and suffering that, at least on some level, this vampire embodies. However, the repulsiveness is also enhanced because of the working class community bringing with it a greater darkness, grittiness, and complexity than the squeaky clean rich folks this genre has previously had as both protagonist and antagonist.
In a similar way, the corpselike nature of the vampire seems to have been divorced from this story – at first. There are some interesting ways this is reintroduced at later points in the story, which I won’t spoil. But for the most part these are living, though still immortal and unageing, vampires, and while the vampire feeding element is still prominent, the vampirism as infection theme is given greater exploration by positing the vampirism itself as a sort of science fiction virus that affects the vampire’s heart. Both of these elements primarily come to be explored through the community however, and the violence and suffering intrinsic to it, and this is the most narratively and emotionally compelling aspect of the story.
It all comes back to that aspect of scale that, before now, has been important to the vampire because of its cultural origins, but never really intrinsic to the story. In this book however, the community is by far the most prominent and most important aspect of the story. Every piece of this story, whether vampire-centric specifically or relating to suffering more generally, in some way concerns this relatively small setting and the community that lives within it. A large number of characters are explored, developed, and then suffer greatly at the hands of the vampiric disease. Interestingly, just like ‘Interview with the Vampire,’ the vampires are not immune to this fact, since they are the ones suffering from the disease itself, and the negative impact and influence it holds over their new existence.
However, even though the story is subversive, it also seems closer to the vampire myth’s origins. There’s no parasitism this time around in regards to the feeding and hunting. But what we do get to see is this grand scaled community and the way vampire attacks, and a vampire infection, affect it over time. This disease-lens through which vampires are explored in this story, by way of its character-centric community, brings it much closer to consumption than the genre has been before. This also seems a stronger vein throughout the story, pun not intended, because its characters are not rich and high class as they have tended to be before. On top of that, by having the vampires also be relatively normal, working class individuals, rather than the rich and powerful, it resurrects the idea of vampires as the suffering village folk returning as this new undead being as it was described in European folklore.
As an entry in the new wave of romantic vampires, the book has made informed choices about which aspects of the vampire are most important, and which are perhaps relics of the past. In this instance it is the disease aspect – both the vampire as sufferer, and the vampire as cause of suffering, within this community – that becomes the most prominent. There are also more subtle ways this manifests, such as the idea of sunlight dampening the vampire’s power introduced by ‘Dracula’ now manifesting as the vampire burning in sunlight, as a potentially fatal symptom of vampirism.
But maybe the most interesting way is the transmission of vampirism – the curse some characters can see this as, and alternatively, the desired outcome our main protagonist, Oskar, sees this as. In this way the book continues the trend of romanticising its focal bloodsucker, but as before, the horror has not been forgotten. On the one hand this is because of the brutal way vampires hunt and kill in this story – much bloodier and more terrifying than any of the previous stories I’ve discussed in this essay. But it’s also because of the tragedy and suffering that floods our main vampire, Eli’s, life, at the hands of an abusive guardian and the dark past that took place before the story began – a darkness that our protagonist can potentially help lift.
This is the way the virtue vs depravity theme inherent to the vampire myth manifests in this story – not in a black and white way, but in a messy, greyer way that explores the darkness and virtue inherent in every person within this community, or at least in the large selection of characters we readers will follow as the story develops, and the way one character’s light can improve the wellbeing of a second character, while that second character’s darkness can empower the first. It’s a much deeper, more nuanced look at this recurring theme within the vampire myth.
In the same way, the prominent element of religion that had taken root in the genre resurfaces here in a subverted way too. Partly this is due to the strong presence of religion and the religious within this community, with characters visiting church, praying, and discussing religion and spirituality. But the more interesting way is through the vampire, Eli – that name being explicitly stated to mean God in the Bible, and other interesting aspects that seep in and out of the story. I won’t spoil the specifics of these, but it’s another example of the attraction vs repulsion theme in vampires. Maybe sometimes that duality can be reversed, and maybe what one person considers to be the virtue in the discussion, and the depravity, might actually fall the other way around. It also comes back to the idea of worshipping vampires, and is reminiscent of that old folklore idea of Jesus rising from the graves being a reason to believe in vampires. Perhaps that is why the name Eli was chosen – to be reminiscent of these historical vampire-centric belief systems. This book certainly seems equally interested in exploring and subverting both the classic and modern idea of the vampire. Perhaps vampires themselves can even become a new sort of religion. It is this kind of discussion the book raises frequently, in regards to all of its themes and subversions.
It's a strong reminder that the vampire has become a dark and transgressive icon, even a protagonist or flawed hero, in modern vampire fiction, as much as it is a frightening monster or villain. The idea that the right thing, the virtuous thing, the ‘good side’ of the story, is not necessarily that which you expect. In fact, arguably this whole book is not what you expect despite playing with and exploring similar themes and ideas to its vampiric ancestors.
Every aspect of this story centres on suffering, specifically that suffering which exists in this one community. It’s a story that, perhaps more than any previous vampire story, is filled with violence, conflict, abuse and yet other dark themes because every character living in this community is either suffering, or tortured internally, whether vampire or not. That’s relevant to its setting, and relevant to the vampire’s history with death and illness, but it’s also one of those narrative elements that is always relevant, and always compelling. The vampire as a narrative device preys on this (again, pun not intended) perfectly because whether it’s romanticised or vilified, the vampire is inherently a figure that is a predator and a parasite. And its existence always causes suffering whether to the vampire itself, or those in its vicinity, or even both at once. It’s tragic on some levels – the vampire being unable to control who and what it is, especially in a new wave, romantic vampire story – yet scary on others, the vampire being a dangerous monster even in the most romantic examples.
Of course, suffering has always been a part of this genre – not least of all because of consumption, and the predatory or parasitic nature of both that disease and the vampire itself, causing people to suffer before they eventually change or, more likely, die to the entity feeding on their life energy. In fact, every part of ‘Let the Right One In’ is not exactly new to the vampire myth, but it is a more original, more nuanced interpretation of each of those core elements. And it’s because of this, and the way it uses in its own original ways elements of both the classic and romantic vampires that came before it, that I consider it the best vampire story – at least, the best I’ve read so far. Importantly, it’s the best vampire book not because it mimics that which came before, but because it draws from the best elements and subverts them, becoming its own entity. And that, surely, is something that all vampire fiction can learn from moving forward.
Part Seven: Vampires, Defined
That’s the last vampire story I want to talk about today. Through analysing these five massively influential and brilliantly compelling works of vampire horror fiction, I now have a good idea of what the vampire is at its core, and hopefully have started some discussions forming in your mind after reading. I haven’t even gone into the likes of the aswang from the Philippines, the African sasabonsam, or the Malaysian penanggalan – these vampire myths from folkloric history across the planet vary in many ways from one another, and surely offer even more ways for writers to explore this supernatural being. A lot of the time it’s the little details, the unique fragments of each book’s own mythology, that sets it apart from the rest and moves the genre forward, but ultimately, the vampire as it is known in Western literature today, comes down to a single set of core qualities, that are derived from those centuries-old folklore monsters, a set of qualities which can be expanded on, then simplified, subverted and brought back to its origins once again. And those elements fit into three categories:
Appearance. All vampires have elements that are both attractive and repulsive, whether that's by juxtaposing a rich, high class aristocrat with an emotionless corpse, or by contrasting a beautiful youth with a blood-soaked killer.
Behaviour. Coming out of their hiding place in the dark of night, it's not a vampire unless it latches onto a living, usually innocent, victim – drinking blood directly from their veins and either killing them in one brutal, frenzied attack, or returning night after night to slowly drain their life energy like having a vivid symptomatic nightmare.
An element of the real. Whether it's drawing from the horrors of the European consumption epidemic, virtue and morality according to Christianity, or the suffering of a tight-knit working class community, vampires never exist in a vacuum – like all speculative monstrosities, they tackle something real even at their most unreal.
One of the biggest reasons vampires have become such a prominent force in literature though, is because, just like ghosts before them, vampires are a malleable monster. Sure, they have a selection of core qualities that cannot be changed too much, but as has been shown from their widespread prominence in worldwide folklore and history, and even in vampire fiction as we’ve discussed it here, there are plenty of aspects of vampires that can be changed – and it is that fundamental truth that has led so many great writers to try and write a vampire story of their own, putting their own mark on the myth every time and taking vampires from strength to strength, reappropriating them for a new location, or a new time, or simply a new idea, theme, or message. And that, ultimately, is where new genres of horror are born from.
Part Eight: Putting a Stake in the Heart
This year I’ve been doing a vampires readathon. There are so many interesting details to contemplate on within even a single vampire story, which is why I have only read these five major vampire stories so far. In truth, before this readathon, I wasn’t much of a vampire fan, which in hindsight is probably because, ironic as it may seem now, I didn’t know that much about them. It was reading ‘Carmilla’ that first made me interested in the vampire, and I’m really glad I got into this subgenre because it may just be on the verge of becoming a new favourite, just as a couple of the books mentioned in this essay have become new favourites.
It would seem that it isn’t just me though. You don’t have to look at the horror genre, and even literature more generally, to see that vampires have made a mark on fiction, and are here to stay. I don’t think this is entirely a subjective thing either. I don’t think people are reading vampires because they ‘just like them.’ I think the arrival of vampires has had a demonstrably significant impact on fiction, and especially on the horror genre.
When Polidori outfitted his ghost story for a competition with the Shelleys with a more bloody, predatory undead fiend, he set the world of dark and macabre fiction on a new and more violent course. With later authors adding to this new legend, the idea of the transgressive icon was brought to the forefront of genre fiction, making way for vital representation and more nuanced and original relationships on the page – not to mention solidifying horror itself as a transgressive genre, a characteristic that has never left its side. Vampires have led stories to deeper, darker places than would ever have been possible without them. And as vampire fiction continues to flourish on the shelves of readers everywhere, it continues to add new, subversive, and interesting elements to something that for all intents and purposes it shouldn’t be possible to still have more to say with. But that’s the brilliance of artists, and so, I suppose, is that the brilliance of a genuinely great fictional creature like the vampire.
I mentioned my vampires readathon a bit ago, and to be honest, just like the greater literary world it would seem, I’m not done with vampires yet. I’m certainly not done reading vampire books – already I have a further five sitting on my to-be-read shelf. Perhaps, this essay is also not entirely finished. There is certainly more I could have said about every one of the stories mentioned in this essay, and each one’s unique vampire, and vampires in general. That’s without even mentioning any more pieces of vampire literature, of which there are likely hundreds! That said, while I enjoy making my Halloween Special essays longer than my usual write-ups, I didn’t want this beast to become too long, and I also didn’t want to spoil any of these stories for anyone who hasn’t read them yet. While it’s possible this next few reads will impress me enough to warrant a follow-up vampires essay, for now… *glances at the pile of paper sitting in a coffin* … I think I’m ready to put a stake in this.
I might just return to this subject in the future though, so in the meantime, tell me your favourite vampire, your favourite vampire slayer, and your favourite vampire story. Thanks for reading this extra long essay. I’ll see you next time, and of course, Happy Halloween!