21L.310 | Fall 2018 | Undergraduate

Bestsellers: Out for the Count


McClelland Reading Guide

McClelland, Bruce. Slayers and their Vampires: A Cultural History of Killing the Dead. University of Michigan Press, 2006. ISBN: 9780472069231. 

[McClelland is a leading Slavonic studies scholar, fluent in Serbo-Croat, and his book one of the better ones to have been published on the subject in recent years. The central point is that in Eastern European tradition the vampire never occurred singly, on its own; there was always an accompanying figure, the skilled and knowledgeable vampire slayer. He discusses how one becomes a vampire in the traditional societies which gave birth to the idea, and how the communities could then respond to the subsequent threat. You’ll need to understand what the Enlightenment was; make sure you do.]

‘…the many literary readings of the Dracula tale and the wide variety of popular Euro-American beliefs about vampires are now part of a still-emerging myth’ (p. 16). McClelland says that Stoker’s Dracula actually owes very little to indigenous Balkan folkloric vampires. When the movies took up the trope they simplified it still further, turning it into a black-and-white conflict between good and evil.

In Tod Browning’s film, [Dracula, 1931] the tale is flattened into a black-and-white struggle of good against evil: the mesmeric, undead Dracula is quite definitely monstrous and supernatural, and any sympathy the viewer might have for him as a character can only be based on the dramatic pathos of his self-proclaimed inability to die…The moral simplification that occurs in the shift from the printed to the cinematic version…A major reason the novel is still in print over a hundred years after its publication is not the quality of the writing, which is only slightly better than mediocre, but, rather, because this ambiguity of evidence is fascinating and tantalizing in its subtlety. (p. 27)

He claims that Dracula’s status is more ambiguous than frequently noticed: at first blush this doesn’t look very probable, but we’ll see when we come to his Stoker chapter.

McClelland then goes at great length into the Balkan evidence, seeing the vampire emerge in the Dark Ages in communities conflicted first in the struggle for dominance between Christianity and Paganism, and latterly between Christian and Turk. The blood-drinking motif emerges in late-Dark-Ages northern Balkans amongst a still imperfectly Christianized population as a symbolic reproach of what were imagined to be typically pagan practices. He points out the old Slavonic belief that soul and body were not finally separated until 40 days after the burial of the corpse. He also discusses the many, often accidental, ways in which a person could become a vampire, many of them involving imperfectly-performed funeral rituals.

It is of great importance that nothing impede the journey of the soul to the otherworld once a person has died. According to Orthodox belief as it is encountered in Slavic areas, the soul is separable from the body but is required to stay around the body for forty days. Thus, the separation of soul and body is not complete even after burial. Until that separation is final, there is the risk of disturbing the process of detachment by failing to observe certain precautions, such as those already outlined. (p. 53)

In Bulgaria, those who were not honored with proper burial rites—either by accidental omission or, more commonly, because church law forbade it (as in the case of suicide)—became vampires. For example, if the actual burial is unaccompanied by a priest reading the mass for the dead or if the body of the deceased is not anointed with wine and oil forming the sign of the cross, the person will become a vampire. A sixteenth-century reference states that unbelievers, excommunicates, and godless and anathematized people become vampires after death. (p. 55)

The ability to recognize the marks or status of a potential vampire is a capacity that may be given to anyone as part of a tradition, while the ability to actually recognize a wandering vampire is a gift frequently possessed only by a select group of people. In Bulgarian folklore, some types of vampire are invisible and thus can only be recognized ty their traces…Vampires that have taken on some sort of physical shape usually cannot be recognized as vampires except by animals, especially dogs, and by special people possessing the ability to see vampires. (p. 59)

These latter are often quasi-supernatural themselves, sometimes the fruit of a vampire-human union. [The stake idea may also be ultimately Balkan in origin; Balkan vampires were generally envisaged as wobbly floating bags of blood with no bones, and a kind of blood draining snout. The graves of suspected vampires were often, thus, ringed by thorns, the idea being to prick the outer skin of the bladder causing the blood to drain away, putting an end to the vampire in question.]

Even within the Slavonic world, the concept ‘vampire’ became mythologized until it indicated some kind of demon or supernatural entity: ‘…while references to the vampire before the fourteenth century are found only in Christian polemic, the context becomes more secular in succeeding centuries. Vampires are mentioned, for example, in pseudo-Christian magical “prayers” of the early seventeenth century, by which time vampires are quite clearly considered demonic and supernatural—there is no suggestion that vampires are natural living beings…In Bulgarian folklore…the period between the first hours after midnight until dawn (usually designated by cockcrow, reminding us of the vampire agrarian background) is referred to as lošo vreme, “the evil time”’ (p. 83).

‘…the coincidence of the rise of vampire scandals and the height of witch persecution in the Habsburg Empire at the beginning [and well towards the middle also] of the eighteenth century…Fourteen witches were burned following a trial in Szeged in 1728, and over the next forty years, 450 witches were tried in Hungary’ (p. 88). [This is late for such a phenomenon, and it looks big; McClelland argues that there was ’leakage’ between the concepts of witch and vampire as they drifted West, most notably perhaps in the idea that vampires were not operating individually, but as part of some sinister occult conspiracy. He also points out that in inquisitorial witch hunts, the phenomenon tends to grow exponentially, as people accused try to mitigate their plight by implicating others—presumably this is what happened in the McCarthy era: ‘communists’ started popping up nearly everywhere].

In the Orthodox Balkans, the wolf was regarded as the traditional foe of the vampire; c.f. Meyer’s Twilight. The equivocal status of the slayer is emphasized throughout.

What did for vampire belief in the East was not the Church, but the Enlightenment under which latter view “vampires represented an impossibility, since from the new, Cartesian perspective, a being could not logically be dead and alive at the same time’ (p. 126). There is an entire chapter entitled ‘The Rational Slayer,’ about Dr. Gerard van Swieten, court physician to Maria Theresa Empress of Austria, an enlightenment savant, who was dispatched to the southeast at the height of the witch-vampire scare and wrote a rationalistic book about it, pooh-pooing it as an efflorescence of mere superstition. McClelland doesn’t think van Swieten provided a model for Van Helsing, although he does draw attention to the fact that ‘…a shift occurred around the mid-eighteenth century that not only redefined the vampire as a symbolic (even literary) creature rather than a folkloric one but also established the role of the vampire slayer as a rationalist, whose tools against the vampire were no longer physically destructive and no longer belonged to the same ritual system but instead relied on learning and scientific knowledge to destroy the demons of the unconscious past’ (p. 134). [Enter the technocrat; although this doesn’t really begin to figure in English-language sources until at least the middle of the nineteenth century]. Van Swieten quotes the travel writer Tournefort’s book which mentions the vampire epidemic in southeast Austria-Hungary in the mid-eighteenth century adding ‘Vampirism spreads quickly and is as contagious as mange. Some credence is given to the notion that a cadaverous vampire in a very short time can infect every other body buried in the same cemetery if the first one is not destroyed immediately’ (p. 138).

McClelland then turns in a chapter (9: ‘From Vienna to London’) to consider Stoker’s Dracula, which he has a worrying tendency to treat as a non-fictional text, frequently seeming to forget that it’s a novel when he claims to find inconsistencies and implausibilities within it. He regards as excessive the degree of authority which the other good characters extend to Van Helsing, as a result of which they are too easily beguiled by his curious blend of science and mysticism into accepting that Dracula is a monster and wholly evil. [But this seems a mistake: we do not have to rely on Van Helsing’s reasoning to be persuaded that count Dracula is monstrous and inhumanly destructive, because…?]

‘For all of Van Helsing’s knowledge of the strange ways and supernatural figures of Transylvania…His knowledge of folklore and ritual is as a scholar, not as an insider. As a result, he is incomplete as a vampire slayer; he cannot “see” Dracula’s will (as the madman Renfield can) and thus cannot easily track him—at least not alone…’ (pp. 161–162). This traditional shamanistic power is in fact possessed by Mina, who, after being forced to drink Dracula’s blood, gains direct contact with the latter’s consciousness, and so is able to trace him. ‘Between the two of them, Mina Harker and Abraham Van Helsing, there is one complete vampire slayer, a union of rational intellect and spiritual power derived from “feminine intuition”’ (p. 164).

There’s a final chapter on The Night Stalker (a seventies vampire series) and The XFiles and Buffy which is disappointingly slight. [For example, it doesn’t really draw the obvious conclusion that the rational/mystical insight dualism sketched above is also arguably present in Buffy with Giles providing the former and Buffy herself the latter].

McClelland draws attention to Badman’s ‘academic bibliography’ of Buffy research which, apparently, by mid 2004 contained 273 entries. ‘This is a phenomenal amount of discourse pertaining to a suburban mythology developed within a sevenyear narrative on a minor television network…Though she is a girl, Buffy acquires through the phallic symbolism of the spikes a quasi-masculine status, which is exemplified by her adroit kickboxing style of knocking off demons, who are predominantly male’ (p. 179).

McClelland then goes on to contrast Van Helsing and Giles, considerably to the latter’s advantage. [But to consider this, we need to attend the big version of the Vampire class which moves the discussion into the arena of film, and chronologically into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries].

Cites Carol Senf’s The Vampire in Nineteenth-Century English Literature (Popular Press, 1988) and notes Auerbach’s comment that ‘"Dracula…is less the culmination of a tradition than the destroyer of one”’ (p. 223).

Considering Dracula the author remarks ‘If there is literary mastery here, it lies in Stoker’s brilliantly subversive arrangement of circumstances or the circumstantial. The reader of Dracula never questions the sequencing of the independent blocks of narrative that seem to lead to an inexorable conclusion, and the reader thus comes to sympathize with the heroes according to the same dynamic that caused the heroes to unquestioningly accept Van Helsing’s explication’ (pp. 225–6). [This is in line with the author’s rather half-boiled argument that Dracula gets a raw deal—presumed guilty by a self-appointed vigilante group and executed without trial.]

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