Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Book of the Vampire – review

Author: Nigel Suckling

Illustrations: Bruce Pennington

First published: 2008

Contains spoilers

The Blurb: “An examination of the vampire in legend and history, taking Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a starting point since it is mainly responsible for the modern vampire’s notoriety. Nigel Suckling examines Dracula’s fictional ancestry as well as the folklore and historical characters (such as Vlad the Impaler and Countess Elizabeth Bathory) that informed Stoker’s many-layered monster. The book ends with a look at the vampire legend today and the resurgence of belief in such monsters.”

The review: The Blurb for this, as relayed above, is all well and good. However there are two blurbs. The inner dust jacket tells us that “Nigel Suckling is the UK’s leading authority on vampires and the myth and legend which surrounds them.” This leads me naturally to two thoughts, the first being that if he is such an authority why have I never heard of him before? The second being that this, therefore, must be amongst the most authoritative books on vampires, with no fear of inaccuracy.

To be fair the blurb does not match Suckling’s own introduction where he admits “In writing this I’m not setting myself up as any great authority on the subject. My starting point was uninformed curiosity…” Which is it? Given the content I would have to take the second (and Suckling’s own) admission and say shame on the publishers for misleading blurb, unfortunately it raises an expectation that can only be dashed.

One of the first things to strike me was when Suckling discussed Varney the Vampire. Firstly he re-summons the idea that it was written by Prest when it is mostly agreed that Rymer was the primary author, indeed Curt Herr offers an authoritative argument for Rymer’s penning of the series. Suckling suggests that it is “much like trying to read the collective scripts of a soap opera”, which in many respects it is, given the penny dreadful form was the soap opera of its day. However no real explanation of the penny dreadful form is given, instead Suckling goes on to admit “I gave up after a hundred or so pages,” which, to me, does not give Suckling the least bit of authority to write on the subject – at best he is recycling second-hand views and the overview of the story, placed as an appendix to the book, misses the mark on just about every level.

Of course the recycling of views would be acceptable if those views were properly attributed. For example, when discussing Carmilla, Suckling states “For a while, apparently, Stoker even considered making his central character female, basing her on the bloodthirsty Elisabeth Bathory, but no doubt this felt too much like plagiarism.” Fascinating, I’ve never heard this before and yet… where is the reference to establish Suckling’s supposition as fact. There isn’t one, so we cannot tell if this is true, and yet the influence of Le Fanu upon Stoker has long been established in the fact that Stoker did consider setting the book in Styria, as Carmilla was – for some reason this wasn’t mentioned.

Another example of reference failure was when looking at The Vampyre. Suckling suggests that when plays were performed based on the tale they were often double billed with plays based on Frankenstein. He then adds “no playwright went so far as to try and combine them into a single play, as has been done on film.” What film might that be? I ask with all excitement as I’ve never heard of it and, typically, Suckling does not say. Then I realise that he must be referring to Gothic and I stagger as, of course, this is about the creation of the stories, and the drug induced frivolities that led to said creation, and not a combination of the actual stories as Suckling intimated. Now the quote is perhaps just misleading, not useful in a reference book, but that is fine for me but what about another reader who perhaps doesn’t make said connection?

We are only up to page 29 with these issues and still in the heavily considered (within many a volume) classics of the genre. So, do things get better? Quite frankly, yes. As Suckling leaves the classics behind and explores the myths and legends from around the world the book improves. Part of this is down to the fact that Suckling writes in a way that is rather readable.

However, even though there are many quotations, which are referenced on use, there is no overarching bibliography and there are stories and suppositions added throughout that are not referenced at all. The book also contains no index itself. I was a little put out when we entered the realm of historic ‘vampires’ (Vlad Draculea, Gilles De Retz and Erzsébet Báthory) when the myth that Dracula was based on his historic counterpart seemed to be propagated, ignoring the fact that Stoker, at most, took a name and a few choice quotes to put into a character’s mouth.

This is vampire-lite and, in truth, quite sensationalistic in style. But it is readable and Pennington’s illustrations are lovely. 4 out of 10.


hawthorne said...

I appreciate your comments on my edition of Varney the Vampire! It is too frequently overlooked for such a great tale- Thanks for the support! (and thanks for pointing out the misleading errors in the new text "Book of the Vampire"!!!)
Curt Herr

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Curt, hopefully you linked across to my write up on Varney which was based around your excellent edition.

Many thanks to you for making the tale accesable to so many

Derek "Ruthven" Tatum said...

Ouch! I was wanting this, but might have to rethink that...though to be honest, I was more interested in the artwork.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Derek, as I said - the artwork is lovely

Vampire Vixen said...

I guess I no what NOT to pick up next time I hit the bookstore. Thanks for the review and info.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

That's quite all right Vampire Vixen, thanks for taking time to comment.

BTW, added House of the Vampire to my Amazon wishlist.

Amateur Vampirologist said...

I wonder if this book is a reprint or an expansion of Nigel Suckling's Vampires (London: Facts, Figures & Fun, 2006)...

That, too, gives a fairly superficial treatment of the subject.

He's also written on other fantastical themes, as can be seen here.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

AV - it might be an expansion, it certainly isn't a reprint - it is twice the length. Funnily enough he doesn't mention that book in his introduction. this ones isbn (to aid any research) is 978-1-904332-82-4

Amateur Vampirologist said...

If you're interested, you can also check out Nigel's webpage.

Niels of Magia Posthuma recently wondered if the book was worth purchasing or not. Perhaps you could give him some advice on it, as I haven't had a chance to read it myself, yet.

Nigel Suckling said...

Ouch! indeed. I obviously should have paid more attention to what the publishers put on the cover, though it doesn't feel quite fair to be blamed for it. You're entitled to your opinions of course, but I would like to answer a couple of points.

Firstly, I only mentioned Prest as a possible author of Varney the Vampire (along with Malcolm Rymer) because thanks to Montague Summers he was long considered the author. More importantly, I wanted to look at the cultural climate in which Prest, Rymer and others were writing, with colourful parallel examples such as the tale of Sawney Beane and his tribe of Galloway cannibals. And by the way, does anyone really not know what penny dreadfuls and shilling shockers were? Regarding my precis and opinions of Varney, they are based on as much of it as I read, as is made quite clear, they are not recycled secondhand views.

What films combined Dracula and Frankenstein? I was thinking of a couple of quaint examples billed as Dracula vs Frankenstein dating from the early 70s. I could go on but there's little point, though thanks for the strained compliment on the readability of my prose.

All the best

Taliesin_ttlg said...


thanks for taking time to comment. re the publisher's blurb I did make it clear that it was "shame on the publishers for misleading blurb".

I take your point re Frankenstein's monster and Dracula appearing in films together but they do tend to be a coming together of characetrs... however, in the book, it was Polidori's the Vampyre you said was combined with Frankenstein.

I also take your point introducing Swaney Beane into the mix but, in fairness, Summers was wrong and it has been fairly definitevly shown that Rymmer was the (primary) writer of Varney.

I am sorry if you felt my impression of second hand views re Varney was harsh, but that is the impression I got. I'm not too sure thateveryone is aware of the penny dreadful form, btw, I have explained it to many, in ocnversation, who had not even heard of them.

The compliment on your writing style was genuine - I found you very readable. To be honest the biggest flaw I felt the book had was lack of reference points. Bear in mind that I, and many who read this blog, research the genre seriously - if on an amateur - level I found points in the book I would have liked to have verified and explored further and the lack of reference hindered that (Stoker even considered making his central character female, being a prime example).

Nigel Suckling said...

Fair enough. Keep up the good work, Nigel