Liberated by His Bite

Andrew Delbanco

  • Our Vampires, Ourselves by Nina Auerbach
    Chicago, 238 pp, £17.50, November 1995, ISBN 0 226 03201 9

In the early Sixties, when I was ten and first saw Tod Browning’s classic vampire film Dracula (1931) on television, I was impressed that the Count could walk past a mirror and cast no reflection. This optical trick seemed more than just another peculiarity, like his revulsion at sunlight or garlic or crucifixes, marking him as a member of the vampire species. There was a hint of otherworldliness in that blank mirror, a confirmation that he belonged to the ‘un-dead’ (a phrase I later encountered in Bram Stoker’s novel). It was the one thing in the movie that struck me as truly frightening.

Nina Auerbach, a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, is interested in fear. In the Eighties she found herself living in a nation – Ronald Reagan’s America – that had ‘turned ... its fear on itself’. Franklin Roosevelt had said that ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,’ but Reagan was a master manipulator of public anxiety about enemies abroad and menacing aliens at home, about assertive women and blacks, and even about the unchecked Federal Government itself. ‘The President,’ as Auerbach puts it, ‘had gone from exorcist of fear to its agent.’ The book that she conceived in these cowering years was to be based on the premise that ‘no fear is only personal. It must steep itself in its political and ideological ambience, without which our solitary terrors have no contagious resonance.’ Realising that the scope of this idea might require several volumes, she narrowed her focus to one persistently frightful symbol. The result is Our Vampires, Ourselves, a book whose title plays on that of the feminist self-help manual published in the early Seventies, and which aspires to be ‘a history of Anglo-American culture through its mutating vampires’.

‘To the jaded eye, all vampires seem alike,’ but, Auerbach reminds us, they are wonderfully various: ‘Some come to life in moonlight, others are killed by the sun; some pierce with their eyes, others with fangs; some are reactionary, others are rebels; but all are disturbingly close to the mortals they prey on.’ For the most part, she writes in the voice of the resolute historicist (‘there is no such creature as “The Vampire”: there are only vampires’), but sometimes she gives way to an old-fashioned suspicion that there might be something transhistorical, even universal (‘all are disturbingly close’) about the imagination that invented these creatures. Her real concern is the vampire’s persistent ‘closeness’; and her real questions are: why so close, and why for so long?

What makes this book more than a trot through the history of a metaphor is that the enquiry turns out to be rather personal. Apparently, a few years before my friends and I watched Bela Lugosi glide around his cobwebbed castle in Browning’s film, Auerbach (who is ten years older than me) was hanging back in the corners at the school dance, making ‘vampire faces’ at the dancers. It was her way of resisting conformity at a time when she was expected to learn the style and gestures of proper womanhood; and it was the residents of the monster world – vampires, werewolves and their (mostly female) victims – who ‘promised protection against a destiny of girdles, spike heels and approval’.

She found something enchanting in the consigned loneliness of the vampire, even in the revulsion he elicited from ‘normal’ people. Like him, she was suspended between the salon world, where grace and party chatter were requisite talents, and the night wilderness, where there is safety from inspection and judgment. Imagining herself as a sleeper by day and prowler by night, she began to cross over from her feminine role to the realm of the ultimate male outlaw.

For ordinary (less adventurous) men – according to the male critics whom Auerbach cites – the vampire is ‘an apparition of what we repress’. And what ‘we’ repress is apparently our longing to make the wariest woman blush and swoon and submit to the proffered fang. This male vampire is a hero of the unconscious life, a symbol of desire overcoming fear.

Auerbach seeks ‘to reclaim him for a female tradition’ by interrogating her own past. By the Sixties, she recalls, she and her friends found that they were particularly fond of contemporary Hammer films, though without being sure why. At moments like this, Auerbach’s Our Vampires, Ourselves reads like a letter written to herself, for the purpose of reviewing her own emerging feminist consciousness. In perhaps the key passage of the book, she meditates on one convention of the vampire tradition: the idea that a woman who has been poisoned by Dracula’s bite can be saved from un-death only if a loving man drives a stake through her heart. In Stoker’s 1897 novel, the focus is on the inner struggle of the saviour – the man who converts his love into the will to kill his beloved. In one of her favourite Hammer movies, Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966), all attention is transferred to the victim:

As her powerful body is held down, arranged and finally staked, we experience through her eyes the impersonality of the destruction ... The central image of the scene is not her fangs or even the blood that wells from her, but the strapping arm the little monks hold down as they prepare to stake her ... The sequence is closer to gang rape, or to gynaecological surgery, or to any of the collective violations women were and are prone to than to the sacred marriage Stoker’s reverent narrators made readers accept. Stripped of the sensibility of loving, maiming men, seen instead from her own point of view, the staking of the female vampire is less a rite of purification than the licensed torture of a woman who knew women didn’t need men.

By the time of John Badham’s 1979 Dracula, starring Frank Langella as ‘a Dracula of fusion’, the women have become ‘victims no more’, but passionate creatures liberated by his bite – seekers ‘who embrace vampirism as the sole available escape from patriarchy’. The Dracula tradition is now revealed to be covertly feminist. All those women with swan necks bared are waiting for deliverance. We may think the bat swooping in through the casement window is headed straight for the jugular, but what is really going on, Auerbach says, is ‘women opening windows beyond the family and, in the guise of vampire victims, surging into themselves’.

The transgressive implications of vampire stories, Auerbach concedes, have not always been explicitly feminist. As early as the tales of Lord Byron and Dr Polidori (since Auerbach’s folklore sources are limited, this is where the vampire genealogy begins) the figure of the vampire ‘offered an intimacy, a homoerotic sharing, that threatened the hierarchical distance of sanctioned relationships’. As travelling companions engaged in a horror-writing competition, Byron wrote a fragmentary tale about the ultra-charming vampire Darvell, and Polidori conceived Lord Ruthven, a demon nobleman who seems a direct product of what Auerbach calls Polidori’s ‘hating, needing companionship’ with the superior writer. These romantic vampires, she writes, express ‘a mutuality between subject and object so intense that it overwhelms conventional hierarchies and bonds’.

Such ‘forbidden ideals of intimacy’ come to a climactic end with Bram Stoker, about whom Auerbach has particularly interesting things to say. She reminds us that Stoker managed Henry Irving’s Lyceum Theatre for 20 years, beginning in 1878, and proposes that his Dracula, like Polidori’s Ruthven, was ‘a proud servant’s offering to a great man’. Irving, as she puts it, ‘had spent 1895 lobbying for his knighthood (the first ever awarded to an actor) by petrifying himself and his Lyceum into attitudes of patriotic grandeur’, while Oscar Wilde radiated energy into the English theatre by mocking ‘everything that was supposed to inspire Irving’s audiences’. Stoker’s Dracula, in Auerbach’s reading, was a counterattack on behalf of his master. Noting that Irving was knighted on the same day that Wilde was convicted of sodomy, Auerbach argues that ‘Dracula’s primary progenitor is not Lord Ruthven, or Varney’ (the vampire character in James Malcom Rymer’s 1847 novel), ‘or Carmilla’, the life-destroying woman of Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella, ‘but Oscar Wilde in the dock’.

After Stoker brought forth this ‘debased incarnation of the fallen Wilde, a monster of silence and exile’, the idea of Dracula as a brilliant, transgressive genius went quiet. It appeared in bits and snatches in such works as George Viereck’s The House of the Vampire (1907), and maintained a fitful presence in the pulps and silent movies. As a result, Our Vampires, Ourselves moves briskly through the decades that separate Stoker’s novel from Browning’s film, coming back to life only when it takes up the explicitly lesbian and homosexual vampires of the Hammer films and the fiction of contemporary writers like Anne Rice. What all these vampires have in common is that they are boundary leapers, like Auerbach at the dance. They cross the line that separates normative from outrageous sexuality, as well, of course, as crossing from life into death, while preserving the ability to travel back again – sort of. As she searches vampire lore for other common attributes, such as the vampire’s affinity for moon-light, the book gets a little strange. ‘Christabel’ is identified as a vampire poem (which, like ‘Lamia’, it was), but ‘The Ancient Mariner’ is said to be ‘a subtly vampiric epic of thirst’, in which the moon presides ‘over a healing, if fleeting, vision of harmony’. In Auerbach’s hands, the boundaries of the genre become extremely elastic. Everything under the moon is a candidate for inclusion until, to use her own term for those who ‘drink life from moon-beams’, the argument gets positively lunarian:

Like his austere namesake, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula was alone in his world, essentially unmateable, the only creature of his kind. He was as distinctive as the quartet of Western masters – Franklin Roosevelt, Churchill, Mussolini and Hitler – who would dominate international affairs until the end of the Second World War. Like each of them, Lugosi incarnated the rituals of a lost world, posing as the last representative of his nation’s aristocracy.

At points like this, Auerbach’s consuming interest in vampires consumes too much.

Still, this is much more than a quirky book for Dracula fans. As the current vogue for lesbian vampire fiction attests, Auerbach is on to something. At the same time, she is aware that the vampire genre, even when its sexual content is muted, can be linked to a broader tradition of psychological fiction. Leon Edel wrote years ago of ‘the vampire theme’ in the fiction of Henry James; and Keats’s biographer Walter Jackson Bate wrote (with some scepticism) about the possibility that ‘Lamia’ represented Keats’s transformation of Fanny Brawne into the serpent – a symbol of the threat love posed to his independence. In the same spirit one might plausibly speak of George Eliot’s Casaubon as possessing what Auerbach calls ‘vampiric attributes’, or of Chillingworth, the physician in The Scarlet Letter, known all too appropriately as ‘the leech’. It is in this sense that the vampire tradition puts us in touch with the recurrent human problem of distinguishing between productive love and draining dependence.