A Very Brief History of Vampires

And 10 vampire books that don’t suck (get it?)

Hello, friends and foes! Today we’re talking all things vamp. We’re all familiar with vampires; sparkly or creatures of the night, immortal or un-dead, sexy or terrifying (or both). Where do vampire stories come from? Who started writing them, anyway?

According to most of the stories, vampires are either immortal or un-dead – the distinction there being whether or not they were revived after death (hence, un-dead). They consume human blood or the human ‘essence’, i.e. psychic energy. Their looks can vary but they are usually described as pale skinned with large, sharp fangs. Sometimes they sleep in coffins (probably just for the aesthetic, because how much sleep could you really need if you’re un-dead?).

The Vampire, by Philip Burne-Jones, 1897

To become a vampire, you can be ‘turned’ by an existing vamp with a bite to the neck or other part of the body. There are other reported ways to become a vampire, depending on the region. In parts of Southern Europe, they believe if a cat jumps over a grave, the corpse will return as a vampire. These types of myths are the reason many corpses were buried with a stake through the heart… just in case. Greek vampires are believed to be created when babies are born during the week between Christmas and New Years. Killing a vampire usually involves a wooden stake through the heart, though sometimes decapitation is necessary, or burning with sunlight (unless they’re the sparkly ones, then this method is less than effective).

Vampire stories date back to Ancient Greece. In medieval Europe, they blamed most plagues of disease on vampires. This is believed to be linked to the vampire-adjacent symptoms of many diseases at the time. For example, tuberculosis caused pale skin and weight loss, porphyria caused sensitivity to sunlight, and rabies caused aversion to water and garlic (and biting).

Were there ever any real vampires? Sadly, no. However, there are some instances across history that might make you think differently. Take Vlad the Impaler, for instance. We’ve referenced him before as the possible inspiration for Stoker’s character Dracula. And you can’t blame people for thinking that – his name was actually Vlad Dracula. Like, before it was cool. He earned his nickname of Impaler because he enjoyed impaling his enemies on wooden stakes. He also allegedly enjoyed dipping his dinner bread in his enemies’ blood.

Later on, in the 18th and 19th century, there was what can only be described as a Vampire Hysteria. In 1817, college student Frederick Ransom of South Woodstock, Vermont, died of tuberculosis. His father exhumed his body in a misguided attempt to save the rest of his sick family. It was believed that someone who perished of disease (especially terrifying diseases like tuberculosis) could return as a vampire after death and spread the disease to other members of the community. The body would be exhumed and subjected to various methods of vampire murder – a stake through the heart, decapitation, or burning). Frederick was exhumed and his heart was burned in a blacksmith’s forge. Unfortunately, this ritual did not succeed, and most of Frederick’s family soon perished. Frederick’s case is interesting because it illustrated the spread of Vampire Hysteria, or Vampiric Panic, from uneducated and rural families to educated, well-off communities.

One of the most famous instances of corpse exhumation on the basis of vampire suspicion is that of Mercy Brown. In 1892, the Brown family of Exeter, Rhode Island was ravaged by tuberculosis. The mother and two daughters, one being 19 year old Mercy, tragically died. When the son of the family, Edwin, became sick, his father and the Exeter townsfolk blamed a vampire for spreading the disease. All of the Brown family bodies were exhumed, and all showed the normal signs of decomposition – except Mercy’s. Was it because she was kept in freezer-like conditions in a crypt in the middle of New England winter? Or was it because she was a vampire? Who can say. Either way, they cut out her heart, burned it, and fed the ashes to her sick brother.

Vampire poetry flourished during the early days of the Vampire Hysteria, like in Heinrich August Ossenfelder’s Der Vampyr (1748). The first English language depiction of a vampire in poetry is believed to be in The Vampyre (1810) by John Stagg. Then the vampire appeared in prose with John Polidori’s The Vampyre in 1819. I guess they didn’t have titles copyrighted back then.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is arguably the most influential vampire book (and was allegedly inspired by The Mysterious Stranger, written by an anonymous German author in 1823. It is so fascinating to me that the writer is still unknown to this day!). In 1931, Dracula was adapted into film, starring horror icon Bela Lugosi. The book also inspired the 1922 film Nosferatu… but it was apparently *too* inspired, as Stoker’s widow sued for copyright infringement.

With Anne Rice’s sympathetic portrayal of vampires in her novel Interview With a Vampire (1976), a new era of vampire tales was born. They were written with heart, with emotion, as blood-sucking romantic icons. I’ve made a list of ten examples of vampires in literature, from horrific to romantic to gothic to modern. There’s a vampire for everyone.

Interview With a Vampire by Anne Rice (1976)

Yeah, we just talked about this one, but it still has to be included. Rice ushered in a new age of vampire tales with her sympathetic and erotic tale of immortal vampires coming to terms with their tragic pasts and unending, inevitably tragic futures. The 1994 film version is also worth checking out, if only for Brad Pitt in period costume.

Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)

I know, we just talked about this one, too. But Stoker really started it all, and it’s worth checking out. It’s the now-classic tale of a mysterious Transylvanian noble, Count Dracula. There have been many film adaptations made, though I’d have to recommend the 1992 version, directed by Francis Ford Coppola with an absolutely stacked cast (Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, Gary Oldman, Anthony Hopkins, and MORE!).

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (2005)

This one is a historical take on vampires, particularly Vlad the Impaler, who allegedly was a big inspiration for Stoker’s characterization of Dracula. Vlad III ruled over Wallachia with such tyranny that even Pope Pius II was informed of his cruelty! This book is a fantastical tale of a young woman who must decide if she wants to follow in her parents’ footsteps into a labyrinth of the secret history of vampires – including Vlad’s terrible reign.

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix (2020)

We love Grady Hendrix here at Little Book Blog of Horrors. His book, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, got five stars (check out the review here: http://www.littlebookblogofhorrors.com/2021/08/book-review-my-best-friends-exorcism/ ). This one is a charming and southern twist on feuding with neighbors that suck… literally.

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris (2001)

The first of the Sookie Stackhouse series that inspired the HBO show True Blood, this book follows the misadventures of the mind-reading Sookie and her vampire friends, steeped in charming, small-town southern gothic imagery and accents. True Blood ran for seven seasons between 2008 and 2014 and starred Anna Paquin as the titular Sookie Stackhouse.

The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez (1991)

Set in 1850’s Louisiana (there must be something in that southern water that brings out the vamps), an escaped slave is introduced to the world of the un-dead while employed in a brothel. The story branches across several different decades and highlights the important life events of Gilda, the black and bisexual vampire heroine. The novel won two Lambda Literary awards – one for fiction and one for science fiction – and was hailed by Oprah herself as one of the best modern vampire books.

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer (2005)

Hear me out! The era of Twilight changed the way we look at vampires in literature and film. This four-part series is worth checking out for the examination of its cultural impact alone. If you’ve been living under a rock and don’t know why this is controversial – the saga follows Bella Swan, a conservative teen who finds herself in a love triangle between a vampire and a werewolf. The series was stretched into five films, also worth checking out if you want a good laugh. Plot holes, confusion, and poor acting abound. But the books actually cover some dark material… just in really strange ways.

The Ancient Ones by Cassandra L. Thompson (2020)

The first of an oncoming trilogy, this is a true gothic horror vampire tale. It follows the story of David, the last vampyre alive, as he looks back on his tragic and tumultuous past. Flowery, impressive prose is married with gut-churning horror and an un-dead love story for the ages. It was published through the emerging dark literature publishing house Quill & Crow.

Carmilla by J. Sheridan Lefanu (1876)

Another alleged inspiration for Stoker’s Dracula, this novella (first published as a serial) is about a young woman who falls victim to a female vampire. It also created the idea of a female vampire, femme fatale, with homosexuality portrayed as morally ambiguous rather than evil. There have been several film adaptations, some faithful to the source material – The Vampire Lovers (1970), and others not so much –Lesbian Vampire Killers (2009).

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith (2010)

A re-written biography of American president Abraham Lincoln, but if he dedicated his life to killing vampires after the vampire-related death of his mother when he was just a kid. Grahame-Smith also wrote the screenplay for the 2012 film adaptation starring Benjamin Walker and Rufus Sewell.

Well, there you have it, friends and foes. A glimpse into the history of vampires and a few vampire stories to choose from, depending on your taste and preference. Stay tuned: I’m doing this same post with werewolves in a couple of weeks.

What’s your favorite vampire book, movie, or legend? Let me know in the comments below!

Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.

xo Allison

SOURCES:

Eldridge, Alison. “Vampire: Legendary Creature”. Brittanica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/vampire. Updated 9 Aug 2021.

Tucker, Abigail. “Meet the Real-Life Vampires of New England and Abroad”. Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/meet-the-real-life-vampires-of-new-england-and-abroad-42639093/. Oct 2012.

“Vampires: Real Origins, Legends & Stories. History, https://www.history.com/topics/folklore/vampire-history. 21 Feb 2020.

COPYRIGHT DISCLAIMER:

Book cover art is used Pursuant to 17 U.S. Code ยง 107 under the “fair use” defense.

All other images are certified public domain.

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