05 maio 2011

How to recognize vampires, and how they spread their wings into the fictions of the Western world

From the TLS:

The vampire first sank its fangs into the British imagination in the early eighteenth century when accounts began to emerge from remote parts of Habsburg Europe of the superstitions of its recently colonized subjects. Austrian administrators, in control of new territory south of the Carpathians, encountered panic-stricken locals full of tales of the rapacious undead, of mysterious infirmities ravaging the peasants and suspicious coffins containing cadavers with fresh blood on their lips. Roger Luckhurst, in his introduction to the new Oxford World’s Classics edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, notes the notorious case of Peter Plogojowitz, in 1725, who “had been dead and buried for ten weeks” but was nonetheless blamed by villagers for a spate of sudden deaths, apparent strangulations. When the Imperial Provisor finally agreed to open the grave, lest the peasants “be obliged to forsake the village”, his delegation observed, along with “other wild signs”, a bloodied mouth, long fingernails and evidence of healthy skin on the corpse. The body was promptly staked through the heart and incinerated. While Luckhurst elucidates the sociological background to this event, noting that vampirism may flare “at times of political tyranny and in plague seasons”, it is Michael Sims, in Dracula’s Guest, who provides the rather more straightforward explanation for the gruesome apparition. Fingernails do not grow after death but the skin does shrink, “making the nails look abnormally long and clawlike”. Meanwhile, skin may appear flushed once the top layer is “sloughed off” and blood can pool around the facial cavities, especially if the body is placed face down. As for the unmentionable “other wild signs”, “the genitals often inflate during decomposition”.
The case of poor Plogojowitz was not the first to capture the attention of Western Europe. Joseph Pitton de Tournefort’s Voyage to the Levant (posthumously published in 1717) had already alerted the French to the case of the Greek vampire, or “vroucolaca”, who was killed by his fellow citizens in a similar manner. Fifteen years later, the London Journal reported on some inquiries into “vampyres” at Madreyga in Hungary (a story later referred to by John Polidori) and thus, according to Luckhurst, was recorded the first use of the word in English, although the OED dates its provenance to 1734 in Travels of Three English Gentlemen (subsequently published in the Harleian Miscellany). By 1741 the term was commonly used as a synonym for a “cruel exactor or extortioner”. In keeping with the characteristics of the creature it signifies, the etymology of the word is harder to pin down, “vampire” having been variously attributed to the Chuvash word väpär, meaning “bad ghost”; the Tatar ubyr (“witch”); and, perhaps more tenuously, to the ancient Greek king Amphiaraus. More comprehensible are the anxieties on which vampirism is founded: fears of plague-ridden corpses in crowded cemeteries, of premature burial and mortal overreaching, not to mention expressions of troubled Christianity and overstretched imperialism. “Serbian vampirism suggested the vulnerability of the House of Habsburg”, writes Erik Butler in his lively study Metamorphoses of the Vampire in Literature and Film; it also reflected the religious instability in the Balkan borderlands between Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Islam. While it is probably safe to say that humans have been haunted by the hungry undead ever since they got a whiff of their own mortality, the vampire itself is, for Butler, a site- and time-specific thing, rather than the universally recognizable figure that Christopher Frayling has called “as old as the world”. Butler is not convinced that the vampire was “ever a cultural figure to be found the world over”, and Luckhurst would seem to agree, describing it as a “thoroughly modern being”.
In many ways, 1732 was the vampire’s annus mirabilis. Butler, whose cultural history starts at this date, notes “twelve books and four dissertations” on the subject published over that year and the next, as well as the term’s apparent enshrinement in the English language. By 1755, the Empress Maria Theresa was forced to issue a decree forbidding the “execution” of these much-maligned beasts and further infamy came when Carl Linnaeus and the Comte de Buffon started naming species of bats after them. It would, however, be some time before the vampire hardened into today’s set of universal, if shifting, clichés – the pteropine associations, for example, coming after the naturalists’ classifications. Early vampires took many forms: aristocrat, peasant, avenger, suitor, sodomite, demon bride. Two recent collections of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century vampire lore and literature attest to the creatures’ versatility, as well as to their enduring appeal. The vampire may long since have fallen prey to kitsch, its poster boy, Dracula, becoming “a somewhat pathetic figure” (in the words of Butler) and its home more likely to be the Sunnydale of Buffy than the Boreas-whipped forests of the Carpathians, but we remain in many ways enthralled by the bloodsuckers. Perhaps the appearance of these books indicates, if nothing else, a desire to revisit our original fears, an impulse to go back to vampire basics.
Michael Sims’s Dracula’s Guest is an agreeable compilation, starting with early eighteenth-century accounts from Hungary about vampire-slaying (including that of the ubiquitous Plogojowitz) and ending with its title story, an oft-published segment of an early draft of Bram Stoker’s vampire classic in which Jonathan Harker has a pre-Transylvanian brush with the uncanny on Walpurgis Night in Bavaria and is saved from “the jaws of the wolf” by a long-range intervention from the Count. Each story is prefaced by Sims with a useful bit of background, and the collection is arranged chronologically. It is by no means comprehensive but contains some favourites of the genre, including Byron’s unfinished “The End of My Journey” and John Polidori’s famous follow-up “The Vampyre” (1819), as well as less well-known translations of French and German tales. “Wake Not the Dead” (1823), attributed to Johann Ludwig Tieck, is an engrossing morality story in which an aristocratic lover, Walter of Burgundy, indulges in a spot of Faustian necromancy, raising his dead bride Brunhilda via a supernatural intermediary with disastrous consequences. Here the vampirism is underlaid with a suggestion that we are all capable of going to the dark side simply by dint of our mortality: “That which from life is pluck’d, becomes the foe / Of life, and whoso wakes it waketh woe”. Having “rashly dared to tear aside the awful veil that separates the mortality that dreams, from that which dreameth not”, and then, given the chance to repent, indulged himself in three days of “pleasure and festivity”, Walter is crushed by a vampire serpent and his castle consumed by fire.
Also censured for his sins is the priest in Théophile Gautier’s story “The Deathly Lover” (1843), in which the division between sleep and wakefulness is fruitfully explored. A good clergyman by day, the Brother is visited at night by a Lileth-like creature who “certainly did not come from the womb of Eve”, and who finally feasts on him with a curious sophistication: “She sipped the blood slowly and carefully like a gourmand who enjoys a glass of sherry or Syracuse wine”. When he willingly submits to this demon by day, it is terrifying thoughts of God and virtue that come to inhabit his nightmares. Aleksei Tolstoy’s rather more urbane protagonist in “The Family of Vourdalak” (1839) gets his vampiric comeuppance as punishment for flouting codes of gentility. The story is set during M d’Urfé’s youth in 1758, a time in which “mythology was very fashionable”. A rake well versed in the arts of galanterie, d’Urfé is forced into more direct wooing when he meets a Serbian peasant girl called Sdenka “too naïve to comprehend fully what I meant”. By the time Sdenka lets him have what he means, her entire family has become vampirized by external forces. Despite “my vague sense of foreboding”, but aroused by a feeling “part fear, part excitement”, d'Urfé persists in his courtship, fleeing in the nick of time pursued by Sdenka’s familial coterie in a foreshadowing of the genre's spoof future. Her young brother is catapulted on to d’Urfé’s steed (“the little brat sunk his teeth into my horse’s neck”) and her grandfather is seen “propel[ling] himself forward” with the stake ripped from his heart “as the Tyrolean mountain men do when they leap over Alpine chasms”. Similarly florid prose is found in James Malcolm Rymer’s 109-instalment epic Varney the Vampyre (1845–7), the first chapter of which is reproduced here in all its pathetically fallacious glory: “Oh, how the storm raged! Hail–rain–wind. It was, in very truth, an awful night”. The feverish “What Was It?” by Fitz-James O’Brien (1859), which contains the memorable refutation of vampire-spotting – “You have been smoking too much opium” – keeps its assailant invisible and doesn’t deign to name it.
Dracula’s Precursors, edited by David Annwn, contains three stories, two of which are also reproduced in Dracula’s Guest. The one that isn’t, “The Last Lords of Gardonal” (1867), by William Gilbert, features a rare instance of the vampire vigilante, who wreaks her revenge – and that of the downtrodden villagers she represents – on a despotic Alpine baron. Having unsuccessfully pursued a pretty young peasant with a ruthlessness that causes her murder, the Baron is revisited by a new incarnation of his late beloved, who gives him a taste of his own medicine. As Annwn points out, the vampirism here is unusual for being morally “sanctioned”. The other stories in this slim collection are the anonymously published “The Mysterious Stranger” (1860) and “Let Loose” (1890) by Mary Cholmondeley. The former is a clear prefiguration of Dracula (Stoker is thought to have read the story) and plays on the notion of the willing victim. Like Lucy Westenra, its heroine-victim Franziska is a sexually adventurous woman, bored by her “flat” and “ennuyant” Teutonic homeland and eager to find a “bold, aspiring, even despotic” husband. On an adventure in the Carpathians, she and her retinue meet a tall, thin, “well built” aristocratic stranger with “cold grey eyes”, apparently averse to eating, who talks in riddles, dislikes the sun and can silence the wolves. Like certain dybbuks of Jewish folklore, not to mention Stoker’s Count who “may not enter anywhere at the first”, the vampire must be invited in, however unwittingly, by his hosts: “‘You press the invitation?’ asked the stranger earnestly and decidedly”. In the end, he is overpowered by a man with a false hand (the original having been lost to war in Turkey) who is possessed of an uncanny strength which makes the vampire believe him to be a kindred spirit.
This triumph of technology over folklore plays on common vampire themes. In Cholmondeley’s “Let Loose”, the vampire-troubled backwater of Wet Waste-on-the-Wolds is notable for its pre-industrial isolation: “I had no idea that in these days of penny posts and cheap newspapers such entire ignorance of the outer world could have existed in any corner, however remote, of Great Britain”. Stoker’s Dracula is himself notoriously out of touch, a naive if dastardly bumpkin with a “child brain” who cuts a ridiculous figure in London dressed in a straw hat which “suit[s] not him or the time”. As Butler points out, Dracula may control the “snail mail”, but he is “stuck in the past” when it comes to the “ultramodern and fast technologies” of the typewriter and telegram and he is undone by the efficient “system of information management” organized by his foes. “Simply replace colonialism with globalization, ministries with multinationals, and telegraphy with the Internet”, writes Butler, and “the Count continues to offer an allegory for economic, bureaucratic, and technological changes in the world.”
In “Good Lady Ducayne” (1896) by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, medical science is the enemy, the vampire itself. Lady Ducayne, an ageing aristocrat, “a little old figure, wrapped from chin to feet in an ermine mantle”, hires a blooming young companion from Walworth called Bella to accompany her to Italy. Also in attendance is the mysterious Dr Parravicini, a practitioner of “experimental surgery” who is well versed in “all the new theories”. As Bella’s health declines and her dreams fill with “strange sensations . . . the whirring of wheels”, it becomes clear that she is providing the packed lunch for her holidaying employer. Only intervention by a more conventional modern doctor can save her. “I want my life prolonged young man”, rasps the hungry Lady Ducayne as the good medic watches aghast: “He had seen terrible faces in the hospital . . . but he had never seen a face that impressed him so painfully as this withered countenance, with its indescribable horror of death outlived”. As ever, the horror here comes from the usurpation of the future by the past, of progression by obsolescence. And while this is also true of much Gothic literature, the vampire, more malleable than most, is a vehicle for pandering to universal fears, of life being sapped by death, of health by disease, of the deserving by the selfish, which is doubtless why it has remained such a powerful metaphor, whether in terms of economics (from Marx to Madoff), racial chauvinism, politics, science or domestic relationships.
“Time is on my side”, boasted Dracula, and in many ways he was right. To this day, there are vampires all around us. One may even be in your home. As the narrator comments in “Aylmer Vance and the Vampire”, written in 1914 by the husband-and-wife duo Alice and Claude Askew and reproduced in Dracula’s Guest: “I suppose . . . that there is such a thing as vampirism even in these days of advanced civilisation . . . . there are certain people . . . who seem to depress one and undermine one’s energies, quite unconsciously of course, but one feels somehow that vitality has passed from oneself to them”.

Sem comentários: