Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Horror Of...Dracula through the Ages - The Literature That Came Before

From folklore and rumor, we go to the tale on the page.

Let's get into the literature that led into and inspired Dracula. After all, while Dracula inspired many, it was also born from earlier work.

Many of the works that helped cement the more modern view of the vampire, and formed the basis of Dracula, came early in the 19th century.

Among the early writings of the century were a number of interesting Gothic works, including Frankenstein. Interestingly, it was at the famed Summer getaway of 1816, which drew Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Claire Claremont, and Lord George Byron, that both Frankenstein and our first vampiric tale were forged.

In that Swiss estate where these friends were while away, there was another friend, John William Polidori. He was a friend and physician to Lord Byron. As he listened to the various tales that the others were concocting in their long nightly chats, he had a vision of his own. A vision of an aristocratic monster.

The Vampyre - 1819 - Cover
The resulting work was The Vampyre, published in 1819.

In that story a young Englishman, Aubrey, befriends a strange foreigner new to London society, Lord Rathven. The two embark together on a long trip across Europe. After a time, the young man becomes bothered by the way Rathven treats people, and in particular, women.

They part and Aubrey heads to Greece. There he meets a young woman who warns him of vampires. She is later killed, and he is met again by Rathven. None of her warnings set off any alarms in his head.

The two continue on until they are attacked by thieves, and Rathven is mortally wounded. He begs an oath out of Aubrey. Aubrey must not reveal anything about Rathven for one year to that day. He agrees to this.

Aubrey returns to London. There he discovers Rathven, now with a new name. He's begun a courtship with Aubrey's sister.

Aubrey now realizes just what Rathven is, but he is constrained by the oath he took to tell no one, even his sister, what is happening. And the strain of this destroys Aubrey's mind and health. Before his death though, he sends a letter to his sister.

The letter only arrives on the day of her wedding, and the day the oath ends. Unfortunately, she never receives it, and is discovered dead, drained of all blood.

Not remotely my favorite vampiric tale, but it does help begin laying down some future expectation for vampires, like Dracula, to potentially follow. Aristocratic. Charming. Seeking out the blood of the rich.

The story gained a certain popularity. It was repeatedly adapted to the stage and performed across Europe.

Varney the Vampire - 1845 - Cover
The next book of note would come twenty some years later. Varney the Vampire was written over a few years, starting in 1845. The author of this long writing endeavor was James Malcolm Rymer (or Thomas Peckett Prest, there seems to be a level of dispute about who created the story -- Though, of note, these two created the character of Sweeney Todd in similar tales.).

Part of the vagueness in the production of Varney the Vampire arises from the fact it is a serialized Victorian novel. The sections of the novel were written with the intent to print them in a magazine (or as pamphlets). Therefore, as each part of the story was completed, it was sent off to be printed and sold. It was a common practice of the day; many people experienced the work of authors like Charles Dickens.

What a work like this was generally called was Penny Dreadful. The Penny Dreadfuls were weekly periodicals, each issue costing a penny. The ideas was that a story would carry on from week to week, drawing a reader back to see what would happen. The stories were generally crime stories or horror stories. The more lurid the better, and the more popular.

The writers were paid by the word so they were motivated to have any story stretch on as long was possible. But at the same time, a story that didn't sell well could be ended quickly, so writers would often write each segment so that the whole story could be concluded in the next issue.

So a story like Varney the Vampire can be quite long. (It also makes the authorship unclear. It may be that both men above worked on the story at different points. In fact, other authors may also have added parts.) It is also often seen as a meandering tale; over time the author seems to loose track of some aspects, or disliked and changed the direction of the story. So characters, plots, and facts shift. Characters disappear, and new ones move in. As well, Varney's origins and motives change somewhat through the story. It really is like the whole TV soap opera experience.

Varney's story is of a figure who stalks a fallen family, the Bannerworths. They once were wealthy, but time are tough at the start of the story. As the story progresses, he's implied to be a former member of the family returned. He's out for their blood.

Varney is chased...yet again.
At the start of the story he is sneaking in the home, preying on a sleeping Flora Bannerworth. He descends on her, and then feeds on her, leaving a pair of marks on her throat. (This image should be familiar enough to Dracula and modern vampire fans.)

The attack draws the family, who rush in and sees Varney, who then flees. He's shot at and hit, but keeps going. He is continually resilient. The household rush from the house, chasing him down. When they find him under a tree, they shoot him again. And he runs.

One person realizes that he looked familiar, like an old family portrait. So they go to the family mausoleum and see an empty coffin, with the name Marmaduke Bannerworth on it. Marmaduke had committed suicide. (This was one of the ways people thought you'd become a vampire. Commit such a sin and you were damned to walk the earth and attacking people.)

Later they are contacted by a Sir Francis Varney, who offers to buy their house, and get them out of their financial woes. It is Varney, of course. They recognize him immediately. ...But they agree to let him come, if he stays away from the family.

And as the story goes on, we have episodes of him continuously preying on the family, getting shot at, and fleeing. Then you have interludes where the family tries to protect him from mobs. They have all sorts of interludes.

"Nobody expects the Vampire Inquisition!"
I hope you can see the certain soap opera quality going on here.

Varney also becomes more of a sympathetic monster as he starts being shown to loath being a vampire. This wasn't his plan for eternity. He becomes the reluctant vampire, which we know of well nowadays.

As the story finally approaches it's end, we learn yet another origin story for Varney. He was originally Mortimer Bannerworth. He had aided in helping the royal family of England escape from Oliver Cromwell's forces. This ended up leading to an argument with his son. In the disagreement, he lashed out and accidentally killed him son. A short time later he is killed by Cromwell's men. He rises from death, a light shining down on him. A voice on high declares that he must suffer for what he's done, and is now Varney the Vampire. (Again, for committing a sin such as his, he's condemned to walk the earth...And again, the world will suffer with him. Thanks, Divinity.)

The story ends with Varney leaping into Mt. Vesuvius, ending his existence at last. (And finally ending this 220 chaptered epic.)

Varney continues the formation of our modern view of vampires. Still a noble, but now they seek out the neck with fangs, hypnotize, and have great strength. But he also walks in the day, and is not bothered by garlic, crosses, and the other usual mix of wards. Much of that won't become real issues for some time still.

You can find a number of qualities of Varney that go on and become part of Dracula. Other aspects would find their way into other vampires, like Barnabas Collin in Dark Shadows.

I'm not sure I have the patience to sit down and read the whole thing ever. But people in that day did. And it was eventually published as a complete volume when it was finished. For completist, I hope you enjoy it.

The last influence for the character of Dracula I want to look to is a creature quite different from the others. Carmilla.

Carmilla visits the general's niece.
Carmilla is a 1872 novel by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. (He also wrote Uncle Silas and In A Glass Darkly, which this is actually part of.) It tells the story of a female vampire which is praying on the family of British nobles living abroad in Europe.

The family is made up only of a father and a daughter, Laura. They live in quiet peace in a Stygian castle.

As a child she dreamed that she had been visited by a beautiful young woman in her bedroom. The woman approached her, and bit her on the chest. When she awoke no injuries were found on her; so it was deemed a dream.

Years pass and her father tells her that a friend, an old general, has plans to travel and visit them. He was going to bring his young niece, but the niece has suddenly died of consumption. Instead the general will be visiting at a later date, and explain events.

Then, outside the castle, a carriage accident occurs. In the carriage are a woman and her young daughter (the same age as Laura). The daughter is named Carmilla, and she is the same figure from Laura's youthful "dream".

Carmilla appears to be injured, and needs rest. The mother asks to leave Carmilla in the family's care, as she continues on a vital trip. So the father agrees, and Laura and Carmilla become fast friends.

Carmilla's midnight karaoke was getting
hard to handle.
They spend many happy days together. But Carmilla has her oddities. She's secretive. She doesn't like Christian songs. She sleepwalks in the night. She also makes occasional sexual advances on Laura.

Also, at night, Laura has dreams of a large cat that enters her room. It leaps on her and bites her chest, then takes the form of a woman and leaves. Laura shrugs it all off.

Then, as she goes through some old portraits of her ancestors, she finds one that looks exactly like Carmilla. Mircalla, the Countess Karnstein. She lived nearly 200 years before.

Over time, Laura becomes sick, and weakens. A doctor is called in, and looks over her. After talking to the doctor, the father takes Laura and immediately heads out to Karnstein. He asks that Carmilla be brought as well, once she awakens in the morning

On the way there they meet his old friend, the general. He explains what truly happened to his niece.

It seems they met a mother and young woman, named Millarca, at a party. They claimed to be old friends, and asked if Millarca could stay with them, as the mother had to leave on an urgent trip. (That sounds familiar.)

The general agreed to the request, and Millarca and the niece spent time together. But soon the niece fell ill.

The general called in a special doctor who helped him realize that the problem was a vampire. So he hid in her closet that night, and waited. The creature entered the room, and fed on the niece. The general lept out and attacked the creature, and it took the form of Millarca, then fled.

It was too late for the niece though.

A day out.
It seems that the general knows that the vampire is Mircalla Karnstein. When they reach Karnstein they learn that Mircalla's grave was hidden by the man that destroyed the local vampires. So the father heads off to find his descendants, who knows where her tomb was put.

While the general and Laura wait, Carmilla appears. The general and her instantly know one another, and prepare to fight. But when the general grabs an ax, Carmilla flees.

It's now that Laura realizes that all these events have been tied together. Mircalla just rearranged the letters of her name when she met each victim.

When the descendant of the man that entombed Mircalla arrives, he shows them were the grave lies. They summon an imperial commission, who exhume Mircalla and destroy her. (Hey. Why not be official, right?)

Carmilla offers a departure from what we often expect from vampire tales, a female creature of the night. She's dangerous and beguiling. But she isn't one for fighting. (Granted Varney was constantly running away as well.)

But like future vampires, she has new abilities. She walks through walls. She also shape changes to a large cat.

There are qualities here that will clearly return in Dracula's escapades, though he will take the form of a wolf instead. He also is made a more aggressive force that isn't quick to turn from a fight in the night.

As to Stoker's plotting, the story of Laura's nightly attacks is quite similar to the attacks on Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker in Dracula.

Also, Carmilla is one of a series of stories that make up an anthology, In A Glass Darkly. These stories are tied together by the conceit that they are cases studied by one Dr. Martin Hesselius, an occult minded doctor. Some see this as being something of a proto-Dr. Abraham Van Helsing.

It's time to get to the book most know. You know the book. Bram's Stoker most remembered tale.

Dracula (1931) Promo Photo

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