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Vampires: Origins, Evolution, and Role in Fantasy Fiction

Vampires by Tyler JacobsonThe vampire: a figure whose folklore origins date back as far as the cradle of civilisation, is one of the major mythic figures bequeathed to us by the English Romantics. Tracing the vampire’s timeline back through folklore we are presented with either twisted, ghoulesque apparitions, or dishevelled corpses that more resemble the zombies and mummies of the horror genre, than the charming, handsome image first presented by Bela Lugosi, in 1931 with his portrayal of Stoker’s Transylvanian Count. It’s easy to note that vampires have become progressively better looking, and less associated with the straight-cut idea of Satan and the undead throughout their evolution.

It is a misconception in popular culture that Dracula was the vampire’s first prose appearance. Instead the credit goes to John Polidori in 1819—seventy-eight years before Dracula appeared—with his short story about the aristocratic vampire, Lord Ruthven. “The Vampyre” gave the folklore figure his debut into prose literature, followed in later years by James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampyre (1849), and at the close of the nineteenth century, Dracula (1897). There were instances of vampires appearing in literature before this point—The Vampire, (1748) Heinrich August Ossenfelder; The Giaour, (1813) Lord Byron; and Christabel, (1816) Samuel Taylor Coleridge—however none attracted quite as much publicity as Polidori’s offering, and certainly none did as much for his image, either.

Nosferatu played by Max SchreckVarney has the dubious honour of being the oddball in this trio, given that firstly, his publication in the ‘penny dreadful’ pamphlets achieved it less literary standing than the other two, and secondly, instead of presenting a charming vampire spliced with the Victoriana view of gothic horror, Varney’s exploits are horrifying enough to fit nicely with the ‘dreadful’ of the penny pamphlets. For this reason Varney shall be mentioned for chronological value, but not hereafter. (Because he’s just not cool enough.)

Since the portrayal of the vampire changed to accommodate the gothic, rather than the grotesque, our fanged friends were at first, high-class individuals—often even aristocrats. Vampires are classy; it’s a commonly accepted idea. There are exceptions (there are always exceptions!), but it’s a decent enough rule of thumb. In part the vampire’s elevation to near-nobility began when “The Vampyre” appeared, originally published with the fraudulent subtitle of: A Tale by Lord Byron. “The Vampyre” attributes much of its popularity to Byron’s celebrity, and it can be said that the two characters became inextricably partnered. This idea survives today, demonstrated by such things as novels about Byron’s life as a vampire, and histories of the vampire’s evolution that include the poet. Us being the dutiful genre fans that we are, it’s only right and proper that we at least pretend to believe in the Byron myth. (Because it’s much, much more fun that way.)

The appeal of the vampire (at the time presented by Ruthven as an aristocratic figure who exuded charm and seduction) was elevated to a commonly acknowledged stage, entirely at this point thanks to the scandal regarding “The Vampyre’s” publication. Without Ruthven having become a synonym for Byron, and given that every woman wanted to meet, and if possible get acquainted with the poet who, it seemed, was the ‘living embodiment of his own doomed hero’, it is likely that the interest the public showed in Polidori’s novel would have been shorter lived than it was, since both “The Vampyre” and Polidori were soon considered to be a ‘vulgar matter’. Too vulgar in nature for the tight-laced Victorian middle- and upper-classes.

Dracula by Arantzatu MartínezVulgar because it was “un-Christian”; vulgar because it was too “sexy”: the vampire was too suave and delightful for his time, which is why he was relegated entirely to gothic (and erotic(!), but we won’t go there…) fiction. This, of course, goes some way to explain why the vampire found himself in gothic- and urban-fantasy. Having appeared in essentially genre fiction initially, it’s a natural progression to remain in the same sort of niche, whilst merely travelling between genres a little, in the same fashion many archetypes and tropes do.

In fact, the legacy which “The Vampyre” left is more a testament to Byron’s celebrity vicissitudes, and acts almost as a literary slander of the poet, rather than a gothic tale about a vampire. This point illuminates how the vampire was regularly used as more of a metaphor for human correspondences and relations than as a supernatural horror figure. Subsequently, the vampire became a person, and in regard to his literary position, he would never be the same again—at least, not within the genre, and resultant derived genres, in which his identity was truly realised.

Once “humanised”—a far cry from the moon-faced, sunken-eyed, cadaverous vampire licking his chops at the sight of an unprotected virgin that permeated the strictly horror genre—the vampire could not be usurped from his throne, and although there will always be depictions of the vampire in less flattering lights, the image that truly remains is the one the English Romantics so generously left us.

Lestat from Interview with a VampireIn fact, a whole world of possibilities emerged the day the vampire ceased to be a representation of evil, and transformed into real people with real lives. Vampires can love, hate, kill, use magic, fight with swords or guns, battle werewolves, defend kingdoms, solve crimes and police the streets of the dark, faceless metropolis: they’re clearly a great deal more active than they used to be, opera-cloak clad and brooding in shadows, or fleeing the sunlight in coffins.

Vampires are everywhere, and not just in urban fantasy, where the paranormal and supernatural permeate. From Malum in City of Ruin (Mark Charan Newton), to Anne Rice’s Lestat, the vampire as a character seems to simply fit, cog-like, into whichever setting he is placed. Whether due to the popularity of the Twilight Saga (Meyer, 2005—2008), the mainstream appeal of the adapted True Blood (2007—) and Darren Shan (2000—2004) series, or simply because, like fashion, the vampire is en vogue again, a sort of vampire revival has been taking place within all genres of literature.

This isn’t strictly new, but as it is long-lasting, it deserves note. The same can be said for zombies and werewolves, and yet their histories are different, and not nearly as bipolar as those of the vampire. In a sense, these “characters” aren’t having a resurgence of popularity, insofar as they are merely being recognised more as useful characters with which to build interesting, diverse plots, that whilst they embody one specific genre, give brief nods to alternative genres. By definition, a vampire is a fantasy element, in that it is either mythic, paranormal/supernatural, or simply that it doesn’t exist. That doesn’t necessarily mean that any story featuring a vampire is automatically fantasy, but it at least means that it might appear to fantasy fans.

Eli from Let the Right One InThe Historian (Elizabeth Kostova, 2005), the Saints and Shadows Saga (Christopher Golden, 1994—2003), and Let the Right One In (John Ajvide Lindqvist, 2004, translated into English 2007) demonstrate well how the vampire can slide seamlessly into “grown-up” fiction, whilst various manga and anime retellings of the vampire Vampire Knight (2005—), Rosario + Vampire (2004—2007), and Record of the Fallen Vampire (2003—2007)) remind us of the vampire’s appeal to pretty much everyone who will have him.

Lately the vampire’s “seriousness” is in question from (let’s be honest) cynics who feel that the vampire presented in YA fiction, and fantasy- and vampire-romance fiction isn’t a serious character for consideration. The changing image of the vampire has branched in so many directions that there are bound to be disagreements.

So what if Ms Meyer wants Edward to glisten in sunlight, be unaffected by garlic and be essentially dead; how is her depiction less serious than Gail Z. Martin’s vayash moru (The Chronicles of the Necromancer (2007—2010), and The Fallen Kings Cycle (2011–)) who are just as beautiful in appearance, and share the lack of a pulse? (Yes, I know—it’s the sparkling. Can we get over that, please?) It’s not: it’s merely been saved from any anti-vampire criticism because it a) has remained below the radar, being subtly placed in a series of books under a different racial name, b) not YA, not romance, and therefore not subject to the same manner of criticism.

Dresden with VampiresFurthermore, Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Vampire Assassin Trilogy (2011—) sees a return to very classic techniques, with even water and the crossing of it affecting his vampire Tycho, whilst Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files (2000–) sees a war between vampires and wizards feature throughout. The point is that the author merely plays to his audience, through the vampire. Not all magic systems are the same, not all heroes fight wars with the same cast of allies and foes, so why should all vampires be the same?

Because a vampire is a vampire? Well doesn’t this sound reminiscent of the “what makes a dragon a dragon?” debate from previous articles? Essentially, because it (supposedly…) doesn’t exist, makes it fair game for anyone equipped with a sharp enough imagination to cut and change what they will, making the vampire their own. Yes, vampires resemble each other from time to time; yes some writers choose to follow the vampire myth to the letter—some don’t. It’s merely a difference of preference and the personality of the writer.

Vampires might appear to only dwell in the quirky realms of YA- and romance-fantasy, however this demonstrably isn’t true. Sure, the population in Vampireville in these genres might be greater than in high- and low-fantasy, and even sword and sorcery, but perhaps if explored further, urban-fantasy is a place where these genres truly can meet and mingle.

That said I would like nothing more than to see vampires really make a full comeback and cross over into the realms of good epic- and high-fantasy. Mark C Newton’s shown it can be done, as has Mr Grimwood. All said, the vampire is really an underdone and entirely underplayed character in really popular fantasy; it’s about time he left high school and came to university, so that not only so-called “young adults” (what we mean by this, of course, is “teen adults”) might enjoy his company.

This article was originally posted on June 11, 2011.

Title image by Tyler Jacobson.

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8 Comments

  1. ChrisMB87 says:

    My issues with Twilight are not so much the sparkling… which I just find to be a ridiculous trait – but then again how many of us have made characters with eyes that change colors or have two different shades of eye color? But rather with other aspects of her writing.
    A very well-put together and thought-out article, Leo! It’s true that as far as supernatural/undead creatures go, vampires seem to be the ones who have had so many deviations that have become subgenres in themselves. Zombies will always be my favorite undead abomination, but I can appreciate where the vampire comes from.
    Zombies, Vampires and Werewolves all seem to represent different aspects in and of themselves: Vampires are the savage desires of the flesh, werewolves our inner rage and primal instincts and reflexes (which often can overlap with the sensual nature of vampires), and zombies being usually labeled as the “mob mentality”, although I like to think of zombies as the inevitable passage of time: that all things must stagnate, rot and become consumed by the unstoppable coming of Death.

  2. Excellent article. I read “Lord of the Dead” by Tom Holland — Lord Byron as a vampire — and really enjoyed it. It’s amazing how much vampires have permeated our current culture.

  3. JennG says:

    I enjoyed your history lesson, Leo! Thanks for the fun article.

  4. Khaldun says:

    Vampires are all well and good, but is anything better than ice-zombies? The answer is no.

  5. Leigh says:

    Wow, I find it fascinating that people might think vampires only belong in fantasy these days – the implication here, since your article is explaining the contrary. Vampires have only been considered part of the “fantasy” genre since the 1990s when urban fantasy enveloped them as a label. Up until then they were called gothic, horror, or simply the vampire genre. Now they’re stuck in fantasy where they have to put up with werewolves, fairies and goodness knows what else!

    A couple of the series you mentioned were new to me, and I can’t wait to check them out. 🙂

  6. Cubist says:

    Great article. Love the history lesson. Have not heard of some of these books and stories. Love vampire stories, except for the current crop of Y/A.

  7. Rachael Wade says:

    This was an excellent article! I always love reading about the history and interpretations of the folklore, as well as everyone’s reaction to it, especially during the Twilight, Vampire Diaries, and True Blood age. I’m both a huge vampire fantasy/sci-fi geek as well as a vampire fiction author, and I completely understand the aversion to much of the newer vampire fiction.

    What I always point out, though, in my opinion, is that you really can’t compare it to the older, classic vampire fiction. Sure, it’s influenced by it, but that’s about all the old stuff and the new stuff has in common. The newer pop culture craze surrounding a lot of the YA stuff is romance, and the vampires are practically completely reinvented. A lot of people hate the romantic stuff, and I get it. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But I embrace all of it because I think it all serves different purposes in literature and deals with different issues on very different levels.

    “Real” vampire fiction that falls in the horror realm is still great and nothing will ever compare to it, but the newer vampire fiction is fine, too–only you’re going to hate it unless you’re into romance. Personally, I like the fact that the vampire has evolved so much. It’s like any other character in fiction–an author can make the vampire whatever he or she wants. Some people will love it and some people will hate it. To me, that’s the most interesting question:

    Who determines what a vampire is in today’s fiction, and who gets to deem it “worthy?” It all boils down to preference, which is why I hate the bashing of the newer vamp fiction. If you don’t like how it’s evolved and how it’s being used, fine, but don’t hate what someone else is creating and that it is clearly being read by the masses, and for a reason. To me, the idea of making the vampire opposite of this crazed monster by humanizing him is an interesting one.

    Call it making him whiny, or “emo” if you will, but I think it’s a fun springboard to play with in a story because it deals with the struggles of humanity. A vampire who hates what he is and never asked for it has been done a thousand times and I still think it’s a great path to explore in fiction. I don’t see it “ruining” the “real” vampire fiction because it’s an entirely different thing. A majority of the time, I think it all depends on how that is executed.

  8. Charlie Watt says:

    I like my vampires as they are in Stakeland or 30 Days of Night; horrifying, inhuman predators. I find sexy vampires, cool vampires and the done-to-death, self-absorbed ‘Oh, woe is me, I’m a monster’ vampires to be really grating these days. Give me horrid, dead-eyed monsters, please.

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