7 January 2019

BLOOD AND SOUL

Nick Groom. The Vampire, A New History. Yale University Press, 2018.

Vampires are proving to be an inexhaustible subject of study for academics, novelists and filmmakers. I myself wrote a collection of short stories in 1999 called The Other Side of the Mirror (Citron Press.) In that book I explored the vampire as a metaphor for dark traits of human behaviour, other than bloodletting. Such ideas (perhaps too many) also inform Nick Groom’s fascinating book, The Vampire, A New History.

If you are expecting a comprehensive book covering all vampires since the dawn of time then you will be disappointed. Groom is an expert on matters Gothic and could be described as a vampirologist pursuing a specific vampire remit. Although his introduction sketches in bloodsucking ghouls, ghosts and other monsters Groom’s main concern is for the bona fide eighteenth and nineteenth century vampire (fact and fiction) that led up to Bram Stoker’s Dracula of 1897.

“…the novel is so profoundly informed by the myriad deliberations of its time on vampires, blood, science, technology and literature that all paths of the (un)dead lead to Dracula, on which I focus in this book…”

Groom’s book is a new history in so far as it rewardingly provides us with “the first extended study to unite these two realms.” Those realms being the cultures of artistic endeavour, science, metaphysics, science, identity and territory: brought to the realm of the complex personality of Dracula.

Two questions then. Do vampires really exist? And whether they do or not has Nick Groom convinced me that a history of the vampire still matters? (“Vampires are good to think with.”)

As to their existence, Groom discusses “the empirical scientific encounter with ‘real’ East European vampires.” And rather than claim vampires are real beings the thought that they might be is correctly suspended. For this is a highly intelligent and scholarly work that never sensationalises the vampire as a real sanguine menace. Yet Groom’s admirable research is accompanied by such a passionate enthusiasm for his subject matter that it left me wondering if Groom does really want to believe in vampires. Such an intense fixation on the vampirisation of culture sometimes pushes Groom to the edge. In the book’s conclusion titled Crawling and Creeping, Living With Vampires, he states.

“I have tried to resist essentializing the vampire as an elemental mythic type, or turning it into a canvas on which to portray the whole spectrum of contemporary critical thinking.”

But in the preceding paragraph he authoritatively says, “…perhaps we are living not so much in the anthropocene period (as people aver more and more frequently) as in the vampirocene era – an era in which the human race has transformed the world, but in doing so has also lost its primacy. In the vampirocene, the world is no longer anthropocentric: it is nihilocentric.”

My dictionary definition of anthropocene is “the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.” Whilst anthropocentric is defined as “regarding humankind as the central or most important element of existence, especially as opposed to God or animals.”

So is Nick Groom saying that in an era of vampires (or rampant, bloodletting capitalist progress) the world no longer has a reliable moral compass (or no beliefs at all) so it may disappear down some dark, empty hole? And that the vampire is our nihilistic self as much as an imagined projection?

If so, I don’t buy into an argument as dark as that.

On the subject of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Groom is at his persuasive best giving us insights and a fresh reading of the ideas coded in the novel. That chapter and the preceding one, on the vampires of nineteenth century Romanticism, engaged me the most. If Groom ever writes an introduction to a new edition of Dracula then this material would be very apposite (It’s as compelling as Groom’s superlative introduction to last year’s centenary edition of Shelley’s Frankenstein.)

Despite my qualms about a certain over-immersion, and therefore the occasional hyperbolic assertion of the vampire, as a cultural contagion, and Groom only spending a meagre twelve pages on the vampire cultural industry, this book remains a rich and provocative achievement. But be warned it’s not for the beginner in vampirology. I suggest you read Christopher Frayling’s Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula and Paul Barber’s Vampires, Burial and Death: Folklore and Reality before immersing yourself in The Vampire – which certainly maps out its own unique territory of thought. – Alan Price


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