6 August 2013


Barbara Brodman and James E. Doan. The Universal Vampire, Origins and Evolution of a Legend. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2013.

Vampires are strange creatures. Nearly all of us, at least in the West, will deny them a genuine existence, but they have become one of the most popular entities of our time. Even the "alien" grey has followers who claim that it is as real as you or I (and for some of us, even our reality is debateable).
Therefore, due to its status as a cultural icon, as night follows day the vampire is eventually examined by the academic, who themselves are also strange creatures, albeit with a genuine existence, as far as may be deduced.

One question that doesn’t seem to be asked quite as insistently as one would expect, however, is just why a being that is considered as almost universally fictitious has such a hold over the popular imagination in the materialistic, virtually anti-spiritual Western world. The learned people who have come together to contribute to this volume put forward some interesting theories as to why the children of the night crept from their crypts to inhabit some of the less shadowy zones of popular media. John Polidori’s The Vampyre came along in 1819 and moved the subject of countless (again, as it were) parasitic revenants into the limelight by ennobling them, although this after quite a few previous appearances in literature, starting off with The Vampire, written in1748 by Heinrich August Ossenfelder.

This book came about as the authors met in Aberdeen and discovered a common interest in legends concerning undead blood suckers. From there came a paper, then calls from them for other articles to be included in what is mainly an examination of the vampire from a cultural viewpoint, although one section looks at attempts to explain vampirism as a possible medical phenomenon and to try to establish a degree of veracity behind the hysteria of vampire panics in Eastern Europe (or East Central Europe, as Cristina Artenie would have it: The Universal Vampire, Dracula’s Kitchen, p. 56, note 2).

The tome is divided into four main headings. They cover the adoption of the vampire in Western European literature (The Western Vampire: from Draugr to Dracula), the possibilty that there may be a rational basis for the folk tales (Medical Explanations for the Vampire), the feminine,and feminist, principal (The Female Vampire in World Myth and the Arts) and finally how vampiric tales were adapted by different cultures (Old and New World Manifestations of the Vampire). It is intended for the informed reader - whatever kind of animal that may be. I like to think of myself as relatively well-informed but I found one or two of these essays almost impenetrable. Having said that, there is some fascinating stuff to be found here.
On a personal level, I was quite taken with the analyses of how the modern vampire myth has been depicted in Japan and Russia. Both countries have a rich mythology and many demons to call upon to populate modern media. One only has to look at the positive cataract of manga from Japan to see that they are no strangers to taking from their past legends and blending it into a mélange for present-day consumption. However, both nations are adept at taking the westernised fiction and turning it to tell tales of their own. Another observation that caught my eye was that the start of popularising the vampire was, ironically enough, the Enlightenment. Leo Ruickbie gathers together what was, at that time, impressive testimony as to the actual existence of such creatures, from medical, legal and military sources. By way of a slight aside I love the Voltaire quote on p.75: “Nothing was spoken of but vampires, from 1730 to 1735“.

There is an index and there are author biographies as well. as one would expect from such a scholarly book. On another personal note, I wouldn’t have minded seeing more about the possible medical causes behind, but I appreciate that the authors asked a specific body for papers. All in all, this is a slightly difficult book to sum up, but I did get some little-known facts out of it and some surprising directions that were new to me, such as Paul E.H. Davis’s Dracula Anticipated: The Undead in Anglo-Irish Literature, which interpreted the Victorian vampire in terms of the Irish Land Question. I can say that if one is really interested at some of the nuts and bolts behind the mythology then this is for you - it’s certainly not a casual peek at Nosferatu. -- Trevor Pyne

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