British and Irish authors have created the world’s greatest vampire literature but funnily enough, we have few homegrown bloodsucking legends of our own. Guest writer VIOLET FENN asks why.
Vampires are everywhere, aren’t they? They’re in our books, on our televisions and striding menacingly across cinema screens worldwide. Much of Europe is thick with myths of fanged terror, from Empusa of Ancient Greece (daughter of Hecate, she seduced men before drinking their blood) to the pijavica of Eastern Europe. Given the dark traditions of the UK and Ireland, it comes as a surprise therefore to find that we have little or no inbuilt vampire traditions.
The closest our early history comes to vampire stories are 12th century references to revenants rising from the grave to walk again. As opposed to anonymous zombies, revenants were usually known to those around them and were often reported to have attacked their own families.
The medieval writer Walter Map described incidents of revenants walking the streets of Hereford in the late 12th century as well as the methods for their destruction, which usually involved burning the disinterred body after decapitating it and removing the heart.
Although revenants were often said to leak fresh blood when staked, this is their only tenuous link to vampirism. The most likely explanation for the occurrence of revenants is that the lack of medical knowledge at the time led to instances of people being buried alive – catatonic, rather than actually deceased. The many reported cases of coffins being disinterred and opened to find hair and fingernails that had seemingly grown after death, or bloodied fingerprints across the lid of the coffin, were almost certainly – tragically – caused by cases of premature burial.
Vampires in British literature
Vampires as we know them today do not make an appearance in British literature until the early 19th century, with the publication of a novella by John William Polidari. Often incorrectly attributed to Lord Byron, The Vampyre was written during the same lakeside retreat that produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It rapidly found popularity with a nation in love with the new literary genre of gothic horror (which took its name from the publication of the marvellously titled The Castle of Otranto – a Gothic Story by Horace Walpole in 1764).
When Sheridan LeFanu wrote Uncle Silas in 1864 he set the story in Derbyshire at the behest of his publisher, who thought the author would find more success by appealing directly to an English audience.
LeFanu was closely followed by the most popular vampire author of all time (and a fellow Irishman). Although Bram Stoker sets the foundations of the titular Count’s story in Transylvania, a great deal of its ensuing drama is acted out on the streets of England. Stand on any windy, bleak British beach – anywhere along the endless coastlines, not just Whitby – and it is easy to imagine the ghostly clipper ship sailing in with its dead captain lashed to the helm.
A Bloody Intrusion
The privileged wealthy were easy pickings for the vampire’s seductive charms. Upper class women led closeted lives with many restrictions on what they were permitted to do. The fantasy of a vampire mesmerically seducing them into actions well outside the realms of accepted behaviour would have been incredibly exciting to such an audience.
Vampires of the British Isles tend to be a mix of other cultures’ historical references and myths and often have a distinctly xenophobic angle. There were several incidents in Liverpool in 1983 in which people claimed to have been bitten on the neck by an intruder whilst lying in their beds. The interloper was described, wonderfully vaguely, as “foreign looking”.
Liverpool appears to have been a particular hotbed of alleged vampire activity over the years, with the Lodge Lane area in particular being a popular spot for our toothy friends. Possibly this is down to its position in the city – almost equidistant to both Toxteth cemetery and the busy dock area with its sailors and associated transients, the surroundings would certainly provide excellent cover for any amount of nefarious activity.
Vampires – the Real Thing?
Perhaps for want of the genuine article, a small but significant section of our society fetishises vampirism and carries out some acts as part of an extreme form of role-playing. Indeed, it is quite easy to find instructions on the net for the procurement of human blood, if one is of that inclination.
Whilst researching this article I found many articles and websites written by and for ‘real’ British vampires – the lure of immortal darkness certainly hasn’t dimmed under modern inspection. What links these would-be Nosferatus to their mythological forebears is the fact that such behaviour could just as easily have been carried out by someone acting as a vampire, rather than a genuine bloodsucker.
At some point, ‘acting’ must surely turn into ‘being’ – could some of those historic tales be based on the morbidly aspirational curiosity of an obsessed protagonist?
Or do the vampires truly walk amongst us?
You can read more of Violet Fenn’s work on her blog The Skull Illusion, which focuses on Post Mortem Photography and other unusual aspects of death.