This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Vampire Stories You May Not Know

            You get some interesting responses when you tell someone you’ve published a book. I was talking with a friend a while back, and he asked if my mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, had any vampires in it.
            “Vampires?” I said.
            “Yeah, vampires,” he replied. “It seems like every book out there now has vampires. Yours would probably sell better if it had some, too.”
            He may be right, but it’s too late for a rewrite at this point. Nevertheless, he got me thinking about a couple of venerable vampire stories that are considerably older than I am.

A Victorian Lesbian Vampire Tale

            JosephSheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873) is generally ranked with Wilkie Collins as one of the great writers of Victorian-era shockers. A number of his tales were ghost stories or tales of the supernatural, and though they’re not widely read today, they’re quite good. I defy anyone to read “The Familiar,” then step forth confidently on a walk through a deserted city.
            His best vampire story is “Carmilla,” which tells of a young woman by that name who takes up temporary residence with a man and his daughter in their home in a lonely forest in Germany. Pretty soon the wives and daughters of nearby peasants are dying mysteriously, and the young lady of the house, who has become Carmilla’s affectionate friend, has become inexplicably ill.
            For a story written 150 years ago, in an excessively proper society, “Carmilla is pretty steamy stuff. Here is the young lady of the house writing about waking suddenly in the middle of the night and seeing:
            “A young lady who was kneeling, with her hands under the coverlet. I looked at her with a kind of pleased wonder and ceased whimpering. She caressed me with her hands and lay down beside me on the bed, and drew me towards her, smiling; I felt immediately delightfully soothed, and fell asleep again. I was awakened by a sensation as if two needles ran into my breast very deep at the same moment …”
            Makes you wonder how that got past the censors of the day, but then I once read that when Parliament was considering the criminalization of lesbian behavior, Queen Victoria scotched the idea on the grounds that since such a thing could not possibly happen, there was no good reason to outlaw it. Maybe that’s the explanation.

Nothing Supernatural About It

            ClaytonRawson (1906-71) was an American mystery writer, contemporary and friend of John Dickson Carr, the locked-room specialist. Rawson was an accomplished magician, and many of his stories feature outrageous situations with prosaic solutions.
            In 1940 he wrote four stories/novellas under the pen name Stuart Towne, featuring a magician named Don Diavolo. One of them, “Ghost of the Undead,” tells of a vampire who appears in New York City and commits a murder. You can find it on Kindle in the book Death Out of Thin Air.
            Rawson isn’t in LeFanu’s class as a writer, and this story has the feel of something banged out on an old Underwood, under the influence of coffee and cigarettes, by a man in need of a quick check from a magazine. But it’s interesting, nonetheless, as a historical curiosity.
            Almost all supernatural tales written in the first half of the 20th Century, when people still believed in science and progress, ended up having rational explanations. Rawson’s vampire isn’t really a vampire, and tricks such as disappearing from a locked room on the 20th floor of a skyscraper are merely sleight of hand, explained at the end. How odd that in today’s high-tech society, such rationality seems passé.