‘What!’, railed Voltaire in his Dictionnaire Philosophique of 1764. ‘Is it in our 18th century that vampires still exist?’ Hadn’t his Enlightenment rationalism seen off such sub-religious voodoo? Well no, mon frère, it hadn’t. In fact, here we are, a quarter of a millennium on, and those vampires are still with us. Films, rock concerts, novels, TV shows, they’re full of fangs and dripping with blood. We’re suckers for those suckers — so much so that even academia is getting in on the act. As Nick Groom, an English professor at Exeter university says in his densely researched new book: ‘Vampires are good to think with.’
Well, there’s certainly a lot to be said about them. Symbols don’t come more labile. The earliest vampires, Groom tells us, were ‘reputed to have powers of shape-shifting’. The later ones shape-shifted like their producers’ lives depended on it. Take the Dracula of the Hammer Horror cycle. Over the course of a decade and a half, Christopher Lee’s antics were a — doubtless unconscious — metaphor for what was going on in the wider body politic. In the first Hammer picture, Dracula — which came out within months of the Notting Hill riots — Lee played the character as a Byronic charmer tempting hitherto clean-living blondes over to the dark side.
Come the sexual revolution, though, the Count turned prudish. In Taste the Blood of Dracula he was so shocked at the sight of a bunch of repressive Victorian patriarchs being pleasured in the knocking shop he drank them dry. A few years later, in Dracula AD 1972, he was letting his hair down and getting it on with the hippies of the King’s Road.
Finally, in the following year’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula, our hero had morphed into a Poulson-style property developer who has taken over Centre Point and has his eyes set on the Square Mile. If only he had hung around for the Big Bang. Who would get it in the neck over Brexit?
In fact the links between vampirism and political economy go back a long way. During the reign of George II — himself, according to Walpole, a believer in vampires — the London Journal printed an item about ‘Dead Bodies’ in Hungary ‘sucking... the Blood of the Living’. This story, Groom tells us, was soon being retold by entrepreneurial types as an allegory for the way the dead hand of the state leeches off buccaneering capitalists. But soon enough the metaphor was being worked the other way. It’s not much of a stretch, as Groom says, to see vampires as ‘embodying a fear of the victims of colonialism biting back’.
And then came Marx. From the ‘spectre... haunting Europe’ at the start of The Communist Manifesto, through the French National Assembly ‘living off the blood of the June insurgents’ in the 18th Brumaire, to the description of wealth ‘sucking its living soul out of labour’ in the Grundrisse, and on to the argument in Das Kapital that ‘capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more the more labour it sucks’, Groom shows how Marx’s theories are pretty much premised on the vampire metaphor.
Vampires being vampires, there’s a lot of emphasis on the body here. Many of the book’s illustrations wouldn’t look out of place in a porn mag. Not that things get too racy. It’s possible, Groom says, to ‘over-sexualise vampire tales’. Fair enough, though it’s equally possible to under-sexualise them. Discussing Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Groom quotes this passage — ‘The fair girl went on her knees and bent over me... as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips... lower and lower went her head... I closed my eyes in a languorous ecstasy and waited, waited with beating heart’ — before arguing that Stoker is describing ‘the dynamics of the market’. I must have a word with my stockbroker.
For all the sex, though, the book steers clear of anything too semiotic or psychoanalytic. For a literature don, Groom writes with great clarity. The sections on Romanticism’s roots in the Eastern European Gothic are very impressive. He is good on paralleling what he calls Keats’s ‘deathly wooings’ with the lure of Transylvanian transubstantiation, and I found it hard to argue with his suggestion that Frankenstein ‘reverberates with vampire thinking’.
Nor is that the book’s only eye-opener. I was intrigued by John Stagg, the ‘blind bard’ of Cumberland, who apparently minted the word ‘suckosity’ for his poem ‘The Vampyre’. I was pleased to learn that ‘manducation’ isn’t some #MeToo neologism, but the act of chewing the consecrated host at the Eucharist. And I felt a prick for having to look up the meaning of ‘aculeated’.
Talking of feelings, it’s only right to point out that The Vampire is a joy to behold. This is one of the most beautifully produced books I’ve seen for a long time. Elegantly designed and typeset, and printed on a creamy paper that bulks out a slim page-count into something handsome and hefty, it ought to make rival publishers ashamed of their, well, vampiric practices.