A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories
London: Bloomsbury, 2010. 467 p. Hardback. £18.99.
Reviewed by Nathalie Saudo-Welby
Université de Picardie, Amiens
Having got over the shock of seeing Dom Calmet, Théophile Gautier and Aleksei Tolstoy called Victorians, the reader will be able to see this bulky anthology of vampire literature for what it is: an impeccably edited, beautiful book, with an excellent selection of stories and stimulating commentaries by the editor. This anthology, which will interest vampirologists, lovers of hair-raising stories, and students of Gothic literature alike, associates some documentary texts and nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century fiction by English, American, Irish, French, German and Russian authors. The main introduction is dense, informative and a pleasure to read. Each tale is preceded by a one-or-two-page long introduction which provides a context for the tales, and can turn even an average story into a rewarding experience.
The non-fiction part includes documents central to the vampire writing tradition. There are extracts from Dom Calmet’s Dissertation sur les Vampires (1746), although I do not find the selection particularly interesting. Instead of Emily Gerard’s classic article on ‘Transylvanian Superstitions’, there is a passage from her book The Land beyond the Forest (1888).
The nineteen stories include excellent anthology classics, such as ‘Good Lady Ducayne’ by Elizabeth Braddon and John Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’. The latter tale, which was written in the famous evening in 1816 when Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote Frankenstein, was initially misattributed to Lord Byron, who had taken Polidori to Switzerland with him as his physician. Lord Byron’s own tale can also be found in the collection. Some lesser-known texts well deserve being discovered: ‘Luella Miller’ by Mary Freeman, F.G. Loring’s ‘The Tomb of Sarah’, which reads like an excellent pastiche of Dracula, and the amusing ‘Let Loose’ with its clever gory twist. The title of the book is taken from a chapter omitted from Dracula and published in 1914 with the title: ‘Dracula’s Guest’. It may account for Jonathan’s reminiscences of the fair female vampire with ‘wavy masses of golden hair and eyes like pale sapphires’ in chapter 3 of Dracula. Jonathan’s ‘dreamy fear’1 probably originates in that amended chapter, which appears at the end of Michael Sims’s book.
While the division of the book into three parts appears artificial, the ordering of the stories is adroitly managed. The reader may nevertheless be well advised to keep for the end Théophile Gautier’s ‘The Deathly Lover’ (‘La Morte amoureuse’, 1836), which emerges as the undeniable masterpiece in the collection. F.C. de Sumichrast’s 1900 translation does great justice to the poetry of the original.
What is enjoyable in this collection is not so much the vampires themselves as the form of the tales. Few vampires differ from the well-known clichés of the blood-thirsty, pale- yet powerful-looking creature who leaves its marks on its victims’ throats. Even when the authors pretend that they do, they never really surprise us:
Vampires are generally described as dark, sinister looking, and singularly handsome. Our Vampire was, on the contrary, rather fair, and certainly not at first sinister-looking, and though decidedly attractive in appearance, not what one would call singularly handsome.’2
Statistically, a small majority of the vampires in this collection are female, but three creatures are also shapeless, sexless monsters, who terrify us by transgressing familiar categories. Yet, however strong one’s personal interest in and attraction to vampires is, one is likely to develop a stronger fascination for the form taken by the tales themselves. The juxtaposition of stories of diverse origin and time, and of varying quality indeed makes for interesting contrasts and the reader will marvel at the vampire’s capacity to colonise different genres and traditions. The book contains writing in the decadent and sensational style, a detective story (‘Aylmer Vance and the Vampire’ by Alice and Claude Askew), and stories about artists and creation (‘A Mystery of the Campagna’ by Anne Crawford). Some tales have several narrators, others contain embedded stories; some are told by external observers, others are told by those – and there seem to be many, it is a comfort to learn – who escaped from the vampires’ fangs. As might be expected, none are told by the vampires themselves. The symbolic functions that vampires can have are numerous. For example, they sometimes represent Victorian anxieties about sex, race and lineage. The circulation of blood also represents that of money or of mysterious diseases. Some monsters are psychological vampires, or ‘financial vampires’.
Readers used to contemporary vampire fiction may be surprised by the scarcity of blood in the tales, but before they end the collection, they will have realised the truth of the Gothic writers’ motto: less is more, and Michael Sims’s book gives much more than its title promises.
1. Bram Stoker, Dracula. New-York: Norton, 1997, p. 42.
2. Count Eric Stenbock, ‘A True Story of a Vampire’ (1894) in Michael Sims, Dracula’s Guest, p. 314.
Cercles © 2010