The Literary Vampire

by Heinz Insu Fenkl


“My dear it is splendid, a thousand miles beyond anything you have written before. . . . No book since Mrs. Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ or indeed any other at all has come near yours in originality, or terror. . . .”

            --Bram Stoker’s Mother, Charlotte Stoker, referring to Dracula


A Dark and Stormy Night

            It seems hardly necessary to ruminate about the vampire these days, since it is a solid fixture in all the media of popular culture. Between the kids’ breakfast cereal and the fringe groups that actually consume human blood and consider themselves real vampires, the symbol has pretty much run the gamut of expression. The general consumer of 21st-century culture is so familiar with vampire lore that what once required the specialized arcane knowledge of quirky experts like Montague Summers and equally quirky fictional ones like Abraham Van Helsing has become rather tedious to endure on screen and in books. Nearly all cultures have their vampires, but Americans have, in a sense, begun to take the vampire for granted; in pop culture, its arch nemesis, the figure of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has become a solidly mainstream (arguably) feminist icon.

            It was not always this way. On a dark and stormy night in June of 1816 in Lord Byron’s villa in Geneva, a fateful company were gathered: Percy Shelley, the great Romantic poet; Mary Shelley, his wife; Claire Clairmont, her stepsister; Lord Byron, the notorious poet celebrity; and John Polidori, his “personal physician.” Mary Shelley was only 18 at the time, and the oldest of the company, Lord Byron, was only 28. (Polidori, at 21, was remarkably young to be playing doctor.) The romantic and sexual intrigues that linked these figures is the stuff of the most lurid soap operas, but despite (and perhaps directly because of) who was sleeping with whom, who was pregnant by whom, and who was betraying whom under the rubric of “free love,” that night spawned two of the most enduring works of English literature: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and, less directly, through a long continuation of the soap opera and its psychodynamics, Bram Stoker’s Dracula more than three quarters of a century later (1897).

            That fateful night was inspired by Lord Byron, who proposed that each of the company write a ghost story in the tradition of the German horror tales they had been reading in a French collection called Les Fantasmagoriana. Mary Shelley later recalled:

            “The noble author [Byron] began a tale, a fragment of which he printed at the end of his poem of Mazeppa.... Poor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady, who was so punished for peeping through a keyhole--what to see I forget--something very shocking and wrong of course; but when she was reduced to a worse condition than the renowned Tom of Coventry, he did not know what to do with her, and was obliged to despatch her to the tomb of the Capulets....”

            That Mary Shelley eventually wrote Frankenstein is the topic of another column; what I want to focus on here is the figure of the literary vampire we recognize today, which came into being rather inauspiciously as an intrigue between Lord Byron and John Polidori.

            Poor Polidori’s story was never finished (a shame, because it seems to have been a thinly-veiled commentary on the lurid goings-on at the villa -- one wonder what keyholes he was peeking through), but from his journals, we have details about the story Byron also began but did not finish. Its plot seems as thinly-veiled as Polidori’s, though as a wishful commentary on his own life: Two friends are traveling in Greece, where one of them dies, making the other swear that he will tell no one the strange events leading to his death. Later, back in England, the survivor sees his dead companion alive and well.

            In April of 1819, a short story called “The Vampyre,” attributed to Lord Byron, appeared in the New Monthly Magazine. It became an immediate success; it was lavishly praised by Johan Wolfgang Von Goethe (philosopher and poet, author of Faust) and it was quickly translated into French. In the following month, the New Monthly Magazine included a piece by John Polidori in which he described the origins of “The Vampyre,” reasoning that the story was written by himself, but attributed to Byron since it was based on notes that Polidori had taken at Byron’s villa. Byron, after getting wind of the fraud, tried to halt further exploitation of his name, but the publisher later released the story separately as a small novel, still attributing it to Byron.

            It never became clear why Polidori participated in this deception (though it is probably in part due to the fact that Byron’s name made it the first vampire best-seller). Some scholars suggest that it was a misunderstanding between Polidori and the publisher, that he never meant to put Byron’s byline on it; but it may very well have been a way for Polidori, a literary wannabe infatuated with Byron, to exact some sort of revenge on his former friend (and probable lover) by stealing Byron’s aborted idea and transforming it, by casting Byron himself as the main character, into another veiled confessional tale.

            In France the following year, Cyprien Berard wrote a novella that continued the story of Polidori’s vampire, Lord Ruthven, in Lord Ruthwen ou Les Vampires. Not long afterwards, dramatizations of Polidori’s story began to run with great success in the Paris stage. Even Alexandre Dumas, the great French luminary writer (most familiar to us for The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers) wrote of Lord Ruthven as late as 1852.

            “The Vampyre” was hailed as a masterpiece, but Poor Polidori, as if to illustrate the nickname that Byron and the Shelley’s had put on him, committed suicide in 1821 by taking poison. Whatever the truth of “The Vampyre”’s publication, Byron’s wrath had taken its toll, and Polidori failed miserably as both writer and physician. He had no way of knowing that he had, through his betrayal of his friend and former lover, spawned the literary vampire, a figure that would long outlive any of them. In literature, the figure known as “The Byronic Hero” has eclipsed his namesake. Byron, ironically, would die in Greece, just like Lord Ruthven (whose name, incidentally, recalled the tragedy of Caroline Lamb, who also died ruined, having embarrassed her entire family with her relentless, near pathological, pursuit of Byron; in her novel Glenarvon, she had created Ruthven as a jibe against him).

            Thus, the literary vampire, in a poetic fulfillment of the Transylvanian folk belief, is born out of a kind of illegitimacy and suicide -- a convoluted form of plagiarism and literary character assassination punctuated by the suicide of its author. And since its inauspicious genesis, like its various folk predecessors, the literary vampire has had no rest.


Varney and Carmilla

            Between Lord Ruthven and Dracula, there were two major vampire narratives: the frenetic and bloated Varney the Vampyre or The Feast of Blood  and the elegantly gothic “Carmilla.” Varney, by James Malcolm Rymer (though some argue that the author was Thomas Preskett Prest) is a truly horrific work in every sense of the word. It is not only longer than War and Peace, but written in the cliché-ridden penny-a-word style of a classic hack. It is actually a rather fine example of the 19th century genre called the “Penny Dreadful.” For example, in the compilation (published in 1847), which had originally appeared over the course of two years and two months in weekly installments, one has to endure full-length summaries of novels which the characters are reading, and this no doubt, because the author had no plot for that week and simply filled in the story with something he had written earlier.

            Varney does not warrant discussion for its literary qualities, but it does present a relentless and redundant spectrum of nearly all the elements that have become familiar vampire clichés. What distinguishes Varney is that under his curse, he is a noble soul, and in the end he kills himself by leaping into the volcano, Mt. Vesuvius, figuratively sending himself directly to Hell.

            Far more elegant is Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” (1872), which was a sort of prose re-rendition of William Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Christabel” (1816). Although the vampirism in “Carmilla” serves mostly as thinly-veiled depiction of lesbian sexuality as in “Christabel,” Le Fanu’s story introduced several themes that were later to appear in Dracula. Stoker researched vampire lore obsessively for several years before he finally wrote Dracula, which means he found reference to the same themes elsewhere, but it is likely that Le Fanu’s story, along with Polidori’s, served to create or fuel his obsession.

            Carmilla is a shapeshifter, and she can leave her coffin without disturbing her grave; she inhabits the area around an abandoned castle; she is staked through the heart, decapitated, and burned in accordance with the vampire lore later found in Dracula. One peculiarity about the vampire in “Carmilla” is that she can only use names that are anagrams of one another. “Carmilla” is “Mirallca” is “Mircalla”; it is a rather transparent literary device for creating dramatic irony, since the reader notices this detail long before the characters make sense of it. Although other writers did not use this particular rule regarding their vampires, it illustrates a larger principle one finds in major works to follow. This literary trick, along with the 19th-century penchant for foreshadowing characterization through names, a technique that uses names as a sort of physiognomy, may also have given Stoker some ideas for how to convey meaning beneath the surface of Dracula.

            Polidori was not a very clever writer (as one can see from the fact that he borrowed “The Vampyre” from Byron and the character’s name from Caroline Lamb), but the names in “Carmilla” and “Christabel” are quite charged. The innocent girl in Coleridge’s poem is named Christabel, which is a combination of Christ and Abel, two biblical descendants of Adam, both unjustly murdered. The vampire’s name is Geraldine, suggesting a doubly ancient quality -- “Ger” as in the prefix to “geriatric” and “ald” as Old English for “old” -- she is described as “lean and old and foul of hue.” In “Carmilla,” the victim’s name is Laura, from “L’Aura,” a reference to light. The old castle in the story is Karnstein, which comes from the root “Carn,” found in both “carnage” and “carnivore,” suggesting slaughter and flesh-eating. “Karn” also sounds like “cairn,” which is a grave mound. (Though Le Fanu probably did not intend it, “Carmilla” can also be rearranged into “Ill Carma” or a diseased karma, which the vampire certainly possesses.)  

            Bram Stoker would take both the background of the vampire and its power as a subliminal symbol to an as yet unmatched level of sophistication. It is not yet clear what drove him to such obsessive lengths (the biographical explanations are still inadequate), but the result combined all of the sordid biographical events around “The Vampyre” with all of the subliminal and psychosexual elements of “Carmilla” and then amplified them with the frenetic pacing of Varney; Stoker also performed his own ingenious wordplay that heightened his work’s effects on the readers’ unconscious. What he created was Dracula.


Dracula the Shadow

            I need not recount the plot of Dracula here, since it is one of those universally-known stories. Although the novel differs, often profoundly, from the movie renditions, a memory of the film plots will suffice for my discussion. If you haven’t read the novel, I recommend it highly -- it’s a page-turner even by contemporary standards, remarkably ahead of its times in terms of dramatic structure. But the action/suspense plot is not what ultimately distinguishes the novel; what makes it so remarkable is that it can be read as Stoker’s own veiled psychobiography and as an allegory of late Victorian sexual repression.

            That Stoker thoroughly researched Dracula and based much of it on travelogues and actual places is well established. Every Stoker scholar refers to his use of Emily de Laszkowska Gerard’s The Land Beyond the Forest (1888), which was his major source of Transylvanian vampire lore. Stoker spent years visiting the British Museum Library to consult survey maps; he was particularly taken by the historical Vlad Dracula, who eventually replaced his earlier generic “Count Wampyr” as the model for the vampire. Biographers note that his mother told him many horror stories, including the true account of the Irish cholera epidemic of 1832 which, combined with his knowledge of the Russian ship Dmitry going aground (something he learned in the seaside resort town of Whitby in 1890) formed the basis for the vampire pestilence that Dracula brings aboard the Demeter. 

            Various writers have also pointed out the influence of Shakespeare on Dracula, particularly Hamlet, which might have been the source of the name Van Helsing (from the Danish “Helsingor,” which in Hamlet is Elsinore castle). This influence probably came via Stoker’s work as theater manager and personal assistant to Sir Henry Irving, the charismatic actor with whom Stoker was wildly infatuated. Some have even speculated that Stoker’s relationship to Irving was like Renfield’s bondage to Dracula and that Irving was the model upon whom the character Dracula was based. There are volumes of biographical and historical scholarship regarding Stoker and Dracula that dwell on every aspect of the work. But though the textual analyses of the novel are by now comprehensive, what remains missing is a clear picture of Stoker’s life that would illuminate the psychology behind Dracula. Most attempts to analyze Stoker remain speculative because so little is actually known about his life. He remained an effective shadow himself.

            What we do have is an enormously rich expression of what was germinating in Stoker’s mind for nearly a decade. And from the underlying structure of Dracula, we can discover many of the workings of Stoker’s conscious and unconscious psychology. We can begin with the implicit indications of autobiography that he encoded into the characters by examining the physiognomy of their names.

            First, there is the most obvious: Abraham Van Helsing, who bears the long form of Stoker’s own first name. Abraham was also the name of Stoker’s father, so Van Helsing becomes a paternal figure as well (something the plot of the novel bears out). Van Helsing’s last name can be read as “of Light, Sing,” or “Sing of Light.” The word “sing” has various connotations all regarding expression whereas “Hel” is a double-edged reference to both light (Hel as in “Hellenic”) and flames (Hel as in “Hell”). Van Helsing’s role in Dracula is that of a paternal crusader against the evil of vampirism. He is a force of “light” (scientific knowledge) pitted against a the Satanic “darkness” of Dracula, which we associate with Hell. He personally oversees three rather gruesome executions of vampires, which involve staking, decapitation, and burning.

            Mina Harker describes Van Helsing as “strongly built, with his shoulders set back over a broad, deep chest ...the head is noble, well-sized, broad, and large behind the ears. The forehead is broad and fine...sloping back above two bumps or ridges wide apart; such a forehead that the reddish hair cannot possible tumble over it....” This is actually a description of Bram Stoker himself. Stoker, in an adoring fan letter to Walt Whitman (inspired by Whitman’s ability to express his homosexuality), described himself in remarkably similar terms: “I am ugly but strong and determined and have a large bump over my eyebrows. I have a heavy jaw and a big mouth and thick lips -- sensitive nostrils -- a snubnose and straight hair.”

            If Van Helsing is the source and expression of knowledge and wisdom about vampires, then Jonathan Harker is the primary listener. A “Harker” is one who listens or one who “hearkens,” which means to find out through inquiry. “Hark” is also a call to hunting dogs to bring them back when they have lost the scent; it can also be a whisper or a private communication (i.e., a confession). At first, the meaning of the name “Jonathan” seems to point at a biblical connection, but what I found in my hours of squinting through my Oxford English Dictionary was rather revealing, and it confirmed my hunch that Dracula’s cast was designed by Stoker to dramatize aspects of his own psychology. A “Jonathan” turns out to mid-1800s slang for a device used to light a pipe, i.e., to “stoke” the flame of a pipe, making Jonathan literally a “stoker.”  

            Now we turn to the author’s name, “Stoker,” which seems adequately obvious, and find another surprise that explains Stoker’s fascination with the historical figure of Dracula. Vlad Dracula, as we all know by now through pop-culture osmosis, was the vicious, sadistic, and murderous 15th-century ruler of Transylvania known also as Vlad “Tepes,” meaning Vlad the “Impaler.”

            “Stoker” refers to a man who tends a furnace, but the word “stoke” has a range of meanings: it is cognate with “stock,” referring to a place of origin; it is a stick (sometimes used in measurement); it means to stab or to thrust with a weapon. If we combine these meanings, we see that a “stoke” is also readable as a “stake,” which is what Vlad used to impale his victims. (Dracula the vampire must also remain in proximity to his “stock” by carrying with him 50 crates of dirt from his place of origin.)

            What I’ve shown is that Stoker, Van Helsing, Harker, and Dracula are integrally related because they are all figuratively and literally stokers. In the OED, the word “sing” also occurs between “sin” and “singe,” providing a nice poetic irony to Van Helsing’s name, since he is, when it comes down to it, arguably more perverse than Dracula -- in fighting the monster his zeal gives us a disturbing glimpse of his own monstrous nature.  

            Some have suggested that Van Helsing is based on the great folklorist and Sanskrit scholar, Max Müller, who was a contemporary of Stoker. My reading shows that rather than basing the character on Muller, Stoker incorporated Müller’s “Solar Theory,” a theory that, by tracing words back to their oldest meanings, attempted to prove that all folktales and myths were ultimately about the rising and setting of the sun, i.e., allegories about the conflict between light and darkness. For Dracula, that seems true on many levels, the most profound being the conflict of light and dark in Stoker’s own psyche, perhaps sublimated in his mind but dramatized for the reader through the relationship of the various “Stokers” in Dracula.

            Müller’s theory clearly influenced Stoker’s naming of other characters: Lucy Westenra and Mina Murray (who becomes Mina Harker). Lucy is the woman who becomes a vampire and is finally staked by her own fiancee under Van Helsing’s guidance. Her name is constructed from “luce,” meaning “light,” and Westenra, which can be read as a scrambled “Ra in West,” meaning the setting sun. (“Lucy” can also be read as short for “Lucifer,” which is both “bringer of light” -- Venus, the morning star -- and also Satan. The most mundane reading of “Westenra” is as a reference to her “West End” qualities, i.e., her spoiled wealth.) She is the simultaneously sexualized and demonized woman who is destroyed through what Leonard Wolf characterizes, quite convincingly, as a figurative gang rape. 

            Mina’s name, on the other hand, resonates with “mine” (or a hollow shaft), “mind” (as in “mind my words,” making her a “harker”), and “minnie” (short for “mother”); it also may refer to “minar” as in the root for “minaret,” a reference to a tower from which a muezzin looks to the East (as opposed to Lucy’s West). The root meaning of “minar” is “fire,” which connects Mina to “Stoker.” Her maiden name, “Murray,” also contains the sun reference, “ray,” to read as “demure, red light.” But a “muray” is a fortification or a wall; “mure” is also to wall in or block up, and “murrain” means a pestilence or dead flesh. “Murrey” refers to a purple-red or blood color. In the course of the novel, Mina becomes only partially vampirized though she shares Dracula’s blood; she is “walled in” by Van Helsing’s use of the host and she remains “mure” or tender-hearted and demure, not becoming voraciously sexualized like the unfortunate Lucy (though she does become menacing or “minacous” at times). She only just survives Dracula because of the devotion of her men.

            Most of the significant names in Dracula are equally charged with symbolic meaning, suggesting that Stoker did not design them by accident. His physiognomy of naming reveals some conscious understanding of his own sexual ambivalence, his attempt to come to grips with his intense homoeroticism, and his repressed misogyny. In the end it is a vividly dramatized psychobiographical confession, full of intense and authentic contradictions. It even contains a jibe against Henry Irving, which previous critics have not noticed: If Stoker is linked to Dracula, then Irving is linked to his servant, Renfield. The root of “Renfield” is “ren” or “rend,” suggesting a tearing apart; this parallels him to an inversion of “Irving”: rearranging the first three leters of the name gives us “riving,” which means to split things apart. Stoker may have been projecting his repressed resentment for being Irving’s personal assistant.

            Like Polidori, Stoker did not live to enjoy the success of his work. He died nearly penniless in 1912 of tertiary syphillis. If Polidori’s death resonates with vampires and suicide, then Stoker’s resonates with his own allegorical depiction of vampirism as a venereal disease.



            After Dracula, the only vampire novel with comparable psychological depth has been Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire. Like Dracula, what makes Interview a masterpiece is that it can be read on so many levels, ranging from an allegory of the San Francisco gay scene just prior to the discovery of AIDS to a disguised psychobiography in the vein of Dracula. Interview took nearly a decade to write (unlike its sequels), and it reveals, within its structure, a complexity the subsequent works lack. For example, Interview’s narrative structure is based on Heart of Darkness (with an unnamed narrator telling the story of an unnamed journalist who interviews the vampire, Louis).

            The physiognomy of names in Interview is remarkably parallel to what I’ve shown for Dracula. Louis, the name of the central character, comes from Louisiana, the state in which Anne Rice was born. “Louisiana” breaks into “Louis,” “I,” and “Ana” (a form of Anne), to suggest the character’s connection to Rice (which also happens to be a major crop raised in that state). The gender inversion of Anne Rice into Louis makes additional sense if one recalls that Rice’s name was originally Howard Allen Frances O’Brien. Interview’s other central character, Lestat, can be read as “The State,” referring once again to Louisiana, but also, and more interestingly, as a Frankified sound anagram taken from the name of Rice’s husband, Stanley Rice. Stanley inverts into “Leystan” or, “LeStan,” whose sound is very close to “LeStat” given the muffling of the final consonant in French. Lestat, as readers know, is French, referring to the “Frances” in Rice’s original name.

             Even this brief reading of the physiognomy of names in Rice’s Interview shows us once again what the great renderings of literary vampires have in common. They are complex means of exploring the haunting and unresolvable tropes of blood, sexuality, contagion, and the repressed. To return to my opening point, it is no wonder that “Buffy” has had such an influence on its predominantly teenage audience. In the present age of AIDS and school violence, the themes illustrated by the symbol of the vampire -- blood, contagion, sexuality, and repression -- are as much a part of our culture as they were in the 19th Century. We can only look forward to what the next incarnation of this remarkably expressive and grisly  cultural icon will tell us about ourselves.



Suggested Readings:

            For those interested in John Polidori, I recommend Poor Polidori: A Critical Biography of the Author of ”The Vampire.” by D.L. Macdonald. The 1819 edition of his “The Vampyre” is reprinted in Three Gothic Novels, edited by E. F. Bleiler from Dover, which also published Varney the Vampire in two volumes. The best general reference work on vampires is the massive 900-page second edition of The Vampire Book: The Encyclopedia of the Undead, edited by J. Gordon Melton (though when it comes to sheer reading pleasure, there is really no substitute for the idiosyncratic Montague Summers and his The Vampire: His Kith and Kin). The two most useful reference works on Dracula are In Search of Dracula: The History of Dracula and Vampires by Raymond McNally and Radu Florescu, and Dracula: The Connoisseur’s Guide by Leonard Wolf. There are three biographies of Bram Stoker, but of these I recommend only Barbara Bedford’s Bram Stoker: A Biography of the Author of Dracula. Buffy and Rice fans, I imagine, must know their turf better than I.


©2002 by Heinz Insu Fenkl

Originally published in Realms of Fantasy #45, February, 2002