- - Thursday, May 23, 2013


By Erik Butler
Reaktion / University of Chicago Press, $25, 175 pages

Fascination with the undead and fear of the supernatural have filtered through the mists of time, and the vampire has become the star of a dark and bloody show still playing in the 21st century.

Following the legend’s footprints in the past, Erik Butler notes that the vampire has “gone viral” as it keeps up with a world gone online. He suggests one reason is that nobody ever really knew what vampires were. In the more than 300 years since an Austrian official linked the word “vampire” to the mystery of an apparently healthy man’s death in a village, the undead have captured the public imagination.

“Writers simply made up the legends they presented as folklore, and cinema and television magnified the enigma,” Mr. Butler suggests.

The author is to be congratulated on writing a shrewd and sometimes sardonic study on the origins of an ancient mystery, which in the past decade has been reduced to 50 shades of comic strip. So far, a Frankenstein family has not lurched from the mire, but Count Dracula has become a figure of fun as well as a dreaded icon. He is perhaps the patriarch of fanged adolescents who are stalking television screens and populating the purple pages of best-sellers aimed at the 12- to 20-year-old set. Mr. Butler contends that vampires would be powerless if people didn’t meet them halfway. “Being immature and clueless helps,” he adds tartly.

He also dares to suggest that the theme of Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling “Twilight” series, so popular with the young and credulous, is to lure young women into masochistic relationships. He points out that Edward Cullen, the lead vampire of the series, is in fact more than 100 years old and spends a lot of time warning his beloved young Bella how dangerous he is to her. “He comes across as a wife beater at best and a serial killer at worst,” Mr. Butler asserts.

He also suggests that vampires are in for a heyday. If such books continue to be successful, he writes, “Many young lives may yet be lost, and vampires the world over will rejoice.”

The Butler list of literary vampires ranges back to 1819 and a short story titled “The Vampyre” by John William Polidori, an associate of the notorious Lord Byron. Polidori creates a Lord Ruthven, an aristocratic predator with “dead gray eyes” who might be modeled on Byron. Ruthven springs back to evil life despite being slaughtered by Greek bandits.

In 1872, vampire lesbians entered the scene in “Carmilla” by Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, who tells the story of Laura, a 6-year-old girl attacked by a young woman who experienced the deep pain of “two needles deep in her breast.” The vampire reappears later in the form of a giant and graceful cat with fangs honed and ready. However, Mr. Butler insists that the most important vampire to emerge from the literary world is still Count Dracula, the creation of Bram Stoker, who was a business manager to actor Henry Irving. The most lasting visual image of the vampire remains the performance of actor Bela Lugosi in the 1931 film “Dracula,” with the actor swathed in black, eyes and fangs gleaming, the sinister castle hovering as his eternal backdrop.

The author acknowledges that Anne Rice’s vampire books aroused more curiosity about the undead, yet left many questions unanswered. In the case of Ms. Rice, he asserts, people came to vampires more often than they sought human company. “To be one of the undead means belonging to an elite that transcends the common herd. Ms. Rice’s vampires will gladly share their ways, but when they do, they issue a challenge: Join us if you dare, and we’ll have you.”

As Mr. Butler sees it, Dracula reigns unchallenged. Still memorable is the image of the count climbing upside down on a castle wall. The television caricature portrayals of the adolescent undead such as Bill the Vampire in “True Blood,” who appeals to Sookie the Southern waitress, don’t come close. Bill the Vampire, Mr. Butler mischievously suggests, would be “perfect to come and give a talk at a meeting of Descendants of the Glorious Dead.”

However, the author does have some advice to offer to those intrigued by those who can’t stay in their coffins.

“Intimacy with the undead is probably best avoided,” he counsels. “Creatures that have been roaming the earth for hundreds or sometimes thousands of years rarely come without what ordinary mortals call ‘baggage.’”

For those with a taste for the supernatural, this is an excellent guidebook. Dracula probably would have enjoyed it.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.

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