The Vampire by  Philip Burne Jones

There are always rumours spread about that the Vampire genre has been done to death. But now and then a new writer emerges to inspire the readers yet again. Stephanie Myers created a frenzy with her series of teenage vampire books, before which Anne Rice's 'Vampire Chronicles' provided far more adult tales. And we all know Stoker's 'Dracula' and - well ... what had preceded that?

Vlad the Impaler

The medieval myth of the vampire or 'upir' originated in eastern Europe having been personified in actual living characters such as Vlad the Impaler, or Countess Elizabeth Bathory - the infamous mass murderer who was said to have bathed in her victims' blood.

By 1484 the 'Malleus Maleficarium', or witch hunter's bible, described how to kill the vampire scourge. After that, as the centuries drew on there were frequent waves of hysteria, with corpses being exhumed from graves to be staked through the heart, with their heads cut off.

The cover of the Penny Dreadful, Varney the Vampire

The myths took root in Western Europe and became an increasingly popular theme in poetry, plays and opera. By 1847 - the year in which Bram Stoker was born - Varney the Vampire emerged, when the fictional exploits of Sir Francis Varney were serialised in Penny Dreadfuls, otherwise known as Penny Bloods; what we would describe as comics now.

The 'Feast of Blood', in which Varney starred proved to be such a great success that its stories continued for over 2 years, with 220 episodes. They only finally came to an end when Sir Francis concluded the torment himself, by travelling to Mount Vesuvius and hurling himself into its flames.

If that has fired your appetite, you can read the Varney stories here.

Sir Francis Varney terrorises a victim

Most Victorian authors would have been well aware of Varney. The VV was recently amused when reading a Philip Pullman novel entitled  'The Ruby in the Smoke', in which a young character called Jim devours all the Penny Dreadfuls that he can get his hands on, after which he confides his own idea for a sensational vampire plot to a gentleman called Bram Stocker.

The real Bram Stoker had already had a long and successful career managing The Lyceum theatre in London. But, in 1897 he became a published novelist when his lurid story, Dracula (originally titled The Undead) was told by the means of journals and letters.

Bram Stoker claimed to have been inspired after visiting St Michan's church in Dublin where the vaults have a peculiar atmosphere that encourages mummification. There, to this very day, the 650 year-old body of a Crusader remains almost entirely intact.

In addition to such vivid imagery, at the time of writing Dracula, Stoker must have been all too aware of his own irreversible state of health. Although the cause of his demise was cited as being 'exhaustion', this term was one of the euphemisms employed when a person died of syphilis: a disease now treated effectively by the use of antibiotics but which, in the Victorian age, often led to a cruel and lingering death.

Perhaps that is why his classic work is so oppressively moving in its unique descriptions of sex and death; with its central obsession being that of a vile corruption of the blood.

Bram Stoker (1847-1912)


  1. Thanks for having posted this! Immediately upon reading your post, I ordered a print copy of "Varney the Vampyre". It sounded so fascinating.

  2. Thanks, Desiree - I'd be really interested to know how you find it.

  3. All truly fascinating! Love that painting at the top of your post! Shiver, shiver!

  4. Thank you, Adele. I'm reading Anno Dracula at the moment. Pure entertainment. Loving it...though only sad to discover that the author, Kim Newman, has so cleverly incorporated the Whitechapel murders into his Victorian Vampire tale - which was also my latest idea for a novel! My thoughts not so original after all.

  5. Really interesting post and amazing images, VV. Now I'm going to have to read the Bram Stoker - I don't think I ever have.

  6. Fascinating post! Read Varney a few years back, and (aside from the meandering weirdness of it all) was struck by just how many of the vampire tropes it invented. Beautiful stuff.

  7. Like "Frankenstein", it does us good once in awhile and go back to the original. Bram Stoker's Dracula is not the wild, trashy thing the movies have created. It is an epistolary novel with great descriptive storytelling. Thanks for the post.

  8. Ooh, interesting! Vampire's staying power in mainstream culture is fascinating. Will have to take a look at Varney!

    Nicky | www.curious-journeying.com