The undead have always been with us.
In his far-ranging studies The Vampire: His Kith and Kin and The Vampire in Europe, Montague Summers records cases of the phenomenon from ancient Greece and Rome, Assyria to the "primaeval forests of Mexico." Summers explains that the vampire is not quite a demon or a ghost or a phantom, offering up J. Scoffern's definition from Stray Leaves of Science and Folk-Lore: "a living, mischievous and murderous dead body. A living dead body!" The word itself entered the English language in the 1730s, a period during which a seeming epidemic of vampirism was sweeping Central Europe and the Balkans.
For better or worse, most of the imagery we associate with vampires was established in Bram Stoker's Dracula. Summers identifies numerous earlier vampire works in literature, but only one, J. Sheridan Le Fanu's short novel Carmilla, from which many of today's erotically charged works derive, remains readable. To this very short list I can add only the stories written by Alexis Tolstoy during the mid-1840s. Translated a few years ago as Vampires, they include "The Reunion After Three Hundred Years."
Among a myriad of recent novels, Salem's Lot by Stephen King is the only standout written within what has by now become a stale formula. Other works succeed by ignoring the formula. They include the lively Catalan historical novel Natural History by Juan Perucho; The Vampire Tapestry by Suzy McKee Charnas, which posits a biological rationale for the phenomenon; and "The Feasting Dead" by John Metcalfe, a story whose subject matter and very title interfered with its initial publication in the uptight 1950s. My favorite is The Vampire of Mons by Desmond Stewart; set in England during World War II, it revolves around an Eastern European music teacher whose students become convinced he is a vampire.
A word of advice: Skip Anne Rice's seemingly endless series of novels unless you're a masochist--in which case Rice just might be your ticket as she's produced several fictional studies of masochism under a pseudonym.
It took a quarter of a century for Dracula to appear on screen, and when it did, it was under an alias. F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu is very much of its time but remains visually striking and avoids what were destined to become the clichés of vampire cinema. Many of those clichés derive from Tod Browning's 1931 Dracula with Bela Lugosi. Based not on Stoker's novel but on a stage adaptation, this version still has its moments. The better-known 1958 version, directed by Terence Fisher and starring Christopher Lee, introduces other changes to the plot. According to one British review, this version is the "dog's bollocks," which I gather means it's pretty good.
Since then there have been only a handful of memorable vampire movies, among them The Hunger (1983) and Near Dark (1986). Directed by Jacek Kowalczyk, The Hunger is an elegant and coolly erotic thriller starring Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon and David Bowie. Folklore enthusiasts will note its creative use of the psychopomp, whose job it is to guide souls to the next world. In an entirely different vein, as we say in vampire studies, is the ultra-violent Near Dark, starring Lance Henriksen and Bill Paxton in over-the-top performances. Near Dark has been hailed as the first vampire road movie, but my companion calls its director, Kathryn Bigelow, "one sick chick." Consider yourself warned.
By now there are vampires lurking in every corner of our culture. Dracula is the subject of a new adaptation by Steven Dietz that just finished a run at Boise Contemporary Theater. Alva Henderson and Dana Gioia's Nosferatu isn't quite the first vampire opera although there's not a lot of competition. Recently, Philip Feeney composed the voluptuous score to yet another version of Dracula for Britain's Northern Ballet Theatre; you can hear it on the budget label Naxos.
So what accounts for our undying fascination with vampires and the like? That modern master of the supernatural, Robert Aickman, had an explanation clearly reflected in his leisurely but chilling vampire story "Pages from a Young Girl's Diary."
"Dr. Freud," says Aickman, "established that only a small part, perhaps one-tenth, of the human mental and emotional organization is conscious. Our main response to this discovery has been to reject the nine-tenths unconscious more completely and more systematically than ever before. The ghost story makes contact with the submerged nine-tenths."
Enjoy your visit.