Fangs for the memories: The A-Z of vampires

Once upon a time, they were monsters to be feared. But nowadays, they are cool, sexy creatures with great hair and killer cheekbones – and what’s more, they’re everywhere...Kevin Jackson gets his teeth into the A-Z of vampires
Click to follow
The Independent Online

A is for Aristocrat

These days, the word "vampire" is likely to summon up images of a brooding high-school boy with killer cheekbones (Robert Pattinson in the Twilight films), or a macho Southern dude with killer cheekbones (Stephen Moyer in True Blood), or a beautiful young athlete with killer cheekbones (Kate Beckinsale in the Underworld movies, or Sarah Michelle Geller in the Buffy TV series). But for most of the past 200 years, the word evoked a tall, dark gentleman with exquisite manners (when he wasn't tearing open your jugular) and some highly desirable real estate. In short, the vampire was the aristocrat of monsters, the toff of terror. This would have seemed a bizarre idea to even earlier generations, for whom the vampire was a brutish and repellent thing, more like the zombies of our cinematic folklore than most of the vampires we know and half-love. What changed the creature of rotting rags and still more rotten flesh into the suave, elegant stalker of grand houses? Answer: the late Romantics, and one in particular, which is why ...

B is for Byron

Britain has been the home of vampire myths for more than eight centuries – the tale of the Alnwick vampire dates from the 12th century – but the creature only enters English literature in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, in poems by Coleridge ("Christabel"), Southey and Byron. And it was Byron who wrote the very first vampire story in our literature, albeit a brief one. Byron jotted it down during the notorious "Haunted Summer" of 1816, when he lodged at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva with Shelley and others; it was this same sojourn which later inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein. Byron's fragment was picked up, adapted and developed by his personal doctor, John Polidori, who published this longer tale as The Vampyre – and the floodgates opened. The Vampyre was a best-seller across Europe, and particularly in France, where it was widely believed not only that Byron was the author, but that it was autobiographical.

C is for Carmilla

In the decades between Polidori's The Vampyre and Bram Stoker's Dracula (see below), probably the single most influential work of vampire fiction was Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla. It was Le Fanu's tale which introduced the theme of lesbian vampirism to literature – and, in the following century, to films.

D is for Dracula

Published in 1897, and only modestly successful in its first few years, Bram Stoker's novel is, simply, the founding text of the modern vampire myth. Its influence is impossible to exaggerate, and Stoker's genius as a maker of popular legends is rivalled only by that of Conan Doyle. It is a matter of dispute as to how often their most famous creations have been represented on screen, but well over 200 actors have played the part of Dracula to date.

E is for Elizabeth Bathory

One of the two best-known "real life" vampires (the other being Vlad Tepes, see below), Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614), a Hungarian noblewoman sometimes known as "Countess Dracula", is said to have maintained her beauty with a rather unconventional moisturiser: the blood of slaughtered virgins. She has appeared as a supernatural character in any number of books and films, most recently as the arch-villainess of The Un-dead, the so-called "official" sequel to Dracula by Dacre Stoker.

F is for Fangs

Ah, but what kind? In Nosferatu, they are centrally placed and rodent-like. In the classic version of Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, there are – hard to believe – no fangs at all on public display. It is not until 1958, and the triumphant debut of Christopher Lee in the part, that the basic convention is made current. The fangs we know and love aare: a) apparently retractable – they pop out only when needed; and b) essentially lengthened canines.

G is for Emily Gerard

Author of The Land Beyond the Forest (1888), the original source of many of the ideas about vampires that Stoker propagated in Dracula. The "land beyond the forest" is, as Latinists will recognise at once, Transylvania. Stoker puts most of the beliefs about vampires he gleaned from this travel book into the mouth of Van Helsing, and many of them have since been repeated in thousands of books and films; one of the few exceptions being the story that the vampire can control the weather at will.

H is for Hammer Films

For many years, this small but industrious British company (see feature, page 40) led the world in the production of vampire dramas, most famously with the Dracula series starring Christopher Lee as the Count. Sir Christopher has sometimes been at pains to distance himself from this classic role, hinting that at least two or three of the later Hammer Draculas were pretty ropey. So they were; but in the best of them Lee is an incomparably powerful screen presence – aloof, commanding and dangerous, and still the very best of all screen Draculas.

I is for Interview With The Vampire

Anne Rice's best-selling novel of 1976 (and its various sequels) was by no means the first attempt to render vampires sympathetic, or even admirable. Long before she began the series, there was the character of "Barnabas Collins" in the gothic American soap opera Dark Shadows – Tim Burton is said to be preparing a feature film based on the series, with Johnny Depp in the Collins role – and Dracula himself has often been portrayed as a tragic hero with fine qualities. But the idea of vampires as superior beings, glamorous and, in some cases, more ethical than humans, was established for our time by Anne Rice. Without her, for good or ill, no Twilight ...

J is for Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre suffers a terrible fright when a nocturnal visitor comes to her bedroom; the next day, she tries to explain to Mr Rochester that what she saw was no common English ghost: "This, sir, was purple: the lips were swelled and dark; the brow furrowed; the black eyebrows wide raised over the blood-shot eyes. Shall I tell you of what it reminded me?... Of that foul German spectre – the Vampyre." In fact, the suspected vamp is the first Mrs Rochester. Note that at this time – Jane Eyre was published in 1847, exactly 50 years before Dracula – it is Germany, not Transylvania, that is held to be the homeland of vampirism. Miss Brontë was probably thinking of the many German Romantic poets who wrote on the theme, including Goethe.

K is for Kim Newman

Author of the witty and deliciously inventive Anno Dracula series. Newman's novels are set in an alternative universe in which Count Dracula married Queen Victoria and established a vampiric aristocracy as the nation's ruling class. Ambitious, warm-blooded folk are often tempted to take the bite to promote their careers ... Newman has published three main sequels (including Dracula Cha Cha Cha, set in Fellini's Rome) and a handful of short stories. Well worth the detour.

L is for Let The Right One In

The most critically lauded of recent vampire films, and deservedly so. It was adapted from a best-selling novel by the Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist, and tells the story of a lonely, persecuted boy called Oskar who forms a strangely gentle friendship with a little girl who moves in to an apartment block in his neighbourhood. She is not what she appears to be; and she helps him in ways he could not have expected. Some of them savage.

M is for Stephanie Meyer

The author of the Twilight series, and thus the undisputed queen of vampire love stories – a major sub-set of the genre now usually branded as Paranormal Romance.

N is for Nosferatu

Though there seem to have been some earlier vampire films, for all practical purposes the first true vampire film is FW Murnau's Nosferatu, released in 1922. And there are many fans who will insist that, in this case, the first is also the best. It's true that it has its creaky moments; yet if you allow the images duly to work their spell, you may find yourself shuddering. And no one who has ever felt that shudder can forget its central character.

O is for Count Orlok

Nosferatu was pirated from Stoker's novel – a fact which did not escape the author's widow, who managed to have all known copies of the print destroyed (fortunately, some were smuggled out of Germany) – and the characters' names were changed to make the theft less blatant. Count Dracula becomes Graf Orlok, played by the grotesque, astonishing Max Schreck, who is so unearthly as to have provoked the legend that he was a genuine vampire. (This conceit is the basis for the recent film Shadow of the Vampire.) At the end of the film, Orlok is caught in daylight and burns to death – a detail not to be found in Stoker, but copied in countless vampire films ever since.

P is for Polidori

As noted above (see B is for Byron), John William Polidori was the author of the first proper vampire fiction in English literature, The Vampyre. Alas, he hardly saw any profit from his much-poached creation, and died young, possibly by his own hand, in 1821.

Q is for Quincey

Quincey Morris, that is, the vigorous young Texan who is one of the Band of Brothers in Dracula, and who finally dispatches the Count with a blow from a Bowie knife, dying happily as he does so.

R is for Lord Ruthven

The title character of Polidori's The Vampyre, closely modelled (see above) on Lord Byron. But he has had many further incarnations, notably on the 19th-century stage, where – as "Lord Rutwen" – he was the villain of Charles Nodier's smash-hit play Le Vampire, and Heinrich August Marschner's opera Der Vampyr (1828).

S is for Stoker

Bram Stoker published Dracula in 1897, after at least six years of research and writing, all undertaken in the hours he could steal from his extremely demanding job as business manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London. Stoker's boss was Sir Henry Irving, the greatest actor of his age, and it has often been pointed out that some of Stoker's descriptions of the Count make him sound remarkably like Irving. Is the novel as a whole in some way an allegory for their master/slave relationship? Discuss.

T is for Twilight

The statistics tell a large part of the story: the combined sales of Stephenie Meyer's four Twilight books, plus her one novel to date for adults, made her the most successful author of 2008. By the end of that year, she had sold almost 30 million copies in the United States alone, and an estimated 42 million worldwide; the series has been translated into 37 languages. The first film in the Twilight series rapidly took more than $180m at the box office, making it easily the top-grossing vampire film of the past 40 years. (The runner-up was Van Helsing: about $120m.) Why has it hit the spot? One partial answer: she has somehow re-imagined the Byronic vampire for our times.

U is for Underworld

Largely derided by critics, but a healthy performer at the box office, this series of films proposes an ancient antagonism between aristocratic, wealthy vampires and brawny but impoverished Lycans – that is, werewolves. This supernatural premise apart, much of their running time is given over to shoot-outs, car and helicopter chases, shattering glass, explosions and martial arts; in other words, they are really thick-ear action films, with a vampiric gloss. For the impartial viewer, the chief attraction is Kate Beckinsale, who plays the heroine, Selene, a vampire warrior, though the first film also boasts a turn from Bill Nighy as a vampire elder, in make-up which rivals his Pirates of the Caribbean get-up for sheer weirdness.

V is for Vlad Tepes

At one point in Dracula, Stoker drops a very broad hint that the Count is in fact none other than a real-life warrior and Wallachian national hero, Vlad Tepes (c1431-1476) – "Tepes" meaning "the Impaler" – thanks to his reported habit of making kebabs of his enemies.

W is for Orson Welles

Orson Welles once commented that Dracula was a very good story, and that "someone should really make a movie out of it". What he meant was that none of the filmed versions so far had been faithful to Stoker's novel – a claim that remains true, though the BBC adaptation of 1977, starring Louis Jourdan, came fairly close. Welles, alas, never had the opportunity to show what he could do with the yarn on screen, but we can gather some idea of how it might have been from recordings of the radio version he made in 1938, as part of the "Mercury Theatre on the Air" series. Compressed into less than an hour, the Welles Dracula proceeds at a brisk pace, especially in the final chase sequence across Transylvania. Welles plays both Dr Seward, who narrates the action, and the Count; music was supplied by no less a giant of the medium than Bernard Herrmann. It is full of interesting ideas; maybe he should have called it Citizen Fang...

X is for xenophobia

As countless critics and cultural analysts have fallen over each other to point out, one of the major terrors in Stoker's novel is not the fear of death or of un-death, but of the Other, the foreigner; and Dracula can be seen as belonging to that popular genre of the fin de siècle, the Invasion Novel.

Y is for Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

A pioneer of the "Paranormal Romance" genre, who with her novel Hotel Transylvania (1978) introduced the reading public to the dashing Comte de Saint-Germain, an erudite former alchemist, now some 3,000 years old. He manages to avoid the whole messy business of running for his coffin at sun-up by having graveyard dirt sewn into his boots. Cunning!

Z is for zoophagy

The condition suffered by poor Renfield in Dracula; incarcerated in Dr Seward's asylum, he feasts on flies, and then on the spiders he has fattened on flies, and he begs his captors for a kitten ... What he truly seeks, of course, is human blood, and he is merely working his way up the food chain. (Darwin was one of Stoker's instructors, in this regard.) Distasteful? Yes, though any of us meat-eaters should not feel too superior to the poor zany. As the latest crop of vampire dramas are united in insisting, the main thing that divides us from the fanged ones is simply the kind of blood we choose to consume. Nosferatu, c'est nous.

Kevin Jackson's 'Bite: A Vampire Handbook' is published by Portobello Books, price £9.99, out now