Text: Nicolas Kiessling, “Variations of Vampirism,” Poe Studies, June 1981, Vol. XIV, No. 1, 14:13-14


[page 13, continued:]

Variations of Vampirism

James B. Twitchell. The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1981. x + 219 pp. $14.95.

The vampire, a “demonic spirit in a human body who nocturnally attacks the living, a destroyer of others, a preserver of himself,” has its origin in the Slavic countries, whence it wound its way northward, appearing in Germany in the seventeenth century and in England a century later. By 1800, it was common enough in England to serve as a reference point, especially in Romantic literature. Thus it is a latecomer to British and American literature, and any “antecedents” in British folklore and literature are purely coincidental, as are those of all non-Slavic classical, medieval or Renaissance demons. In the absence of scholarly studies of the origins and spread of the vampire, most modern students turn for information to the wide-ranging monograph by Montague Summers, the limitations of which are well-known — he was convinced that werewolves, vampires, and other such demons actually exist. It would take a scholar skilled in Slavic and German cultural history to offer something new on the androgynous preying bloodsucker.

James B. Twitchell begins his study with a history of [column 2:] the vampire and repeats all of the vague statements and misconceptions of his predecessors. He refers, for example, to Sprenger’s and Kramer’s 1486 Malleus Maleficarum as a vade mecum “to take the guesswork out of the prosecution of witches, werewolves and vampires.” But none of those hailed before the ecclesiastical courts in the accounts of Sprenger and Kramer were “vampires,” and the single example Twitchell takes from the Malleus, that of a buried sorceress whose decapitation by a city official ended a plague, is a far cry from Lord Ruthven, the title character of the first British vampire novel, John Polidori’s The Vampyre of 1819. The point is that in the vampire we have a new type of monster quite distinct from the wild man, werewolf, ghoul, witch, incubus, nightmare, and even — Bram Stoker, Devendra Varma, and Twitchell notwithstanding — from the devil-begotten Hun, Tibetan Yama, Scandinavian berserk, and classical lamia or empousa. A history of this figure still needs to be written.

By 1800, the vampire was clearly enough defined in English circles to furnish poets and novelists with a motif. Here Twitchell has a more coherent tradition to deal with, and his argument becomes more persuasive. His objective is to demonstrate how the “mythic figure” provided literary artists with a metaphor to explore psychological questions: “how do people interact or how it is that lovers, or artists, or parents, or the insane, or just ordinary people trade energy with those they contact?” Thus he is concerned noe with the vampire itself, but with how it functions in literature “in serious attempts to express various human relationships, relationships that the artist himself had with family, with friends, with lovers, and even with art itself” (pp 4, 38).

The literary variations of vampirism are extensive, although earlier critics have tended to note briefly the vampiric nature of certain figures without discussing the general context. The Living Dead shows how pervasive these variations are. They could “personify the forces of maternal attraction/repulsion (Coleridge’s Christabel), incest (Byron’s Manfred), oppressive paternalism (Shelley’s Cenci), adolescent love (Keats’s Porphyro), avaricious love (Poe’s Morella and Berenice), the struggle for power (E. Bronte’s Heathcliff ), sexual suppression ( C. Bronte’s Bertha Rochester ), homosexual attraction ( LeFanu’s Carmilla ), repressed sexuality (Stoker’s Dracula), female domination (D. H. Lawrence’s Brangwen women), and . . . the artist himself exchanging energy with aspects of his art (Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Poe’s artist in ‘The Oval Portrait,’ Wordsworth’s Leech Gatherer, Wilde’s Dorian Gray, and the narrator of James’s The Sacred Fount)” (p. 5).

Not all of these arguments are convincing. Can a case be made that in “The Leech Gatherer” (later entitled “Resolution and Independence” ) “Wordsworth intended eo write a vampire poem, with the Leech Gatherer as the central character,” (p. 163), that in Jane Eyre “Bertha Rochester is not metaphorically, but almost actually, a vampire,” “a psychosexual cannibal living off the energies of others” (p. 67)? Even granting that there are allusions to vampires in the text, I have difficulty in accepting the conclusion [page 14:] that “to Jane Eyre, Bertha is surreal — a force, a powerful, libidinal, uncensored, maniacal, unpredictable passion — a vampire” (p. 72 ).

Twitchell deals with five short stories by Poe in which vampirism serves such varied purposes as to explain struggles between lovers, relationships between siblings, and conflicts between life and art. He begins from D. H. Lawrence’s classic analysis of love in Poe and elsewhere: spiritual love, carried too far, leads to “a form of death.”

“To know a living thing is to kill it. . . . For this reason, the desirous consciousness, the SPIRIT, is a vampire.” Thus each partner in Poe’s early stories, “Berenice,” “Morella,” and “Ligeia,” enervates and consumes the other as the love gets out of control. The women in these stories are seen as lamias, and the vampire analogy illuminates how “one lover attempts too much, and so violates the psychic privacy of the other” by demanding “absolute possession even though possession finally means destruction” (p. 168). The same analogy holds true in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” where brother, sister, house, and narrator are all vampiric in a relationship that serves as “a mode of discussing energy exchange” (p. 129). Finally, in “The Oval Portrait,” we have an artist who is so obsessed with his art that he fails to perceive the slow decline of his wife as he nears the completion of her portrait. Twitchell argues that the myth of the vampire lies behind the story, serving as “an ideal paradigm for . . . art that is too life-consuming.” The central issue, to him, is the process of artistic creation and not the reliability of the narrator, which has been the focus of previous critics and of his own discussion of Poe’s earlier tales. This process of creation is vampiric, for the object of art and the art object are “involved in the transfer of vitality.” Although Twitchell holds that “The Oval Portrait” may be “Poe’s most sophisticated handling of the vampire motif” (see pp. 167, 169, and 170), in my judgment, the evidence here is a bit thin. His case for “vampirism” in the earlier stories is provocative. The motif is certainly present, though Twitchell is claiming too much by asserting that “the development of the vampire analogy was one of Poe’s central artistic concerns” (p. 59).

On the whole, the book is well written, is fairly well edited, and offers some fascinating interpretations of a motif that haunted Romantic writers. While we are srill unaware of the specific seventeenth- and eighteenth-century sources for the vampire lore used by the English Romantics, including Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, and Polidori, and similarly uncertain about Poe’s sources, we do know that the motif intrigued such writers and that the y were familiar with vampires as they are yet defined today. The series of expositions in The Living Dead, some rather persuasive, gives force to arguments that critics before now would hardly have taken seriously: “the vampire is one of the major mythic figures bequeathed to us by the English Romantics” (p. ix); furthermore, vampirism constitutes a major metaphor in Romantic treatments of human relationships.

Nicolas Kiessling, Washington State University


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1981]