Sunday, April 08, 2018

The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature – review

Author: James B. Twitchell

First Published: 1987

The Blurb: In his Preface to The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature, James Twitchell writes that he is not interested in the current generation of vampires, which he finds "rude, boring and hopelessly adolescent". However, they have not always been this way. In fact, a century ago they were often quite sophisticated, used by artists varied as Blake, Poe, Coleridge, the Brontes, Shelley, and Keats, to explain aspects of interpersonal relations. However vulgar the vampire has since become, it is important to remember that along with the Frankenstein monster, the vampire is one of the major mythic figures bequeathed to us by the English Romantics. Simply in terms of cultural influence and currency, the vampire is far more important than any other nineteenth-century archetypes; in fact, he is probably the most enduring and prolific mythic figure we have. This book traces the vampire out of folklore into serious art until he stabilizes early in this century into the character we all too easily recognize.

The Review: For context sake, this book must be one of the most oft-quoted books in vampire academia and yet a friend who read it found it overblown and seeing vampires where there are none.

How could that be, I thought, in such a respected volume – but one must critically read these things for oneself, and so I did. And it is overblown, seeing vampires where none actually are (thanks Ida). Not in all things, I actually completely agree that there is a vampire undertone through Wuthering Heights, indeed I probably believe it more marked than Twitchell suggests. Yet in other things I am not so convinced.

There are problems that I would overlook just because of the age of the volume. The conflation of Vlad III and Count Dracula had not been thoroughly debunked in 1987, nor had the conflation of vampirism with Porphyria. Unfortunately, Twitchell’s sources for the former had a vested interest in stretching the truths around the historic Dracula. However, looking at material “quoted as vampire but not” and we get the old faithfuls of Bürger’s Lenore and Coleridge’s Christabel.

With the former I can think of no reason (other than Stoker quoting it over a hundred years later in Dracula) to connect the poem to vampirism. With the latter, well it was the work of Nethercott that suggested that Chrsitabel was a vampire poem (and, flimsily, that Carmilla was a reworking thereof) and I have never bought the argument. Actually, if an argument was made for psychic vampirism I might be more convinced. Twitchell brings little extra to the party but does decide to gender swap the character Christabel (suggesting that she represent Coleridge himself and falls into a pattern of young men seduced by older lamia). I remain unconvinced of both the vampirism and now of the gender swap. There are works examined that I feel I must revisit to investigate the alleged vampirism – mostly around the Poe works that Twitchell ties to vampirism.

Probably the most interesting part of the book was that of the artist/art as vampire. There is a Poe piece here in the form of the Oval Painting. It feels a shame that with regards this section that Twitchell did not include (and possibly did not know) the Vampire by Jan Naruda, which has vampiric artistry/artwork as its basis. Though out of his field of study George Sylvester Viereck’s the House of the Vampire would have added much to this chapter.

So, without going into a very long critical evaluation, what I can say is that there are aspects to this I find very flawed (and clumsy errors, such as suggesting Harker was married when he encountered Dracula’s vampire women) but other aspects that are food for thought or I agree with. It is still an oft-quoted tome and necessary if only for that reason. 6 out of 10.

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