Dracula’s Guest: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories – Book Review

9781408808252When I came across this anthology, I knew I had to have it. A book full of two  of my favourite things: vampires and Victorian literature.

To my mind, there isn’t any gothic writing that can compare to the Victorian flair for the gothic and the macabre. And vampires! I’ve long been fascinated by the mythology and folklore surrounding vampires – the grotesque, terrible, undead that feed off the living, not the sparkly superheroes that entered pop culture post-Twilight.

The vampire is present in nearly all major mythologies. Originating in the myths of the ancient Slavs, the vampir was believed to a corpse that returned to animation at night to feed off the living. In earlier civilisations and cultures such those of the Mesopotamians, ancient Greeks and Hebrews, stories of blood-sucking spirits existed as precursors to the more recent image of the vampire. Initially, vampires were believed to be much like corpses in appearance – bloated, bloody and clearly repugnant; the image of the suave, sophisticated, gaunt vampire was born of the early 1800s, paving the way for the Victorian fascination with vampires.

The proliferation of the vampire in global mythology begs the question: what is the significance of the vampire?

What does it represent and how do we understand it’s evolution? If we use Jungian ideas, what would an archetype of the vampire represent for us psychologically?

Burne-Jones-le-VampireThe answers to these questions are likely to be varied. But with reference to this anthology, our specific question ought to be, what was the significance of vampires to the Victorians? Why was the vampire such a popular figure in Victorian writing and literary circles? The Victorian era saw the publication of Polidori’s The Vampyre, Stoker’s Dracula, Le Fanu’s Carmilla and numerous pieces of short fiction centred on this mythic monster.

In the introduction to the Folio Society’s collection, The Vampyre and other Macabre Tales (review to follow soon), Lucasta Miller suggests that the vampire represents the forbidden; the dark forces of sexuality and any form of social or moral deviance that were so repressed in the Victorian period.

Although the figure of the vampire existed well before Bram Stoker’s novel, it was Dracula that brought renewed interest to the undead. Indeed it is Dracula that is perhaps the best known vampire story today. So it is apt that Michael Sims turns to Stoker for the book’s title (Dracula’s Guest being a short story/ first draft of Stoker’s novel).

Sims’ collection is a true delight for an enthusiast of Victorian vampire fiction. This is a very comprehensive compilation of stories from all over Europe and some from the United States. Sims begins with an engrossing introduction (The Cost of Living) where he explores the significance and origins of vampires, and their relevance in Victorian gothic fiction.

The anthology is structured such that the stories move from the more distant past to the more recent past or to later times (the roots, the tree, the fruit). The anthology includes:

  • They Opened the Graves by Jean Baptiste de Boyer, Marquis d’Argens
  • Dead Persons in Hungary by Antoine Augustin Calmet
  • The End of My Journey by George Gordon Noel, Lord Byron
  • The Vampyre by John Polidori
  • Wake Not the Dead attributed to Johann Ludwig Tieck
  • The Deathly Lover by Theophile Gautier
  • The Family of the Vourdalak by Aleksei Tolstoy
  • Varney the Vampire by James Malcolm Rymer
  • What Was It? by Fitz-James O’Brien
  • The Mysterious Stranger by Anonymous
  • A Mystery of the Campagna by Anne Crawford
  • Death & Burial – Vampires & Werewolves by Emily Gerard
  • Let Loose by Mary Cholmondeley
  • A True Story of a Vampire by Eric, Count Stenbock
  • Good Lady Duncayne by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
  • And the Creature Came In by Augustus Hare
  • The Tomb of Sarah by F.G. Loring
  • The Vampire Maid by Hume Nisbet
  • Luella Miller by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
  • Count Magnus by M. R. James
  • Aylmer Vance & the Vampire by Alice & Claude Askew
  • Dracula’s Guest by Bram Stoker.

All engaging; some campy, some more frightening but wonderful reads for fans of either vampires or Victorian writing.

The Master & Margarita (Short Book Review)

This book was on my ‘to read’ list for ages as an intellectually aspirational read. Real life tends to interfere with reading time – long gone are the days when I could spend the summer curled up in bed reading the latest Harry Potter from dawn to dawn – but I managed to snatch enough time to finish this recently.

I was drawn to this book because (a) I’ve been meaning to read more Russian literature (before this, the only Russian literature I had encountered was a collection of Pushkin’s Fairy Tales in verse form) and (b) because it was on the ‘Richard Armitage Recommends List’ that I’d mentally compiled a few years back.

Let me explain: As an enthusiast of Armitage’s on-screen and theatrical works, I once read or heard (I cannot recall which now) him mention this book in an interview. He’s often mentioned interesting books in interviews and thus I mentally filed this one away to look into eventually.

A little background: The Master & Margarita is by Mikhail Bulgakov – the writer of A Country Doctor’s Notebook, which was adapted as a television series (A Young Doctor’s Notebook) in 2012 starring Daniel Radcliffe and Jon Hamm. Bulgakov, writing in Soviet Russia, often faced censorship, and in an act of desperation he wrote a letter to Stalin, in 1929, after which he was allowed to continue working, albeit with some restrictions. This novel, written during Stalin’s regime, was not published until 1967 (after Bulgakov’s demise) – and that too a censored version. It wasn’t until 1969 that an uncensored version was published, initially in Frankfurt.

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Bulgakov is known to have considered The Master & Margarita his swan-song, having referred to it as his ‘sun-set’ novel. The eponymous Master (a writer facing difficulties) and Margarita (the Master’s true love, muse and constant support) are inspired by Bulgakov himself and his third wife Yelena. The real-life similarities are compounded by his choice of plot locations – Patriarch’s Pond (the area where he lived with Yelena) and Sadovaya Street (his residential building), both places of important occurrences in the novel.

The Premise: The Devil, calling himself Professor Woland and posing as a mysterious black magician, descends for a visit to the atheistic society of Moscow in the 1930s accompanied by two demons, a witch and a talking black cat. Together, they set about tormenting the members of society in general and in particular members of the elite literary club ‘MassoLit’. Their actions drive a young writer to an insane asylum, where he comes to meet the Master and hear his story. This plot is alternated with an account of a meeting between Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem and Yeshua Ha-Nostri (a fictionalised character, symbolic of Jesus?).

Thematically, the book is concerned with:

(a) Bulgakov’s personal struggles as a writer as fictionally represented by the Master

(b) The superficiality of Moscow literary society

(c) The silencing of dissent and difference of opinion via the abuse of psychiatry

(d) Questioning and responding to atheist ideology specifically as promoted by the USSR at the time of the novel’s writing

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The Master & Margarita is full of dark humour and irony. The descriptions of Woland’s many tricks on various members of society are extremely entertaining – from black magic tricks, to dreadful frights to downright cons to mind games to fantastical visions and supernatural bargains.

This enjoyment is ensured by¬†Bulgakov’s highly amusing writing – take for instance, this description of two people falling in love, “Love leaped up out at us like a murderer jumping out of a dark alley. It shocked us both“.

Whilst I did enjoy the book, and I would recommend it to other readers, I must admit that I found some of the Jerusalem passages boring and a bit tedious to get through. On the whole, though, this book was well worth the read. Intelligent, ironic, amusing and intellectually stimulating.