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There is a huge difference in the way vampires are perceived today and how they were described in popular literature throughout history. From the medieval vampire conceived as a foul- smelling, ugly creature, to the sophisticated, immaculately dressed hunk of today. The whole sexual element of a charming, smooth-talking individual only found its way into popular literature once the eighteenth century panic about vampire sightings had died down.
At the height of the Gothic craze for ghost stories and tales of the supernatural, an English poet called John Stagg, wrote a poem called The Vampyre. In the preface, he explained that the story was founded on opinions and reports from Hungary and several parts of Germany, towards the beginning of the last century. The poem tells a story of Herman, informing his wife Gertrude, that a recently dead friend named Sigismund leaves the grave at night and drains his blood as he sleeps. Herman knows he will soon die, become a vampire and come for her blood. This is a very long poem, but here are the verses where Herman tells his wife what to do when this happens:
“But, O Gertrude! dearest wife!
The keenest pangs hath last remain’d
When dead, I too shall seek thy life,
Thy blood by Herman shall be drained.
“But, to avoid this horrid fate,
Soon as I’m dead and laid in earth,
Drive thro’ my corpse a jav’lin straight; -
This shall prevent my coming forth.
“O watch with me, this last sad night,
Watch in your chamber here alone,
But carefully conceal the light
Until you hear my parting groan.
“The live-long night poor Gertrude sate,
Watch’d by her sleeping, dying lord;
The live-long night she mourn’d his fate,
The object whom her soul ador’d.
This is a tragic, romantic poem, and definitely does not end with a happily ever after. (But I loved it) Reminds me of the frightening stories my grandmother told when I was a child. Her stories always ended in tragedy.
Another romantic poet to write about vampires was Johann Ludwig von Tiecke, in his poem, The Bride of the Grave, and in his story, Wake Not the Dead! The story was part of a collection of folk tales based on the model of the Brothers Grimm, and was published in English in 1823. It told of Walter, a lord, and his wife, Brunhilda. Although they shared a passionate erotic love, Brunhilda had a terrible temper and terrorized the household. When she suddenly died, Walter took a new wife, Swanhilda, and they had two children. But Walter began to miss his lustful nights with Brunhilda, and compelled a sorcerer to wake her from the dead by giving her corpse blood to drink. Brunhilda returned to life more beautiful than ever, but with a worse temper and razor sharp teeth. She drained the blood of the household staff and family until all were dead. When she turned on Walter, he killed her. When he took another woman in his arms she turned into a snake. The castle caught fire, the walls fell in, and as he was crushed to death, he heard a voice command, “Wake Not the Dead!”
The theme of women becoming the seductive enchantress of death became popular among the romantic poets, including John Keats, whose poems, ‘The Lamia’ and ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’. Both stories depict beautiful women, who turn out to be supernatural beings that charm mortal men into spiritual slavery, leaving their life in ruins.
Lord Byron, one of the leading Romantic poets, was famously described by his married lover Lady Caroline Lamb as ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’ also used women as the seductive enchantress in his poem, ‘The Giaour’ which actually mentions vampires by name. The story is about a Turkish girl, Leila, who falls in love with an infidel (the ‘giaour’ of the title). The infidel kills Leila’s husband, and is punished by becoming a vampire. It is thought that Lord Byron first heard of vampires on a grand tour of Europe at the turn of the nineteenth century.
Lord Byron played a large part in the way we view vampires today. He was an aristocrat, playboy and the model for the first real vampire story by John William Polidori, ‘The Vampyre’ published in 1819.
Polidori was Byron’s personal physician, and in the summer of 1816, he stayed with Byron in Switzerland at a villa on Lake Geneva. There he spent time with Byron and his friends Percy Shelley, Shelley’s fiancée Mary Godwin, and Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clarmont.
Due to a lot of rain that summer, the little circle of friends was kept inside for several days at a time. They read a collection of horror fiction known as ‘Tales of the Dead’ then decided to have a writing contest. Mary Godwin, who later became Mary Shelley, came up with the idea for her novel ‘Frankenstein’ which is perhaps the most famous horror story of all time.
Lord Byron, for his part, began a story of a journey about an old man named Augustus Darvell. As the journey progresses, Darvell becomes weaker and when they reach a cemetery, his face becomes black and he starts to decompose. Byron had intended to have Darvell to come back as a vampire, but never finished the story.
Not long after they returned from Switzerland, John Polidori and Lord Byron had a falling out.
Polidori had been inspired by Lord Byron’s fragment of a story and wrote a short story of his own, ‘The Vampyre’. Its hero, Lord Ruthven, a bored and spoiled aristocrat, was based on Lord Byron.
Polidori’s story was published in the ‘New Monthly Magazine’ as a tale by Lord Byron in 1819. Both Polidori and Lord Byron protested that Byron was not the author, but to no avail. Buy this time, Lord Byron had become famous with the public, especially his armies of female admirers – who were clamoring for his work. Like many celebrities today, his bad behavior and sexual liaisons only made him more attractive to his female fans.
The story became an immediate sensation, partly because it was believed Byron had written it, but also because it met the public’s growing enthusiasm for gothic horror stories. It transformed the ugly, grotesque vampire of Slavic folklore into the suave, charismatic, upper-class villain we all know and love today.
Google these authors, poems, and short stories. I promise you’ll not regret it. If you're like me and love history and vampires, and there's “stories of old” you’re particularly fond of, please leave a comment. I would love to read them.
Until next time,