Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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HISTORY

IRISH HISTORY

IRELAND - A LAND OF VICTORIAN VAMPIRES (Jan 2009)

 

The girl tilted her head forward to kiss the young man. However, as he lent forward, she brushed her lips past his and brought her mouth down upon his throat, a flash of teeth, white as tusks. The old Count, seated nearby, exploded in fury. And Bram Stoker awoke from his dream, sweating. It was 8 March 1890 and the Dubliner had just experienced the nightmare upon which his epic vampire horror story ‘Dracula’ would be based.

Bram Stoker was by no means the first person to dream of vampires. But ‘Dracula’ remains the defining masterpiece of the entire Gothic genre. Furthermore, as an Irishman, he represents one of many extraordinary links between Ireland and the entire vampire cult.

This month, vampires are back in vogue like never before with the release of the record-munching Twilight. The film is based on the vampire novels by Stephenie Meyer, which follows the adventures of Bella Swan, a teenager who falls in love with a vampire named Edward Cullen. Teenage girls are all a flutter to sink their teeth into the dishy London actor Robert Pattinson who plays Edward. Not since the hey-day of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has there been such interest in vampiric activity.

The idea of blood-drinking humans is as old as humanity itself. Indeed, go back 3000 years and you will find that most cultures on this planet involved a generous dollop of human sacrifice. It was a religious thing. The Aztecs watched blood flow down the steps from the sacrificial altar, certain it made their Gods happy. Even Jesus Christ played the blood card when he beseeched his apostles to drink red wine in remembrance of him.

Hand-in-hand with the sacrificial traditions was a morbid fascination with death and blood. Both Roman and Egyptian legends recall persons possessed by evil spirits who turned them into bloodthirsty lunatics.

The vampire concept has been knocking about in Ireland for many millennia, a natural sidekick to the unsettled ghouls of Halloween. In Irish mythology, the aos sí (or sídhe) were a powerful, supernatural race who lived in a parallel universe in which they walked amongst the living. Certain aos sí were obliged to drink blood to continue their existence.

Another restless soul was Abhartach, a psychotic dwarf chieftain from Donegal who, despite being comprehensively slain and buried by Cathán, a neighbouring chieftain, kept remerging from his grave to terrorize his subjects. Cathán consulted a wise druid who advised him that Abhartach was simply a dearg-dililat, a drinker of human blood, and sustained his existence by drinking human blood. In order to restrain the vampire dwarf, Cathán needed to kill him with a sword made from yew wood. Abhartach must then be buried ‘with his head downwards’ and covered in thorns and ash. A heavy stone must be placed directly on top and never lifted, or the vampire would be free to walk the earth once more.

In the early 18th century, the vampire cult erupted in Southeast Europe. By and large these Balkan vampires were simply evil ghosts – largely suicide victims and wicked witches – but some were said to have become vampires when bitten by another vampire. They weren’t a photogenic bunch. Their faces were purple and bloated on account of their recent blood-guzzling. Congealed blood seeped from their mouths and crawled from their nostrils and eyes. They did not have fangs but their hair and nails tended to be extra long. Bulgarian vampires only had one nostril. The Bavarian one slept with its thumbs crossed and one eye open. Albanian vampires sported high-heels while Moravian ones would, rather alarmingly, only attack you when they were naked. However, it is the Transylvanian breed of vampire that we know best today - gaunt, pale, and with very long fingernails. Transylvania’s most famous vampire is, of course, the gracious Count Dracula.

In 1725, Serbian villagers dug up the body of a man believed to be a vampire responsible for ten local murders. What they subsequently did to his body is unprintable. Indeed, as the rumours evolved, so panic whistled across the Balkans. Many poor sods were dragged from their home and publicly executed in the belief that they were vampires. One imagines rabies had something to do with it all.

Curiously, the entire vampire phenomenon as we know it today began the same night Frankenstein was born. One rain-drenched, laudanum-fuelled summer’s day in 1816, a house party was in full swing at the Villa Diodati on the banks of Switzerland’s Lake Geneva. Lord Byron, the host, instructed his guests to write a ghost story before bedtime. By breakfast time, Mary Shelley had penned the first words of 'Frankenstein' while Lord Byron started a story called The Vampyre’. Another guest, Dr John Polidori, took up from where Byron left off and, in 1819, ‘The Vampyre’ was published. The story about an aristocratic fiend who preys among high society was a monster hit and spawned several decades of lurid clones, most memorably the atmospheric Penny Dreadful series of Varney the Vampire, published between 1845 and 1847.

You can understand the allure. The blood that circulates through you and I today is the same blood that has cascaded down through umpteen thousand generations since the birth of time. Blood is red. Red is romance. So when you combine that with a rather tragic blood-sucking vampire, you create a dark and deeply mesmerising concept.

Between 1825 and 1827, the Cork-born antiquarian Thomas Crofton Croker published “Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland’. In these pages can be found the story of a lady vampire called Dearg-due, or Red Blood Sucker, who lies buried in a small churchyard ‘near Strongbow's Tree’ in Waterford City. She is said to have been ‘a female of indescribable beauty who died in mysterious circumstances’. In Croker's day, she still rose from her grave once a year to seduce men from the surrounding villages with her dancing and then, while they were stupified, to pounce upon them and feed on their blood. Although few have heard of Strongbow's Tree, it is presumed to have been sited near Reginald’s Tower. Apparently there is a grave in that Churchyard piled high with stones although this author has yet to investigate this any further.

During the late 19th century, the baton of vampirical literature was inherited in succession by two Protestants from Dublin. The first was Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, a respected journalist who became the greatest horror writer of his age. The second was a mild-mannered theatre manager with the suitably Gothic name of Bram Stoker.

Sheridan Le Fanu was born into a Huguenot family on Dublin’s Lower Dominic Street in 1814. His family had arrived in Ireland from Normandy three generations and, during the 18th century, intermarried with the Sheridans, one of Dublin’s most venerable theatrical families. Le Fanu’s great-uncle was the celebrated playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan while his grandmother Alicia also wrote plays. Le Fanu’s childhood was spent in the Phoenix Park where his austere Protestant father was chaplain to the Hibernian Military School. During the 1830s, he read law at Trinity College where he became Auditor of the Historical Society. However, when called to the bar in 1839, Le Fanu turned his back on the legal profession and began life as a journalist. He simultaneously began publishing ghost stories. One such tale was an anonymous novella ‘Spalatro’, published in the Dublin University Magazine in 1843, in which the eponymous hero develops a necrophilia-like passion for an undead blood-drinking beauty.

In 1844 Le Fanu married Susan Bennett, daughter of a leading Dublin barrister, and settled on Warrington Place, Dublin 4, overlooking the Grand Canal. He cemented his journalistic credentials by buying up newspapers such as the Dublin Evening Mail. In 1852, Le Fanu’s political ambitions took a dive when the Tory party ditched him for supporting a Young Ireland initiative to highlight the indifference of the Government to the Irish Famine. In 1856, Le Fanu, his wife and four children relocated to 80 Merrion Square (where the Irish Arts Council are based today). However, the marriage was rapidly falling apart. Le Fanu’s increasing atheism horrified the religious Susan who, devastated by the death of her father and other close relatives, had a nervous breakdown. In April 1858 she suffered a ‘hysterical attack’ and died the following day in circumstances described as ‘unclear’.

Le Fanu wrote no more fiction until 1861 when he became the editor and proprietor of the Dublin University Magazine. Always frugal, he was now doubling his income by writing one version of his ghost stories for serialization in the DUM and then revising each story for the English market. Over the next ten years, he published nearly 20 books, each one choc-o-block with chilling horror stories. None received greater attention than his controversial 1872 bestseller, ‘Carmilla’, an erotically charged short story about an eerily beautiful vampire lesbian who preys on a lonely young woman. The story, which predates Bram Stoker's Dracula by 25 years, both stunned and titillated Victorian society. Alas, Le Fanu did not live to witness the full reaction, passing away in Dublin in February 1873 aged 59. Many regard him as the best horror writer ever, equalled only by Edgar Allen Poe. A century later, actress Ingrid Pitt caused a sensation with her turn as Carmilla in an adaptation of Le Fanu’s book by the ‘Hammer Horror’ movie-team. The lesbian vampire concept again made its mark in Buffy when Willow's lesbianism was revealed.

Twenty years after Le Fanu’s death, the holy grail of vampire literature passed to a young man who once worked for him as an unpaid drama critic. Bram Stoker – or Abraham as he was christened – was the third of seven children born to a Protestant couple living in the seaside suburb of Clontarf. Born in the famine year of 1847, young Bram was a sickly child, effectively confined to bed for seven years. A recent scholar has suggested this isolation was linked to incest, a matter that will undoubtedly attract much attention in coming years. Stoker himself described how ‘the leisure of long illness’ provided him with an ‘opportunity for many thoughts which were fruitful according to their kind in later years’.

Some of his few childhood outings were to the Protestant church of St. John the Baptist on Seafield Road West. Like any boy, Stoker was mesmerised by the fate of St John whose head was brought on a platter to the wicked Salome. Indeed, the bible seemed to be pumping with stories of blood. His own namesake, Abraham, with the knife poised over his only son, preparing to sacrifice the boy as a sign of his devotion. Jesus Christ beseeching his apostles to drink wine and pretend it was his blood. Everywhere the boy looked, blood came to mind. Even the swampy marshlands of Clontarf were the setting for one of the bloodiest battles in Irish history.

Also of considerable influence on young Stoker were the memories of his Sligo-born mother, Charlotte Blake (1818-1901), a prominent feminist whose uncle was hanged for supporting the Franco-Irish rebels at Killala in 1798. This hugely ambitious woman was arguably the main driving force in Bram’s life. For the purposes of this tale, she also regaled him with her memories of the dreadful cholera epidemic that nearly wiped Sligo off the map in the 1830s. She told her son that some sufferers were buried alive lest their illness spread.

At the age of 7, Stoker made a complete recovery. A decade later he entered Trinity College Dublin where he read science and mathematics and excelled as an athlete and debater. Like Le Fanu before him, he became auditor of the College Historical Society and was president of the University Philosophical Society. The publication of his first paper on "Sensationalism in Fiction and Society" indicates that he clearly had his eye on the power of drama from an early age.

During his 20s, he began work as a civil servant in Dublin’s fines and penalties department. His father Abraham was one of the officials for the Chief Secretary in Dublin Castle and secured him the post. During this time he complied his first non-fiction book, The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland, published in 1879. He quenched his greater literary thirst by writing short stories such as ‘The Crystal Cup’, published by the London Society. He also submitted unpaid theatre reviews to the Dublin Evening Mail, lately owned by Sheridan Le Fanu. Indeed, it was one such review that changed his life.

In 1876, the great Shakespearean actor Sir Henry Irving brought his unconventional performance as Hamlet to Dublin. Stoker gave him the thumbs up. The grateful Sir Henry then invited Stoker to dinner at the Shelbourne Hotel, where he was staying. The two hit if off like ham and eggs and became intimate, life-long friends ever after.

In December 1878, Stoker was married in St Anne’s Church on Dublin’s Dawson Street to 20-year-old Florence Balcombe. This celebrated beauty had previously dated Oscar Wilde. The Stokers moved to London soon afterwards where their only son, Irving Noel Thornley Stoker, was born on 31 December 1879.[1]

The Stokers moved to London because Bram had just been appointed Sir Henry Irving’s confidential advisor and personal assistant. For 27 years, he was front-of-house master of ceremonies at the highly acclaimed Lyceum Theatre in London’s West End upon which Sir Henry was lessee. Under Stoker’s careful supervision, the Lyceum became the envy of theatres the world over, famed for its brilliant production of scenery, costume and props; the ‘mise-en-scène’ as thespians would call it. All the great actors of the age trod the Lyceum’s boards from Ellen Terry to Sarah Bernhardt. The position also enabled the flamboyant Stoker to rub shoulders with the high society players of Victorian London, including the artist James Whistler and the Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Moreover, Sir Henry himself provided Stoker with the perfect role model on which he could base Count Dracula, the subject of a book he began writing in the 1890s. His time spent watching the theatrical knight march about the Lyceum, combining gentlemanly mannerisms with sudden dramatic sweeps of his cloak, began to seep onto the pages of the novel he was writing. Indeed, it was his hope that Sir Henry would one day play Dracula in a stage adaptation of his novel. The play was later staged at the Lyceum but Sir Henry did not take the title role.

Dracula was published in 1897 and was apparently based on several years of research of European folklore and vampire stories. It is an epistolary novel, combining diary entries, telegrams and letters with fictional newspaper clippings. The Daily Mail review of June 1, 1897 proclaimed it a classic of Gothic horror, as ‘weird, powerful, and horrorful’ as anything yet published. Maurice Richardson described it as ‘a kind of incestuous, necrophilious, oral-anal-sadistic all-in wrestling match’.[2]

Irving was hit by a stroke during a performance on stage in October 1905 and died shortly afterwards. Stoker fell ill the following year but survived his mentor by seven years, perishing from syphilis in 1912. He was cremated and his ashes placed in a display urn at Golders Green Crematorium. Florence Stoker's ashes were supposed to be added to the urn but were instead scattered at the Gardens of Rest. When their son Noel died in 1961, his ashes were added to the urn.

There are hints of vampirism in other works by Irish authors, such as ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde (1891) and the play 'Cathleen ni Houlihan' by Lady Augusta Gregory and W.B. Yeats (1901). Irish film director Neil Jordan reignited interest in the genre when he filmed Anna Rice’s ‘Interview with the Vampire’ in 1994. But Bram Stoker’s Dracula remains the master-work of the Gothic vampire genre.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Stoker may have been bi-sexual. He defended Walt Whitman in his youth, knew Oscar Wilde well and was probably in love with Sir Henry Irving. He only had one child with his wife whom he claimed was frigid. It seems possible he contracted syhphillis from prostitutes he met either in Paris or America while on tour with the Lyceum company. It is not known whether they were male or female.

[2] Bram Stoker only published four books. In 1903, Stoker published The Jewel of Seven Stars, a horror novel about an archaeologist's plot to revive Queen Tera, an ancient Egyptian mummy. This would also become a great favourite with the Hammer Horror crew.

[3] Pronounced "droc-'ola", the word ‘Dracula’ is perhaps derived from the Irish words Dreach-Fhoula, meaning 'bad' and 'tainted blood'. The expression is believed to refer to 'blood feuds' between persons or families, but may have a far older history.


With thanks to Michael Purcell, John Moore, Rosemary Ryan (Education/ Documentation Officer, Waterford Museum of Treasures), Leo Cullen and others.

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