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The Vampyre


by Dawn, April 24, 2012

Along with her recent interview with OBS, Laura Resnick has given us exclusive insight into her fourth book, Vamparazzi and how she made her vampires stand out in a genre filled with them.

When I started working on Vamparazzi (DAW Books, October 2011), my first vampire novel and the fourth book in my Esther Diamond fantasy series, my biggest concern was: How do I write a vampire novel that isn’t a retread of (the boatload of) other vampire novels already out there?

As was the case with the previous book in the series, Unsympathetic Magic (a tale of voodoo and zombies—zombies being another perilously overused subject these days), I soon discovered that the answer was surprisingly simple: Just do your research. Ahhh…

Esther Diamond is a struggling actress in contemporary New York City who gets involved in various paranormal misadventures via her professional life. In Vamparazzi, wackiness ensues after Esther is cast as a vampire victim in The Vampyre, a (fictional) off-Broadway adaptation of the (real) 19th century story by Dr. John Polidori.

Vampires are so pervasive in pop culture that I mistakenly thought I knew the subject well. Um, no. What I knew, it turns out, were just the fictional tropes of my contemporary society. And most of those familiar (and, yes, entertaining) conventions were invented by novelists and movie makers, and are wholly unrelated to traditional vampire folklore and history.

Recognizable vampire mythology goes back as far as ancient Babylonia and the Sanskrit tales of classical India. There were blood-drinking demons (known as lamiae) in ancient Greece and Rome, in the medieval Islamic world (ghouls and affrits), and in Renaissance Europe. Various forms of vampire lore exist in Asia, the Pacific Rim, Africa, Central and South America, Australia… and, of course, Eastern Europe.

The Slavic folklore of Eastern Europe is where much of our own culture’s concept of vampires originated. Widspread vampire panics had probably been occurring for centuries in that region before they made their way into the historical record. Then in the early 18th century, imperial wars and treaties resulted in the Ottoman Empire losing much of its Eastern European territory to the Habsburg monarchy of Austria. Upon hearing about vampire epidemics and gruesome anti-vampire activities for the first time, a few years after taking over control of the region, the Austrian government’s reaction was (I paraphrase): “Whoa, they’re doing what in those provinces?” Followed by: “We need to send someone to investigate this and find out what’s going on.”

In the early 1730s, the Austrian authorities who were assigned to investigate these
vampire epidemics wrote detailed accounts of strange phenomena for which they had no explanation. The contents of these reports were repeated and disseminated, and thus the folklore of Slavic villages entered the imagination of Western Europe.

The vampires preying on the terrified inhabitants of various impoverished villages were not suave aristocrats using seductive tactics. In life, they had been ordinary peasants; in undeath, they were mindless, ravening, and quite grotesque monsters. And this was typical of the vampire lore of the region.

So what was really happening in the eastern provinces experiencing vampire outbreaks centuries ago?

The two typical features of historical vampire epidemics were (1) a rash of mysterious deaths and (2) the fear-driven exhumation of corpses… that looked ruddy and well-fed, and which often had blood dribbling from their mouths.

Well, a wave of unexplained deaths in 18th century peasant villages isn’t actually mysterious if you consider the conditions in those communities; disease was spreading through a vulnerable population that didn’t understand epidemiology. Various fatal contagions, including the plague, were often blamed on vampires in the good old days. (For example, tuberculosis is considered the likely culprit of a documented vampire scare in New England in the 19th century.)

And the hysteria provoked by digging up plump, ruddy-looking corpses with bloody lips… was based entirely on not understanding the stages of decomposition. As were all the other “classic” signs of vampirism, such as claw-like fingernails and strange noises coming from the corpses. What the living were seeing in those unearthed graves was, unbeknownst to them, the normal appearance of the decomposing dead. (For an explicit example, see a fascinating National Geographic documentary called Forensic Vampires—but not while you’re eating. There’s also a book of the same title, based on this documentary.)

Moreover, even well-trained doctors (which some of the Austrian investigators were) in the 18th century had a level of medical knowledge that wouldn’t earn them so much as a Boy Scout merit badge today. Although the written reports of the Austrian officials demonstrate an ability (nay, a Teutonic determination!) to observe, investigate, and record strange phenomena with precision and detachment, they simply didn’t understand what they were encountering in their vampire investigations.

This misunderstanding of disease and decomposition was at the heart of Eastern European vampire folklore, and also at the heart of Western Europe’s fascination with it. That fascination was robust nearly a century later, when the notorious Lord Byron, summering at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland in the summer of 1816, challenged each of his houseguests to write a ghost story. In response to this, Mary Shelley began work on Frankenstein, which famous novel is the primary reason the challenge is remembered now.

However, the incident is equally important in vampire history. Participating in that game, Byron wrote a fragment which he soon abandoned… and which was then adopted and adapted by Dr. John Polidori, who was serving as his personal physician at the time. Byron (who fired Polidori that same year) subsequently supported the doctor’s claim of being the author of the resultant story, The Vampyre. Byron was also reputedly the inspiration for Lord Ruthven, the title character in Polidori’s Vampyre; Ruthven is an alluringly sinister aristocratic vampire who uses and abuses others without compassion or conscience.

First published in 1819, and reprinted many times and in multiple languages, The Vampyre was an enduring commercial success, and it ignited the reading public’s love affair with vampires. It was the first vampire fiction written in English, and also the first characterization of a vampire as complex and sophisticated; the elegant and manipulative Lord Ruthven is wholly unlike the grotesque, mindless creatures of Slavic folklore or the infamous vampire epidemics. Polidori’s vision of the vampire was fresh, innovative, and unique in its time. He popularized the undead, created the first-ever seductive persona for a vampire, and influenced other fiction writers for nearly a century—including Bram Stoker, who came along several generations later and wholly eclipsed Polidori’s tale with Dracula, which iconic novel has dominated our image of vampires ever since.

Thus my 21st century urban fantasy novel has one foot planted in 18th century Slavic folklore and the other in Polidori’s gothic tale of Regency-era English gentry—as well as a contemporary vampire premise that’s strictly an invention of the Esther Diamond series. And none of those versions of vampirism, as it happens, includes having fangs, sleeping in a coffin or in the soil of one’s homeland, or being fatally allergic to sunlight, all of which are inventions of 20th century fiction and film portrayals. So writing something that wasn’t a retread of someone else’s vampire fiction turned out to be easier than expected, in the end—I just had to do my research.

Laura Resnick’s Vamparazzi was released in October. Her upcoming Esther Diamond novels are Disappearing Nightly (reissue) in June and Polterheist in November; also available in the series are Doppelgangster and Unsympathetic Magic. You can find this author on the Web at LauraResnick.com.

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