Sunday, March 05, 2006

Vampires and the nature of immortality – how popular entertainment offered the vampire true immortality. Part 2

So we are concerned with the vampire, the truly undead. Yet does being undead instil immortality. If by immortality we mean unable to die other than by outside influence then the answer is clearly yes. However if immortality is living for an infinite time with an inability to shuffle off this mortal coil then, in the main, the answer would seem to be no. We can assume that the clinging to undeath will allow us to say that the vampire is, at least, ‘living’ after a fashion. Yet the vampire is vulnerable, a stake through the heart, the removal of the head, exposure to sunlight, dunking in flowing water or immolation; one or more of these methods can destroy our undead friends dependant upon the source we look at. This is not immortality. It is long lived certainly and it could even be said that the vampire is a veritable Methuselah. Yet immortal they seem not to be.

This is consistent with the original legends and superstitions that are the foundations of the vampire genre. In this case I am looking at the atypically western vampire who finds his roots in the Romanian stigoii. It is from the strigoï that we find the roots of Dracula and from there the roots of what we generally class as a vampire. It is from these legends that we discover many of the movie standard methods for destroying vampires. If we wish to find true immortality amongst the vampires, however, it is in popular entertainment we must search.

There were allusions in the earliest vampire novels of a true immortality. LeFanu hints of this, in Carmilla. At the end of his seminal story, Carmilla is destroyed, she is staked through the heart, beheaded, immolated and then her ashes are thrown into a river; well it doesn’t hurt to be sure. Yet, in the final paragraph Laura, the story’s narrator and focus of the vampire’s attention, tells us

“It was long before the terror of recent events subsided; and to
this hour the image of Carmilla returns to memory with ambiguous ~ alternations--
sometimes the playful, languid, beautiful girl; ~ sometimes the writhing fiend I saw
in the ruined church; and often from a reverie I have started, fancying I heard the
light step of Carmilla at the drawing-room door.”

Carmilla – Sheridan LeFanu 1872

Here we have the thought that the vampire may not truly have been destroyed. Similarly, in “Varney the Vampire” the destruction of Varney is difficult to achieve. Varney was the star of a penny dreadful, a serial in print. As the series proceeds Varney manages to escape truly dying many times. It is actually built into the rules of the Varney saga that vampires can be revived.

“…if any accident befall them, such as being shot, or otherwise killed or wounded, they can recover by lying down somewhere where the full moon's rays will fall on them.”
Varney the Vampire vol. 1 - James Michael Rymer

Yet it still seems that the vampires in Varney can be utterly destroyed. The end of Varney comes in a coda to the series, actually chapter 237, entitled “The total destruction of Varney the Vampyre, and conclusion”. Again this vampire is not truly immortal, he might be destroyed but, in this case, only in the most spectacular of methods.

“`…You will say that you accompanied Varney the Vampyre to the crater of Mount Vesuvius, and that, tired and disgusted with a life of horror, he flung himself in to prevent the possibility of a reanimation of his remains.'
Before then the guide could utter anything but a shriek, Varney took one tremendous leap, and disappeared into the burning mouth of the mountain."

Varney the Vampire vol. 3 - James Michael Rymer

Varney, it is clear, clings more tenaciously to this mortal coil than many of his kin and, when his mind and soul have tired of life he must take extreme measures to ensure that his undead flesh obeys.

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