Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Vampyre and Carmilla, or We've Finally Gotten to Vampires. Geez That Took Forever. I Mean Really.

So this week I read two novellas about that most famed abhuman figure, the vampire. Polidori's The Vampyre (1819) is a literary relative to Frankenstein and both it and le Fanu's Carmilla (1872) are, obviously, ancestors to Stoker's Dracula. What I find most fascinating about the two works is the way in which each takes the time to explicitly spell out what, exactly, a vampire is. I mean, they obviously aren't new, per se, but Polidori and le Fanu are taking a figure of folklore and distilling it into a literary figure. Reading from a modern perspective, I'm again struck by how un-ironic the presentations are. I mean, yes, each vampire book spells out exactly what kind of vampire we're dealing with, but at least Polidori is making history with his description. From that moment on, we all know what a vampire is.

Furthermore, I'm also thinking about the very different way that these two works treat women in comparison to Dracula. Here, the women are again be acted on rather than acting. It feels like we're backsliding, even though we aren't, simply because we've just read Braddon and Alcott. Clearly, the discussion of the New Woman wasn't all one sided.

Speaking of gender, the discussion of sexuality presented in the two works is also fascinating, given that vampires are often analyzed as metaphors for sex. Carmilla's sapphism is especially interesting in the context of a Dracula/Jonathan subtext. If we were to explore vampires as the sexual Other, there's plenty to go on. The sexual-predatory nature of Lord Ruthven is clearly followed in other vampire fiction, i.e., Lestat, Angel, Edward, Dracula. And the use of the vampire as the Byronic hero (or villain) is well documented also.

So, things that these sire texts teach us about vampires: drinking blood with pointy teeth, damsels in distress, ennui and languidness, decapitation, tombs, sleeping in blood, crazy professor guy, aristocratic, shape shifting, moving through walls, etc. The entirety of vampire fiction rests on these two texts as foundation. The fact that Twilight moves us so far away from these traditional aspects is only possible in a postmodern literary world.

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