Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 22 Oct 2018

The Vampire: A New history by Nick Groom

This new, meticulously researched investigation into the nature of the Vampire in myth, literature and politics has been published to coincide with the two hundred year anniversary of the publication of John Polidori’s The Vampyre which can, legitimately I think, claim to be the genesis of our modern idea the vampire in books and films. Polidori’s tale has its genesis in the now infamous 1816 ‘summer with no summer’ that saw Bryon, Shelley, Mary Godwin, Claire Clairmont and Polidori take refuge in the Italian lake-side Villa Diodati and spend their time daring each other to come up with increasingly complicated ghost or horror stories. Famously Mary Godwin (later to be Mary Shelley) produced an early draft of Frankenstein but less well known was Polidori’s effort that was in fact his third or fourth story that summer and which probably drew on the abandoned draft of something started by Byron.

Groom’s contention is that the Vampire is in fact a product of the meeting (or perhaps collision) between ancient Eastern European myths ( including ‘histories’ of corpses rising from the grave to smother their victims) and the Western European Enlightenment. It was this, he convincingly argues, that turned the vampire legend into something much more than a mere reworking of old superstitions because it was possible to use the label of vampire as something that carried a host of different meanings. It wasn’t necessary to actually believe in the real life existence of vampires for the legend to have its uses and sceptical Enlightenment thinkers were happy to see the idea of vampire as a useful metaphor for a host of other social concerns. 

Much of the vampire legend’s potency lies in the very human obsession with blood as life-force. It’s not a huge step from this set of concerns to seeing the vampire as a metaphor for contagion or for the passing of ‘bad blood’. Groom also vividly illustrates the way the idea of the vampire as something that sucks the life-blood from a victim can be used as a very colourful method of describing politicians or political policies with which you disagree – the idea that your political enemy is a vampire on the electorate or is pursuing policies that suck the life-blood from the electorate is still one which has common currency.

I was especially struck by the way the author maps out the gender issues that dominate the pre-Stoker writings that capitalise on the vampire story. In these earlier writings it is most commonplace for the vampire to be a woman – a sort of undead embodiment of the fears and fantasies of men in relation to women’s sexuality. Groom explores this at some length but doesn’t, for me at least, tease out enough of the underlying misogyny at the heart of these early blood-suckers – there is, I suspect, another book to be written that explores more fully the underlying personal, social and masculine hysteria that underpins these tales.

This study only takes us up to the defining moment in Vampire literature – the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula – because Groom is much more concerned with what brought us to that point rather than what came after. In many ways what followed the publication of Stoker’s novel has been less interesting because that book has almost achieved a sort of hegemony over the genre – it’s the taproot against which everything else measures its existence in the world of vampire mythology.

The book is just over a couple of hundred pages long but is made a third again longer  but a really comprehensive set of notes and references as well as a pretty big index. I think this speaks volumes for the academic care, effort and digging around that Groom has undertaken to uncover the hugely complex early history and to try and make the rather arcane debates about the origins of the word Vampire accessible to a lay reader.

This isn’t necessarily a book for the Hammer Horror fans but if you’re interested in Gothic horror as a genre or you are fascinated about the way the idea of the vampire became a social and political tool, you’ll want to read this book. Groom says on a number of occasions that he finds the vampire provides a ‘way of thinking’ rather than being a popular cultural phenomenon and at first I wasn’t quite sure what he meant but by the end I think he’s made his point convincingly enough. A recommended read.


Terry Potter

October 2018