For, let me tell you, the vampire is known everywhere that men have been. In old Greece, in old Rome, in Germany, France and India, even in the Chersonese; and in China, so far from us in all ways, there even he is and people fear him to this day. He has followed the wake of the beserker Icelander, the devil-begotten Hun, the Slav, the Saxon, the Magyar. The vampire lives on and cannot die by the mere passing of time; he flourishes wherever he can fatten on the blood of the living. He throws no shadow, he makes in the mirror no reflection. He has the strength of many in his hand. He can transform himself into a wolf or become as a bat. He can come in mist which he creates, or on moonlight rays as elemental dust. He can, when once he finds his way, come out from anything or into anything, no matter how close it be bound. He can see in the dark - no small power this in a world which is one half shut from the light.
Ah, but hear me through. He can do all these things, yet he is not free. Nay, he is even more prisoner than the slave of the galley, than the madman in his cell. He cannot go where he lists; he who is not of nature has yet to obey some of nature's laws. He may not enter anywhere at the first, unless there be someone of the household who bids him come. His power ceases at the coming of the day. It is said, too, that he can only pass running water at the slack or the flood of the tide. Then there are things which so afflict him that he has no power, as the garlic and things sacred, as this symbol, my crucifix. The branch of the wild rose on his coffin keeps him that he may not move from it; a sacred bullet fired into the coffin will kill him so that he be true dead; and as for the stake through him, or the cut-off head that giveth rest, we have seen it with our eyes.
In 1996 I had the idea of writing a book about vampires, with half an opportunistic eye on the centenary of Dracula’s publication the following year. My publishers at the time made vaguely enthusiastic noises and even half-commissioned an artist to illustrate it, but then everything went quiet. Then came a call from another publisher asking if I’d like to write a book about vampires for them. Well, to cut a long story short I ended up doing two – a much shorter version of this one and a drastic précis of a Montague Summers tome on vampires which we intended to publish as An Illustrated Guide to Vampires. So 1997 looked very promising for me on the vampire front. Then both publishers hit the rocks, as they regularly seem to do, and nothing came of either project. C’est la vie.
The Summers précis was at least paid for, which was some compensation. I posted it on my website as Montague Summers’ Guide to Vampires and curiously enough it attracts more correspondence than anything else, having been quoted in academic theses at least three times to my knowledge – most recently in 2003 by Estelle Valls de Gomis in her magnificent doctoral thesis (a copy of which I have sitting on the shelf above me as I write this) titled Le Vampire au Fils des Siecles submitted at Toulouse University.
I’ve also come across my edited Summers text either complete or in part on other people’s websites (usually Goth ones), which I take as a great compliment. This Book of the Vampire however just languished in need of a publisher until this chance finally came along, being dusted off occasionally and worked on whenever any fresh vampire news caught my interest. That’s both the problem and pleasure of unpublished books – you can’t leave them alone. Once they’re done and dusted, published and packed neatly into pages you can’t do any more. For better or worse they are as they are; but an unpublished book keeps calling for attention and while it is a pleasure being able to make improvements and look deeper into some of the questions, it’s also a relief finally sending it off to the printers so it can be read by strangers.
However, there was more to the original idea of this book than just spotting a promising publishing window. That simply provided a plausible justification. Writing about vampires was something I wanted to do anyway out of simple and long-standing curiosity. Most of my books look into the bright aspects of imagination – angels, unicorns, leprechauns and so on – and I was curious to see what would happen if I just aimed for the dark side and explored the subject of vampires in the same spirit because, after all, we each have a monster side of which we are usually unconscious, and in some curious way paying attention to vampires helps bring it into focus. That could just be me, of course, though I was encouraged by a quote from Cretan writer Nikos Kazantsakis (Zorba the Greek, Christ Recrucified etc.) who once declared: ‘What is Light? To stare into darkness with eyes wide open.’
Also, I had recently been asked to write an introduction for a reprint of Sabine Baring-Gould's classic 1865 Book of Werewolves, and was taken by his curiously healthy angle on an equally morbid topic. Sabine Baring-Gould was one of those dauntingly hyperactive Victorians who managed to combine a Church career with writing about thirty novels and a hundred other books. He was also a leading authority on archaeology and folklore. On the side he collected folksongs and wrote hymns, including Onward Christian Soldiers. So, a robust and eminently sane pillar of Victorian society, though one suspects his home life must have suffered . . .
What impressed me with his Book of Werewolves was the fascinated but detached angle he took on the subject. There was something so refreshingly wholesome about it that I wondered if something similar could be done with vampires. They had always fascinated me too, but in an ambiguous way. There’s a decadence about them and they’re dangerous too, because the more joky, Halloween and camp sides of vampires segue off into realms of genuine evil. When I started work, in fact, I dug out an old rosary and hung it over my desk, just to be on the safe side. I resisted the garlic though, apart from eating it in the usual palatable quantities.
So, writing the preface to Sabine Baring-Gould’s book probably sparked the idea of this venture. Later I learned it had also been a major inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula first time around. Such coincidences are wonderfully encouraging when working on an idea. It’s often an illusion, but writers and artists tend to be superstitious that way.
Although the early draft of this book missed the centenary, Bram Stoker’s Dracula has remained the focus because, although fiction, it is steeped in genuine vampire lore and probably did more than any other book to revive a fading tradition. Most of the novel’s first readers in 1897 had long stopped taking vampires seriously and had even almost forgotten about them. In highbrow circles the lamia, the blood-drinking temptress of classical Greece and Rome, was celebrated in poetry by Keats and others. There were also a few vampires already lurking in Victorian melodramatic fiction, but they had made no wide impact. Vampires were not really part of the popular cultural furniture the way, say, ghosts or goblins were. It was Dracula who unleashed hordes of the undead into the twentieth century and beyond.
Critics are fond of saying that Dracula is not in fact particularly well written. Maybe so in a strictly literary sense, but it still rates as a masterpiece of storytelling . The language may seem a bit crusty in parts these days, but the story is as potent as ever. The idea of vampires has become universal largely because of it. Open almost any newspaper and you are sure to find a mention of Dracula or vampires somewhere, even if only as a figure of speech. Meanwhile in over 800 movies vampirism has been used as a metaphor for sensuality, drug addiction, Aids and much else, besides being simply a good tool for scaring the pants off an audience.
Which was almost certainly Bram Stoker's main conscious aim in the first place. He was a theatre man and simply wanted to create a melodramatic sensation in his novel, something to stir his readers' nightmares and possibly pave the way for a stage show. It just happened that when digging around in his subconscious for some suitably creepy monster, he unearthed a peculiarly potent and shadowy one.
Over a century later his creation still shows little sign of running out of steam. On all levels from the sublime to the ridiculous, vampires continue to be endlessly reinvented. They are taken seriously by the mad and laughed at by children - because Dracula has proved, a little surprisingly, to be a great comedian. There are endless spoofs, but unlike most scary figures that come to be laughed at he has also proved quite able to make a shocking comeback, as in Frances Ford Coppola's 1994 film Bram Stoker's Dracula. On the bookshelves, Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, Brian Lumley's Necroscope saga and Peter Tremayne's Dracula novels also manage to stir some discomfort, to name just a few titles that come immediately to mind; while the 1994 film by Neil Jordan of Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire managed to break out of its genre to reach a mainstream audience.
Across the spectrum between serious creepiness and light humour, taking in Sesame Street, The Rocky Horror Show and Buffy the Vampire Slayer along the way (plus, come to think of it, Quentin Tarantino's From Dusk Till Dawn), vampire appreciation societies are booming, particularly in North America where it is often hard to tell just how much the members of these societies are play-acting.
Then there are the 'real' vampires that are still taken very seriously by large numbers of people, and these are not just the occasional lunatics or war-crazed cannibals who develop a taste for human flesh and blood. One of the strangest developments of the late twentieth century was the Chupacabras mania that swept Latin America. These goatsuckers may have been very different to Stoker's spectral Count, but they tapped into the same vein of superstition to show that the fear, at least, of vampires is far from dead today.
In Malaysia there were similar hysterical outbursts around the same time over the resurgence of their own local bloodsuckers, the terrifying penanggalan, disembodied flying heads which flit thirstily through the night with their entrails dangling behind them. London's Highgate Cemetery also continues to be worth giving a miss at night, as were the famously creepy cemeteries of New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina in 2005. To most of us vampires have been relegated to a genre of fiction but they still scratch at the window, trying to pick their way back into our reality, because they embody a very real and persistent aspect of the human psyche. Mockery or trivialisation are not enough to banish them because they simply return in other guises. Shape-shifting has always been one of the vampire's talents.
Continued in the published book . . .