21L.310 | Fall 2018 | Undergraduate

Bestsellers: Out for the Count


Auerbach Reading Guide

 Auerbach, Nina. Our Vampires, Ourselves. University of Chicago Press, 1997. ISBN: 9780226032023.

We are now in a position to assess the arguments of Nina Auerbach in Our Vampires, Ourselves.

Auerbach has been amongst the most influential scholars in this field during the past quarter of a century and is co-editor of the Norton Dracula which is the set text for this course. A lengthy extract from it is published in the appendix to the Norton edition of Dracula, but it is largely about vampire movies. I thought it better to have a look at the original from which it was taken. What to do with this is to ask “how much of this is true”? “Is this a reasonable assessment of the evidence?” (which, remember, you now also possess). The passages in quotation marks are Auerbach, the rest is me (but a fair paraphrase of what she says). Anything in editorial [square brackets] is also me. Obviously if you have time, you will want to consult Auerbach, and later Christopher Frayling’s books in their original form. Auerbach links the vampire trope with contemporary (i.e. late 20th-century) cultural and political developments, and thinks that it changed more or less in step with these. Auerbach was a rebellious as a kid and took to vampire and horror stories to avoid being a boring girl; and as she became increasingly aware politically, and saw—from a Democratic standpoint—whole administrations, Nixon, Reagan and Bush turn FDR’s dictum, “nothing to fear but fear itself” on its head and positively peddle fear as a tool of government, began to see that there might be parallels between this and the vampire fiction she loved, and here lay the germs of the present study.

Chapter 1: Giving Up the Ghost: Nineteenth Century Vampires

Here, she argues that before Dracula vampires were essentially companionable figures. They weren’t exotic and not all drank blood. Speaking of Byron’s “Fragment”, she says “Darvell is a compelling contemporary and glamorous traveling companion…Darvell is his friend’s sinister, superior sharer…Darvell’s menace lies not in sadistic persecution, but in his offer of ‘intimacy or friendship, according to the ideas of him who uses these words to express them’” (p. 13–14).

She lays great stress on the “remember your oath” pledge and interprets it as being on a basically ideal basis, involving companionship, allegiance, honour and reciprocity. There is no blood-sucking stuff in Byron’s version; this comes in with Polidori. Polidori’s bookish ingenue of a narrator, Aubrey, finds that Ruthven has killed the woman he loves and plans to drink the blood of his sister on her wedding night, but, says Auerbach, he never thinks of killing Ruthven because of the oath of friendship. The travel motif is new: in Slavonic folklore, the main source of vampire lore, vampires are mystically bound to their birthplace like the ghosts they resemble. Auerbach questions the popular point that all horror fiction is based on a fear of incest. [The reasoning in support of the latter would be something like: “what are the most scary sorts of stories? Why, horror stories. And what is the scariest thing in the real world? Incest. Therefore horror stories must be a metaphor for this widespread fear and aversion.] She says that being carried beyond the bounds of the family is the scary bit. She sees the phase of early vampire fiction, before Dracula, as basically homosocial and homoerotic: She says that vampires drink women’s blood to give them a sentimental bond with their menfolk (p. 18).

She refers for support to the friendship of the great English poets Wordsworth and Coleridge [in which as I recollect nobody devoured anybody’s sister]. She offers an account of the changes Planché made to Polidori’s tale in adapting it for the stage. Planché transferred the scene to Scotland, says Auerbach, because his company had Scottish costumes, [but this is to miss the point: Byron was a Scot, and Scotland had become long ere this the classic land of mystery and Romance. The opening scene in Planché’s adaptation is “Fingal’s Cave”, already famous through the poems of Ossian]. A playbill for the Theatre Royal production said:

This piece is founded on the various traditions concerning THE VAMPIRES, which assert that they are Spirits, deprived of all Hope of Futurity, by the Crimes committed in their Mortal State—but, that they are permitted to roam the Earth, in whatever Forms they please, with Supernatural Powers of Fascination—and, that they cannot be destroyed, so long as they sustain their dreadful Existence, by imbibing the BLOOD OF FEMALE VICTIMS, whom they are first compelled to marry. (quoted by Auerbach on p. 22)

Auerbach claims the Planché text introduces the notion that the moon has restorative and regenerative power for vampires, and continues, “For at least fifty years after Planche’s Vampire, the moon was the central ingredient of vampire iconography, vampires’ solitary and repetitive lives consisted of incessant deaths and—when the moon shone down on them—quivering rebirths” (p. 25).  She follows this with an account of moon imagery in various other texts, followed by a section entitled “Varney’s Moon” in which she discusses Varney the Vampire. In this text the fanged, long-nailed, corpse-like creature of later popular fantasy first appears. He is also the first who can turn his victims into vampires too. Mind you, what he’s ultimately after is not Flora Bannerworth’s blood or her soul, but the fortune concealed at Bannerworth Hall.

Auerbach says “…Varney is only one increasingly weary member of a predatory society, the paradigmatic citizen of a decade that named itself the ‘Hungry ’40s’” (p. 31). While Varney was being published, Karl Marx was in London writing Das Kapital which explicitly identified Capitalism as a predatory vampire. She continues: “His Capital (1867) sealed the vampire’s class descent from mobile aristocrat to exploitative employer: ‘Capital [says Marx] is dead labour which, vampire-like lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks’” (quoted on pp. 31–2). 

Then Auerbach moves on to present certain vampire characters, including Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, as metaphors for female homo-eroticism: Carmilla “presents herself as Laura’s only available source of intimacy. Everything male vampires seemed to promise, Carmilla performs: she arouses, she pervades, she offers a sharing self. This female vampire is licensed to realize the erotic, interpenetrative friendship male vampires aroused and denied” (pp. 38–9). Auerbach draws attention to the array of male “experts” who between them assemble the knowledge to destroy Carmilla. Auerbach continues: “In Andrea Weiss’s categorical but depressingly accurate diagnosis, ‘What has survived of Carmilla from Victorian literature and worked its way into twentieth-century cinema is its muted expression of lesbians, no longer sympathetically portrayed but now reworked into a male pornographic fantasy’” (quoted on p. 53).

Auerbach’s argument, briefly summarized, is that until Stoker came, the 19th-century vampire represented intimacy and friendship but this was dispelled by Dracula of whom it was truly said by one of his “brides”: “You yourself never loved; you never love!” (quoted on p. 60) and this became the motif of the emotionally reduced, and to that extent therefore trivialized, typical 20th-century vampire. [As a point of simple interest, if you are curious about the figure of the expert investigator of the occult like Le Fanu’s Dr. Martin Hesselius and Bram Stoker’s Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, you might like to check out the Wikipedia entry on “Occult Detective Fiction.” The line of occult sleuths would appear to terminate in Angel, although he is not human which might rather spoil the pattern.]

Chapter 2: Dracula: A Vampire of our Own

[At this point, the authorities interestingly disagree.] Dracula brings a new emphasis on animality and physical foulness, and ancient evil, says Auerbach, representing a new departure for the idea of the vampire. On the other hand, Christopher Frayling in his Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula (Faber and Faber, 1992) sees a neat line of development of the vampire idea through the 19th century from the beginnings of such fiction and culminating (so far as that century was concerned) in Dracula. Auerbach adopts a different interpretation seeing Dracula as radically new, and destructive of the older ideas of what vampires were like. Dracula can shape shift in a way earlier vampires couldn’t, she says, and he derives his vitality from his native earth rather than the moon (p. 86). The animalism of Dracula which Jonathan Harker finds repulsive, and his close affinity with creatures such as wolves and bats, must have echoed uncomfortably for thoughtful Victorians who knew their Darwin, and had hoped, with Tennyson that evolution would eventually envisage mankind “working out the beast, / And let the ape and tiger die” (p. 92) [this from In Memoriam].

Ruthven was notable for “the deadly hue of his face, which never gained a warmer tint” (Polidori, The Vampyre, in Penguin, p.7), but Dracula [after feeding] is hideously ruddy. Ruthven was dead; Dracula, in Stoker’s suggestive coinage, is undead. (p. 95)

[A look in the online version of The Oxford English Dictionary under “undead” might show some interesting things here]. She says it captures “not the dreadfulness of death, but the innate horror of vitality” (p. 95).  Earlier vampires depleted their victims; Dracula energises them. The heightened sensory awareness we see in later vampires is introduced here, and she quotes Lucy, and notes that Anne Rice revived the idea. “It is easy and obvious to condemn out of hand the sexist sexuality of her staking…” (p. 98), she says.

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