3 September 2014


Paul Adams. Written in Blood: A Cultural History of the British Vampire. History Press, 2014.

Although the conventional belief is that the vampire's origin is the Carpathian Mountains or some other rugged area of Eastern Europe, this book demonstrates that the place where the Undead feels most at home is right here in England. From the moment the sinister count fetched up on the coast of the East Riding he found a comfortable niche waiting for him in English culture and literature.
Adams shows how the vampire theme developed from an earlier Gothic tradition of blood-drinking and life sapping revenants, like Gottfried Burger's Lenore, Goethe's The Bride of Corinth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Christabel. Given more specific form later in the century by writers like Polidori and Rymer (who also introduced us to that other great blood-soaked monster, Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street), the image of the blook-sucker rapidly metamorphosed from the decayed grave-escapee of European folklore, to the suave, sexually charged figure we know today. The format of the vampire story allowed Victorian writers to explore aspects of sexuality that would be unthinkable (or at least unpublishable) if dealt with in a more realistic format – Sheridan le Fanu's lesbian vampire Carmilla, for instance.

A chapter on possible historical English vampires in rumour and folklore looks at the 'Beast of Coglin Grange' an ambiguous collection of ghost stories where Adams can come to no firm conclusion but leads on to a consideration of a number of murder cases which had vampire-like features.

Stoker's Dracula is of course the defining vampire and has coloured nearly all subsequent fictional treatments of the figure. Adam's traces the development of the character of Dracula and other characters in the story, suggesting that the overpowering personality of the Count himself may have been inspired by the larger than life-sized figure of the actor Henry Irving, whom Stoker worked with for many years; and intriguingly that the whole story may have been inspired by a hypnogogic vision which Stoker experienced years before writing the book.

Adams describes Stoker as a 'benchmark', and clearly his characterisations have indelibly influenced nearly all subsequent literature, even that which consciously avoids the Stoker template. In the first decades of the twentieth century writers such as M R James, Algernon Blackwood and E F Benson – of the genteel Mapp and Lucia novels – all tackled the vampire theme. However he sees much of the credit (or blame) for the development of the particularly English vampire going to the enigmatic Montague Summers. Like much else of his literature and life, his 'history' of the vampire had only tangential connection with anything that might be described as 'the truth' and is best described by the inscription on his gravestone, just a mile from Magonia HQ, “Tell me strange things”.

Most of the rest of this book is devoted to what I think is Adams's first love, the vampire on film. He traces the development of the British vampire on screen back to a one-reeler produced in 1913, The Vampire, set in India and now totally lost. Friedrich Murnau's Nosferatu of 1921 presented a defining vampire image for a generation, and in England Dracula became linked in the public mind with the image of Jack the Ripper, both sinister figures looming through swirling mists in the mean streets of London's East End; and both, it would increasingly seem, equally mythical.

But the most English of vampires was that created by Hammer Films, and Adams narrates the rise and fall of this iconic studio with its stable of classic horror actors, and chronicles the eclectic group of people involved in the production of its string of culturally influential films over nearly three decades. But much like their coevals the Carry On films, they became victims of their own success, gradually falling into formulaic treatments, and being overtaken by more explicit and imaginative films from other studios, particularly following the loosening of film censorship in the nineteen-seventies.

Adams bravely tackles the Highgate Vampire story, and as an outsider I think it seems a pretty balanced account of a subject which raises sometime violent emotions on all sides. Echoing Basil Fawlty, Adams can probably say “I mentioned the Highgate Vampire but I think I got away with it”!

The final chapter looks at modern (post 1975) literature and how the vampire template has grown to allow writers to explore a wide range of psychological, psychosexual and parapsychological themes. I am pleased to see an old library colleague Ramsey Campbell getting due acknowledgement here, especially now that his name is inscribed in golden lettering along with other Liverpool literary greats on the wall of the newly-rebuilt city Central Library.

Although sometimes a little difficult to follow because of the sheer wealth of detail – which is mainly a result of the author's enthusiasm for the topic – this is an intriguing book which demonstrates just how very English the vampire phenomenon has become. – John Rimmer

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