The Birth of Vampire Literature

[photo from Wikipedia: Illustration of a vampire from Max Ernst’s Une Semaine de Bonté (1934)]
A vampire is a being from folklore that subsists by feeding on the vital force (generally in the form of blood) of the living. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the first appearance of the English word vampire (as vampyre) in English from 1734, in a travelogue titled Travels of Three English Gentlemen published in The Harleian Miscellany in 1745. The English term was derived (possibly via French vampyre) from the German Vampir, in turn derived in the early 18th century from the Serbian vampire.

One of the first works of literature to touch upon the subject is the short German poem The Vampire (1748) by Heinrich August Ossenfelder.

My dear young maiden clingeth
Unbending. fast and firm
To all the long-held teaching
Of a mother ever true;
As in vampires unmortal
Folk on the Theyse’s portal
Heyduck-like do believe.
But my Christine thou dost dally,
And wilt my loving parry
Till I myself avenging
To a vampire’s health a-drinking
Him toast in pale tockay.

And as softly thou art sleeping
To thee shall I come creeping
And thy life’s blood drain away.
And so shalt thou be trembling
For thus shall I be kissing
And death’s threshold thou’ it be crossing
With fear, in my cold arms.
And last shall I thee question
Compared to such instruction
What are a mother’s charms?

Poet Lord Byron composed an enigmatic fragmentary story, published as “A Fragment” in 1819 as part of the Mazeppa collection, concerning the mysterious fate of an aristocrat named Augustus Darvell whilst journeying in the Orient—as his contribution to the famous ghost story competition at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816, between him, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley and John William Polidori (who was Byron’s personal physician). This story provided the basis for The Vampyre (1819) by Polidori. Byron’s own wild life became the model for Polidori’s undead protagonist Lord Ruthven.

Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood is a Victorian era serialized gothic horror story variously attributed to James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest. It first appeared in 1845–1847 as a series of weekly cheap pamphlets of the kind then known as “penny dreadfuls”. It is the tale of the vampire Sir Francis Varney, and introduced many of the tropes present in vampire fiction recognizable to modern audiences such as the sharpened teeth for a vampire (noting “With a plunge he seizes her neck in his fang-like teeth.”) and the standard set-piece in which the vampire comes through the window at night and attacks a maiden as she lies sleeping.

Fascinating erotic fixations are evident in Sheridan le Fanu’s classic novella Carmilla (1872) which features a female vampire with lesbian inclinations who seduces the heroine Laura whilst draining her of her vital fluids. Le Fanu’s story is set in the Duchy of Styria. Such central European locations became a standard feature of vampire fiction.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) has been the definitive description of the vampire in popular fiction for the last century with its portrayal of vampirism as a disease (contagious demonic possession), and its undertones of sex, blood, and death. Stoker likely drew inspiration from Irish myths of blood-sucking creatures but he was also evidently influenced by Le Fanu’s Carmilla.