(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

While Nina Auerbach admits the significance of vampires in universal folk tales from time immemorial, her interest in “our vampires, ourselves”—as indicated by her title, with its witty allusion to another modern work of self-conscious sociology, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective’s Our Bodies, Ourselves (1973)—lies in tracing the evolution of the vampire myth in modern Western society. She begins with the English Romantics, locating the origins of Anne Rice’s appealing contemporary vampire, Lestat, in George Gordon, Lord Byron. Byron’s “Fragment of a Novel,” published in 1816, is a vampire tale that grew out of a journey through Brussels to Geneva that he took that year with his physician, Dr. John Polidori. En route, the two had a falling-out, and Polidori took his own revenge, amplifying Byron’s narrative of travel with a sinister companion into The Vampyre (1819), which features a vampire named Lord Ruthven who is modeled on Lord Byron.

Polidori’s creature, like Byron himself, was surrounded by an atmosphere of homoeroticism. As Auerbach notes, “Out of a hating, needing companionship between men came not only Romantic poetry, but the Romantic vampire.” Rice’s gorgeous and aristocratic late twentieth century creations, the vampire lovers Louis and Lestat ofInterview with the Vampire (1976), are direct descendants of this Byronic forebear, but before the lineage reached them, it took a number of fascinating detours.

There are, as Auerbach observes, vampires and vampires, and the first of these to be able, by drinking his victims’ blood, to turn them into his progeny was Varney, the protagonist of James Malcolm Rymer’s mid-Victorian best-seller Varney, the Vampire: Or, The Feast of Blood (1845-1847). Varney’s dual identity—he is both the urbane Sir Francis Varney and a subhuman monster—is reminiscent of another classic of Victorian English literature, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). Indeed, as Auerbach notes, Varney is all too typical of an outwardly polite society that was becoming increasingly predatory, a transformation Karl Marx described thus in Das Kapital(1867): “Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.”

In Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), the vampire’s involvement with society becomes an intense entanglement with a specific individual. Carmilla, whom Auerbach calls “one of the few self-accepting homosexuals in Victorian or any literature,” makes explicit the desire inherent in Byron’s and Polidori’s Romantic explorations of vampiric friendship between sympathetic, same-sex intimates. Carmilla, who feeds only on women, falls in love with Laura, a distant relative who shares Carmilla’s patrician background and whose life Carmilla longs to share. “I live in your warm life and you shall die—die, sweetly die—into mine. . . . You and I are one forever,” she seductively declares to Laura—and indeed, the two identities meld in death.

Auerbach’s exploration of vampire evolution comes into its own with her discussion of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), of which she says: “I suspect that Dracula’s primary progenitor is not Lord Ruthven, Varney, or Carmilla, but Oscar Wilde in the dock.” Wilde, the scandalous dandy of his day, was convicted for homosexual offenses under the Labouchere Amendment of 1885 and was imprisoned in 1895, the year Stoker began to write his Dracula.

The lineaments of Stoker’s vampire were drawn from the author’s friend Henry Irving’s stage portrayal of Mephistopheles. Irving, whose patriotic take on English theater earned for him a knighthood the very day Wilde was convicted, was hailed after his death as the person who had saved England from the decadent cult of Oscar Wilde. Auerbach makes out a convincing case that Stoker created Dracula out of devotion to Irving, whom Stoker continued to champion even after the former fell out of public favor, and in reaction against Wilde, one of whose former love interests ultimately became Stoker’s wife.

The Labouchere Amendment not only outlawed homosexual acts but also lent same-sex sentiment or orientation, particularly between men, opprobrium. Whereas earlier vampires had freely loved mortals...

(The entire section is 1797 words.)