Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Vampire: a New History – review

Author: Nick Groom

First published: 2018

Contains spoilers

The blurb: An authoritative new history of the vampire, two hundred years after it first appeared on the literary scene Published to mark the bicentenary of John Polidori's publication of The Vampyre, Nick Groom's detailed new account illuminates the complex history of the iconic creature. The vampire first came to public prominence in the early eighteenth century, when Enlightenment science collided with Eastern European folklore and apparently verified outbreaks of vampirism, capturing the attention of medical researchers, political commentators, social theorists, theologians, and philosophers. Groom accordingly traces the vampire from its role as a monster embodying humankind's fears, to that of an unlikely hero for the marginalized and excluded in the twenty-first century. Drawing on literary and artistic representations, as well as medical, forensic, empirical, and sociopolitical perspectives, this rich and eerie history presents the vampire as a strikingly complex being that has been used to express the traumas and contradictions of the human condition.

The review: I came across Nick Groom as the beset expert in The Luke McQueen Pilots: Britain's Hidden Vampire Crisis, however I had also read an essay in the Cambridge Companion to Dracula and, unfortunately, I found that the weakest of the chapters. However, one piece of work does not cover a body of work and – free of the confines of a chapter – Groom’s work here excels.

Groom explores the vampire from the 18th Century panics – arguing that these were the first vampires, and that revenants, spectres etc. are not vampires as emerged in the panics, indeed cutting the vampires from other blood drinking mythological creatures. It is a position that I can accept as an argument basis (as much as I can recognise the folkloric tropes that are common). He then draws a thorough socio-political history that allows us to see the context.

He carries this through the panics into the 19th century literature that developed (and I must say I always appreciate finding new pieces, and Groom covers pieces I’d not considered before). He skirts around Christabel suggesting that she appears vampiric, if not actually a vampire (I subscribe to it not being a vampire piece but, again, Groom dealt with this even-handedly.

The final chapter then moves on to Dracula (a brief view beyond Dracula is found in the conclusion but Dracula is seen as the loci between the developing vampire from the panics into the modern phenomena). To concentrate on this, for a moment, as it was where I was less positive about his previous essay; where the author drew a direct line between Ţepeş and the Count previously, in this it is less concreate a connection that is drawn (and then only briefly). I perhaps would still want a recognition that there is a strong view against the connection but it felt less “In Search of Dracula”.

One thing I did enjoy was how he drew the view of female hysteria with the figure of Lucy (and her subsequent healing, through the stake). There was mileage to connect this back to Varney the Vampire and Clara Crofton. Another thing I enjoyed was his vampire/vampiric reading of Frankenstein and I will, at some point, look to explore that here – with all due credit, of course.

But it is the historical context… the politics, the religious contentions, the societal views that he explores and ties into the development of the vampire as a figure up to, and including, Dracula that makes this such an important book. Highly recommended. 9 out of 10.

In Hardback @ Amazon US

In Hardback @ Amazon UK

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